While we expose the shameful, sinful and criminal, might we also acknowledge those who have been faithful?
Our meeting down the hall has ended. A separate group of priests who are on retreat here in Indianapolis have invited us to join them at their closing Mass.
Standing behind them in my pew in the back of the chapel, I see that every head is balding. The little hair left is white or gray.
I knew a lot of these guys when they were in their prime. Now their shoulders droop a little, their torsos a bit thin. Time has wilted their bodies a bit but not their hearts.
The Mass begins and they sing deep and loud. It is unlike any other singing. Maybe it’s the all-male voices of those who have sung through their lives.
I suspect it is way more than that.
The sound of their voices opens up your deepest inner space and massages it for you.
The visiting priest with a thick New York accent has been their retreat leader. During the homily, he tells them that he used to think that the biggest clerical sin was envy. “When one guy got a red hat (appointed cardinal) the other guys would turn blue.”
They chuckle quietly.
“Then I thought it was hypocrisy. But not anymore. I think the biggest clerical sin is expedience. We choose to do what is expedient over doing what might be right. We choose to do what is expedient instead of what might be harder, slower, more helpful.”
This is a challenging message. But what impresses me the most is that “the Fathers,” as he calls them, listen to every word — like juniors on their high school retreat.
No one stirs, no one moves. No one glances away or checks their watch. They absorb.
I am wondering why they are here. Best I can tell, they are a few years short or long of 70. They’ve heard every sermon, theological insight and moral directive ever spoken or written. What is it that makes them come away to yet another religious gathering?
They are here because they still seek. They still find. They have never stopped.
I remember the years they were vibrant men, mediating the changes in the church, the birth of lay ministry, parish councils and RCIA groups. Looking back now, I am struck by the great amount of patience and courage they needed to summon in those days of sweeping changes.
They were asked to close schools while the beloved supporters cried out. They were asked to change the liturgy (twice). They watched their brother priests leave for married life — what that must have felt like.
And then came the child abuse scandal that scarred innocent lives and discredited their calling.
We stopped seeking their counsel, and their company.
Suddenly it is time for us to kneel at the consecration. But these good men remain standing, concelebrating from their pews, and it becomes clear to me: They have always stood up.
They stood to baptize our babies. They stood with us to marry the one we loved. They stood to help us bury our parents and friends.
They stood to help us welcome new life, promise a shared life and see loved ones into the next life.
They stood with us in times of great hope, optimistic love and gut-wrenching grief.
As I look upon the backs of these men — and the women religious whose commitment is just as great — I say let us take note.
Let us promise to do the same thing now, with humility and gratitude. Stand with them.
Mike Carotta is a nationally recognized religious educator, consultant and author whose recent books include “Unexpected Occasions of Grace,” “Teaching for Discipleship” and “Sustaining the Spirit: Callings, Commitments and Vocational Challenges,” co-authored with Catherine Cronin Carotta.
Excerpt from “Unexpected Occasions of Grace” © Mike Carotta. Published by Our Sunday Visitor Publishing. 1-800-348-2440. www.osv.com Used by permission. No other use of this material is authorized.
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