Many years ago, I used to pick up some extra cash by doing short interviews with priests, asking for their stories about how they heard the call to enter the seminary.
This was maybe 10 years after the first news of the sex abuse scandal broke, which meant that these men were in elementary school when they first started hearing headlines about predatory priests and widespread coverups.
I am not sure how it hit all over the country, but we lived just a short jaunt down the highway from the absolute epicenter of this earthquake, and from the endless aftershocks as more and more news was revealed of how the bishops hid and lied and dissembled and suppressed the truth.
The horror and misery and shame and shock and rage of those first years is something I will never forget. I thought I knew that the Church was a human institution as well as divine, but I was not prepared for just how human it was. Just how ready some humans are to say the words of heaven, while building up hell.
So, that was the atmosphere. Those were the clouds that lay low and heavy on the ground around the words “Catholic Church.” This was what would come to mind first, and maybe only, when you thought about Catholic priests.
The job I had, interviewing priests, wasn’t the kind of job where I was supposed to ask about sex abuse, but it came up anyway, because how could it not? Many of these men told me that their mothers, in particular, were terrified about how they would be treated.
Not so long ago, being a priest in the community meant getting a certain amount of respect and deference. Suddenly, understandably, it was just the opposite. People automatically viewed priests with suspicion or even disgust. They treated them as if they were all molesters, or at very least as if they condoned and were comfortable with molestation.
And you can understand why. Listen, you can look up statistics and show that pediatricians and public school teachers and gymnastics coaches are equally or more likely to be molesters than Catholic priests. But show me the gymnastics coach who claims to act in persona Christi. The proportion of abusive priests shouldn’t be comparable to the proportion of abusers in the general population; it should be zero, throughout all of history, forever. And it’s not.
It’s not fair to individual innocent priests to be treated with contempt. But the Church as a whole has more than earned it.
So imagine being a young man at this time, and knowing that this is how people think. Imagine growing up while this is the norm, and still hearing that call to the priesthood, and still answering it. I think about this all the time, because it’s surely something that comes up for priests all the time. Any time a priest says anything in public online, you know that at least one person is going to make a pedophile comment. It doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. And still, they answer the call.
Most people don’t meet priests in person very often, and it’s only online that they make any contact. There is an exception that I think about a lot: On the feast of Corpus Christi, we make a procession out through the streets of our small city. We live in one of the two least religious states in the country, and it’s pretty rare to see any kind of religious expression in public, except for maybe the vaguest kind of nods toward crystals and nature fairies.
You certainly don’t see embroidered vestments outdoors every day, and you don’t hear a Salve Regina in the open air. But there went the monstrance, under its satin canopy, squeezing its way down the sidewalk in the midday sun. Shining.
While I tried to focus on the rosary we were praying as we walked, it was hard not to take a peek and see what effect our procession was having on people, as they tucked their feet under their cafe tables to let us pass. You could see they were wondering: Do I keep eating this taco? Do I pause? Most people averted their eyes, and most pretended they didn’t notice us. Many looked uncomfortable. A few looked glad. A few laughed.
My kids felt uncomfortable, and I told them it was okay to feel that way. It’s weird for the people on the streets to meet this way, and it’s weird for us. But I told them not to worry too much about feeling weird, because Jesus was at our head, and that is who we were following. That’s the only part that matters.
Sometimes it feels like we are following him up out of hell. Sometimes it’s a hell other people have made; sometimes it’s a hell we have built ourselves.
I know it’s easy to look back and pine for the days we see in old photographs, when even the old man sweeping the streets knew enough to stop and fall to his knees when the blessed sacrament went passing by. And now we’re in such disarray that half the Catholics I know can barely bring themselves to go inside a church building, because the hidden sickness is finally out in the open, and it’s too much to bear.
But one thing has not changed. Jesus is still calling men, and men are still answering. They are still following him, knowing how normalized it has become for people to treat them with contempt. Many of them are answering the call because of this, because they see the carnage and they want to accept the honor of helping us find a way out of it.
A priest was once giving me some spiritual direction. We met several times, and although we talked for hours, the only thing he said that I clearly remember is, “Eyes on Jesus. Eyes on Jesus.” What else is there to say? Where else is there to look? Who is else there to follow? Where else is there to go? You find out where Jesus is, and you go that way.
Jesus is still calling, not only priests, but everyone. Right now. Not only on his special feast day, but every day that starts with the sun rising. Calling and shining. Come up out of hell.
A version of this essay was first published in The Catholic Weekly in November of 2022.