No modern Pope is better equipped to handle this deep moral crisis than Pope Francis, a man of immense faith and deep compassion.
There is no doubt that the Catholic Church is passing through one of its most turbulent times in recent history. The church is in pains, bleeding from the wounds inflicted on it by men chosen to shepherd the flock of Christ, the founder of the universal church. Allegations of sexual misconduct involving Catholic clergy are as old as the church. Over the decades, the Vatican has struggled to deal with the problem in a manner to preserve the integrity of the institution, protect public morality, while seeking to reform and rehabilitate the erring priests. It is a difficult balancing, which at times tends to project the church as condoning immorality and protecting the fallen priests.
However, it does appear from recent events that this approach has not worked. Indeed, it has hurt the church more and exposed the moral failings of the bishops who, I think, believed that they were doing the right thing by covering up the abject failings of these fallen priests. The indictment of more than 300 priests by a grand jury in Philadelphia in the USA on charges of paedophilia is a watershed moment in the church.
It is important to point out that these indictments cover decades-long investigations and almost all the priests have been removed from their priestly duties, while some of them have died. Yet it provides a huge opportunity for the church to take a deep breath and figure out how to immediately commence the healing of a broken church.
As is always the case, the Lord provides the right leadership each time the church is engulfed in crisis. No modern Pope is better equipped to handle this deep moral crisis than Pope Francis, a man of immense faith and deep compassion. His life epitomises the direction the church should go at this troubling time, the path of humility and self-censorship. It is to the advantage of the church that Pope Francis is a pastoral Pope and not a monarchical pontiff. So, when he addresses this problem, he does so from a position of immense moral strength and holiness. He has condemned these failings of his priests and bishops in the strongest terms, maybe deploying language and symbolism no pope has ever dared to. While on his recent visit to Ireland, he told worshippers that he feels a deep “pain and shame” in these acts, which he described as “repugnant.” He met with several victims of the sex abuse scandal for almost two hours and even prayed before a candle lit in honour of the survivors. These are unprecedented actions of a pope, yet going by a wide range of voices inside and outside the church, they fall short of what is required to start a healing process and ensure that the church is rid of these wolves in the garment of shepherds.
What appears to be required is a sort of mechanism that will ensure that some of these acts, which qualify as crimes, are treated as such and the erring priests handed over to civil authorities for punishment, instead of being treated as an internal affair of the church. This will definitely require some codification into the canon law, a long and arduous process, which is sure to meet with resistance by the old guard who do not share Pope Francis’s vision of a repentant church. Yet this is obviously the path to true repentance, which will ensure that priests do not see themselves as above civil authorities.
There are obvious lessons to learn from these happenings for the church in Europe and America, especially for the church in Nigeria and Africa.
The Pope has pointed out that at the root of this crisis is the belief by some members of the Catholic clergy that they are above civil authority. This perception of their place in society, coupled with the reverence with which they are treated, have led to pride and arrogance on the part of some. This arrogance has resulted in the misguided belief that they can get away with behaviours that ordinary citizens are unable to get away with. That needs to stop and the lay faithful must join the Pontiff to demand more from their priests and bishops in the discharge of their duties. The priests are first and foremost ambassadors of Christ “who came to serve and not to be served and to give His life as ransom for many.”
They must be like our master, the Good Shepherd. There is no place for elitism, pride and arrogance in the church. This was the reason why Christ admonished his apostles when they returned from their first missionary assignment not to glory in their newly acquired power to cast out demons and perform miracles but to rejoice that they have been counted worthy to be heirs of the kingdom.
A priest may be a soldier, scientist, diplomat, lecturer or nuclear physicist but he is first and foremost a priest with a primary responsibility to be another Christ in his community, every other thing is secondary. When this lesson is learned, the church will be better and holier for it.
In Nigeria, our challenges abound. It may not be paedophilia but sexual misconduct of the consensual variety, which does not make it any better. There is unbridled materialism among some priests and struggle for power, which has led a lot astray in their calling. These shortcomings must be called out and addressed by the bishops and not papered over or treated with despondency and resignation. Sadly, some bishops have unwittingly abetted these conducts for monetary considerations, which they may justify in their own minds. The church is not a cult or the heritage of priests and bishops. It is the assemblage of the people of God, all in service of one Master, all in a race for salvation. No one has been assured of heaven until the last day.
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So, the lay faithful has an obligation to pray for our priests and bishops so that they will not betray their callings. We should also pray for new vocations to the priesthood and religious, able men and women with genuine and sincere desire to serve God through their fellow human beings.
Finally, the lay faithful must not constitute themselves into occasions of sin for the clergy. We must realise that they are human beings with huge burdens of faith and celibacy. We must calibrate our contact with them to avoid leading them into temptation and error.
The church, no doubt, will emerge from this stronger, because the Lord, the Master of the harvest, will continue to lead His church till the end of time.
• Chief Odom, a Catholic, is former Minister of State (FCT)