Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reflections on the Scandal from Francis of Assisi

This is an article that I wrote for the Franciscan publication, The Cord, back in 2003.  Given all that has been in the news recently about the Church scandals in Ireland and Germany, I thought it might be worth reposting.

By Fr. Tom Washburn, O.F.M.
[The Cord, March/April 2003]

“Priests involved in drunkenness and gambling.” “Priests violate the chaste life.” “Bishops spend night in drunken stupor.” “Priests accused of ordering death sentences.” “Priests accused of misusing Church property, resources.” “Training of seminarians reviewed.” “Bishops accused of extorting the faithful.”

At first glance one might think that these are headlines from the latest edition of The Boston Globe as it continues to cover the sexual abuse scandal rocking the Church. Rather than contemporary news stories, these are the headlines that would have been written were the Globe covering the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The point? As a Church, we’ve been here before. As troubling and downright evil as our current scandal of sexual abuse by priests and bishops and the subsequent cover-up is, the Church has experienced times of great public sin before. And perhaps more importantly, in the past, the Church has stepped up to the plate and named its own sin and put in place the reforms needed to restore dignity, to rebuild trust, to remind all Christians – priests, bishops and laity alike – that our identity lies not in sin, but in overcoming sin and death by following Jesus Christ.

We’ve endured a year of media attention on these scandals. Most conversations among the faithful and others over this last year has also revolved around the scandal. How could priests do these things? How could bishops move these priests around? How could they all get away with it? Barely in the mix has been the reality that the great majority of priests have not committed these heinous acts and instead continue to do the work that God has called them to. During the World Youth Day celebrations in Toronto, Canada this past summer, the Holy Father said this, “If you love Jesus, love the Church!...The harm done by some priests and religious to the young and vulnerable fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame. But think of the vast majority of dedicated and generous priests and religious whose only wish is to serve and do good!...At difficult moments in the Church's life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent.”

Lessons from the 13th Century

As a priest ordained just over two years ago, I find myself and my contemporaries struggling with the question of what it means for us to be priests in the Church today. What will we do in the face of a world that looks upon us with suspicion and presumes distrust? I believe this is where we can actually find some help and guidance from the 13th Century’s reaction to the scandals of their day, and especially from the example of St. Francis of Assisi and his response to these issues.

It appears in the 13th Century that priestly life in many ways had become a life of debauchery. The Council passed canons addressing the abuses of that day forbidding clerics from drunken displays; from pronouncing or executing a death sentence against someone; from holding secular offices or engaging in dishonest pursuits; and clerics were reminded to live chaste and virtuous lives. Clearly, the situation was grim. A sampling of some of the issues the Council addressed:

  • “Many prelates…extort from their subjects more than they pay out, and in trying to extract a profit from their losses they look for booty rather than help in their subjects. We forbid this to happen in the future.” (Canon 34)
  • "To guide souls is a supreme art. We therefore strictly order bishops carefully to prepare those who are to be promoted to the priesthood and to instruct them… if they presume henceforth to ordain the ignorant and unformed…we decree that both the ordainers and those ordained are to be subject to severe punishment. For it is preferable…to have a few good ministers than many bad ones, for if a blind man leads another blind man, both will fall into the pit.” (Canon 27)
  • “All clerics should carefully abstain from gluttony and drunkenness. They should temper the wine to themselves and themselves to the wine. Let no one be urged to drink, since drunkenness obscures the intellect and stirs up lust.” (Canon 15)
  • “Not only…clerics but also some prelates of churches pass almost half the night in unnecessary feasting and forbidden conversation, not to mention other things, and leaving what is left of the night for sleep, they are barely roused at the dawn chorus of the birds and pass away the entire morning in a continuous state of stupor…(and) others who say mass scarcely four times a year and, what is worse, do not even attend mass, and when they are present they are engaged outside in conversation with lay people to escape the silence of the choir; so that, while they readily lend their ears to unbecoming talk, they regard with utter indifference things that are divine. These and all similar things, therefore, we absolutely forbid under penalty of suspension.” (Canon 17)
  • “We decree that prelates of churches should prudently and diligently attend to the correction of their subjects' offences especially of clerics, and to the reform of morals.” (Canon 7)
  • “In order that the morals and conduct of clerics may be reformed for the better, let all of them strive to live in a continent and chaste way…Let them beware of every vice involving lust, especially that on account of which the wrath of God came down from heaven upon the sons of disobedience, so that they may be worthy to minister in the sight of almighty God with a pure heart and an unsullied body…Prelates who dare to support such persons in their wickedness, especially if they do it for money or for some other temporal advantage, are to be subject to like punishment.” (Canon 14)

So, what does all of this have to do with our scandal today? What can St. Francis say about these things? One of the often heard questions in the media today is whether or not the Church can survive this scandal. Many people feel as though this is it for the institutional Church. Perhaps we have too secular a view of institutions and think there is no way to recover. Any historian of the Church – or historian at all – can tell you that this is not the end, this does not mean the Church, its structures, or even the priesthood is done. Instead this can potentially become an opportunity for great reform and pursuit of holiness in the Church.

The 13th Century scandals and ours today share something in common – the actions are especially appalling because they violate the identity of who we say we are as Christians and especially as priests. The ordained have publicly embarked upon a way of life that identifies itself so closely with Christ and made public vows and/or promises to life a life worthy of that call. As we hear during the ordination of deacons, “Receive the Gospel of Christ whose herald you now are. Believe what you read. Teach what you believe. Practice what you teach.” The scandals witness to a violation of that command.

Francis of Assisi – promoter of reform

St. Francis of Assisi lived in the midst of those scandalous times in the 13th century. It is said that St. Francis saved the Church in the 13th century. St. Bonaventure writes in The Minor Legend of Saint Francis that “In a dream the Roman Pontiff himself saw that the lateran basilica was almost ready to fall down, and a poor little, small and scorned, was propping it up with his own bent back so that it would not fall…he said, ‘Truly, this is he who will hold up Christ’s Church by what he does and what he preaches.’”

Francis did this very simply, but constantly. Francis is believed to have been present at the Fourth Lateran Council. Francis understood the issues clearly and was one of the most important promoters of reform in the Church calling people, and especially priests, to believe, teach and practice the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Francis was known to have said, “You are what you are before God. That and nothing more.” In his writings, Francis repeatedly writes to priests and calls them to remember what they are in the sight of God and live up to that call. It’s all about identity.

Rather than simply cursing the darkness of his time, Francis called priests to walk in the light of their call. In his Letter to the Entire Order Francis warns the clergy, “Remember my brother priests, what has been written concerning the law of Moses, how one transgressing even in corporals things used to die without any pity by the sentence of the Lord. How much greater and more worse are the torments one merits to suffer, who has trampled upon the Son of God and reckoned the Blood of the Testament, in which he has been sanctified, to be defiled, and has insulted the Spirit of grace…And the priests, who do not want to keep this at heart, He in truth condemns saying: ‘I shall curse your blessings’ (Mal 2:2).” But after warning them, Francis encourages priests to pursue holiness, “See your dignity, my brother priests, and be holy, because He himself is Holy. And just as above all others on account of this ministry the Lord God has honored you, in this manner also love, revere, and honor Him above all others…Let the whole man tremble with fear, let the whole world begin to completely quake, and let heaven exult, when upon the altar in the hand of the priest is Christ, the Son of the living God!...Therefore keep nothing of yourselves for yourselves, so that He may receive you whole, He who manifests Himself wholly to you.”

Francis continually encouraged a healthy and holy approach to reform. He at the same time called priests to live up to their call to holiness and reminded the faithful that despite the trying times in which they lived, they still had access to the salvation offered us through the sacraments. Francis upheld the dignity of ordained life in the hopes that those ordained would live up to that dignity and the laity would respect that dignity. He writes in his Letter to the Faithful, “We also ought to frequently visit churches and venerate clerics and revere them, not so much for their own sake, if they be sinners, but on account of their office and administration of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, which they sacrifice upon the altar and receive and administer to others.” Francis also wrote letters to the clergy, to the superiors of religious communities, to the rulers of the world, in addition to personal letters. In every letter, without exception, Francis spoke of reform and challenged the people and religious leaders of his time to adopt reform. Francis believed what he read, taught what he believed and practiced what he taught. This is the formula for reform.

Franciscan reform today

We can learn a great deal from the way that Francis and his followers responded to the 13th century scandals. What seems to be missing in the current scandal is that reminder of who we are, what we stand for, what we believe. Instead we seem only to be cursing the darkness. We need to remind ourselves that this situation is scandalous precisely because it is not what we believe. These sins are not who we say we are. If there is to be hope of moving beyond this current darkness, we must not only boldly, clearly, definitively push reforms as did the Lateran Council, but we must also be reminded of who we say we are – especially we who live a public life as priests, bishops and religious – and live up to that tremendous call that God has placed before us.

The pursuit of reform is undeniable if there is to be change in the future. The Church – both corporately and individually – must confess its sin. Likewise, the Church must also make amends in justice for anything it did that was not only morally wrong, but also criminally wrong.

The challenge remains however, to not jump on the bandwagon of what in some parts seems to be a witch hunt. Remember that many – in fact most – priests and religious strive to live up to their call in a worthy manner. Support them. Pray for them in the midst of this trying time.

As a Church, we have to make substantive change to the way we function to both assure that these things never are allowed to happen again and to involve a larger number of the members of the Church – ordained and lay – into appropriate roles of leadership. One of the perhaps lost canons (Canon 24) of the Fourth Lateran Council regarded the democratic election of pastors. There are models in the Church’s past that can provide guidance for the future.

The example of St. Francis of Assisi is striking in its simplicity. Francis reminds us that the solution to the scandals of his time, and of ours, is nothing more than following the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who follow the Gospel try to avoid sin. When they sin, they confess and make things right and make every effort to “Go and sin no more.” Gospel followers do not continue in sin, hide the sins of their members, avoid responsibility for their sinful actions. This is not who we are. Following Francis’ example, we must:

1. Confess the sin in our midst;
2. Make just reparation for any wrongs – moral and criminal;
3. Improve training, screening and response in the future;
4. Pray for those victimized;
5. Pray for the Church, for her leaders, for her people;
6. Build ourselves up on the grace of the sacraments which no sin can ever diminish;
7. Remember who we are and what we stand for as followers of Christ;
8. Get the word out preaching these things anywhere and everywhere. The Church has faced great scandal before and come out of it more true to who she says she is. The message of the past, of St. Francis, is that we can once again place ourselves back on a Gospel course if only we have the strength to do what must be done.

As Francis said in his Prayer before the Crucifix: “Most High, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of our hearts and give us true faith, certain hope, and perfect charity, sense and knowledge, Lord, that we may carry out Your holy and true command.”


  1. Thank you Father for this very good reflection. As a man in (permanent) diaconal formation, I also experience the pain and anger of those who are not trusting of the Church - mainly the trust of the Catholic Bishops. They are the leaders of the Church - so I must remain in trust.

    God bless!

  2. Not so much a comment as a question. I heard that Francis, when talking about chastity and fidelity, remarked that no one is above temptation and that without God's grace and help he himself could fall and father a child. Anyone know the origin of this?