Sunday, October 30, 2011

The ‘Celebrity Priest’

(Thirty-first Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on October 30, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I.  Read Malachi 1: 14b-2: 2b, 8-10; 1 Thessalonians 2: 7b-9, 13; Matthew 23: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-first Sunday 2011]

The “celebrity priest.”  That’s a term that’s been used quite often in recent years in both secular and religious publications.  And, most of the time, it has not been used in a complimentary way.  For example, the National Catholic Register ran an article just a couple of weeks ago that had the ominous title, “Beware of the Celebrity Priesthood.”  Similarly, back in 2009, the New York Times had an online piece entitled, “Celebrity Priest Torn Between Church and Girlfriend.” It was about a well-known priest from Florida named Alberto Cutie.  I’m sure some of you remember this story.  At the time, Fr. Cutie had his own talk show on radio and television, and was a successful author.  He wrote a best-selling book, as well as a column for several Spanish language newspapers in the United States and Latin America.  Needless to say, he was a very popular and well-liked priest.  People in the secular media referred to him as “Father Oprah”—because he was such a good interviewer. 

Well, unfortunately, Fr. Cutie was also having an affair with a divorced woman when this New York Times article appeared.   He has since left the Catholic Church, civilly married the woman, and become an Episcopalian minister.

Priests are called to be counter-cultural, because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is always counter-cultural.  We’re called to be counter-cultural in what we preach and teach—and also in the way we live.  And this is precisely why so many priests who become celebrities get into trouble.  You see, it’s very hard to be counter-cultural when the culture is patting you on the back and telling you how great you are!  And that applies as much to the “Church culture” as it does to the wider secular culture.  Just think of someone like Fr. John Corapi.  People in the secular culture detested him because he preached the full Gospel message without compromise—but faithful Catholics in the “Church culture” loved him.  They thought he was great.  They watched him on EWTN every week; they bought his books and CDs.  To them he was a kind of cult-hero.

Well apparently somewhere along the line it all went to his head, so to speak.  As many of us know, this man who used to preach obedience to everyone else has been defiantly disobedient to his religious superiors in recent months.  There have also been credible accusations made against him of immoral activities with prostitutes, illegal drug abuse and financial improprieties.

Speaking of financial improprieties, Fr. Frank Pavone, another popular priest who was on EWTN quite often, is also being investigated for possibly mismanaging funds that people donated to Priests for Life, the excellent pro-life organization that he used to be the head of.  Hopefully, he will eventually be exonerated from any wrongdoing.   

The list of celebrity priests who have fallen in one way or another has gotten long in recent years—much too long; although I should add that there’s no direct connection between being a celebrity priest and getting into trouble.  One does not necessarily follow the other.  Many priests and bishops, for example, have been treated as celebrities either in the Church or in secular society—or in both places—and yet they’ve happily maintained their moral integrity and faithfulness to Jesus Christ.  Some are even on the way to canonization.  Blessed John Paul II, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, and Fr. Michael Scanlan are some of the more noteworthy examples of holy and virtuous “celebrity priests.” 

But for every Pope John Paul II, Bishop Sheen, Fr. Groeschel, and Fr. Scanlan, there are 10 Fr. Corapis.  That’s the sad reality. 

Which really shouldn’t surprise us, because priests are weak and fallible human beings who are subject to the very same temptations that the rest of the human race is subject to. 

Now one of the unfortunate results of all this is that some people try to use the disobedience and moral failings of these members of the clergy as an excuse for not obeying the Lord in their own lives.  They say, “Well these priests have disobeyed; they’ve been unfaithful to God in various ways in their lives, so why should I make the effort to be faithful to God in my life?”

You’ve heard that excuse before, I’m sure.  Hopefully, you’ve never actually used it, but you’ve no doubt heard it.

Well, the simple answer to that question is this: We should make the effort to be faithful to God even when others have failed, because Jesus Christ tells us that we should!  Jesus taught that we must obey God and those whom God has appointed to positions of authority over us, even when those leaders disobey God themselves!  According to Jesus, their disobedience must never be used as an excuse for our disobedience.

Notice what he said to his disciples in today’s gospel text from Matthew 23.  Here he talks specifically about the scribes and Pharisees, who were some of the recognized religious leaders of their day; akin, in some respects, to priests and clergy in the modern Church.  From what Jesus said about them in this scene, it’s clear that these men enjoyed a kind of celebrity status among their fellow Jews.  Or at least they often acted like they were celebrities.  Celebrities, for example, like to be noticed—and so did many of the scribes and Pharisees!  As Jesus said here, “All their works are performed to be seen.” 

Celebrities also love to be catered to and fussed over—just like the scribes and Pharisees enjoyed being catered to and fussed over.  As Jesus put it in this gospel, “They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi’.”

But, as we also heard, they didn’t practice what they preached!  Their celebrity status, in effect, went to their heads, and many of them lived lives that were filled with selfish pride.

And yet, what did Jesus tell his disciples and the others who were present that day?  Did he give them permission to disobey these men?  Did he say, “From now on, you can completely disregard what these evil scribes and Pharisees tell you; you can tune them out completely.  They don’t obey God and Moses in their lives, so you don’t have to obey God and Moses in your lives”?


He said just the opposite.  He said, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses [the ‘chair’ spoken of here is a symbol of authority—the legitimate authority given to them by God].  Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.”

Do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you.

As long as what they were teaching was in accord with the law of God and Moses, the people were obliged to be obedient.

The disobedience of their teachers was not a valid excuse for their disobedience.

It’s like the situation that many of you parents face in raising your children.  Can you imagine your children ever saying to you, “Mom and dad, how can you punish us for fighting with each other today?  How can you send us to our rooms and take away our privileges?  That’s totally unfair.  After all, both of you fought with your brothers and sisters when you were growing up!  You did the same thing back then that we’re doing right now.  You told us you did!”

Parents, that kind of lame excuse wouldn’t fly in your home, would it?  You would never allow your disobedience many years ago to be used as an excuse for your children’s disobedience now!

Nor should you allow it!

It’s sad when great preachers and teachers of the Faith like Fr. John Corapi fall from grace.  It’s tragic and it’s scandalous.  But his fall does not negate the truth that he taught with such incredible clarity and conviction when he was a priest in good standing.  The truth he taught is still the truth that will set us free, if we believe it—and live it! 

There were unfaithful Old Testament priests before the time of Jesus.  We heard God’s tough message to some of them in today’s first reading from the book of the prophet Malachi.  There were unfaithful religious leaders at the time of Jesus, as we heard in today’s gospel; and there have been unfaithful leaders ever since then, as we know from watching the evening news.

Thankfully, most priests today are faithful—well over 90% of them.  They do the work the Lord calls them to do quietly and without any fanfare or publicity.  They’re not celebrities—and believe me they’re quite happy about that.  They can relate to the words of St. Paul in today’s second reading from 1 Thessalonians 2, where he talks about working tirelessly night and day to proclaim the gospel of God.

Pray for these good priests: pray for them to remain faithful always. And pray for the conversion of the others, especially those like Fr. John Corapi, who have allowed the trappings of celebrity to tarnish and to undermine their true vocations.