Thursday, March 29, 2018

Peter’s ‘Rough Start’ in the Priesthood, and what that means for Priests Today

Peter denies Jesus

(Holy Thursday 2018: This homily was given on March 29, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 12: 1-14; Psalm 116: 12-18; 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Thursday 2018]

Peter’s priesthood had a rough start.  After Jesus gave the apostles the power to consecrate the Eucharist at the Last Supper (when he said to them, “Do this in remembrance of me”), Peter almost immediately got into a verbal dispute with Jesus (we heard about that a few moments ago in this gospel text from John 13).  A little later that same night he was reprimanded by our Lord, fell asleep on the job, denied his Savior three times and ran away in fear.

Not exactly what I would call “a promising ministry”.

This is why you need to pray for your priests.  Every day!  You see, we priests have been given a great gift—a great power.  We have the power to call upon Almighty God, and have Almighty God respond!  We call upon the Lord to become present to us at Mass, and that’s exactly what he does!  God the Son responds by becoming present to us—Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity!  We say, “I absolve you from your sins,” and the worst of sins committed by the worst of sinners are immediately taken away.  We have been given the power to act “in persona Christi” (in the person of Jesus Christ himself!) when we celebrate the sacraments. 

And yet, we retain our humanity—warts and all!  Consequently, if we’re not careful, and vigilant, and prayerful, and disciplined, we can become just like Simon Peter on Holy Thursday night, and give in to our weaknesses.  And, believe me, we all have them. 

The Catechism puts it this way:
This presence of Christ in the minister [here meaning the priest] is not to be understood as if the latter were preserved from all human weaknesses, the spirit of domination, error, even sin. The power of the Holy Spirit does not guarantee all acts of ministers in the same way. While this guarantee extends to the sacraments, so that even the minister's sin cannot impede the fruit of grace, in many other acts the minister leaves human traces that are not always signs of fidelity to the Gospel and consequently can harm the apostolic fruitfulness of the Church.
I’ll give you one example tonight of this phenomenon, one example of how easily we priests can give in to our weaknesses.  Recently, a big controversy erupted at my alma mater, Providence College.  It involves a 22-year old senior Resident Advisor named Michael Smalanskas (I think I’ll just call him “Michael S” from now on—that last name is a real tongue-twister!).  Michael’s “sin”—his horrible, reprehensible, politically-incorrect sin—was to post a bulletin board in his dorm upholding traditional marriage.  On the top of the board it says “Marriage: The Way God Intended It”.  Then at the bottom it says, “One Man” on one side, and “One Woman” on the other.  There are a couple of good quotes on it, one of which is, “Marriage should be reinforced, not redefined.”  Another is from Pope Francis, who said, “We must reaffirm the right of children to grow up in a family with a father and a mother.”  There’s even a quote from Jesus in the Gospel of Mark: “And the two shall become one flesh …”

There’s no attack on anyone, no name-calling, no hateful, vulgar language—just a basic affirmation of the truth: the truth that the Catholic Church has taught for 20 centuries, and which, until a few years ago, almost everyone (including atheists) believed.

Now, given the fact that Providence College is a Catholic school run by the Dominican Fathers, there should be no problem with a student publicly supporting traditional marriage in this way—right?


Michael S has been threatened, and harassed, and publicly vilified on campus by some of his fellow students since he did this.  A few weeks ago, someone even put a cartoon of him being sodomized on the wall of the bathroom of his dormitory.  In one article I read he was quoted as saying, “I couldn’t even go brush my teeth for several nights without facing a mob in my hallway.”

Of course, the president of PC, Fr. Shanley, and the many other priest-professors there at my alma mater immediately came to the defense of Michael S.  Right?  And, like good professors, they used this incident as an opportunity to educate their students, and clarify what the Catholic Church really teaches about those who experience same-sex attraction:
  • ·         that they’re children of God, made in his image;
  • ·         that they are loved with an eternal love, just as they are;
  • ·         that they’re redeemed by the blood of Christ;
  • ·         that they’re called to holiness, and, ultimately, to eternal life with God in heaven;
  • ·         and that they deserve the same respect that every human being deserves. 

These priests went on to tell their students that it’s no sin to experience same-sex attraction, but it is sinful to engage in sexual activity—of any kind—outside of marriage (which, of course, can only be between one man and one woman).

This is what Fr. Shanley and the majority of priest-professors at PC did for their students in response to this controversy on campus: they defended traditional marriage, and helped their students to understand the “what” and the “why” of Church teaching on this issue.



That’s what they should have done, but didn’t do. 

Instead far too many of them have been either silent or weak in their responses. For example, in the letter he wrote to the PC community last week, Fr. Shanley said, “It belongs to a Catholic college to consider the views of those who disagree with the Church’s teaching in the spirit of the disputed question.”

Yes, that’s right.  For a comprehensive education, it’s important for you to consider opposing views (like Thomas Aquinas did in his Summa Theologica)—but first you need to be grounded in the truth, like Thomas Aquinas was grounded in the truth!

But many of these young students aren’t!  They don’t understand the truth about marriage, so they see the teaching of the Church as just one opinion among many other opinions.  Thus they have no problem rejecting it.

As I said at the beginning, we priests need prayers—lots of prayers, because it’s very easy for us to be like Peter on Holy Thursday night and give in to our human weaknesses (as I’ve hopefully made clear in this homily).

And I’m not just pointing the finger at Fr. Shanley and the Dominicans at PC here; I’m also pointing the finger at myself.  I’m as weak as anyone else, and I know there have been times when I’ve allowed my weaknesses, and not my faith, to guide me in my ministry.

Of course, I do find hope—for myself, for the priests at PC, and for all priests—in the fact that Peter’s priesthood didn’t end on day 1!  Yes, he began in weakness and sin on Holy Thursday night in Jerusalem, but he ended in strength and virtue and holiness many years later in Rome.  A rough start, but a strong finish. And, in between, Peter learned to “live strong” in his priesthood, by the power of God’s grace.    

So, please, pray for your priests!  Pray for them to become strong in their faith, and to live strong in their faith, and to finish strong in their faith, so that they can help you (and all the people of God) do the same thing.