Glances filled with suspicion, small talk, veritable insults, to the point of turning them into an object of scorn. The impact of the sexual abuse scandals inside the Church is starting to weigh
heavily on the life of priests. It is happening across the globe, notably in Countries mostly hit by the revelation of such cases. A clergyman’s suit or a cross on one’s habit is enough to be singled out and suspected of the most heinous crime: violence on minors and vulnerable persons. “The Flame of the Gospel today” is the theme of an international retreat of priests held at the end of September at the Sanctuary of Ars upon the 200th anniversary of the arrival to Ars of Saint John Vianney, venerated as the patron saint of all priests. 250 priests from 40 world Countries accepted the invitation, and this year Father Enzo Bianchi, founder of the Bose community, “a friend of Pope Francis”, was chosen to guide the meditations. But the latest news reports have inevitably led the priests present to confront a sensitive issue: suspicion. We spoke about it with Father Patrice Chocholski, Rector of the Sanctuary of Ars.
They convened for a spiritual retreat with the intention of identifying a source of renewal during the meeting. This year’s event coincided with the time when scandals erupted worldwide. It impacted everyone, especially in France, because that same week were celebrated the funerals of the young priest from Rouen who committed suicide. And in different ways we all knew that priest arrested in France over charges of abuse. We are afflicted by these scandals. They are horrors and thus are cause of deep pain.
How do these facts impact the life of priests? What are the consequences…
Suspicion. Generalized suspicion that involves us all. In France, for example, we were made aware of an episode that occurred at a train station. He was wearing a clergyman’s suit and the pectoral cross, people verbally assailed him with these words: “paedophile bishop! you deserve being brought to court!.” He didn’t understand, he was totally unrelated with any such case. But he approached the mob who was criticizing him and engaged in dialogue with them, after which they all calmed down. This shows that it is always worthwhile to stop, to listen, and engage in dialogue.
How does one live being constantly under suspicion?
Suspicions are stronger in Countries where the revelation of scandals were more incisive. In any case we’re talking about horror. Yet, although only a small number of priests are involved, one hundred percent of priests are under suspicion. Also comedians are using this expression as a synonym for priest: “Paedophile” is equal to “priest.”. They say it openly. We know that people can tell the difference, but the horrors committed by duplicitous priests fall like a heavy burden on the shoulders of all priests. People are increasingly aware that priests stand on the victims’ side, they stand with the faces in which they see the face of Christ, for Christ is among the victims and the suffering ones. They do so because they consider it the right thing to do and so that the Church may be increasingly pervaded by the determination to solve this problem once and for all. The defence of the institution at all costs no longer exists.
The institution will be saved only if it is purified from these heinous crimes.
Which tools have you given priests, enabling them to face this moment of crisis?
The theme of our retreat was “The Flame of the Gospel today.” We have been entrusted by vocation and through the ordination to the Word of God. It means that the presbyter – every day, and assiduously – mediates on the Word of God to draw the strength, the hope, the Christian love needed to carry forth the mission from this source. Being shaped by the Word of God: this is what matters, it’s our primary responsibility. Today we are called to share this hope and the flame of the Word of God with our faith communities, trouncing all second-rate forms of clericalism that have unfortunately contributed to the structure of the Church until today, thereby preventing the identification of the right place of the priest. There can exist no form of clericalism before the Word of God.
What would the Priest of Ars say to priests today?
The Priest of Ars allowed himself to be shaped by the Lord. He was always aware of his condition of poverty, and as such, object of the Mercy of God. He made the constant experience of being imbued with the love of God. Petitions were signed against him: slanderous claims. But he never surrendered to victimism. He was not self-centred. He was constantly immersed in the love of God and always continued to share the infinite love of the Father wherever God called him.