Can There Be a Bad Priest, Bishop, or even a Bad Pope?
Why We Need to Pray for Priests
When you understand what the priesthood is and the obligation that all Priests, and much more so the Bishops and most of all the Pope, have on their shoulders to be Holy and to make sure the souls under their care become so you will then understand the great need there is to pray incessantly for them. This was a discovery that Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face made when she was still very young and it was a turning point in her life of prayer insofar as the direction her prayer took. She became devoted to praying for the clergy and even, with the permission of her Mother Prioress, was a spiritual sister to two Seminarians with whom she conversed by letters and for whom she prayed in a particular way. Those letters from this great Carmelite Doctor of the Church are wonderful reading for Seminarians. Let us listen to her own account of this in her Autobiography:
The second thing I learnt had to do with Priests. Up to this time I had not understood the chief aim of the Carmelite Reform. To pray for sinners delighted me; to pray for Priests, whose souls seemed pure as crystal, that indeed astonished me. But in Italy I realized my vocation, and even so long a journey was a small price to pay for such valuable knowledge. During that month I met with many holy Priests, and yet I saw that even though the sublime dignity of Priesthood raises them higher than the Angels, they are still but weak and imperfect men. And so if holy Priests, whom Our Lord in the Gospel calls the salt of the earth, have need of our prayers, what must we think of the lukewarm? Has not Our Lord said: “If the salt lose its savour wherewith shall it be salted?”[Matt. 5:13)] Oh, dear Mother, how beautiful is our vocation! We Carmelites are called to preserve “the salt of the earth.” We offer our prayers and sacrifices for the apostles of the Lord; we ourselves ought to be their apostles, while they, by word and example, are preaching the Gospel to our brethren. Have we not a glorious mission to fulfill? But I must say no more, for I feel that on this subject my pen would run on forever. (Story of a Soul, Ch. 6)
As Catholics, we ought to have a great love for the priesthood for through it we gain access, via the sacraments, to the infinite riches of the graces won by Jesus on the Holy Cross. Without the priesthood there is no forgiveness of sins and no real presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the altar; Him truly present: Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. The great saints indeed had the utmost reverence for the priesthood.
St. Ephrem says that the gift of the sacerdotal dignity surpasses all understanding. (De sacerd.) For us it is enough to know, that Jesus Christ has said that we should treat his priests as we would his own person: He that heareth you, heareth me; he that despiseth you, despiseth me. (Lk 10:16) Hence St. John Chrysostom says, that “he who honors a priest, honors Christ, and he who insults a priest, insults Christ.” (Hom. 17) Through respect for the sacerdotal dignity, St. Mary of Oignies used to kiss the ground on which a priest had walked.
[B]y the celebration of a single Mass, in which he offers Jesus Christ in sacrifice, a priest gives greater honor to the Lord, than if all men by dying for God offered to him the sacrifice of their lives. By a single Mass, he gives greater honor to God than all the angels and saints, along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, have given or shall give to him; for their worship cannot be of infinite value, like that which the priest celebrating on the altar offers to God. Moreover, in the holy Mass, the priest offers to God an adequate thanksgiving for all the graces bestowed even on the Blessed in Paradise; but such a thanks giving all the saints together are incapable of offering to him. Hence it is, that on this account also the priestly dignity is superior even to all celestial dignities.
The angels guardian procure for the souls committed to their care grace to have recourse to a priest that he may absolve them: “Although,” says St. Peter Damian, “angels may be present, they yet wait for the priest to exercise his power, but no one of them has the power of the keys of binding and of loosening.”(Serm. 26) When St. Michael comes to a dying Christian who invokes his aid, the holy archangel can chase away the devils, but he cannot free his client from their chains till a priest comes to absolve him.
–Saint Alphonsus Maria de Ligouri, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, The Dignities and Duties of the Priest, Ch. 1
Today we have been living through one of the most terrible periods in the history of the Church when the Church is filled with so many priests who are so more in name than in deed. And because priest are the very best by nature, when they turn to evil they become the worst. And what is more terrible than Liturgical Abuse? O how we need to pray for them because when the devil is able to take out one priest a whole host of souls will go with him! And we have to realize how difficult it is to be a good and holy priest and how many Priests, Bishops, and yes even possibly some Popes have gone to hell because of their failure to fulfill their weighty obligations. As our Lord said:
“Unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required: and to whom they have committed much, of him they will demand the more.” -Luke 12:48
And who is given more than those who are able to confect the Most Blessed Sacrament in their sacred hands? Not just once as our Lord was incarnated into the Womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but many times our Lord is made present in the hands of the priest. Oh let us pray for them for their judgment if they are unfaithful is most frightful!
“And he said to his disciples: It is impossible that scandals should not come: but woe to him through whom they come. It were better for him, that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should scandalize one of these little ones.” -Luke 17:1-2
And yet while maintaining all respect and honor due to the Holy and Sacred Priesthood, we cannot stick our heads in the sand and ignore the evils we see in the word.
“It is better that scandals arise than the truth be suppressed.” –Pope Saint Gregory the Great, Father and Doctor of the Church
Indeed, the Fathers of the Church did not shy away from pointing out that there are, have been, and will be some evil priests.
“The road to Hell is paved with the bones of priests and monks, and the skulls of bishops are the lamp posts that light the path.” -Saint John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople & Father and Doctor of the Church
“I do not think there are many among Bishops that will be saved, but many more that perish.” -Saint John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople & Father and Doctor of the Church, Homily III on Acts 1:12.2
“The floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.” -Saint Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria & Father and Doctor of the Church, at the Council of Nicaea
“The road to hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.” -Saint John Eudes
For through an evil or unfaithful priest many are lead to destruction. And if we are not careful to notice and point out these dangerous men then we do no favor to our fellow man. Indeed, the two greatest theologians in history pointed out that in certain extreme cases it is necessary to do this.
“It must be observed, however, that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly.” –Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II, II, q. 33, a. 45
“Augustine says in his Rule: ‘Show mercy not only to yourselves, but also to him who, being in the higher position among you, is therefore in greater danger.’ But fraternal correction is a work of mercy. Therefore even prelates ought to be corrected.” -Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II, II, q. 33, a. 4, Sed Contra.
And though this is not the normal course, for the correction of a priest is the prerogative of his superiors, his Bishop, or in some cases his fellow priests. But sometimes those who are lower must be perform the charitable work of fraternal correction of his superiors.
“Amid such reckless and widespread folly of opinion, it is, as We have said, the office of the Church to undertake the defense of truth and uproot errors from the mind, and this charge has to be at all times sacredly observed by her, seeing that the honor of God and the salvation of men are confided to her keeping. But, when necessity compels, not those only who are invested with power of rule are bound to safeguard the integrity of faith, but, as St. Thomas maintains: ‘Each one is under obligation to show forth his faith, either to instruct and encourage others of the faithful, or to repel the attacks of unbelievers.’ [Summa theologiae, lla-llae, qu. iii, art. 2, ad 2m.] To recoil before an enemy, or to keep silence when from all sides such clamors are raised against truth, is the part of a man either devoid of character or who entertains doubt as to the truth of what he professes to believe. In both cases such mode of behaving is base and is insulting to God, and both are incompatible with the salvation of mankind. This kind of conduct is profitable only to the enemies of the faith, for nothing emboldens the wicked so greatly as the lack of courage on the part of the good.” -Pope Leo XIII, Sapientiae christianae, #14
This correction is a great charity indeed, for as it was said earlier a priest, bishop, and most of all a Pope will have a great deal to answer for if they turn away from God.
“Justly, then, has St. Laurence Justinian said that the greater the grace that God has bestowed on priests, the more severe the chastisement that their sins deserve; and the more elevated the state to which he has raised them, the more disastrous shall be their fall. He that falls into a river sinks deeper in proportion to the height from which he has fallen, says Peter de Blois. Beloved priest, remember that in elevating you to the sacerdotal state God has raised you up to heaven, by making you a man no longer earthly, but altogether celestial: If you sin, you fall from heaven. Consider, then, how ruinous and destructive shall be your fall. “What is higher than heaven?” says St. Peter Chrysologus; “he therefore falls from heaven that mingles sin with heavenly functions.” Your fall, according to St. Bernard, shall be like that of a thunderbolt, which rushes headlong with vehement impetuosity. That is, your destruction is irreparable. In your unhappy soul is verified the threat of the Lord against Capharnaum: And thou, Capharnaum, which art exalted unto heaven, thou shalt be thrust down to hell [Luke 10:15].” -Saint Alphonsus Maria de Ligouri, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, Dignities and Duties of the Priest, Ch. 4, Part II
Still we must remember that if we are living in a world seemingly filled with bad priests and evil bishops that this is a sign of something…
“The most evident mark of God’s anger, and the most terrible castigation He can inflict upon the world, is manifest when He permits His people to fall into the hands of a clergy who are more in name than in deed, priests who practice the cruelty of ravening wolves rather than the charity and affection of devoted shepherds. They abandon the things of God to devote themselves to the things of the world and, in their saintly calling of holiness, they spend their time in profane and worldly pursuits. When God permits such things, it is a very positive proof that He is thoroughly angry with His people and is visiting His most dreadful wrath upon them.” -Saint John Eudes
This ought to be no surprise for we know that the saints have clearly shown us that cause of all the evils in the world are Bad Catholics.
Still it is one thing for there to be a bad priest, or even a bad bishop, but can there be a bad or even an evil Pope?
Saint Peter Damian is one of the great Doctors of the Church, and as with each of the Doctor he has been given a particular appellation that describes his particular contribution to the Church, and thus he is know as: the “Monitor of the Popes”. He lived through one of the most terrible times in the history of the Church as he describes:
“In the ecclesiastical order, discipline is neglected almost everywhere; due reverence is not given to priests; canonical sanctions are trodden underfoot; and the work of God is done only for temporal gain. Where are robberies lacking, where thefts, where false oaths, where sinful allurements? Who fears sacrilege? In fact, who has a horror of even the most atrocious crimes?” –Saint Peter Damian (1007-1072), Cardinal-Bishop and Doctor of the Church, Letter 51-52, written to the Cardinals of the Church
And what is most terrifying is that not so long ago a Cardinal of our own day addressed his fellow Cardinals in similar strong language about the Church:
“How much Christ suffers in his own Church. How often is the Holy Sacrament of His real presence abused. How often must He enter empty and evil hearts. How often do we celebrate only ourselves without even realizing that He is there. How often is His word twisted and misused. What little faith is present behind so many theories and so many empty words. How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those in the priesthood who should belong entirely to Him. How much pride. How much self complacency. What little respect for the sacrament of reconciliation where He waits for us to raise us up whenever we fall. How much filth there is. How much filth.” –Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Sermon of Good Friday, 25 March 2005
The holy and incorrupt Abbot of Solesmes, Dom Prosper Gueranger, explains the impact of Saint Peter Damian on his own day in his entry of The Liturgical Year for that saints Feast:
“So zealously did he withstand the disorders and abuses of his times, that we may attribute to him, at least in great measure, the ardent faith of the two centuries which followed the scandals of the 10th.”
And those two centuries would include the foundation of the Carthusians, Norbertines, Trinitarians, and the two great powerhouses of the religious life: the Franciscans and Dominicans. And we would be given five Doctors of the Church including the greatest of all the Doctors of the Church: Saint Thomas Aquinas, and his teacher (and after the death of his student his greatest promoter) Saint Albert the Great.
It would not be until the late 14th Century that another Saint would so profoundly and single handedly save the Church, and in that instance it would be the great Dominican Saint Vincent Ferrer who literally averted the end of the world.
But where is our own Saint Peter Damian to fight against the evils of our own day?
If we do not see him we must pray most fervently that God raise him up.
But we might see him indeed, as some suggest we might find such a one in Cardinal Raymond Burke. His stand in recent years for the truth has not won him many friends, and has certainly provided him with many enemies. And in the Synod on the Family in Fall of 2014 he became the central figure fighting for the promotion of the authentic teaching of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. And he, ever reserved, and most charitable made the following statement in an interview with Buzzfeed.com on October 17th 2014:
“I can’t speak for the pope and I can’t say what his position is on this, but the lack of clarity about the matter has certainly done a lot of harm.”
Now, whatever he meant to impute to the Pope in regard to this, many had said, even long before these events, that Pope Francis was not a good Pope and had criticized many of his actions.
Let us not sit in judgement upon Pope Francis, but let us rather consider a more fundamental question: can there be a bad Pope? And if so what does that mean for the Church?
We would do well first to remember that “the fate of the barque of St. Peter is in the hands of God” for it is just as our Lord said:
“And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt 16:18)
How quickly we forget this verse it seems! Yes things could always take a turn for a worse and we might have much to suffer but in the end the Church triumphs, and of that we can be sure. And no matter how bad we might think any priest, bishop, or even a Pope might be there have been far worse men in the Church before even some who have been elected to occupy the Throne of Saint Peter.
The one incident that is a most striking and an amazing example of our Lord protecting His Holy Church from those who would wish to destroy it is the case of Pope Vigilius (537-555). The trouble seemed to start when he was declared the successor of Pope Boniface II (as this was the practice for centuries) but then the Pope thought better of his decision and renounced his declaration. From this point on Vigilius sought to take the Throne of Saint Peter for himself by any means necessary.
John II (533-35) was elected to succeed Boniface much the displeasure of Vigilius. He then worked to politically jockey himself into a position where he could be elected Pope, but despite his efforts Pope Saint Agapetus I (535-36) was elected as John’s successor. This Pope appointed Vigilius to be the papal representative (Apocrisiary) at Constantinople, and it was there that he would come into contact with the Empress Theodora. She then worked out a deal with him that if she got him elected Pope that he would promote the Monophysite heresy which was then plaguing the Church in the East. The Pope then died under suspicious circumstances but it was Pope Saint Silverius (536-37) who was elected as the next successor of Saint Peter. But it was not long before, tired of waiting, Vigilius had himself elected Anti-Pope and then sent Pope Silverius to an island 20 miles away from Rome and left him to starve to death. Upon the death of the Pope, Antipope Vigilius actually became a valid Pope (this is one of a number of instances where this happened where an Anti-Pope becoming the actual Pope upon the death of the real Pope).
The Empress Theodora then called in her favor for the new Pope to promote Monophysitism. But contrary to all expectation he had a sudden conversion and rejected the deal he had previously made with her and upheld orthodoxy. He then refuses to play the game of the Emperor Justinian who submitted a theological statement (the “Three Chapters”) to him for his approval that both upheld the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, but at the same time condemned the same teachings of Chalcedon in the writings of some theologians.
Because of this he was arrested while saying Mass over the relics of Saint Cecilia on her feast day and was brought to Constantinople. When he was brought before the Emperor and Empress he told them to do with him what they will because it is the just punishment of God for his sins. He would remain a prisoner for 10 years in Constantinople. Meanwhile the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople was held on May 5th, 553 and which officially condemned Monophysitism as heresy and Vigilius ratified the pronouncements of the Council from his jail cell. He would eventually die on his return trip to Rome from kidney stones.
If the Church wasn’t destroyed at this time and by this man then how can we think it ever will be? This man made a deal with the devil and then killed a Saint Pope to become Pope! And yet he was converted and defended Holy Mother Church from error. Amazing!
There is also the story of Pope Honorius I (625-38) whose story may be the most disconcerting because he is one of the infamous Popes to have taught error. Pope Honorius actually taught the heresy of Monothelitism, which in his day was running rampant in the East. It is important to point out he never taught the heresy while also meeting the requirements for an infallible statement (see the First Vatican Council). Because of his heresy his immediate successors would officially condemn him and his errors. In fact, to this day, each year on the First Sunday of Lent Byzantine Rite Catholics celebrate “Orthodoxy Sunday”, where as part of their Liturgy sing out a litany of the all the great heresies and heretics and sing Anathema to them. In that list is Pope Honorius I.
But it is unlikely that there will ever be, or ever could be a Pope worse than Pope John XII (955-63) who was elected at age 16. He was placed on the Throne of Saint Peter by the political power of his family during one of the darkest periods of the history of the Church. His personal crimes were so terrible that in the last year of his pontificate a synod composed of fifty Italian and German bishops was convened in St. Peter’s in Rome and the Pope was accused of the crimes of sacrilege, simony, perjury, murder, adultery, and incest. And this was sadly a most disturbing reflection of the whole state of the clergy and the Church in those days. It wouldn’t be until the next century that our Lord would send a deliver in the form of Saint Peter Damian.
This whole incredible story was recounted in a wonderful sermon given by Rt. Rev. Father Franklyn McAfee, Pastor Emeritus of Saint John the Beloved Catholic Church in McLean Virginia on September 7th 2008. He even went so far as to compare this story to our situation today!
But the Church survived even this as it would for a thousand more years and will for another thousand if God so chooses to set that time for the end of the world. And so we should not fear for the destruction of the Church.
“Who’s going to save our Church? Not our bishops, not our priests and religious. It is up to you, the people. You have the minds, the eyes, and the ears to save the Church. Your mission is to see that your priests act like priests, your bishops act like bishops, and your religious act like religious.” -Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
Saint Therese’ Daily Prayer for Priests
O Holy Father, may the torrents of love flowing from the sacred wounds of Thy Divine Son bring forth priests like unto the beloved disciple John who stood at the foot of the Cross; priests: who as a pledge of Thine own most tender love will lovingly give Thy Divine Son to the souls of men.
May Thy priests be faithful guardians of Thy Church, as John was of Mary, whom he received into his house. Taught by this loving Mother who suffered so much on Calvary, may they display a mother’s care and thoughtfulness towards Thy children. May they teach souls to enter into close union with Thee through Mary who, as the Gate of Heaven, is specially the guardian of the treasures of Thy Divine Heart.
Give us priests who are on fire, and who are true children of Mary, priests who will give Jesus to souls with the same tenderness and care with which Mary carried the Little Child of Bethlehem.
Mother of sorrows and of love, out of compassion for Thy beloved Son, open in our hearts deep wells of love, so that we may console Him and give Him a generation of priests formed in thy school and having all the tender thoughtfulness of thine own spotless love.