The surprise Aug. 4 “Letter to Priests” from Pope Francis proposed again the figure of the patron saint of parish priests, St. Jean-Marie Vianney, amid the crisis of sexual abuse in the priesthood.
Writing on the 160th anniversary of the death of the holy Curé of Ars, the Holy Father desired to offer — as an “elder brother and father” — a spiritual and fraternal support to all the innocent priests for whom the abuse crisis has been a time of betrayal, suspicion and pain. The letter finds its immediate context in the follow-up to the Vatican summit on sexual abuse in February 2019.
In the months afterward, important legal measures were taken to address mandatory reporting and how bishops in particular were to be held to account for improperly handling allegations that are reported. Pope Francis’ letter wisely acknowledges that canonical measures alone are not enough. The letter is an expression of the Holy Father’s repeated insistence that the crisis calls for a conversion of heart and culture.
In that light, the papal letter speaks to priests in a heartfelt manner, beginning with acknowledging the pain felt in the priesthood due to the scandals. That pain of innocent priests is threefold — pain felt for the victims who are numbered in their congregations, the pain of betrayal by fellow priests, and the pain of the cloud of suspicion that hangs over all priests.
The letter goes on to offer priests an extended word of gratitude for their faithful service and encouragement in the face of the temptation to become weary and resigned. Finally, it invites priests to praise God anew after the model and with the intercession of the Blessed Mother.
There is, though, a broader context for the papal letter, which links St. Jean Vianney to the abuse crisis. This letter can be read as a sort of epilogue to the Year for Priests convoked by Benedict XVI in 2009-2010 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Curé of Ars’ death.
Ten years ago, Benedict called for a “Year for Priests.” It was unexpected. The Year of St. Paul (June 28, 2008-June 29, 2009) was in its final month when the Year for Priests was announced. Certainly the sesquicentennial of St. Jean Vianney’s death would be marked somehow, but another specially dedicated year seemed perhaps excessive.
While the letter of Pope Francis this summer is explicitly about the abuse crisis, the Year for Priests began in 2009 with a reference to it, but it was not the dominant theme. It soon would be.
In point of fact, the year 2009-2010 marked the most intense period of the crisis between 2002 and its escalation in 2018. The locus in 2009-2010 was Ireland, which resulted in a Vatican summit with the bishops of Ireland and Benedict XVI’s “Letter to the Catholics of Ireland” in March 2010.
Then, in Holy Week, a coordinated attack by The New York Times and sex-abuse lawyers was focused on Benedict XVI himself, accusing him of cover-ups during his time as the archbishop of Munich and later as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The charges did not hold up, but Holy Week that year — the Year for Priests — was dominated in the global media not by news about the great High Priest and his redemptive work, but by the failures and sins of priests. The “filth” in the priesthood that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had denounced on Good Friday 2005 was back, front and center, during the Year for Priests.
The Year for Priests, in retrospect, thus seemed not excessive, but necessary. Did Benedict XVI somehow intuit that, in a particularly painful year of priestly scandals, the figure of St. Jean Vianney was needed with greater urgency? Or was it the other way around — that as the Church held up a model of priestly holiness, the Evil One provoked a ferocious attack on the priesthood using the most potent weapon on all, the betrayal of those who should be especially close to Jesus?
In a remarkable extemporaneous homily during those fierce days of April 2010, when Benedict himself was under severe attack, the Holy Father spoke about penance — which St. Jean Vianney practiced to an extreme degree — as a necessary, but neglected, part of the Church’s life.
“Repentance, the capacity to be penitent, is a gift of grace,” Benedict preached. “And I must say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word penitence — it seemed to us too difficult. Now, under the attacks of the world that speaks of our sins, we see that the capacity to repent is a grace. And we see that it is necessary to do penance, that is, to recognize what is wrong in our lives, open ourselves to forgiveness, prepare ourselves for pardon by allowing ourselves to be transformed.”
Indeed, during the Year for Priests, the Church attempted to speak of the holiness of the patron saint of parish priests amid “the world that speaks of our sins.”
This year, in the face of another time of “speaking of our sins,” Pope Francis has turned again to speak of the Curé of Ars.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.