Second Word: “Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise.”

Wickedness and Holiness Together in the Priesthood

Diego Velázquez, “Christ Crucified” (detail), c. 1632
Diego Velázquez, “Christ Crucified” (detail), c. 1632 (photo: Public Domain)

Editor’s Note: The Seven Last Words, taped at EWTN April 11, will be broadcast on Good Friday at 5 p.m. Eastern, hosted by Father Raymond J. de Souza.

The Scandals in the Church and
the Scandal of the Cross
“Father, forgive them,
for they know not what they do.”
“Today you will be with me
in paradise.”
“Woman, behold your Son.
Behold your Mother.”
“My God, my God,
why have you forsaken me?”
“I thirst.”
“Father, into your hands
I commend my spirit.”
“It is finished.

We marvel at the words of the Good Thief, his act of faith, and the even more marvelous, mercy-filled response from Jesus, promising him that he would, that very day, be with Jesus in paradise. We want to say, along with the Good Thief: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!”

But there was another thief there, also close to the cross, also close the Redeemer, also close to the throne of mercy. It is not sufficient to be close to the Lord to be identified with him. As Fulton Sheen noted, while the Good Thief looked up toward the kingdom of heaven, the Bad Thief looked down and demanded that Jesus come down off the cross.

Did not Jesus tell us about this? That the weeds and the wheat would grow together, that the net cast into the sea collects fish both good and bad? And yet we forgot that, or worse, even refused to see it, when it was there to be seen.

In the face of priestly predation, it was denied. A priest could never have done such a thing. There was only wheat in the field, and no weeds. It was as if on Calvary we only heard the voice of the Good Thief, ignoring the curses hurled by the other thief.

A few weeks ago, an American archbishop, updating his diocese on the latest steps of reform and healing, wrote that, “In 2002, I think most Catholics were simply shocked to read the news reports of priests abusing minors. As I said, during my priesthood, never could I have imagined such a thing.”

Our imaginations failed us. How could we not have known that there would be “filth” in the priesthood? How could priests themselves, knowing the dangers, not worked to prevent themselves from becoming filthy, nor confronted their brothers who were filthy?

Is it because we look to Calvary and only see what we want to see? The Good Thief and not the bad? The Blessed Mother and St. John, but not the jeering priests and Roman soldiers?

The Scripture does not hide this from us. Remember the respected elders in the Book of Daniel, who conspire to indulge their lust with Susanna and then to falsely accuse her of wrongdoing? Should not that have been sufficient warning that priests might seek to indulge their lust and then to put the blame on the victim? Have we forgotten the lust and sexual sin of King David, who resorted even to murder to cover it up? 

We should have known that wickedness is not only possible in the priesthood, but would certainly be present, an ever-present danger that needs to be guarded against and rooted out when found.

In March 2010, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a powerful letter to Catholics in Ireland, a Church deeply afflicted by the scandals. There he addressed directly those priests who had done evil:

“You betrayed the trust that was placed in you by innocent young people and their parents, and you must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals. You have forfeited the esteem of the people of Ireland and brought shame and dishonour upon your confreres. Those of you who are priests violated the sanctity of the sacrament of Holy Orders in which Christ makes himself present in us and in our actions. Together with the immense harm done to victims, great damage has been done to the Church and to the public perception of the priesthood and religious life. I urge you to examine your conscience, take responsibility for the sins you have committed, and humbly express your sorrow. Sincere repentance opens the door to God’s forgiveness and the grace of true amendment. By offering prayers and penances for those you have wronged, you should seek to atone personally for your actions. Christ’s redeeming sacrifice has the power to forgive even the gravest of sins, and to bring forth good from even the most terrible evil. At the same time, God’s justice summons us to give an account of our actions and to conceal nothing. Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God’s mercy.”

The mercy of God is available to all, but first we need to acknowledge that we need it. The Good Thief recognized that. The Bad Thief denied it.

Today you will be with me in paradise.

Glory be to the Father …