This past Easter I wrote about going to the Vigil at a small parish where the pastor is a young priest, and said this:
The young priests I've encountered in recent years are all similarly committed to the traditional mission of the Church, which makes them "conservative" in the confused mind of our time. And they are very brave. The orthodoxy is not surprising, because, as has been pointed out for decades, who would give up everything a priest has to give up for an ill-defined mission of which he is half ashamed? The bravery is almost true by definition now, because in the minds of many all priests are automatically suspected of child molestation and other crimes. And the accusation obviously gives a lot of pleasure to those who already hate the Church for other reasons. I certainly would have trouble walking around in public if I thought people were looking at me with that in mind. God give them strength.
This has been much on my mind for the past week or so because of a situation in my diocese. I haven't seen it mentioned in the national news, but then I don't see that much national news, so perhaps it's out there. There are quite a few local and state news stories about it, but I think I'll refrain from linking to them, because I don't want to be even slightly responsible for it getting wider attention. It illustrates a different sort of difficulty and threat faced by young priests--any priests, really, but especially young ones.
I also won't mention the name of the priest involved. It isn't the one whose parish I attended at Easter, but they're about the same age. I'll call this one Father M (for Mackay). I don't know him personally but I heard him speak a year or so ago at my parish. Our then-assistant pastor, also a priest of around the same age, had organized a series of talks for men, and Father M was one of the speakers. It was a good talk. He was intelligent, articulate, and obviously passionate about the orthodox faith, about the need for committed spiritual combat against all the temptations and distractions that the contemporary world presents, about the need for courage and self-mastery.
But there was one thing that made me a little uneasy. Before I mention that, I'll speak generally: any young person with an intense commitment to anything runs the risk of either burning out, because the intensity can't be sustained over the long haul, especially in the face of life's typical disappointments, or of going off the rails in some way, passion overriding prudence and balance: out of gas, or crash and burn. Some young priests make me a little uneasy on this count. They are orthodox, often traditionalist, devoted, and intense, and I worry that they won't be able to keep their balance over a lifetime of ministry, and will come to a halt in one of those two ways.
Where religion is concerned, the form taken by that second possibility--intensity that goes out of control in some way--is likely to be fanaticism, superstition, and other spiritual diseases. Father Ronald Knox devoted an entire book, Enthusiasm, to the syndrome as it has manifested itself since the beginning of the Church. (He means the word "enthusiasm" in a sense that's pretty much fallen out of use now, more or less equivalent to "fanaticism.") It can be difficult to tell the difference between intense healthy devotion and intense unhealthy fanaticism, but there is a difference. It's even more difficult, I suspect, to recognize it from the inside: to know how, in one's own interior life, to maintain the former without falling into the latter. (I wouldn't know; I don't have the kind of zeal and energy that puts me in that danger.)
One particular danger for the very religiously committed seems to be excessive interest in signs and wonders, particularly those having to do with the workings of evil. As best I can tell from what's public knowledge, something like that seems to have happened to Fr. M, and to have led him into trouble.
As good as his talk at my parish was, some of it made me, as I said, a little uneasy. He was clearly intense, and that sparked my usual concern, that he would not be able to sustain it while keeping his balance. And he talked a lot about demons, prayers of deliverance, purging one's space of things that might carry evil influences, and so forth, and that made me concerned that he might be giving more attention to those things than is really healthy. I don't mean that I definitely concluded that that was the case; when I say "concerned" that's all I mean; I had that little warning-bell feeling. From what I hear, this interest--which, if not excessive, is clearly great--has been a strong tendency of his for some time.
It seems to be at the root of the current situation--the current disaster, it's fair to say. Fr. M was often asked to speak to classes at the local Catholic high school, and his talks often were heavy on the topics I just mentioned. And he sometimes had counseling or spiritual guidance sessions with individual students. He was apparently pretty quick to blame the direct influence of Satan for their problems, which in my experience is a cause for concern. And he had gotten very interested in certain Marian apparitions, especially the one(s) in Garabandal, Spain, which as far as I can tell from a little reading about them are at best of dubious authenticity. Excessive interest in those is also, for me, a cause for concern. Again, I don't mean that these things are plainly misguided, only that I've seen and heard enough over the years to know that interest in them can become quite unhealthy.
Reportedly his talk of demons and exorcisms was enough to alarm some parents. Were they justified? Or did they, like many contemporary Christians, just want a tame faith? I don't know.
Apparently he became very close with one female student. And a couple of weeks ago he and the girl, who had graduated in the spring, disappeared and were found to have fled (the word seems reasonable) to Garabandal, for reasons that remain unclear. The archbishop immediately deprived Fr. M of his priestly faculties (which the local media keep incorrectly calling "defrocked"). The girl's parents are understandably very upset. When she and Fr. M were located, they both denied that they have a sexual relationship. But of course that's being met with "yeah right" by many or most people, and that's at least somewhat understandable--it certainly looks bad.
But I believe them. Based solely on my experience of his talk, I am quite willing to believe that it is not a physically sexual relationship, and that Fr. M did not "groom" the girl, as the irresponsible local sheriff is saying. However, I also think it's quite likely that it was and is sexual in the broad sense--i.e., that he is a handsome young man and she is a no doubt pretty young woman, and they developed romantic feelings for each other. Perhaps they didn't even really or fully recognize that it was happening. That's hardly an uncommon phenomenon.
Anyway, this is obviously a disaster for all concerned. Is it even in principle possible for Fr. M ever to function as a priest again? Does he even want to? Would any bishop ever let him? What will this have done to the girl's spiritual life and general emotional health? Will she leave the Church? Will her parents? Will he?
And somewhere out near the edge of the ripples generated by this splash am I, seeing what is probably the loss to the Church, and in a small way to me, of a gifted young priest. You don't have to believe that a demon whispered directly into Fr. M's ear to see that this is a victory for the arch-demon. At least for now. I pray every day for "all bishops, priests, deacons, seminarians, and religious." Especially the young ones.