Beware of the celebrity priesthood

  • September 27, 2011

Checking the headlines of Catholic Internet media every day has its down side. The stories are often sad. Catholic journalists, paid and unpaid, professional or amateur, report everything that might be of interest to other Catholics, and thus not a week goes by in which some scandal, minor or major, is presented to the public worldwide. These scandals, I hasten to add, rarely have anything to do with the Gospel. These scandals, more often than not, detail sins of commission or omission committed by priests, bishops or other Catholic leaders. Not only do they disgust and depress Catholics, they erode our trust in God’s ministers and messengers.

Three cases in particular have troubled my thoughts in recent months. One, coming out of Australia, is so vile I dare not discuss it in a family newspaper. The others are merely distasteful and disappointing, so I will confine my thoughts to them.

The first case concerns an American priest named Fr. John Corapi who, before he made public an investigation into his character, was a popular preacher on the EWTN channel. Fr. Corapi first did a brisk trade in his own catechetical materials and was a hero to those who felt frustrated by their home parish priests’ supposed lack of charism.   

At a friend’s urging, I once watched Fr. Corapi on television, and I was decidedly underwhelmed. In explaining Fr. Corapi’s background, my friend stressed that he had once been a successful businessman but a terrible sinner who blew his money on prostitutes and drugs. His dramatic conversion, I decided as I watched his flapping eyebrows, did not make him a better priest than ordinary Catholic boys who lead relatively blameless, if relatively dull, lives before entering St. Augustine’s Seminary. His colourful past might have made him a better showman, but the Gospel is not a show.

Thus I was not among those whose faith took a beating when accusations that Fr. Corapi was still a successful businessman who blew his money on prostitutes and drugs became increasingly credible. I read with concern the online comments of those who did suffer. If they could not trust Fr. Corapi, they wrote, who could they trust? Why, I wondered, were Catholics so obsessed with a fallible human being they had never met?

The second case concerns Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life and Bishop Patrick Zurek of Amarillo, Texas. In short, Bishop Zurek ordered Fr. Pavone home to Amarillo and sent a letter detailing his concerns about Priests for Life’s finances to the American bishops and the press. So far, nothing has been proven against Fr. Pavone. However,  Bishop Zurek has certainly blackened Fr. Pavone’s name and the name of Priests for Life. He accused Fr. Pavone of letting fame go to his head, and now Bishop Zurek has his own fame. What a pity he could not confine his resentment to a more private forum. Who’d want to be a priest under his authority? Not me.

But it cannot be disputed that Fr. Pavone is more the celebrity face of Priests for Life than he is an effective parish priest in his home diocese, and this brings me to my central point: Do we really need celebrity priests? And don’t they rather distract us from the High Priest who deserves all our attention?

The 21st-century worship of celebrities is the hallmark of a powerful new paganism. We Catholics should be careful not to allow our devotion to God to be displaced onto any human being. The Catholic who looks at Renaissance paintings of Our Lady will notice that either her gaze or one of her hands directs the viewer to look at her Son. Our Lady does not want our love for her to distract us from her Son. The priest who replaces Our Lord Jesus Christ as the focus of our attention is not doing his job.

The principal tasks of a priest are to say Mass and hear confessions. The Cure d’Ars was famous because he was a great confessor. Padre Pio was famous because he received the stigmata and was a great confessor. Twenty-first century priests become famous merely if they are seen on television often enough. I can’t think of any living priest, save Benedict XVI, who is famous for the great care he takes in saying Mass or hearing confessions.

Whenever I see a priest on television, I spare a thought for all the priests I’ve seen in person. Thousands of priests do their work faithfully but obscurely, unknown save to their hometowns and the dioceses they serve. They are not asked to go on television. They do not become the faces of charities and social movements. They intentionally efface themselves so that Jesus Christ may be more present to others. That’s what a priest is called to do. Celebrity priesthood is dangerous.

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