The Danger of Criticizing Bishops and Priests (2)

"I don't know whether these hands are stained as the other man says they are. [But] I do know that even if they are, that in no way lessens the power and effectiveness of the sacraments of God... That is why I kiss these hands out of respect for what they perform and out of respect for Him who gave His authority to them."
St. Francis of Assisi

Once a Waldensian challenged Francis on his unshakeable reverence for priests, by pointing out the local pastor who was living in sin. "Must we believe in his teaching and respect the sacraments he performs?"

In response, Francis went to the priest's home and knelt before him saying, "I don't know whether these hands are stained as the other man says they are. [But] I do know that even if they are, that in no way lessens the power and effectiveness of the sacraments of God... That is why I kiss these hands out of respect for what they perform and out of respect for Him who gave His authority to them." His challenger left in silence.

The Franciscan Order revolutionized the faith in Europe during the 19 years from Francis's conversion at age 25 to his death. There were thousands of Franciscans by the time he died, spreading the true faith, not by pointing out the sins of the priests and bishops (of which there were certainly many), but by living the gospel so simply and so joyfully that people found it irresistible.

Today there are many priests and even bishops who seem to invite criticism by what they say and do, but most are far less culpable than the priests and bishops of St. Francis' time. The recent scandals in the U.S. priesthood are much uglier but they have been dealt with far more strongly than those lesser but more widespread faults of the thirteenth century.

Following Authentic Teaching

And, I believe the people who will bring about a new springtime in the Church will be more like Francis of Assisi than today's harsh critics of priests and bishops. Perhaps the example of the Waldensians and Albigensians gives us an insight into what happens when people focus on the sins of priests and bishops.

I believe the people who will bring about a new springtime in the Church will be more like Francis of Assisi than today's harsh critics of priests and bishops.

I believe such criticism can feed our own pride, and make us feel superior to our Church leaders. From that point it is not a great leap to begin to lump their teaching in with their behavior, and to begin to reject the doctrines of the Church. The danger is real.

Jesus warned his followers not to reject the doctrines of the scribes and pharisees despite their shameful behavior:

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men. (Matt. 3:1-7)

A few verses later he proclaims, "Woe to you, scribes and pharisees, hypocrites," and calls them "blind guides," and "brood of vipers." Nonetheless, people are to "practice and observe whatever they tell you," because they are, in effect, descendants of Moses.

I would venture to say that most of our bishops are far better than the scribes and pharisees, and they are the descendants of the apostles. How important it is that we listen to them, especially in light of the fact that Jesus told them, "He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me" (Luke 10:16).

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