"When we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we see everything in relation [to] Him – we can even begin to see as He sees," Dolan said. "At this Chrism Mass, we try to see the priesthood as Jesus sees it. Do you recall those more than twenty-five Holy Thursday letters from Pope John Paul to his brother priests? He helped us to see the priesthood as Jesus intended us to see it – a life of holy anointing, of special love, of great adventure, of heroic service, of human flourishing and of permanent commitment." Then he added: "At his side, Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, also taught us to see as Christ sees, including those blemishes and blotches which stain the priesthood and require repentance and true reform. He has worked to clean what needs to be cleansed in the priesthood. It has not been an easy path."
Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto echoed that at his own Chrism Mass on Tuesday, saying that Benedict "has acted decisively, fairly, consistently and courageously to purify the priesthood."
In the media frenzy those wider reforms have been ignored. And if anyone should doubt that the frenzied spirit has reached a new low, the Associated Press ran a story yesterday covering a press conference given by Mehmet Ali Agca demanding the Pope's resignation. Mr. Agca was the would-be assassin of Pope John Paul II. Even a homicidal lunatic can get a little ink if he hops aboard the runaway anti-Catholic train.
On this Holy Thursday, the day marked by Catholics as the institution of the priesthood, the current controversy can be situated within the ongoing attempt to change the culture of the priesthood. That's really what Archbishops Dolan and Collins are talking about.
In the aftermath the 1960s, there was a concerted attempt to set aside the worst aspects of clericalism – the clubby, privileged model of the priesthood. That was the idea, but by the end of the 1970s, many priests had set aside the priesthood altogether. The 1970s were period of steep decline in priestly vocations, identity, theology and discipline. We now know that this was also the time of the greatest incidence of sexual abuse of minors.
That culture had to change for the safety of the vulnerable, though it would only become evident later. It was already evident that change in clerical culture was necessary for the health of the priesthood and the good of the Church. John Paul began that process by lifting up the priesthood as a noble ideal, and over the course some 27 years wrote annual Holy Thursday letters to priests, delivering in stages a treatise on the authentic reform of priestly identity, holiness, theology and discipline.
With a different disposition and a different role, Cardinal Ratzinger devoted attention to what needed to be pruned back and cut away. Hence his 1990s policy review and the resulting changes in 2001: obligatory reporting to Rome, extension or suspension of the time limits for such cases, more expeditious dismissals from the priestly office and subsequent embracing of the "zero tolerance" policy put in effect by the American bishops. Strong measures. Too long in coming? Yes, but for much of the 1980s and 1990s even the Pope and his chief lieutenant were fighting a flawed culture of the priesthood that had taken deep root.
It was on March 25 that The New York Times published its hit job on the Holy Father. Exactly five years earlier, Cardinal Ratzinger sent shock waves around the Catholic world when he said this on Good Friday: "How much filth there is in the Church, even among those who, in the priesthood, should belong entirely to Him."
He was calling again for radical reform. Twenty-five days later he was elected pope.