We expect our saints to be absolutely saintly. But few, if any, are. Years ago, one of those “inside the Vatican” stories slipped outside of the walls of the city and became the stuff of clerical lore. Early in his pontificate, Pope John Paul II had a policy of not receiving nuns without habits. Somehow, a thoroughly modern American nun slipped through. The Holy Father questioned her, confirming that she was indeed a consecrated virgin. Then he said, “I couldn’t tell by the way you are dressed. I hope the Holy Spirit doesn’t have the same problem.” True, but perhaps slightly naughty.
After Pope John Paul II’s funeral, a very well produced biographical film was released. On his feast day, I saw it again. The movie revisited his great accomplishments: in his youth during the Nazi occupation of Poland; as a young priest and bishop in Warsaw; in his inspiration of the Polish Solidarity movement and the fall of the Soviet empire; as well as his prolific and truly remarkable theological writing. It made me feel proud to be a Catholic.
But there was no mention of any of his failures or faults, real or perceived. The producers never questioned the wisdom of the Assisi ecumenical gathering; didn’t mention his arguably tepid response to the problem of homosexual priests’ exploitation of youth; no reference to the many documented difficulties associated with the World Youth Days. Perhaps none of this (and more) is mentioned because we expect the depictions of our saints to show men and women with impeccable judgment.
The Gospel does not have the same scruple. It’s always fascinating to consider the moral and spiritual quality of the men Jesus called to be His first priests and bishops. Christ came to call sinners, not the righteous. Numbered amongst His apostles are tax collectors and a man who would betray Him – a man who committed suicide and forever changed the meaning of a common name, “Judas” to “traitor.”
All of the Apostles – even John, although he quickly returned – abandoned Him during His Passion. And all of this is documented quite thoroughly by the evangelists, reported without rancor in prose as irenic as a medical report. Even Saint Peter’s endearing “depart from me for I am a sinful man” foreshadowed truly sinful behavior: his comical promise to remain faithful to the Lord and his threefold denial after he fled the Garden. Insult to injury, Church tradition doesn’t let him off the hook, reminding us of the pattern of his cowardice in the Quo Vadis story during the persecution of Nero. God’s ways are not our ways.
If we imagine ourselves appointed the Lord’s vocations director in the selection of the Twelve, we would probably fancy ourselves as not admitting the likes of Peter. Invoking our own piety and wisdom, we might be tempted to suggest there are two men in the Gospel who should have been promoted and numbered among the elite team. The “just and upright man” Joseph, husband of Mary and foster father of the Lord would have been a shoo-in candidate. But, alas, according to Catholic tradition, he died before the public life and ministry of Jesus.
This leaves us with John the Baptist, acknowledged by the Lord as the “greatest man born of woman.” Undoubtedly, John would have been my choice. And in view of my pride in my (self-defined) acumen about matters of financial oversight, I certainly would have noticed Judas couldn’t be trusted with the purse. If only I had been given the chance to fully vet the Lord’s candidates!
Such considerations bring to mind a news report from around the time of the Second Vatican Council. A vocations functionary of the once-proud order of the Jesuits boasted that the retention rate of the Jesuits, back at that time, was “greater than the Lord’s.” After fifty years and the reduction of the order by over 35,000 priests, what remains is the hubris of the boast and a shadow of a once muscular religious order.
We would do well to consider the consequences of daring to place ourselves in judgment of the Lord and the Gospels. Peter tried it when he attempted to dissuade the Lord from going up to Jerusalem to endure the Passion. He consequently suffered the harshest rebuke from the lips of Jesus, “Stand behind me you Satan!”
The anonymous Jesuit boasting of his order’s rate of retention would have done better to apply the Lord’s ratio to himself: Strictly according to the apostolic ratio, one out of twelve priests and bishops – even the bishops of Rome – will betray the Lord, and only one of twelve will suffer with the Lord to the end. It’s sobering to apply this ratio to my own presbyterate, as I duck for cover, running for the mantle of the Blessed Mother!
Of course, there is nothing wrong with using the sacred writings, with the proper perspective, for measuring our behavior and worth. The great spiritual writers urge us to use our minds and imaginations to place ourselves in the Gospels and imitate the virtues of Jesus as we hear His voice. We might also compare ourselves to the Apostles, the woman caught in adultery, the holy women at the foot of the Cross. And it’s salutary and spiritually profitable to do so as a means to admonish and correct – and console – us on our way.
It was a privilege to be ordained a priest during the pontificate of Saint John Paul II. It was a privilege to read about and witness his magnificent deeds, guided as they were by God’s loving providence. And it is instructive to be honestly aware of his foibles and failures. Knowing that if even a great man has chinks in is armor for all to see and can still be canonized (just like Saint Peter), then maybe there’s hope for me – and you.