Reflections on Catholic ‘celebrity’
In the past month, two rather high-profile priests have been in the news over allegations of misconduct. That follows a year in which at least three others have left active ministry in the midst of scandal. And going back another year, I can think of several more.
Is it just me, or does anyone else get the impression that Satan is picking off priests like clay pigeons at target practice?
Each case is unique, of course. Some have admitted to wrongdoing, while others have steadfastly maintained their innocence. Some have cooperated with investigations, and others have not. Some have been exonerated and resumed active ministry, while others “resigned” from their ministry and even the priesthood.
What they all have in common is that these “high profile” priests have a lot of followers. (A “fan base,” as one such priest’s media company referred to them.) And thus their situations — whether they are rightly or wrongly accused — “scandalize” the faithful and risk driving them away from the Church. That is exactly what would motivate the Evil One to incite it all in the first place.
It has me thinking about the world of high-profile or “celebrity” Catholics. As someone who has some familiarity with those circles, I’ve gained some insight over the years into the privileges and pitfalls that notoriety within Church circles can bring.
First of all, I want to make it clear that we need “celebrity” Catholics. Perhaps we could live without the term, which denotes the privileges and excesses of secular celebrity culture. But the concept — faithful Catholics who visibly explain and model authentic faith — is vital. Sts. Peter and Paul were both “famous.” Mother Teresa was known throughout the world. Many saints throughout the ages were well-known in their day and time. God gave them gifts and He didn’t intend for them to be hidden under a bushel basket. He wanted those gifts to be shared with the world. And their example throughout the ages has led untold numbers of people to Christ.
The second thing I want to make clear is that I have had the privilege of working alongside some of the best, holiest, humblest, most devout people in the vineyard of the “Catholic Speaking Circuit.” They understand that they possess gifts from God and they use those gifts for His glory.
But being in any kind of “limelight” — even the limited limelight of the Catholic world — requires vigilance. There are dangers for ourselves and for those who in any way “follow” us.
A Catholic speaker does one thing well and we get a lot of attention for doing that one thing well. People fly us around the world. They pursue us (sometimes zealously) at conferences. They gush over us. They ask for pictures with us. They send us letters and emails.
That’s all nice, but it can be dangerous.
First of all, we can tend to believe our “press.” We think we’re as wonderful as people say we are. What’s more, we begin to take possession of “our” message. The narcissism that lies latent in every human person is roused to life. We hear the applause and we think it’s for us. We begin to believe that we came up with all of this material ourselves.
The temptation is to forget God’s role in this — which is, basically, all of it. We aren’t transmitting our own message. It’s all God’s truth. It belongs to Him and to His Church that transmits it. Sure, we may think of clever ways of explaining them, but where did that cleverness come from? From Him, of course. We’re only instruments that He has chosen and fashioned.
As much as we enjoy all of the positive attention we have a real need to keep our priorities straight. The focus of our ministry, of our message and of our enthusiasm needs to be on God and on His message. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying applause, particularly when it’s a response to God’s truth. But we just need to enjoy it for what it is — the fruit of God’s work, the result of the Holy Spirit moving in ourselves and in an audience. It’s not evidence of our inherent wonderfulness, and certainly not indicative our own personal holiness.
So who cares about a speaker’s inner disposition as long as the message is on target? We all do, because our human weakness as speakers can be exploited by Satan, in one way or another, to put souls in harm’s way.
Just as a speaker can be tempted to take credit for a message that belongs to God, so can an audience be tempted to give that same credit. When a talk or a homily stirs us to love God, it’s easy to believe that the message somehow originated with that speaker. Audiences begin to place their trust in that particular person and become “followers.” They can be tempted to put that individual’s message over that of the Church. That can be good as long as the two messages are consistent. But it can be a disaster if that person, instead of pointing people toward the Church, begins to point them in another direction or if that person somehow becomes enmeshed in scandal. “Followers” who are more invested in the personality than in the larger truth of the Catholic Faith can often be led away.
The greatest mistake a high-profile Catholic speaker can make is to believe that the Church, and therefore God, needs his or her apostolate. God needs nothing of the kind, nor does His Church. What God needs is our holiness, our docility, our openness to His will. It is only then that He can use us — perhaps in ways that we don’t understand, in ways that make no sense to the “wisdom of the world.”
Pray for those enmeshed in scandal, for their audiences and for all of us who in any way publicly promote the Faith. Yes, pray for us. Listen to us. Test what you hear against the eternal truths of the Catholic Faith. Hold fast to what is good in our interpretation of God’s message. But remember also that we’re human. We have weaknesses. And we — especially the priests among us — have big targets on our backs.
Please don’t “follow” us. Follow Christ and the Church.
Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We’re On a Mission from God and Real Love.