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Philippa Martyr: Priests of celebrity vs those of humility

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Thank God for your parish priest who puts God first - not himself. Photos: Gregory Shemitz
Thank God for your parish priest who puts God first – not himself. Photos: Gregory Shemitz

Sometimes when we’re at Mass on a Sunday with a lacklustre celebrant, it’s tempting to start thinking about how great it would be to have a different parish priest.

We’d like someone warm and charismatic. Chatting to him after Mass would be a joy! We’d all be improved beyond measure.

Celebrity priests aren’t just an international problem. Local priests can become legends in their own lifetime, and sometimes this isn’t good for them, or for us.

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They can acquire the same sort of flying monkeys as international celebrity priests. These are the lay people who refuse to believe any rumours about him – no matter how obvious the evidence of wrongdoing – and who attack anyone who criticises him.

Let me show you what a local celebrity priest looks like. This is a composite of several sad case histories. Young Dan once led a self-indulgent life of wine, women, song, and cannabis. But then he had a big and very emotional conversion.

Bishop Paul Steady of the Diocese of Bedlam was charmed by Dan. The right sort of Catholic media stories followed, and Dan’s progress through the seminary was assured.

Soon after ordination, Fr Dan – devout, warm, and sensitive – was given a parish and allowed to do pretty much what he liked. What Fr Dan liked was ministering to ‘outcasts’, some of whom were vulnerable and damaged young women.

“Bishop Paul wouldn’t hear a word against Fr Dan. It helped that Fr Dan and his flying monkeys explained that his accusers were just ‘crazy’ women who ‘threw themselves at him’.”

Fr Dan got himself quite a reputation for spiritual direction and healing. He was much in demand for weddings and funerals and baptisms and had lots of fans.

But Fr Dan also had a string of covert sexual relationships with women in his flock. Some of them complained afterwards, but the diocese didn’t seem very interested (possibly because they were over the age of consent and female).

Bishop Paul wouldn’t hear a word against Fr Dan. It helped that Fr Dan and his flying monkeys explained that his accusers were just ‘crazy’ women who ‘threw themselves at him’.

After all – as Bishop Paul said to one complainant, by way of excuse – Fr Dan was a very attractive man.

Then Fr Dan was exposed by an angry ex-girlfriend in the mainstream media. This forced Bishop Paul to act (especially once he and everyone else in the diocese saw the photos).

He asked Fr Dan to take a leave of absence to think about his future. After a discreet interval – and having realised that he didn’t want to get a job in the real world – Fr Dan found himself back in the diocese.

Celebrity priests aren’t just an international problem. Local priests can become legends in their own lifetime, and sometimes this isn’t good for them, or for us. Photo: Nazim Coskun, Unsplash
Celebrity priests aren’t just an international problem. Local priests can become legends in their own lifetime, and sometimes this isn’t good for them, or for us. Photo: Nazim Coskun, Unsplash

But you can’t keep a man like him down for long, and he found a new group of lay enablers based around Mrs Oracle.

Most dioceses have a Mrs Oracle. She’s wealthy, middle aged, well connected, and loves chancery gossip and prayer groups. Fr Dan now reinvented himself as a sort of roving spiritual director.

His charisma went to work, and he soon had a cult following among her friends (and she has lots of friends).

The happy result is that Mrs Oracle pays all the bills and stoutly defends Fr Dan to everyone who will listen.

Bishop Paul (now retired) always backs her up. This is partly because he doesn’t like his successor, and partly because he’s ashamed of being fooled by Fr Dan in the first place.

After all, everyone deserves a second chance, don’t they? (Except, of course, the series of women who Fr Dan had affairs with during his priestly ministry. No second chances for them).

“Forgive him for his odd singing, and his mistakes in rubrics, and his sometimes-awkward homilies. Thank God for his lack of charisma, his flaky skin, and his plain speaking.”

It’s not a very edifying story. And it’s probably not going to end well for anyone involved.

So this Sunday at Mass, if you see your plain, humble parish priest saying Mass with all his heart, thank God for it.

Forgive him for his odd singing, and his mistakes in rubrics, and his sometimes-awkward homilies. Thank God for his lack of charisma, his flaky skin, and his plain speaking (especially in the confessional).

Thank God that you have a priest who puts God first and himself last. And it’s also useful to remember that the grass is always greenest where you water it.

Instead of hankering after the charismatic Fr Dan, you might try to get to know your own parish priest better.

You might be pleasantly surprised. You might be able to help him get his flaky skin treated – and help him to balance the parish accounts, because that’s what’s causing his flaky skin.

And you might help each other to become holier. That’s well worth it.

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