Trust in the priesthood has been shattered – but not entirely

British actor Alec Guinness (1914 - 2000) on location in Paris for the filming of 'Father Brown' in 1955 (Getty)

I was reading Heather King’s “Credible Witness” column in my little Magnificat devotional the other day. Miss King is a contemplative laywoman in Los Angeles, and I picture her sitting on a spur of the Santa Monica Range, perhaps on Cahuenga Peak itself. She perches above the famous Hollywood sign, looking over the City of Los Angeles, the largest diocese in the United States. She looks over the Universal Church from her post, thinking and praying over the “Big Picture”.

Miss King’s “credible witness” to the Catholic faith this month is Sir Alec Guinness. You know him as Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars. But long before he took up lightsaber and monastic cowl, he starred in The Detective, in which he played GK Chesterton’s Father Brown. Guinness was leaving the set in France one afternoon, still clad in his actor’s clerical soutane, when a little boy darted up to him. Mon Pere, he babbled, “I want to tell you about my day at school!” And for several minutes the atheist-Anglican actor and the little Catholic boy walked hand in hand, discussing the day.

Sir Alec describes the moment in his memoirs, Blessings in Disguise: “Continuing my walk I reflected that a Church which could inspire such confidence in a child, making its priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming or as creepy as so often made out.” The Englishman entered the Catholic Church two years later and remained a frequent communicant until his death in 2000.

I’ll warrant that Heather King included this quotation in her article before the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, and certainly before Archbishop Viganò’s “testimony” on Church corruption. What has the Catholic Church lost over the last 20 years, at least in America? We’ve lost nearly three billion dollars, certainly money that could have been used to feed the poor and spread the Good News. But we’ve lost much more: we’ve lost “the innocence of Father Brown”; our trust in the priesthood.

Could anyone imagine a little boy rushing up to a priest today, clutching his hand? I can imagine it, because some still do, but right behind that child is a panicked mother – “Jimmy, don’t talk to strangers! Especially,” she would say under her breath, “especially priests.” The priest whom we thought we knew in America has become a stranger, and a dangerous one at that. When even the Pope – our beloved Daddy, the Papa of all peoples – when even he seems to blithely dismiss credible allegations from the people of Chile and from his own nuncio, when even the Pope seems unwilling to protect his children – what have we left of spiritual paternity?

And yet… I’m amazed to see how people still believe in the priesthood. At a medical clinic last week, the honest fellow at the intake desk meekly asked me to bless his cross. The nurse called me “Father” with hopeful familiarity (hoping that I was not a bad priest or a stranger to her soul). The beggar on the street outside asked me for an alms, expecting I was in some way more responsible for her plight than the other passersby. As damning as the crimes of the Church have been – and I think the public exposures will have to get worse before we decide to really clean our house – people still believe in the priesthood. Despite what the Supreme Court has said, we still believe in marriage. Despite fifty years of dismissive media, we still believe in the Catholic Church. The world still needs God, and it knows the Church still administers divine sacraments.

I am happy that at last much of the filth is being exposed. I am happy and I am hopeful that Our Father in Heaven will somehow keep His sacraments from becoming completely eviscerated.

Father Joseph Illo is Pastor of Star of the Sea Parish in San Francisco, USA