“Had angels been your priests, my brethren, they could not have condoled with you, sympathized with you, have had compassion on you, felt tenderly for you, and made allowances for you, as we can; they could not have been your patterns and guides, and have led you on from your old selves into a new life, as they can who come from the midst of you.”—English Roman Catholic convert, theologian, educator, and memoirist St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890), “Men, Not Angels: The Priests of the Gospel,” Discourses to Mixed Congregations (1849)
I really could not let too much time elapse after his canonization two weeks ago without remarking on some way on John Henry Cardinal Newman. He has survived his detractors in magnificent form, of course.
Still, I confess that I did not read this passage without feeling some ambivalence. When Newman wrote it, he surely meant that priests shared the same frailties that afflicted other human beings. Many Roman Catholics like me have, over the years, more deeply identified with the teachings of the Gospels because of that humanity, just as Newman led his listeners more closely to God in the Victorian Era.
But we now live in a time when—even if they remain a minority—far too many priests have alienated people of the faith, not just through the obvious—the sexual abuse scandals—but also through general misuse of their authority.
Altogether, it is a far cry from the stringent intellect but gentle personal example of Cardinal Newman.
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