St. Francis on Bad Priests

On one occasion, a parishioner brought to the attention of St. Francis a priest involved in a scandalous affair. He asked St. Francis to go and correct the priest. The first thing St. Francis did was to kneel and kiss the hands of the priest. (From the Thirteenth-Century Testimonies #6.) St. Francis was not condoning any possible wrong behavior of the priest, but instead was teaching us that God works through his church, even when it’s ministers fall short. Whenever St. Francis met a priest, he would kiss his hands, because no matter how sinful or corrupt the priest, Christ still comes to us through those hands (in the Eucharist).  St. Francis said, “If I were to meet at the same time some saint coming down from heaven and any poor little priest, I would first pay my respects to the priest and proceed to kiss his hands first. I would say, ‘Ah, just a moment St. Lawrence, because this person’s hands handle the Word of Life and possess something that is more than human. These hands have touched my Lord, and no matter what they be like, they could not soil Him or lessen His virtue . . . To honor the Lord, honor His minister . . . He can be bad for himself, but for me he is good.”

In last Sunday’s readings (Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10 and Mt 23:1-12) God, and Jesus are very upset with the bad example of priests and religious leaders of His day. Jesus instructed the people, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example… Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Christ.” Christ is our Shepherd. He comes to us through His Church, and His Sacraments. Even if a priest, religious leader, or representative of the faith be sinful, God Almighty can still work through him or her. During the Mass, it is truly Christ Himself that we receive from the hands of the priest, even if those hands be sinful. This is because Christ Himself has established the Church and the sacraments, and He wishes to come to us through them. In Jeremiah 31:31-34 we read: “When those days come, I shall plant my Law, writing it on their hearts… They will all know me…”  Through the Holy Spirit, Christ really does live in us, and reveals himself to us. (See Jn 14:21.)   In the Catholic Church we have the teaching of Christ, and the Sacraments. Even though members of the Church may fall short, Christ in his fullness is still available to us. This is a great comfort.

However, this does not excuse priests or any Christian who gives bad example. In Mt 18:6, we read: “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus is saying that a leader is to be HUMBLE. (“The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”) Neither did St. Francis wish to excuse priests, or friars, who were bad examples. Instead, St. Francis structured the entire Franciscan way of life as one of seeking humility.  That is why our name is the “Order of Friars Minor” or “Lesser Brothers.”  In the First Rule St. Francis writes: “And no one should be called Prior, but all generally should be called Friars Minor. And the one should wash the feet of the others.” (From the Earlier Rule Chapter VI, verses 3-4.)  St. Francis saw and imitated the humility of God, who in Christ, “Humbled Himself” (Philippians 2:6-11). He defined the Franciscan life as, “The rule and life of these brothers is this: to live in obedience, in chastity, and without anything of their own, and to follow the teaching and the footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (From the Earlier Rule Chapter I, verse 1.)

St. Francis saw humility as the core virtue for perfect peace, joy, and holiness. The proud and worldly person will compare themselves to others, and because of this will feel either inferior and incomplete, or proud and superior. St. Francis wrote: “What a man is before God, that he is and no more.” (From the XIX Admonition: “The Humble Servant of God.”) True humility is seeing yourself in relation to God. God is the measure of all. Compared with God, St. Francis saw himself as a great sinner. (From Chapter X of the Little Flowers of St. Francis.)  Yet that knowledge of himself as a great sinner, did not bring St. Francis shame, or cause him to feel bad about himself. That insight brought him freedom and peace. This is true humility. Compared with God we are as nothing, but we are ‘a nothing’ that God has created, and loves so much, that he died on the cross for us! We do not have to “measure up” to any worldly standard. We just need to be who God created us to be, and to love Him in return, and to serve Him.

So, a good priest (or parent, or teacher, or person) is to be first humble. A priest (or person) should not compare themselves with others, nor see themselves as better than others. Rather, they should see themselves in relation to God, redeemed by God and loved by God, and called to serve God, by serving his children, and washing the feet of others, after the example of Christ.

Learn more about Franciscan Spirituality on our Next Come and See opportunity November 24-26. Click on  “Upcoming Events” for more information.

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