Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Two weeks ago, on July 28, I had the joy to ordain a native son of our diocese, Joseph Lappe, as a priest for the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary (abbreviated MIC). Originally founded in the 17th century, these religious priests and brothers now serve in 20 countries, promoting faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ through devotion to Mary, the Divine Mercy, and works of mercy and evangelization. Their joyful witness and deep Marian spirituality make them wonderfully attractive witnesses to Christ’s saving mercy. I am so pleased to have had this opportunity to ordain one of their priests, and to have this special spiritual link between them and our diocese. I’m sure their prayers will support us in many ways.
Last week, on Aug. 4, the memorial of St. John Vianney, I also celebrated my 45th anniversary of priestly ordination, the 13th since my ordination as your bishop. This, too, is a deeply joyful day for me, since my priesthood in Jesus Christ is the greatest and most treasured gift I have, and I desire nothing as his servant except to pour myself out for you and for the salvation of souls.
I look to St. John Vianney as a model of how to do that. I am continuously inspired by his faithfulness as a priest, by the long hours he spent hearing confessions, by his boldness in confronting the evils of his day and place, and by his unapologetic preaching of Christ’s Gospel.
Rural France in the 19th century was far less hospitable to the Gospel and to the church than rural Iowa today, and I admire him as a braver and more devout priest than I, who bore remarkable fruit for Christ in more difficult circumstances than I regularly face.
Yet alongside these moments of joy and consolation, there is also the constant reminder of our sinfulness. I am thinking particularly, as I write this, of the unfolding “McCarrick scandal.” I’m sure I don’t need to rehash the sordid allegations.
I appreciate and support our Holy Father, Pope Francis, in his decision to remove him from the College of Cardinals and to suspend him from all priestly offices and functions pending the resolution of the accusations. This is the same procedure that our Dallas Charter imposes on priests and deacons, and it is only fair that we bishops, too, accept a similar process, if we are credibly accused of criminal or gravely immoral conduct.
Again and again, in this context and in many others, we have realized the extent of some corruption or evil in our midst, and have asked ourselves, “How could this happen?”
We have at great cost and effort cleaned up the mess, and promised again and again, “This time it will be different.” Yet it always happens again. It is never different.
This is because the problem of evil is not systemic, and susceptible of programmatic solutions (though these can certainly contribute something). Rather, as Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany was the first to have the courage to say in the present moment, the real problem is always, ultimately, pastoral. It is the fallibility of our human nature. It is our rejection of God’s holiness and grace.
This is why I believe it is so important, at this moment, that bold and faithful bishops denounce the culture of silence and cowardice and ambition we have tolerated among ourselves, that enabled the allegations concerning Archbishop McCarrick to go unheard for so long.
It is a truism, attributed to Edmund Burke but surely known in every generation, that “all that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.”
We priests of Jesus Christ, if we are truly his disciples and servants, should be the best of men, and the least tolerant of and compromising with the evils of our day. We should be the first to recognize, denounce and eradicate from our own midst such grievous corruption, so that we might better serve you and lead you to Christ. We have not been such men of late. In this, we have grievously failed you, and I am deeply sorry.
But we cannot effect change merely with charters and policies (as necessary as good laws and good governance are). We cannot legislate our sinfulness away. We can only become holy by allowing Christ to make us holy, in the manner he himself has established – the Way of the Cross. And we can only do that by letting go of the false promises of the world – fame, and awards, and pleasure, and all that strokes our mere ego – and then “taking up the cross and following Christ.”
And just as much as you need the sacraments and the ministry of the clergy, always in support and sometimes in rebuke, to be as holy as God calls you to be, so too do we clergy need your support and prayers, and sometimes even rebuke, to be as holy as God calls us to be. We are, after all, one church, all equally disciples of one Master and Teacher, and equally frail in our humanity.
Above all, I urge everyone not to turn away from Christ and his church because of the failures of his servants, however egregious. Christ alone is still “the way, the truth and the life,” and the “one mediator between God and men.” Only in Christ can we find holiness, peace, freedom or justice. Follow him alone; hold fast to the cross and the Gospel; believe and proclaim the holy, Catholic and apostolic faith in all things. Never cease asking God for his mercy upon all of us, and upon the whole world. God knows, we need it.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City