Scandal is unfortunately nothing new for the Church. There have been many times in the history of the Church when the Church was much worse off than it is now. The history of the Church is like a cosine curve, with ups and downs throughout the centuries. At each of the times when the Church hit its low point, God raised up tremendous saints to bring the Church back to its real mission. It's almost as if in those times of darkness, the Light of Christ shone ever more brightly. I'd like to focus a little on a couple of saints whom God raised up in these most difficult times, because their wisdom can really guide us during this difficult time.
St. Francis de Sales was one saint God raised up after the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation was not principally about theology, about the faith - although theological differences came later - but about morals. There was an Augustinian priest, Martin Luther, who went down to Rome just after the papacy of the most notorious pope in history, Pope Alexander VI.
This pope never taught anything against the faith - the Holy Spirit prevented that - but he was simply a wicked man. He had nine children from six different concubines. He put out contracts against those he considered his enemies. Martin Luther visited Rome just after Alexander VI's papacy and wondered how God could allow such a wicked man to be the visible head of his Church. He went back to Germany and saw all types of moral problems. Priests were living in open relationships with women. Some were trying to profit from selling spiritual goods. There was a terrible immorality among lay Catholics. He was scandalized, as anyone who loved God might have been, by such rampant abuse. So he founded his own Church.
Eventually God raised up many saints to combat this and to bring people back to the Church Christ founded. St. Francis de Sales was one of them. At the risk of his life, he went through parts of what is now Switzerland, where the Calvinists were popular, preaching the Gospel with truth and love. Oftentimes he was beaten up on his way and left for dead. Once he was asked to address the situation of the scandal caused by so many of his brother priests. What he said is as important for us today as it was for his listeners then. He didn't pull any punches.
What should our reaction be then? Another great saint who lived in a tremendously difficult time can help us further. The great St. Francis of Assisi lived in the 1200s, which was a time of terrible immorality in central Italy. Priests were setting horrible example. Lay immorality was even worse. St. Francis himself while a young man even gave some scandal to others by his carefree ways. But eventually he was converted back to the Lord, founded the Franciscans, helped God rebuild his Church and became one of the great saints of all time.
Once one of the brothers in the Order of Friars Minor asked him a question. The brother was very sensitive to scandals. "Br. Francis," he said, "What would you do if you knew that the priest celebrating Mass had three concubines on the side?" Francis, without missing a beat, said slowly, "When it came time for Holy Communion, I would go to receive the Sacred Body of my Lord from the priest's anointed hands."
What was Francis getting at? He was getting at a tremendous truth of the faith and a tremendous gift of the Lord. No matter how sinful a priest is, provided that he has the intention to do what the Church does - at Mass, for example, to change bread and wine into Christ's body and blood, or in confession, no matter how sinful he is personally, to forgive the penitent's sins - Christ himself acts through that minister in the sacraments.
Whether Pope John Paul II celebrates the Mass or whether a priest on death row for a felony celebrates Mass, it is Christ who himself acts and gives us His own body and blood. So what Francis was saying in response to the question of his religious brother that he would receive the Sacred Body of His Lord from the priest's anointed hands, is that he was not going to let the wickedness or immorality of the priest lead him to commit spiritual suicide. Christ can still work and does still work even through the most sinful priest. And thank God!