I am a loyal son of the Church, Catholic born and raised. I studied for the priesthood for two and a half years, was loyal to the pope and reverential to my bishop, and I teach theology at a committedly Catholic high school. I was what some might style a “true believer,” until my worldview changed in August – and not necessarily for the worse.
Here is how I became a “true believer.”
I grew up in the era of Pope John Paul II and saw him twice as an adolescent: World Youth Day in Denver and in Baltimore in 1995. When John Paul II died and after the next conclave had convened, I was pursuing a graduate degree in theology at Franciscan University and was ecstatic that my favorite theologian, Cardinal Ratzinger, was to be the next pope. Looking back nostalgically now, it seemed like a golden age of the Church, where the popes could always be counted on to teach the truth, indifferent to the fads of the day. The Church stood as a rock and a stronghold against the buffets of the world.
My love for the Church led me to the next logical step: to test my calling to the priesthood at the Pontifical College Josephinum. The claim to fame of the Josephinum is that it is the only pontifical seminary outside Italy – under the authority of Rome instead of the local bishop. This further added to the attitude of fealty I had to the office of the pope.
The Josephinum was experiencing a renaissance of sorts when I entered, with an emphasis on orthodoxy and tradition. Our rector had brought back our “pontifical” cassocks, a distinctive cassock with red piping that was an identifier of which pontifical college one attended. We were near maximum capacity, with an enrollment larger than the campus had seen since the 1960s. Liturgies on campus were grandiose, especially on Sundays and feast days. Seminarians who had a love for or wanted to explore the traditional Latin Mass weren’t accused of clericalism or sent to the psychologist for reprogramming. The Latin Mass was regularly offered, and a practicum class on it was available for seminarians who wished to celebrate it after their ordination.
I left the Josephinum after the first year of Francis’s pontificate. My loyalties to Francis that year remained consistent even as it became increasingly clear that he was going to be a different kind of pope. While he lacked the theological acumen of a Wojtyła or Ratzinger, his attitude of humility and sincerity made him a model shepherd.
In 2016, my wife and I were married, and the obvious destination for our honeymoon was Rome. We obtained newlywed tickets to the pope’s Wednesday audience, which provided an opportunity to shake hands with the pontiff after the event. As Francis approached, my wife asked, “What do I say to him?” I told her to ask him to pray for us. When she did, Francis looked her in the eye and submissively said in clear English, “Please pray for me.” My wife was instantly endeared to Francis, and I was appreciative to have met a second pope (I met Benedict in 2006 while studying abroad in Rome). However, 2016 was also the year of Amoris Laetitia, and the corresponding dubia, and I was beginning to have some reservations about Francis.
As time went on, Pope Francis became more and more difficult to defend. Last school year, I had a non-Catholic student ask me in a class on divine revelation and Scripture why the pope didn’t agree with the Biblical teaching on homosexuality. I was confronted with contradicting a millennia-old moral teaching of the faith or appearing to be at odds with the vicar of Christ, a position that would have been untenable anytime earlier in my life.
This tension came to a head in August with the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. I remembered my position during the scandal of 2002. I had towed the party line: the allegations of abuse were isolated; the media seized on it because of anti-Catholic bias; the percentage of abusers in the priesthood was equivalent to other professions, etc. It was different this time. Fool me once, shame on the Church; fool me twice, shame on me. Particularly insidious this time was not just the abusive priests, but the number of bishops who were seemingly complicit.
I had until that time avoided the intrigue of Church politics. My parents had tried to turn me on to Michael Voris and Church Militant when I was in the seminary, but I rejected these outright. I thought it was offensive to badmouth the bishops, nor did such media represent my experience of the Church at the Josephinum. It’s a disheartening feeling when you learn you have been duped. Nobody likes to be wrong, but I had been. I had been downright gullible in my lockstep adherence to the bishops. The school year was just beginning, and my principal asked me about addressing the Pennsylvania grand jury report. At that point, it was too fresh for me; I didn’t want to address it with my students. I took the Pope Francis approach: silence, and hope it will fade away.
But it didn’t. The next week, Archbishop Viganò’s testimony dropped. The corruption went all the way to the top. This was a game-changer. I began consuming all the Catholic news media I could and discovered a world of new resources beyond just EWTN and the National Catholic Register – OnePeterFive being one of them.
As bishops came out and began to address Viganò and the crisis, I became increasingly more disgusted. It was obvious that many of the bishops were third-rate politicos. They made statements that sounded as though they were crafted by P.R. firms and lacked the humility and sincerity of spiritual fathers. Many seemed more interested in their public image and careers than the toll their incredulity was having on the Church.
If this were the end of the story, it would just be the sad account of a faithful Catholic turned cynic. The fact is, though, that this whole crisis has produced much spiritual fruit in my life. For those who feel ready to throw in the towel, I hope to offer some encouragement.
One of the ubiquitous questions surrounding the crisis is, “What can I do?” The most common refrain has been to pray the rosary daily, along with a preponderance of references to Our Lady of Fatima. I had been in a phase of spiritual and intellectual sloth during my summer break from school, so I did a deep dive into Fatima. What I discovered was enlightening beyond belief. The intrigue of whether Russia has been consecrated to the Immaculate Heart or whether the Third Secret has been fully revealed is beyond the scope of this article, but it certainly didn’t bolster my confidence in the integrity of the Church hierarchy. I couldn’t be indignant about whether the hierarchy has complied with the message of Fatima, nor could I control what they do. I can control only what I do.
Our Lady gave the laity specific instructions at Fatima, too: pray the rosary every day, and do penance in reparation for sin. After leaving seminary, I fell away from the basics, and it was necessary to get back to my roots as a Catholic. Besides praying the rosary every day on my knees, I have gone back to abstaining from meat and food outside meals on Fridays.
I fear that some might find this recommendation simplistic or anti-climactic, but we must trust in the power of our “spiritual weapons,” as Archbishop Viganò says in his third epistle. OnePeterFive was influential in helping me see the connection between the crisis and the decline in our liturgical sensibilities, so I attended a traditional Latin Mass for the first time since seminary. My family is not ready to make that leap yet, but I intend to continue going as often as I can. When the crisis has come up in my classes, I have connected it with Fatima so the students don’t become disheartened. I remind them of Our Lady’s words on July 13, 1917: “In the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph.” This should be our mantra.
When saying our rosary, focus on the second Hail Mary for the theological virtue of hope. Pray that souls might not be lost to this crisis but might be emboldened in the faith. I also encourage a serious mediation on the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary as the Church follows her Mystical Spouse on the Via Dolorosa. Remember the faithful who are praying in agony for God’s will be done within their beloved Church. Pray that Christ delivers His Church from its scourges, its mockery, and its cross, which is weighed down by bad shepherds. Pray that Christ protects His Church from a world that would crucify it on the cross of abuse and corruption, if it could. Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us.
Shane Ball earned a B.A. in political science from Loyola University in Maryland and completed graduate studies in theology at both Franciscan University in Steubenville and the Pontifical College of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. He was also a seminarian at the Pontifical College Josephinum for over two years, where he earned a B.Phil., completing his thesis on St. Thomas’s distinction between essence and existence. Shane is married with children and teaches theology in the Diocese of Columbus.