Losing Their Way: Dealing with “Fallen” Priests

The Most Rev. Mylo Hubert Vergara, D.D. (center) after the Symposium on the Priesthood and the Gospel of Mercy last June 13, 2016

What does a Shepherd do when one of his own shepherds falls into the deadly pool of scandals and abuses?

Most Rev. Mylo Hubert C. Vergara, D.D. shared his pastoral management and insights in his talk, “The Pastoral Ministry of Mercy And Compassion To Priests And Among Priests: The Grace Of Shepherding The Shepherds,” during the Symposium on the Priesthood and the Gospel of Mercy entitled, “Ang Pari At Ang Awa’t Habag Ng Diyos,” held last June 13, 2016 at Santuario De San Paolo, Casa Milan.

The Symposium was part of the three-day celebration on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee in the priesthood of and in celebration of the 75th birthday of Most Rev. Antonio Tobias, D.D., Bishop of Novaliches.

Perhaps, it can be said, that Bishop Mylo was prepared for dealing with crisis among shepherds given his ascent from his sacerdotal to his episcopal ordination in two different places. Bishop Mylo was ordained a priesthood on March 24, 1990 under the Archdiocese of Manila. He was previously the Bishop of San Jose in Nueva Ecija before he was appointed Bishop of Pasig in 2005 by then-Pope John Paul II.

As Bishop of Pasig, Bishop Mylo created a coat of arms with an episcopal motto, Pasce Agnos Meos, which meant, “feed my lamb”. The coat of arms showed a lamb hanging dead on the cross–an image taken from the code seal of the Good Shepherd Parish, now known as the Cathedral Shrine and Parish of the Good Shepherd, Fairview.

The image depicted his core principle of priesthood: Jesus Christ the Lamb of God who is both priest and victim; the meek lamb led to be slaughtered for all. Jesus’ sacrifice served as his guiding principle in shepherding the shepherds. His desire is to “offer my life as a loving sacrifice for the people entrusted to my care, most especially to my priests.”

Although initially doubtful in his capacity to serve as a Shepherd to fellow shepherds most especially to older and more experienced priests, Bishop Mylo made a leap of faith when he accepted the Staff of a shepherd.

This staff, along with Pope John Paul II’s words, “The Bishop will always strive to relate to his priests as a father and brother who loves them, listens to them, welcomes them, corrects them, supports them, seeks cooperation, and as much as possible, is concerned for their human, spiritual, ministerial and financial well-being,” served the Bishop well in the plight of fallen priests.

Bishop Mylo offered three “tools of restoration” in the management of priests, most especially the “fallen ones.” The first is a rod to correct the stubborn sheep. The second is the staff to guide the strayed sheep. The third is oil to heal the sick sheep in his fold.

He emphasized that the staff has four functions. First, it is used to direct his entire flock to where God wants them to go. Second, it is used as a pointer to establish boundaries to prevent the sheep from straying. Third, it is used to pull out and rescue stranded and lost sheep. Fourth, it is used to stroke the back side of the sheep for attention and encouragement.

In an act of humility and acceptance of imperfections, Bishop Mylo admitted that, “Bishops and priests are like stubborn sheep. Even our idiosyncrasies and sometimes, our hard headedness, we want to do things our own way, not realizing that they may lead to problematic consequences for us and the Church we serve.”

So what does a bishop do in such cases? He uses the rod because “the shepherd has to step in and take drastic measures not out of malice but out of love. The Shepherd may even carefully break the leg of the stubborn sheep with his rod of correction.”

He firmly emphasized the demand that, in caring for stubborn priests, there should be “a combination of a confronting and compassionate father, a correcting and concerned brother, and an encouraging and faithful friend.”

His three basic principles in dealing with “fallen” priests is (1) to deal immediately with the problem, whether alarming or not; (2) to work with a team of priests to handle the problem; and (3) to immediately offer initial intervention, rehabilitation and renewal measures, once the priest is confronted and admits to his issues.

His advice to priests involved in sexual abuse, parish fund embezzlement or any grave scandal with insurmountable evidences came from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wise words, “Only the truth saves.”

“Be disposed to respect the truth and be readily accountable to the truth whatever it takes for the good of the Church, for the love of the Church,” Bishop Mylo added.

Bishop Mylo’s strategy to prevent such crisis was through prevention. He believes that constant offering of renewal programs to priests can prevent major crisis and scandals to the Church. He is aware that sometimes the heart of the problem lies on listening to their own bells instead of the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd, “Yun po ang problema natin. Ang pinakikinggan natin ay yung sarili nating kuliling kaya yung ibang obispo’t pari matindi ang kuliling.”

One of the major problems he encountered in dealing with such crisis is the lack of compassion of priests to fellow priests who have become scandals to the Church. He expressed sadness over the Clergy who are ashamed of those who have fallen from the grace of priestly ministry. The act of back-biting fallen priests instead of lending a listening ear has led to the fallen brothers distancing themselves from the fraternity of priests.

Labeling such acts as “pharisaic” and “righteous condemnation”, Bishop Mylo appealed for compassion as he believes that “they have already been led astray because of our lack of compassion.” He described this as a “sad plight” for “brothers who are called to live in unity and communion.”

Bishop Mylo reminded the Clergy of the compassionate love of Jesus who decided to suffer in order that “we too, like Him, experience the healing love, the glory of a resurrected life.” He then urged the Clergy, “to suffer with a brother priest, who during times of severe crisis, needs us. Who else can better understand a priest in crisis if not a brother priest?”

Bishop Mylo asserted that the whole point of priestly ministry is to have a support that will offer an instrument of healing and love to broken fellow priests.

He also reminded the Shepherds that “we were anointed with the oil of joy so that we can share the joy of Christ to others, especially those experiencing loneliness, misery and hopelessness.”

Referring to the teachings of the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, Bishop Mylo reiterated the need for “happy priests serving with joy,” because the Faithful do not need unhappy priests who will burden and give them anxiety attacks that will be an “unwelcome addition to their many problems.”

He reminded the Clergy to be mindful of the sick and aging priests, who need not only their friendly visits but also the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. He related that, perhaps out of familiarity, brother priests have failed to ask them if they have already received the Sacrament or not. He said that in his personal experience ”applying the sacrament to them and praying over them has lifted up their spirits.”

In conclusion, Bishop Mylo quoted Pope Francis in one of his meditations during the Jubilee of Priests, “As I told the Bishops, be attentive and learn to read the faces of your priests…Do not step back when they are humbled and can only weep because they have denied the Lord. Offer your support in communion with Christ whenever one of them, discouraged, goes out with Judas ‘into the night.’ Encourage communion among them, seek to bring out the best in them…for the heart of the Apostles was not made for small things.” (~Jyn Aragon, M.D.)