Making Saints out of Sinners


Universe Column for September 28th 2003

By David Alton

Two stories appeared over the summer that produced diametrically opposed reactions in believers and non-believers. One involved the killing in prison of a former priest of the Boston diocese who had been a serial paedophile. The other involved the imprisonment of a former nun who as a head teacher in the Southwark diocese embezzled up to half a million pounds from her sixth form college.

For non-believers these stories were proof positive that Catholics are not just as bad as everyone else but that we’re worse – because we harrumph Christian values and patently fail to live up to our beliefs. That one had been a priest, and the other a nun, provided cynics with a satisfying and salacious bite. Never mind the countless men and women living holy and sacrificial lives.

For believers, the reaction to the same stories was one of acute sorrow and pain mixed with a sense of scandal and betrayal. It always heightens our emotions when the perpetrator is a man or woman who has taken religious vows – and we know the effect there will be on their victims.

Having to live with our own sin and vices makes us deeply aware of how easy it is to fall. So often we are defeated as the darkness in us overcomes the light.

Georges Bernanos – a devout Catholic who wrote in the 1920 and 30s – brilliantly described these onslaughts waged on each person’s spirit. In his classic “The Diary of a Country Priest”, M. Le Cure reveals – in his own words – “the very simple trivial secrets of a very ordinary kind of life.” He poignantly reminds us of the never-ending struggle for the soul of man between forces of good and evil.

That we self-evidently fail was not a reason for M. Le Cure or his flock to chuck in their hand. The worst consequence of the summer’s high profile news stories would be to deter men and women from entering the religious life; or if it led to a loss of nerve in pointing the non believer to the Truth.

M. Le Cure was only too aware of his own short-comings. His friend, M. Le Cure de Torcy teasingly tells him “His Grace must have been very hard up for priests to have given you the handling of a parish. Luckily a parish is solid enough – or you might break it.” Yet, M. Le Cure has a great gift for handling the spiritual and moral difficulties of his parishioners.

During August we celebrated the feast of the French priest, St. John Vianney, the Cure of Ars. He was not quick at his study and had great difficulty in being accepted for ordination. Yet he transformed the lives of his parishioners by his preaching, his sacrifice, his charity for all, his prayer – and his fame as a confessor brought reconciliation and healing into countless lives. Before his death in 1859 people were coming from all over the world to seek help in their spiritual lives.

A priest I know recently asked me whether St. John Vianney – or for that matter Bernanos’ fictitious country priest, St. Thomas, St. Paul, or, for that matter, St. Peter – would have got through the fashionable psycho-analysis, the bureaucratic structures or the isolation experienced in many of our seminaries – all there to weed out the unsuitable. Look at the lives of St. John Bosco or Fr. Damien – the leper priest – and ask whether men like these would get through our exacting procedures today.

The moral of the two summer stories is not that a former priest and a former nun were high profile failures. The moral of the story is that the line between being a saint or a sinner is easily crossed and that we need to do better in encouraging the one and in changing the other.