In the Vatican’s announcement of Father Frank Pavone’s laicization it was notable that they referred to him as “Mr Pavone”.
For most of us (and apparently for Father Pavone too) the news of his being ejected from the clerical state came as a surprise. I have not followed Fr Pavone’s mission very closely over the years. While I admired his strong pro-life campaign, I shuddered at his open support for Donald Trump and was suspicious of his being somewhat of a freelance celebrity priest. We saw what happened with Father Corapi who also was allowed a free ranging ministry that too often was focussed on the promotion of Father Corapi and his bank account. This is not to say Father Pavone was another Corapi–only to say that when a priest is cut off from a local pastoral ministry in union with his bishop or religious community we should not be surprised when it ends in tears.
The psychological dynamics of charismatic religious leaders and their followers is an interesting study in dysfunction and human weakness. Typically the most wonderful and charismatic religious leaders have a strong personal identity combined with a streak of egoism. This is what makes them strong, outspoken leaders. This is also what makes them very attractive to a certain personality type who needs a strong, dynamic and outspoken leader. An unhealthy symbiotic relationship develops. The strong religious leader draws people who tend to be dependent. They, in turn, love him too much. They can become attached not only to his message, but to him as a person. They give him their attention. They give him their time. They give him their money, and all this feeds his egoism and makes him even stronger and more outspoken and this makes his followers adore him even more.
Please understand, I don’t know that much about Fr Pavone, and I’m not necessarily saying this is what developed in his ministry. I am simply commenting in general terms about the dynamics I have seen in religious organizations time and time again–and it doesn’t matter whether they are Protestant or Catholic, conservative or liberal. It happens everywhere.
Then when the ecclesiastical authorities attempt to rein in the freelance cleric he often pushes back, and he does so with the full support of his adoring fan club. Before long he becomes a martyr and the evil church authorities are to blame for his downfall.
This being said, it does seem peculiar to me that Fr Pavone–an outspoken pro-life priest–has been disciplined in this way while other liberal priests who flaunt the church’s teachings on morality and are clearly heterodox in their theology are celebrated and promoted. As with the pope’s Moto proprio Traditiones Custodes about the Traditional Latin Mass, it seems to me to be a sledgehammer to crack a peanut.
But making a judgement on it is above my pay grade. I hope the specifics of Fr Pavone’s offenses will eventually be made public. Much is said these days about transparency. We need it in this case if, for no other reason, than to help Fr Frank’s brother priests know where the line is and how far they can speak out before they are thrown under the bus by the powers that be.
I personally take his case as a reminder that my most important work is not the writing, blogging, speaking and my wider public ministry–and it is certainly not any sense of “celebrity” status this might bring me. The public ministry I consider part of my gifts and calling. The “celebrity” status is stupid and a shallow illusion. My most important work is as a parish priest, a husband and a father. What is local is real and what is real is eternal.