The past few weeks have been a painful time for the Church, to say the least. They have been painful because we are being confronted with painful, terrible truth.
The findings of the Grand Jury report in Pennsylvania are not the makings of an anti-Catholic novel. The shocking stories found in the report actually happened. To add insult to injury, not only did they happen, but they were perpetrated by men who were charged with the responsibility of being Christ to His people. Those who weren’t perpetrators were often guilty of covering up the guilt of others. Layers upon layers of guilt and corruption continue to be uncovered.
The response by too many in the Church has been mediocre or skeptical. I have seen too many — bishops, priests, and laity — either take a tone of defensiveness (“Yes, that was bad…but it isn’t us. We’re the good ones! Look at everything WE’VE done that is good!”) or dismissiveness (“Surely things weren’t as bad as they say.”)
There is also a whole other kind of response, a response that I’ve seen from laity and priests (and even a few bishops). This other response is neither defensive nor dismissive. The best responses I have seen have expressed profound sorrow over the suffering of so many who were victims at the hands of clergy. They expressed their belief in the truth of the stories of the victims. And they took responsibility as members of the Church, promising prayers and fasting for all those who had suffered.
But they also expressed hurt and sorrow on their own part. I recently went out for coffee with one of my best friends, and she and I both expressed our sense of betrayal. We trusted our bishops and priests. How could so many have betrayed us?
Many priests (especially the young ones) have expressed a similar sense of betrayal. They have promised obedience to their bishops. How could so many bishops have been guilty of either covering up crimes or perpetrating them?
Even those who recognize the scope of the evil being reported still hesitate to acknowledge whether it happened closer to home. Sadly, the reality is that this problem is widespread. We can’t shake our heads and say, “Well, at least that sort of thing never happened in my diocese!” It is entirely possible (and likely) that it did.
Last year, when I attended the ordination of a dear friend, I remember walking around that weekend with an incredible weight in my chest. I was deeply struck by the cross he was willingly taking up. The sad reality is that, in the eyes of the non-Catholic world, the word “priest” is often associated with the word “pedophile.” To be willing to take on persecution like that for the sake of the survival of the Church is no small thing.
I don’t have any profound solutions, but I can give you some suggestions for how we are called to respond, and I can end with a word of hope.
It is so important for us not to respond defensively to this newest round of scandal. The reality is that there has been terrible corruption and violent abuses that have happened. We don’t need to try to defend that. We need to acknowledge that profound failure and we need to mourn with those who have suffered at the hands of the Church. This is not being disloyal to the Church. This is loving the Church enough to want to save her. The Church will survive via the way of repentance, not defensiveness.
This means that in our conversations and social media interactions, we must start by validating the suffering of victims. We must believe victims. We must express our shock and disgust at the reports that have come out. We must believe them, and we must demand more from our beloved Church. We must demand that the Church does more to protect her sheep.
We must pray for those who have been so deeply wounded. For every one person that was abused by a priest or bishop, there are countless others that were affected by that abuse. I know of people who refuse to convert to Catholicism or who have left the Church because of a friend or family member who was abused. The magnitude of the spiritual ramifications is mind-boggling. The damage is extensive, because the Church is one body. When one member suffers, we all suffer, too.
We also need to reach out to those priests we know who are faithful and pray for them. We need to encourage them to be strong in fighting the evil that is confronting the Church. We need to pray for them not to grow weary or discouraged. They, too, suffer because of the evil actions of those priests and bishops who are abusers or have covered up abuse. Don’t be afraid to speak a word of encouragement or promise to pray (and pray!) for the priests in your life. Not all priests or bishops are corrupt or abusers. We need the good ones to have the courage to persist in standing for what is right.
But we also need to pray for our Church. If you attend daily Mass or read the daily Lectionary readings, you know that we have recently been reading from the book of Ezekiel. The first reading the other day described very graphically the wretchedness of Israel before God had chosen her, the wealth and love he bestowed upon her, and the extent to which she betrayed him and was unfaithful in spite of his fidelity. Despite all of that, the prophet Ezekiel assures us that God will remain faithful.
We, as a Church, have failed. Christ has not. Because Christ can only be faithful. He will not abandon his bride. The Church is his bride, and he will not give up on her.
In the face of so much despair, we can only grasp at the words of Simon Peter, “Lord, to whom else shall we go?” This is the Church founded by Christ. He has promised that, ultimately, the gates of hell will not prevail against Her. In the meantime, we can pray for the Church to weather the terrible storm that is now breaking. She will weather it, because Christ promises it. But there will be terrible suffering, if the Church is to heal. The word “compassion” very literally translates “to suffer with.” We are called to suffer with the Church right now, especially with those victims whose stories were long silenced.
A Word of Hope
As I’ve shared previously, my husband teaches for our Archdiocesan seminary. I can’t speak for all priests and all seminarians in the world, but I can assure you that there is hope for the Church. I can promise you that there are priests and lay people who are devoting themselves to the formation of your future priests. I can promise you that these same priests and lay people are kept up at night worrying about the formation of these men. (I’m married to one of those lay people!) I am good friends with many seminarians who take their discernment very seriously. I have been humbled by the humility of these seminarians, who welcome constant criticism for the sake of rigorous formation. These men want to lay down their lives for you, and for the Church.
The Church is in for years (and maybe decades) of suffering. But there is hope for the future. God is calling men after his own heart, men choosing to suffer for you (rather than choosing to cause suffering). Cling to hope. The Holy Spirit has not given up on the Church.