(I’m writing this two days after the release of the grand jury report on clergy sex abuse and its coverup in Pennsylvania, and in the wake of the earlier reports of the sordid activities of former-Cardinal, now Father Theodore McCarrick. I usually don’t write my column during the summer and I’m on vacation, but I don’t want to wait on this.)
I will not expand here on the sadness I feel for the victims of the abuse we’ve just learned about, my anger at the abusers and at church leaders who protected predators, and my head-shaking disbelief at decisions some bishops made. There is something more important to you as parishioners I have to talk about.
Some Catholics are losing their faith (or leaving the church) over this, and that’s a tragedy I urge you to resist, and to encourage others to resist, walking away. Don’t give up.
Get angry at the bishops who did this; work for changes in the way the church operates; write letters to the bishop; do any and all of the reasonable and even valuable things that will make sure this sort of thing is stopped wherever it now may exist, and that it never happens again. But don’t give up: you need Christ for your own growth in holiness, and Christ needs you for the sake of His saving mission toward others. And our connection to Christ, by His will, is through our church communion, in which we hear His Word and celebrate His sacraments. Be outraged, but don’t walk away.
Here’s how I intend to keep going. It’s worked for me; maybe it will help you. Here’s the story:
Fifteen years ago, during what now appears to have been only the first phase of an ongoing leadership crisis, Msgr. Phil Murnion wrote to priests about how to function in the midst of devastating daily headlines about crimes by our colleagues: We should, he said, imagine ourselves to be physicians in a time of plague. I think that now this image can be helpful for every Catholic: We have all become aware that aspects of our church environment (including some persons in positions of leadership) are toxic, and we are at risk of infection; yet we have a calling we dare not abandon. We are needed now more than ever.
Christ’s church needs bishops (He set it up that way); but no one’s faith should ever be about bishops. Christ’s church is built on God’s goodness, expressed through His gifts of the Sacraments; its life is about helping people to become holy, about inviting people to embrace the salvation Christ won, about remedying ignorance and poverty, about forgiving sin and encouraging virtue. Focus on the mission Christ gave us in the very practical, daily ways open to each of us: Pray; spend time in silence in God’s presence (visit Christ in the Blessed Sacrament if you don’t already have a practice of that). Pay attention to, and encourage, all the good that’s done around you by ordinary believers. Read about the saints, and about the good works of so many Catholics today. Forgive people who wrong you. Apologize when you yourself mess up. As the saying goes, Be the change you want to see in the church – you’re as much a part of it as the Pope or any bishop is.
And be ready to think hard, and to act courageously.
Think hard, first. Before forming an opinion about this scandal, look for good sources of information (there’s lots of axe-grinding going on in commentary, and that’s not helpful); keep genuine values in the forefront of your thinking; and recognize that issues and people are complex, and simple slogans get in the way of clear thinking and of effective action.
Next, act instead of griping. There are changes you (and I!) might like to make in how the church operates, but pretty much all of those changes are beyond our ability to make. We need to do what we can do, and as Catholics we learn what we can do from the Scriptures. Saint Paul tells us that when one member of the Body of Christ suffers, all suffer [I Cor 12:26]. Jesus himself tells us that some evils can only be driven out by prayer and fasting [Mark 9:29]. Prayer, and fasting, are within the power of each of us. Pray for the people who were abused. Pray for the civil authorities and for journalists, that evil will be exposed and justice will be done. Pray that bishops and priests will be faithful and wise and courageous. Pray that other believers will not turn away because of this. If you speak, or write, let your words come from a prayerful and disciplined center. Your own holiness is needed at this time, for your sake and the sake of others in our society. Don’t give up. In this time of plague, be a healer.