Christ the King Catholic Church
If you allow me, in the place of a regular homily today, I would like to talk about the ‘elephant in the room’ or, better, the ‘elephant in the Church.’
For those who follow Church news, the last two weeks have been painful ones for the Catholic Church and for all of us as Catholics. I often think of Bishop Coyne, who prior to being named the Auxiliary Bishop of Indianapolis, served as the spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Boston when the clergy sex abuse scandal was first reported there in early 2002. As the stories of sexual abuse of children at the hands of clergy and the Church’s poor response to that horrendous crime first began to surface, he was asked by a reporter, “How can you defend what has happened?” Bishop Coyne’s pointed response was, “You cannot defend the indefensible.” And those wise words remain today. We cannot, and we must not, defend the indefensible.
In 2002, when we first began to hear stories of clergy sexual abuse I think most of were incredulous. We didn’t believe it. We didn’t want to believe it.
Sixteen years later, our reaction, and the Church’s reaction, is very different. And that may be the one ray of light in a very dark period of our Church’s history.
First, we heard the reports of a case of abuse, judged to be credible, made against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Archbishop Emeritus of Washington D.C. McCarrick is one of the senior statesmen of the Church in the United States and a member of the College of Cardinal. He is accused of abusing a teenager, fifty years ago, when he was a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.
In the meantime, former seminarians and priests began to speak of inappropriate actions by McCarrick when he served as bishop of two New Jersey Dioceses. Both of those dioceses made cash settlements to adults who made accusations against McCarrick. One of the hardest questions to answer is, “How was it possible that McCarrick remained a bishop and was then even elevated to the College of Cardinals?”
He has since resigned from the College of Cardinals and the Pope has ordered him to a life of penance and prayer as a trial is prepared.
As painful as this news was, it pales in the face of the report released by a Grand Jury in Pennsylvania last Tuesday detailing abuse over a period of many decades by 300 priests from six different dioceses. As if abuse committed against children was not enough, the Church’s pitiful response is equally shocking.
For those who love the Church anger, frustration, hurt, disappointment, betrayal are just some of the emotions we feel in the wake of all of this terrible news. And I am grateful to our parishioners who have felt free to share by email or in person their hurt and disappointment. And certainly, for enemies of the Church, all of this news has been met with delight.
I think of the story that is told of a meeting between the Emperor Napoleon and an emissary that the Pope sent to meet with him. After a heated exchange regarding the rights of the Church and the rights of the state, Napoleon is reported to have asked the Cardinal, “Do you not know that I have the power to destroy the Church?” And the Cardinal is said to have responded, “Your majesty, we the Catholic clergy have done our best to destroy the Catholic Church for the past 1800 years. We have not succeeded and neither will you.”
What was once recounted as a humorous anecdote of history has a stinging bite to it today. The truth of those words has weighed heavily on me this past week.
As each of us tries to process what has happened and our reaction, I share with you some of my personal reflections, for what they are worth.
In Luke 17, vs. 1, Jesus tells his disciples that scandals are inevitable, but woe to the person who brings them about. The word ‘scandal’ originally meant to cause one to lose faith. And certainly the sins of priests and bishops that are being reported in these days are cause for scandal. The victims of abuse have been robbed of their childhood, their innocence, their peace, in some cases their lives, and, in many cases, their faith.
Good and faithful Catholics have been scandalized by what should be unthinkable. Our churches and our Catholic schools should be the safest places in the world for children. In Saturday morning’s Gospel we heard Jesus say, “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them. To just such as these belongs the Kingdom of God.” And yet, for all too many that has not been the case.
As we move forward, the victims of sexual abuse by clergy, and anyone who ministers in the name of the Church, must be front and center. As we are discovering, all too often bishops put the so-called ‘good of the Church’ ahead of victims and that can never happen again. Carla Hill is the Victim Assistance Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. She is a wonderful person and anyone who has been a victim of abuse within the Church in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, or anywhere else, is asked to call Carla. Her number is in this week’s bulletin.
We need a renewal of the clergy. I was visiting Mr. Klee’s eighth grade religion class this past week and one of the students asked me a question. And the question was this: “Shouldn’t priests who celebrate Mass and the other sacraments be sinless?” And the answer for priests and for all of the baptized is, “Yes.” But many of us, if not all, fall short. Jesus told us, “That to whom much has been given, much will be required.” We priests have been given much and it is right that much should be expected of us. We are given a sacred trust by the People of God. It is right that we should be held to a higher standard precisely because of the promise we made at our ordination to be good shepherds to God’s people. That some priests have acted as wolves rather than shepherds weighs heavily on all priests.
I went to the seminary when I was 13 years old in a time when there were high school seminaries. And so, in a very real sense, I was raised by priests. And I can tell you that they were great men. Still today they are for me heroes and role models. None of the things that I read about in the reports that are circulating now were part of my experience. But, unfortunately, that has not been the case for everyone.
But our faith, when all is said and done, is not in our priests, our bishops, our cardinals and our popes. Throughout history the clergy have been made up of great saints and great sinners. Our faith is in Jesus and in him alone. Jesus founded a Church and promised that he would be with us always. In our Creed we profess our faith in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. These are the four marks of the Church founded by Jesus. The holiness of the Church is guaranteed not by its ministers, but by Jesus who will never abandon us and will continue to work through his Church. The validity of any of the sacraments does not depend on the holiness of the priest, but on the action of the risen Lord working through the Holy Spirit.
If our faith was in our priests, even saintly priests like I have been blessed to know, we would be the most foolish of people.
How ironic is it that this past Tuesday, the day that the Grand Jury Report was released on the actions of those priests in six dioceses of Pennsylvania, was the same day that the Church celebrated the feast of the saintly priest, Fr. Maximillian Kolbe. Fr. Maximillian was a Polish Priest who was arrested and sent to a Nazi Concentration Camp in 1941. When ten men were going to be executed in retaliation for the escape of a prisoner, Fr. Maximillian asked to take the place of one of the condemned prisoners who had a wife and children. He took that man’s place and died a horrible death in imitation of the One who laid down his life for all of us. I would contend that for every priest who has betrayed his vows there are a thousand more like Maximillian Kolbe. Day in and day out countless priests around the world lay down their lives for the flock entrusted to them. We must pray for good and holy priests.
As we move forward. we must make sure that our parishes and school are safe for everyone. While it is clear that much must still be done, we must recognize that much has been done. From the painful revelations that came from Boston in early 2002, the Church has learned much about predatorial behavior, the need for priests and for all Church workers to respect and maintain proper boundaries and the importance of reporting any suspected behavior that puts children at risk not only to the Church, but to civil authorities. The protocol for reporting abuse or suspected abuse is also in this week’s bulletin.
Anyone who suspects that boundaries are being crossed are not only asked but are begged to report those suspicions. And that begins with me, as your pastor. If you see things that you are uncomfortable with, if you see boundaries being crossed, say something. I am accountable to all of you. If we err, from this day forward, let it be on the side of our children and their protection.
The revelations coming forth are scandalous and many will, unfortunately, lose faith. “Scandals are inevitable, but woe to the one who brings them about.” During the earlier reporting of the abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston that began in 2002, I remember a meeting of priests in which Father Jeff Godecker, a very wise priest of our Archdiocese, posed a question to us. “When will it be over? When will this stain on the priesthood be gone?” And after posing the question and letting us think about it for a while, he answered, by saying, “Not in our lifetime.” And each and every priest lives with that knowledge. Fair or not, the priesthood that Jesus instituted has been marred for decades to come by the actions of priests who have betrayed their priesthood. And in betraying their priesthood they have betrayed all of us. Is it any wonder that we feel so many different emotions?
As we move forward, we are beginning to understand that bishops must not be accountable only to fellow bishops. Bishops must be accountable to the People of God and there must be boards made up of lay men and women, experts in many fields, with real responsibility for overseeing and advising bishops and reporting to on the actions or inactions of bishops in regard to protecting the most vulnerable among us – our children.
While all of this news has been circulating, there was another terrible story that was reported this week. A father in Colorado confessed to killing his pregnant wife and their two daughters. Unimaginable. How could a man betray his family in this way? Like everyone else, I will wrestle with a question like that until the day I die. And while similar stories are reported all too frequently, I will never stop believing in the importance and beauty of marriage and family. I know so many good fathers of families. If I had children I would never tell them not to marry because some fathers – and even mothers- have done terrible things to their children. I continue to believe in the goodness and the possibility of the institutions of marriage and family.
As we wrestle with the many different emotions we are feeling, may the same be said about our feelings toward the priesthood. In spite of the sins of some, may we not stop believing in the beauty and the possibility of the priesthood. May we not stop believing in the beauty and the possibility of a Church that Jesus has founded and a Church with whom he has promised to remain.
I love history and I love Church history. And one of the lessons of Church history that encourages me in these dark days is that periods of decline and sin in the Church, and there have been many such times, are followed by periods of renewal and great holiness. The great saints are born from these periods of renewal.
I ask you on this weekend in which we reflect on the events that have caused so much pain to so many people, beginning with the victims of abuse, that we spend a few moments on our knees in prayer asking God that that renewal we so desperately need may begin in our Church, in her priests and in all of us.