My dear Brothers and Sisters,
I do not use that salutation in some pro forma fashion. I cherish having you as brothers and sisters in Christ—real family members with whom to share joys and hopes and life…and, yes, pain and burden and sorrow.
When times get really tough all of us need the support of others, faith-filled others, who mediate the presence and consolation and power of Christ to raise us up. Especially now, I need you, and I propose we need each other, for healing and strength and new life.
The news of the last few days and weeks has rocked the Church to the core again. The seeming endless revelations of sexual abuse by clergy (even at the highest levels of the hierarchy), and the even greater scandal of “avoiding scandal”—the scandal of covering up the moral failures of those who are entrusted with the care of souls, is cause for great shame and pain in our Church. All of us are sickened and saddened at this breech of trust and lack of accountability.
I can tell you that these last few days I have been in a kind of stupor: one minute unable to think clearly, the next minute angry, then tears—and the persistent sense of loss: loss of innocence, loss of security, loss of trust. I can only liken it to the grieving process where we mourn for the loss of what once was, something now beyond our ability to behold in the way we once held so dear.
It is when we are grieving, when we are suffering loss, when our world is turned upside down, that we most need the precious gift of encounter. We need someone we can talk to. We need someone with whom we can bear our souls and to receive from another the strength to remain faithful and to carry on.
Our first, fervent encounter should be with our Good Shepherd. Jesus is the one who longs for that encounter wherein we do bear our souls--and our wounds. Jesus is the one who meets us where we are at in the present moment and who restores our souls. Jesus is the healer of wounds and he does heal when we approach him in the Sacraments and in prayer.
When we are experiencing the pangs of death what we need more than anything is God’s life in us. If we listen to the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel it is as if he were saying that the whole reason he took flesh and blood was so that God’s life could be mediated to us through him. Jesus was claiming to be the meeting point between the Father and humanity. That means that taking him in, feeding on him, is the way we receive God’s very life, i.e., eternal life.
Many faithful people may be feeling anger right now—anger at the institutional Church, even anger at God. There may be the temptation to absent oneself from prayer, from the Sacraments, from communion with God. This is not the time to be removed from God but to seek and find him. And the great gift of Eucharist is where we truly find him and receive the Word of God that heals us and the living Bread that gives us life. It is at Eucharist that we encounter God in the flesh.
Speaking of God in the flesh, the Church is Christ come to us with skin on. This is the time both to seek the strength of others for dealing with our pain and to be agents of healing for others. This is the time to encounter our brothers and sisters in Christ and share together our pain, our sense of loss, our sorrows…and to console one another. We can no longer sweep our disappointment, bewilderment and sense of betrayal under the carpet. We must share openly and seek the healing that faith-filled encounter brings. This is not the time to abandon the Church, the People of God. This is the time to embrace each other and together seek healing, understanding, strength and a way forward. The devil’s tactic is always to separate, to disunite. That is the way of evil’s victory. The way of God, the way of Christ, is not to divide and conquer--but to unite and conquer.
Amidst scandal we are reminded that even our weakness is made perfect in Christ, whose grace is sufficient for us—even a grace that is mediated through weak human vessels like me and you. I have had multiple conversations with friends and parishioners over these past days. When the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report first broke I did not want to look at it or even think about it. I was too numb to know what to think. I was first able to talk about it with a very good friend over lunch, one of those friends that I can truly be myself with and talk about everything. We had a very salutary encounter of sharing our pain and questions and confusions. And with that conversation I felt the healing of my own soul begin and the beginning of strength to engage others on the way forward. I began to talk with others individually or in small groups and it was very good to be able to talk about it, and to give others the opportunity to talk about it.
I think that you would have been very disappointed had I not addressed this painful topic today. The problem for so long has been our fear of bringing the problems of our Church out of the darkness and into the light. It is not enough for me to talk about it. All of us must be talking about it to heal and to approach the understanding that will help us deal with our challenges. I will schedule some opportunities for the community to gather so that people can come together and talk. And for those who are struggling or just want someone to talk to in private, I make myself available as a priority in these days and weeks. All of us should make ourselves available to those who hurt as best we can.
When I was having lunch with the friend I mentioned earlier, she asked me a question that took me by surprise. She asked, “So with all of this revelation of scandal and betrayal are you still happy to be a priest?” It had never even entered my mind that the horrible, indefensible actions of some of my brother priests would rob me of the joy of priesthood. I may be deeply hurt right now and pained with sadness. But like the great, great majority of my brother priests, I remain very happy to be a priest and I count every day a blessing that I may serve you. Although the image of the priesthood may be tarnished this does not remove the beauty of the vocation, nor Christ’s power flowing through it. I remain committed to rely on God’s grace to be a healing, helping, holy agent of that grace. That is my call and I intend to be faithful to it. I ask your prayers for me and for many faithful priests that we may live up to our vocations.
This is a moment for all the Catholic faithful to step up and be a part of the healing and reform process. Significant institutional and cultural reform must be insisted upon by the people of God, and the laity must have a prominent role in the design and oversight of it. Do not shy away from making your voice heard. But let that voice be constructive and informed by prayer. I value the communications that I receive from you as your pastor and rely on your continued counsel and support as I strive to be a better leader.
Let us always remember that the Good Shepherd continues to come to us amid our brokenness. He comes with his glorious wounds by which he intends to bring about not only healing but a much greater good in the Church—precisely in and through the pain we are experiencing. Just as the Church is in a much better place than we were 15 years ago in protecting our children and assisting our victims, so the Church of the future will be in a much better place regarding transparency, accountability at all levels and, I pray, greater collaboration between bishops and the laity. I encourage all of us to be a part of the transformation that the Holy Spirit will lead. This is our moment: to deepen our faith in God, rekindle our hope for a glorious future and demonstrate our love for the Church.
This is a time of prayer and penance for all of us. Prayer and penance must be ongoing as we seek divine assistance to heal and reform our Church. We will look for ways to bring the community together. In the meantime, let us all be praying for the victims of abuse, for the peace and direction of the Holy Spirit. And let us pray for one another.