I forced myself to watch the grand jury report from Pennsylvania regarding abuse in the Catholic Church. I was partially curious as to the findings but also spent many formative years in the Diocese of Scranton, which included a few familiar names to me in the report, most of which I had already known. At times it was hard to listen, not simply as a priest but as a human being. At times, listening to how the sacred became scandalized and in people’s lives nearly seemed impossible, a thinking that has often led to denial in the life of the Church. Anything is possible when it comes to human beings. I still recall the words of Cardinal Tobin at a conference I attended earlier this summer, “All of us sitting in this room are really only a phone call away from our lives being destroyed even if we had done nothing.” If that’s not perspective on what we live with I’m not sure what is.
I suppose the other common question is, “Why?” Sure, there’s the question as to why things happen and why was it allowed to continue. There are certainly plenty of justifications given by leaders. Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to answer those questions and even more unfortunately is that those who can answer them still often refuse to answer. The question, and not only posed by others to myself but the very question that at times weighs on my own heart, is, “Why do you stay? Why do you keep staying with an institution that has done what it has done, and worse yet, fails to take responsibility?” All good questions, and quite frankly, not always answers, or at least good answers, especially when it feels as if you’re climbing aboard the Titanic as it finds itself already halfway submerged in frozen water.
I believe there’s always been a part of me that has desired to push for reform from the edge of the inside, as Pope Francis often refers. It’s just a part of who I am as a person. I can’t say anything has really surprised me, even Cardinal McCarrick, but instead saddens me more than anything and often angers me that protecting and clinging becomes more important than human life. I believe when the deacon preached about it a few weeks ago I had commented that I’m not here to tell you how to live. Quite frankly, I have a hard enough time keeping myself in order than telling others how to make choices and what to do with their lives. All I can really do is help shed light on situations and then give others the freedom to make choices. When you believe your “business” is to be the ethical or moral police of the world, well, as it was with the Pharisees, you’re going to fail and the harder you try to prevent it and cover-up, the harder the fall.
Someone had said to me that they don’t want this to happen to the Church, but that ship sailed long ago. Honestly, the Church has brought it upon herself over the years. It’s tried to live with the illusion of perfection, which, like it or not, will without a doubt lead to putting yourself above God, and like Adam and Eve, it will always lead to failure after failure until you learn to accept that an illusion is just that, an illusion. It’s not real. None of it is real. You cannot be God or Christ nor put yourself in that position. Just like the rest of our lives, failure can lead to despair or it can lead to change, transformation, just as our faith teaches. The problem is we’ve become so disconnected from the heart that we believe policy and new rules and zero tolerance is going to solve all problems. It won’t. Sure, it has a place, but all of this, and maybe why I stay connected is, about transforming hearts and leading others to that freedom, just as Moses did, with great difficulty, with people Israel through the desert to the Promised Land. If we just took time to put aside dogma, teaching, and all the other head stuff, and allow ourselves to be transformed from the inside out we are changed forever and so much of the rest falls into place. Thank God that God is bigger than the Church. Thank God. Otherwise I’d have every reason to despair and toss it aside forever. Thank God I have been forgiven over and over again for stupid decisions and choices that I have made in my life. It’s the only way. When you think you’re simply the agent of forgiveness and fail to remember you need it more than anyone, problems will arise. And they have.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s deflating and hurtful because as a priest we’re all lumped together, just like every other aggregate. When things first broke back in 2002 I was still a seminarian so it was different then. I was still protected from it in some sense. I lived with, albeit a false hope at the moment, that the Church finally learned its lesson. It hasn’t entirely. Sure, some, but there’s more to go. That’s obvious now. All of us who continue to remain, though, must hold others accountable. That I believe now more than ever. It’s going to take a new generation to begin to dismantle, and it needs a dismantling, of the “old boys club” thinking, which exists not only in the Church, but in politics and many other institutions. It’s not that men should be banned and shunned. Rather, men need to grow up and certainly men in the Church need to grow up and become more attuned to their own interior life. It’s the only way. Buckling down, turning back the clock, tightening grips may seem like the answer but long-term only makes matters worse. You can only hold someone under water or in a noose so long before it becomes fatal. We’d find ourselves where we often find ourselves, reactionary rather than proactive, bound rather than free, hiding rather than open, sick rather than healthy, for it is true, you’re only as sick as your worst secret. We have all the proof we need on that one.
It isn’t to say anything is new in what has been reported out of Pennsylvania, but the very visceral reaction of people, media, and certainly on social media, shows just how little has been done to change hearts, transform, and reform a sick culture, and that goes for Church and culture at large. It’s easy to say that it all happened before 2002 but that by no means indicates that the culture has changed for the better. Like any family that thrives on secrecy, which may seem important at the moment, the longer you sit on it and build on that secrecy, the harder it is to contain it over time. Eventually the truth is revealed and exposed in and through the light. If anything, we should be thankful that it is being exposed, but again, as long as it leads to transformation. The fear always is that we’ll wait it out, let it pass, and we can go on with “business as usual”. Business. Yes, that’s often how it feels. Hopefully it can lead to a return to who we’re really supposed to be, agents of change and transformation, conversion of heart. The rest means nothing if there’s no foundation to grow on. We become the house on the sand that collapses amid the storm.
I still hope, in God. I still have faith, in Jesus Christ. I still love, this journey of conversion and leading others to that place. It’s why I stay connected, but as I said, more on the edge of the inside. The more we allow ourselves to be immersed, creating a codependency as is so common, we lose sight of the bigger picture and what really matters and what’s really important. It’s what allows me to hope, to have faith, and to deepen that love. As I said at mass a few weeks ago, I hope to see the day when the Church stops living in denial. Again, don’t get me wrong, many policies were put in place that was necessary, but a lot of what we say still are empty words because policy and doctrine doesn’t change hearts and heal people, God does, pushed often to the edge through our relationships. Those of us on the front lines of the battle are often all too aware of that. Hopefully, as the rungs of the ladder are climbed that basic truth isn’t forgotten, less the fall becomes all the more hurtful, painful, and dramatic. Unfortunately, we’ve become all too familiar with that. All we can do is live in and with hope that we learn and change and grow out of the ash heap.