Before all Masses today, I read this letter to my parishioners regarding abuse by clergy. I am posting it here for reference for those who might wish to read or re-visit it. Please forgive any errors in the Spanish translation, which is dependent on Google Translate and my limited vocabulary:
Well, this is a hell of a mess. I’m not just cursing, by the way, I’m describing: this mess is from Hell. There is no room for mincing words when we talk what we’re reading about in the grand jury report, what we’re hearing about with former-cardinal McCarrick, what is both being discovered from the past and from those victims who are newly emboldened to speak out now – whether their particular abuse happened in the past or more recently. This from Hell.
There is also no room for pretending that this is not here or for assuming a defensive posture. It does no one any good to say ‘it’s just a minority of priests’ or ‘it just happened back in the past’ or ‘it’s not that much’. Frankly, that kind of excusing or diminishing is also from Hell. Do not participate in it. We need to acknowledge that we are in an awful state: the brokenness of the Church exposed for us to see.
I find it very interesting to hear the readings today, how the Lord allowed for all of this to unfold and for this particular Sunday and these particular readings to be at hand. Joshua gathers the people of Israel and when they’re in front of him he says:
If it does not please you to serve the LORD,
decide today whom you will serve,
the gods your fathers served beyond the River
or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling.
As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.
We’re standing in front of prophets right now – the unlikeliest of prophets. The jurors on that Pennsylvania report, believers or not. And if you read the first pages, you may see for yourselves that they do not have an ax to grind or an agenda to drive forward. They’re looking for the truth: they’re prophets. Those who have come forward about former-cardinal McCarrick, those who speak about their own experience – unwilling though they may be, pained as they are – they are prophets. And we stand before them.
And the question is being asked of us: ‘who will you serve? Decide, now’. Will you follow the whims and the idols of culture or will you re-dedicate yourself to Jesus Christ, your Savior and your God?
Don’t be quick to answer – don’t be quick to say ‘I’m on the side of righteousness, I’m got this, I’m following the Lord.’
The second reading today is also a striking one. You’ll notice that the long form version is that rather infamous one among Catholic circles. It starts like this:
Brothers and sisters:
Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.
For the husband is head of his wife
just as Christ is head of the church,
he himself the savior of the body.
As the church is subordinate to Christ,
so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.
Oh, couples love this reading – they’re sooooo happy when it comes up… So let me just address the elephant in the room right off the bat. Any spouse who uses this passage as a ‘bash passage’, as a way of domineering over their spouse, recall that you too will stand before God to account for your life. When you pull out this passage – perhaps even recalling chapter and verse – good luck with that. We don’t have time to argue that any further, because that isn’t what Paul was even talking about.
The very end of this reading speaks to his intention: “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.” And what does He say about Christ and the Church? “The church is subordinate to Christ”. Subordinate.
When you decide to follow God, you embrace humility. ‘I will follow Christ and His Church’ – even in times when that Church is fraught with sickness and sin. Nonetheless the faith that has been passed down, that is from Christ.
How many of us find ourselves struggling with our faith! Not just with personalities of the Church or the sins of the Church – terrible though as that may be at times. And I do not mean to diminish in any way how difficult in can be when you have a clergy member you dislike, someone has fallen from grace, or has abused terribly as we see in example after example after example laid out in the news.
Yet how many of look at our faith and respond like the disciples of Jesus who walked away? “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” How many of us, in our hearts at least, have answered with that to the call of Christ: ‘Be perfect as My heavenly Father is perfect’, ‘give up everything and follow me’, ‘be subordinate to Me’.
I wonder at the posture of the disciples who left. As Christ is talking in this passage, you may recognize that we are continuing His ‘Bread of Life’ discourse that we have been reading through from last Sunday and the Sunday before. Last Sunday we heard Christ say not once, not twice, but five times ‘If you do not eat My Body and drink My Blood, you will not have life within you – if you do chew My Flesh and swallow My Blood, you will not have eternal life – if you will not receive this gift, you will not be received into heaven’. That’s what they’re responding to.
I wonder if they got more and more tense, their arms crossed in front of them, their shoulders tensing up, their eyes cast down and then finally, they’ve had enough: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” And they left.
How many times do we see this reflected in our own hearts? ‘It’s too hard to follow our faith – it’s too hard to be humble – its too hard to admit that I am part of the problem in my parish, in my community, in my family – it’s too hard to admit that I am attached more to my sin than I am to following Christ’.
I remember a conversation with someone in some sort of irregular marriage. As you might expect, we ended up talking about the consistent teaching of the Church – as given to us by Christ Himself – about marriage and purity. The person looked me in the eye and said “Father, you don’t know how hard it is not to have sex.”
‘…..really? Tell me more about this thing called ‘celibacy’ – I’d like to learn about that!’
Now I don’t want to pretend that it’s easier for priests or easier for married people. We’ve all got our struggles. But let’s be honest – we all have our favorite sins. Contraception, pornography, masturbation are among the top three of our culture. But those aren’t all:
‘I don’t want to get married in the Church; it’s too much effort to go through marriage prep or have to deal with annulment work – and in the meantime you want me to be continent, to be celibate?’
‘You want me to worship in a certain way, to follow the guidance of the Church in how to offer sacrifice to the Lord?’
‘You want me to donate money?’
‘You want me to volunteer?’
‘You expect me to pray every day?’
‘You expect me to give to the poor and talk to those who make me uncomfortable?’
‘You want me to give up everything?’
Not me, no. I’m no better than anyone else – these questions ring in my heart and at times from my lips as well. But Jesus does want all of this, and more. Jesus has consistently asked not for ten percent, not for thirty or fifty or even ninety percent. He asks for everything.
“This saying is hard; who can accept it”
We can accept it. We are called to accept it. And it starts with first confessing our sins. There is a reason I pound on this sacrament so often: we have to confess our weakness, we have to confess our brokenness. This is what happened to these abusing clerics: they so grew in pride until they were so blind that they could commit the most terrible atrocities, cover it up…and then sacrilegious celebrate Mass, sometimes just minutes after the fact.
If we think our own sins will not lead to terrible acts, we only have to look to the example of those who have done these things to see the kind of path that we could fall into. Maybe not those sins – God forbid! – but certainly terrible sins. We will wound ourselves and we will devastate others.
This saying is hard, but we are called to accept it. And the very first thing we do is confess our need: ‘I need a Savior, I need someone who will redeem me. I need someone who will see my petty desires, my grasping for power or authority or possessions or wealth or status or acclaim – and still accept me, and give me something work all of those things, worth more. Someone who has the power to forgive my sins, Who is willing to give me His very Body and Blood to nourish me, Who is preparing a better place than this messed up and broken world.’
That person is Jesus Christ. That is where our faith lies.
We are hearing calls afar and in our own community – perhaps you yourself have considered or even made this invitation – to prayer, to acts of reparation, to fasting and abstinence. You might have doubts right now and sleepless nights, sorrowful and angry, wondering why you’re here and listening to a priest after so many priests have violated their sacred trust. We do these things not because of earthly examples, but because of the example of Christ.
If we are willing to subordinate ourselves to Jesus, to declare ourselves and our households to God, we will be able to fulfill the commandment of Christ: to receive His Body and Blood – worthily! – and to present Him to the world.
It’s an interesting thing that this should all come to pass around this weekend, with these readings. Moreover, Monday and Tuesday are special memorials in the life of the Church. The power of prayer on display in the lives of two particular saints.
Monday is the memorial of Saint Monica – you’ll recognize her as the mother of Augustine. She suffered greatly as she witnessed the sins of her son, watching him embrace a life of debauchery and abuse – abusing his own body and those of others as he sought after every single vice. You can read all about it in his book ‘Confessions’ – because one day, after years of prayer on her part, Augustine asked to be baptized. Recognizing his own weakness, he confessed is sins. And therefore, on Tuesday, we celebrate Saint Augustine, bishop and doctor of the Church.
I don’t know what role we’re in, honestly – are we Saint Monica or Saint Augustine? I guess at times we’re either of them. Sometimes we look at the sins of others and we weep, we mourn as we see how much others have destroyed lives, including their own. And sometimes we’re Saint Augustine, participating in those very sins and blind to the fact that we’re the source of our own pain and that of those around us.
What changed their lives? Jesus Christ – renewed dedication to Him in prayer and acts of reparation as we join our sacrifices to His.
In a few moments we will celebrate the Eucharist, and as I mentioned before Mass starting this weekend every Sunday vigil Mass for the foreseeable future will be offered for the victims of clergy sexual abuse. We also need to offer ourselves and ask for the conversion of ourselves.
That cross-armed posture of the disciples who walked away – I see it every Sunday. People come up to the front of the church, arms crossed. Communion has been replaced with a blessing. I don’t mean to judge anyone and I know that children also often come up this way because they haven’t yet received their first holy Communion. But I can’t help but wonder: how many of us in this room have not received Communion for weeks, or months, or years, because we have not yet let go of the sins to which we are so attached.
The saints and Christ Himself are proof that this way that is hard can be accepted and can effect change in our lives. Do we want to fix all these problems, do we want to bring about conversion – even in those in the high places of the hierarchy, do we want to restore trust in Christ’s Church in a world that not only looks at us with skepticism for our faith but now anger for our hypocrisy?
It starts with our holiness. We must be ones who say ‘I will submit my own life for conversion – because I am a sinner too. Because I like sin….even some that are grave sins. And yet I need to receive the Bread of Life, I need eternal life.’
Saint Peter makes that amazing testimony of faith at the end of the Gospel. Jesus, having watched some of His disciples walk away, turns to His Apostles. I’ve always imagined Him with a sad look on His face, His voice low and soft: “Do you also want to leave?”
“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
This is Christ’s promise to us: ‘I give you My Body and Blood. I give you My very Self, so that you will have eternal life.’ It will not be easy! It is the hard way, and when you dedicate yourself and your household to the Lord, you will be confronted with all of the ways that you need to be converted. One by one or all at once, Jesus Christ will reveal to you the ways that you have not yet given yourself to Him.
And yet, when you do, when you honestly present your sins forgiveness, you will become a saint. What a great gift it would be to be able to celebrate your feast day, to tell the story of your conversion – if not here on earth, one day in heaven. Saint Augustine has a whole book full of his sins – not because he is trying to excuse or glorify them, but because his conversion from those sins shows God’s glory even over the darkest of deeds.
God can overcome these sins as well: God can overcome the brokenness of our Church. And as He said to Peter – ‘On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it’. But they’re sure trying hard! And it won’t help if we cooperate through our sins.
And so we celebrate Mass and we come forward for communion. And I’d like to encourage you: only come forward for communion. If you’re not receiving communion today, stay seated. This is what the Church teaches us to do when we are not able to receive communion, for whatever reason. We’re not called to receive a blessing at this time – which is why I don’t offer them at communion – because it replaces communion with something lesser. And what do we call that when we replace the Lord with something that is not the Lord? Idolatry. We don’t want to make that our practice.
Stay seated if you’re not receiving communion – not out of shame or fear of judgment, but in anticipation. In these moments we recognize our need for God’s gratuity and commit to making a good confession, changing our lives – and returning to reconciliation any time we fall – so that we can look forward to that time when we are ready to worthily receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Because it is at Mass, at communion, that Jesus gives us eternal life. He has promised to do just that.
We’re feeling pretty bruised and broken right now. But we are not lost. Christ loves His Church – even we sinners. Especially sinners! Christ has special care for those who are victims. And especially now – if we are to offer that care for victims – we must purify ourselves so that we are found ready to offer what they truly deserve: a Church that can turn to them and say ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry that this has been done to you, I’m that my Church did this to you, I’m sorry that we ignored it for so long or covered it up. And I stand ready to help you.’
If we are going to do that well, we must be united with Christ – especially through confession and the Eucharist. Christ is hope, He is the center of our faith, He is the reason the Church exists, and the only foundation that will stand firm. Trying to build our faith on anything else – including bishops or priests – will only produce something weak and fragile. But if we return to Christ, if we declare ourselves for the Lord, if we turn to Him and accept even His hard sayings, subordinating ourselves to Him, Christ who climbed on the cross and accepted our sins – sins that He had no culpability for – Christ who rose from the dead and promised us new life, He will restore us, bring us to health. And through us, He will bring life to our fallen world.
This Sunday is the last Sunday that we repeat the psalm 34 – “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord”. We’ve sung that psalm three Sunday in a row. Today, may we ask the Lord to prepare us if we’re not ready and to bring us if we are so that we may taste and see His goodness here at this altar. And may He help us to own our sins, to proclaim His forgiveness, and to be agents of healing especially to those who most need. Christ is our faith. Christ is our center. He will not abandon us.
Let us stay close to Him, trusting that He truly has the words of eternal life.