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Light in the Darkness

Amid the ongoing crisis, priests can be sources of hope and healing to their communities. Here’s how.

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“Welcome to the greatest fraternity in the world.” Those were the handwritten words inscribed on a card given to me from a brother priest on the day of my ordination to the priesthood 30 years ago. Through the imposition of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit I was now a priest of Jesus Christ and a member of a unique fraternity. But shortly after I was ordained, that sense of fraternity was broken by the actions of three priests from our presbyterate who engaged in clergy sexual abuse. All three were removed from their assignments and stripped of the Roman collar.

For many months the dark misdeeds of these brothers were the focus of major news on television and newsprint. As the victims struggled with trying to find healing and justice, virtually all of us priests, especially those new to priesthood, found ourselves broken and disillusioned. It was not easy to wear a Roman collar at that time — or go out in public. What was to have been the best of times became, for so many of us young priests, the worst of times.

In the meantime, more cases would unfold not just in our diocese but throughout the nation, wreaking havoc on innocent lives, causing great damage to the priesthood and priestly fraternity, and leading the faithful to a crisis of trust. The fallout from these heinous acts reached its peak in Boston in 2002. The problem now was more than just a matter of perpetrators abusing children. Church officials did not respond adequately to these problems.

At that time, I was charged with the task of being the rector of the seminary and director of vocations. This was a very challenging time to promote vocations to the priesthood, let alone encourage men on the road to priesthood. The best advertisement for priesthood always has been a happy priest. There were few happy priests as we all tried to come to terms with this earthquake and the many aftershocks that followed. For some of us it became even more difficult as classmates, friends and even the priests who baptized us were removed from ministry because of allegations of abuse. Some of us had to step in and fill the shoes of those who were removed. And in the midst of all that was happening we still, amid the heaviness of our hearts, had to show up and be Christ to others.

From these events many questions emerged in the minds of priests — for example, how could anyone hurt an innocent child? What would possess anyone to do such a thing? How could our brothers betray such a sacred trust? What possibly can we do in our corner of the world to restore trust? What do people perceive of me in my priesthood?

Those same questions surfaced again in August of this year with the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing the history of clergy sexual abuse in the dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton. Previous reports were released a few years ago for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown chronicling many incidents of hurt to children and young people by clergy.

But with this voluminous grand jury report, it wasn’t only questions that emerged. Shortly after its release, feelings of disillusionment, anger and rage were prevalent. Many of us clergy became the target of these emotions. In my parish alone, my assistants and I were called predators by a passing motorist. Emails were sent to us laced in strong anger. There were at least two prank phone calls denigrating the priesthood. Some people expressed their anger by withholding their offertory collection. A few people called the rectory to say that they would be leaving the Church.

Needless to say, virtually anyone who has read this report, understandably, is angry. The stories are unsettling and sick beyond words. The anger is not just limited to the direction of the perpetrators. It includes Church leadership in the form of the hierarchy. This anger also is directed at anyone who wears a Roman collar or works for the Church. I know of one instance in which one priest was out to dinner with parishioners and a party entering the restaurant refused to sit next to the priest. They said: “I can’t sit here. He is a priest.”

Someone once taught me that feelings are never wrong; they need to be expressed. I know that for many Catholics today in Pennsylvania and beyond, they need to express their anger and hurt. What follows are some thoughts to help deal with the anger of the faithful and begin the process of healing in the light of clergy sexual abuse.

A group gathers to pray for survivors of clerical sexual abuse at the Cathedral of St. Paul, Minn., on Aug. 20. CNS photo.

BE PRESENT TO THE FLOCK

The first Sunday following the release of the grand jury report, I told my assistant priests, along with our seminarian, that we need to be present before and after holy Mass to greet our faithful. We cannot hide behind what happened. We need to own it and do everything we can to allow our people to vent and begin the process of healing.

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TALK ABOUT THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Father Dan Folwaczny leads a prayer service for healing.CNS photo.

 

A few weeks before the release of the report, I began acknowledging the forthcoming report. The Sunday after it was released, which happened to be the 100th anniversary of our parish, I spoke before the Mass about the report. The purpose of speaking is not to attempt to rationalize or explain away such deviant and reprehensible behavior, but to acknowledge it.

 

 

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TURN TO SCRIPTURE

At a time when there seemingly are few words, we need to turn to sacred Scripture. I began my statement by quoting the Letter of James when he says: “Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:2-4). The release of the report has no doubt shaken the faith of many laity and clergy. This is a trial of epic proportion.

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KEEP THE VICTIMS FIRST

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The report now gives a voice to the victims who for many years have suffered in silence. Their suffering is all the more real. It is now known. The victims need our prayers and support. There should be an intention in the universal prayer every Sunday for their healing.

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ALLOW THE FAITHFUL TO HAVE THEIR OWN FEELINGS

I personally experienced a wide range of emotions from the faithful. We cannot tell anyone how to feel. But it is important that we allow them to feel and not be threatened by it. One parishioner emailed and said he wanted a town hall meeting or public forum. I resisted this because I did not want to gather a bunch of angry people into one room. I invited him to come and see me personally to express his feelings. He embraced it.

 

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BE HONEST ABOUT YOUR OWN FEELINGS

Archbishop Alexander K. Sample of Portland leads prayer during Mass CNS photo

It is important that we take a moment and share our own personal disillusionment as priests in brothers who failed us and the priesthood. Their egregious acts have forever impacted innocent lives and undermined the work of many good and holy priests. More and more, as these stories become public, they have made it hard for the faithful to trust in us.

 

 

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NAME THE GREATEST TEMPTATION OF THE MOMENT

There is nothing the devil wants more than to separate the Body of Christ and break it apart. In spite of the sadness and disillusionment, we need to invite people to remain in the Church and in a relationship with Jesus. When we flee, the Evil One wins. We cannot allow evil to win.

Worshippers attend a Holy Hour service Aug. 29 at St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral in Metuchen, N.J., to pray for victims of clergy sexual abuse. CNS photo.

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ACKNOWLEDGE THE DISCLOSURE OF ‘THE FAMILY SECRET’

Family secrets are terrible. When they are released, they can cause great hurt and despair. While we must never accept such behavior, we nonetheless need to recognize this evil and do everything we can to keep it out in the open. As such, we need to demand transparency in all of these matters. We need to resist the temptation to live in darkness, for we are “children of the light” (1 Thes 5:5).

 

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REMIND THE FAITHFUL WHY WE BELIEVE AND TO COME TO HOLY MASS

We all need to be reminded that our faith as Catholics is not in a bishop, priest or deacon. Nor is our faith in the building in which we worship. Our faith is in Jesus Christ. There are many places to look at a time such as this, but we need to look to God. The prophet Micah says it best when he says, “But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for God my savior; my God will hear me!” (Mi 7:7). We pray and come to holy Mass because of our relationship with Jesus.

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SEIZE THE MOMENT

While it may seem like the most difficult time to be Catholic — and even to be a priest — there is no more urgent or opportune time. This is our moment to stand up for the Faith and to deepen our relationship with Jesus. To follow Jesus is to not be a person of despair or doom and gloom, but to be a person of hope.

Father Michael Plona smiles as he blesses the congregation with holy water while celebrating his first Mass on June 25, 2017, at Our Lady of Loretto Church in Hempstead, N.Y. CNS photo

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LOOK FOR THE GOOD

St. Paul tells us, “Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Rom 5:20). Every cloud has a silver lining. In the days after the release of the grand jury report, there were so many affirmations of faith and messages from the faithful. One parishioner, who was deeply wounded by all of this news, sent an email of encouragement to me quoting Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who helped many Jews escape the Nazis during the Holocaust. In the darkness of her prison cell, she said, “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.” We need to trust that God’s love will prevail.

 

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PRAY FOR HEALING

Father Kevin Regan distributes
Communion. CNS photo.

A week after the release of the report, at our parish we held a prayer service of faith, healing and strength for our faithful. It coincided with the feast of St. Pius X, an exemplary priest whose motto was “to renew all things in Christ.” In that service we prayed for healing among all victims and the faithful, and for a renewal for the Church, knowing that only Jesus can move us beyond the darkness of sin into the light of grace.

 

 

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BEHOLD THE VESSEL OF GRACE WHICH IS THE CHURCH

In the aftermath of this report, it was humbling to see that so many, even in their heartache, came to church to receive the Sacraments of Baptism, Reconciliation, Eucharist and Marriage. At the same time, people were calling from our local health care institutions for the anointing of the sick. Families also were calling to arrange a funeral liturgy for their loved ones. Although human, the Church remains holy and a sacrament of salvation.

 

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PROFESS THE FAITH

Father Jaime Hernandez. CNS photo

Every Sunday we lead our faithful in the profession of faith. This profession acknowledges our belief in the Triune God and “the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” During the crisis in 2002 I found great heart in listening to the faithful profess their faith in God and the Church. It saved me then and it is just as life-saving now.

 

 

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Walking Our Journeys

In the face of this storm, it is imperative that we not dismiss our own feelings. I don’t know of a time in my 30 years as a priest when I ever have felt so hurt, pained and embarrassed. And yet, by no means should any of us make this tragedy about ourselves. Nor should we be embarrassed to be a priest. In 2002, I remember my brother saying to me: “Dave, don’t you ever be embarrassed to be a priest. This is your calling.” Nonetheless, as human beings we cannot deny the feelings of hurt, betrayal, disillusionment, anger and rage that we might be feeling. A lay colleague of mine said, “Father, we have to allow ourselves to feel the pain before the healing can begin.” It does not feel good right now, but we are men of hope who look forward to the new day.

As priests, whether we are secular or religious, we belong to a fraternity that transcends time and place. That sense of fraternity is critical at this time. None of us can continue this journey alone, otherwise we set ourselves up for failure. It is just as important that we do not forget our family and friends.

About a week after the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, I received a letter from a lay colleague who sent the same letter to every priest she knew or had worked with throughout our diocese. She wrote: “Please do not walk this journey alone. Turn to your friends and family to talk. Take the support from your staffs and others you trust who offer. Go for long walks in the woods or on the golf course. Watch a lot of funny movies. … And when you pray, know that we are with you, holding you in our hearts and enfolding you in God’s love, asking for both peace and joy as you continue to trust you have been called and his grace is sufficient for today and every day.”

Through our priesthood we are bearers of that grace. Our faithful need that grace now more than ever before. They also need us to embrace this heavy cross in a spirit of hope. I realize that for some of us it may be very tempting to flee right now, inasmuch as we are walking through a deep and dark valley that engenders fear, doubt and shame.

Elijah reached a point in his journey when he wanted to give up. We may find ourselves echoing the words of Elijah: “This is enough, O Lord” (1 Kgs 19:4). Like Elijah, we may just want to find that broom tree and just go to sleep and pretend none of this is happening. But the journey continues.

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The early disciples faced similar struggles. Some of them left the circle of Jesus. They simply did not have the heart for it. Having watched some of his followers leave, Jesus asks the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon responds: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:67-69).

As tough as this time is for us as priests, there is no other place to be than with Jesus. It just so happens that we find ourselves at the foot of the cross. I think we all know, though, that the story does not end there. There will be new life. The Church will become more holy. And by God’s grace we will all become more and more trusting in the Lord Jesus and, please God, more holy and faith-filled priests who never lose sight of our belief that we continue to belong to the greatest fraternity in the world.

FATHER DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is a pastor of 14 years in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where he has served in numerous roles. To share your thoughts on this article or any others, follow The Priest on Twitter@PriestMagazine and like us on Facebook.