Working toward Redemption

Priests can help heal the Church with acts of love, charity, mercy

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Some verses are timeless.

“I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ … that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose. For it has been reported to me about you … that there are rivalries among you. I mean that each of you is saying, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor 1:10-13).

“And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” (Mk 3:25).

“Jesus then said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to leave?’” (Jn 6:67).

These timeless verses have come to mind frequently these past weeks since the sins of the few have cast a long, ominous shadow on the many. It has not been easy being a Catholic, let alone being a priest. The average Catholic layperson used to answer questions by non-Catholics and cultural Catholics such as, “What does one wear to a Catholic baptism?” or, “What do you get a kid who was just confirmed?” or, “What is a Mass card, and how do you get one?” These are the fun questions. It is not fun being asked, “Are you still a Catholic after all you now know?” or, “How can you be going to that Church?” One day you are responding to the curious, the next day to the interrogators.

Within our own priest ranks, the different camps are circling. The presbyteral house is dividing against itself, creating scapegoats. One group of priests points to people with same-sex attraction; the next group demands for this bishop or that bishop to resign. Another sector is in denial of it all. Some priests use the pulpit to incite the masses at Mass, while other priests use the pulpit to offer insight to the masses at Mass. Lines are drawn by ecclesiology, generations and emotions.

While all this is unfolding, the Evil One sits in his director’s chair sipping a fine glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine, toasting himself for a job well done as he watches the Church and all its people try to weather this storm. It has been a perfect storm of sin on three fronts. There is the institutional sin of the Church colliding with the personal sin of a few, all within the wider social sin in our culture. Evil in its own trinitarian form is evident. Any one of these storms is threatening enough, but this rare combination of all three at once magnifies the situation to another level. Battling evil on all three fronts is the challenge facing the Church today.

A glimmer of hope in this whole sinful mess is that this trinity of evil has fallen upon the Church, which is one of the only institutions in the world that can gather its resources to combat this sin in which it participated. The Church is 2,000 years old, with another millennium rooted in a covenant with our God. In addition to its longevity, this human institution filled with countless sinners has a divine foundation in its founder. This divine foundation with its sinful members will confront this sin and hopefully contribute some benefit for the society that it has wounded.

As the Church faces this storm, the world’s eyes are facing the Church to see how and what it does. The fact that many (no matter the culture or religious affiliation) are fascinated with the Church has its advantages and disadvantages. The Church relishes when many are staring at a little chimney waiting for white smoke. So the Church has to accept that all eyes will be on it when the evil in which it was complicit is exposed once again. Presently the Church is a darkened lamp on a lampstand with an interrogating light shining on it; hopefully, as it atones for its sins, it once again can be a shining light.
 

 
In centuries past, the Church steadily has been the patron of the arts, education, sciences and social welfare. It has contributed much to society and will continue to do so. The institutional Church will make a contribution to society as it addresses this personal, insidious sin that invades all places of work, family, worship, government and schools. Evil knows no boundaries.

It is tempting for the go-to Catholic layperson and for each priest and bishop to say “yes” to Christ’s question: “Do you also want to leave?” (Jn 6:67). Though desirous to leave, most choose to stay — and with more resolve — asking, “What can we do?” In each of us, there is a desire to fix it. That innate tug is most necessary at this time. Racking our brains for the best way to fix the damage only distracts from doing all the good work of which we as a Church are capable. While weathering this storm, the institution — and each priest on the front lines — has to do what it does best, for starters: bury the dead, care for the grieving and vulnerable, lift up the lowly, feed the hungry, care for the sick and house the homeless.

While doing these things, continue to keep doing what the Church has been doing since the last time an ominous shadow was cast on it in the early 2000s. The due diligence the Church did then to mitigate the sin against children especially, and what it does daily to protect the most vulnerable, must continue to be perfected. The Church has cared for many victims — listening to their stories and ministering to the person and to their infinite pain. It conversely ministers to the priest as sinner and to the priest as person — at one moment removing him from ministry, the next moment visiting him in prison or assuring the basics of life are there for him. There are many ripple effects in the wake of this persistent evil. Paramount, next to caring for the victim, is caring for the collateral damage in the family of the abused and the family of the abuser. The former feels helpless; the latter feels embarrassed.

All of these are the answers to, “What can I do?” The Evil One, sipping fine wine, hopes the Church becomes despairing and gives up or, even better, hopes it becomes complacent and lax once again. Even one solitary sin from decades ago is rippling still through the victim, the abuser, the families and the Church.

Never has the prayer of exorcism in the rite of baptism been so needed, as the prayer references original sin. Though it is prayed over a child at the time of anointing with oil of catechumens, the prayer is so needed for the Church right now:
 

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“Almighty and ever-living God, you sent your only Son into the world to cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil, to rescue us from the kingdom of darkness and bring us into the splendor of your kingdom of light. We pray for this Church, set her free from original sin, make her a temple of your glory and send your Holy Spirit to dwell with her. Amen.”

That the Church — and any one of us — has and will make mistakes along the way is certain. There have been and will be moments where an abused child was not protected soon enough, or an abuse situation falls off the radar screen.

The Church, like any one of us or all of society, gathers wisdom and learns from these moments as each journeys to the unreachable goal of perfection. It is our conviction that God’s grace redeems these moments and the institution, the person and the society.

FATHER PATRICK M. CARRION is pastor of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore and the director of the Baltimore Archdiocesan Office of Cemetery Management.