Kerry Weber is a professional career woman, an executive editor of "America" magazine, but she is also a young, married woman with a 3 month old and a two year old. In an article for the September 17 issue of "America," she reveals her own experiences, inner anguish, and questioning. She says,
"I dragged my kids (and husband) to 8 AM Mass on the feast of the Assumption...We make the effort, however imperfectly, because I want my son and daughter to know that our faith is important, because I want them to choose to live it themselves one day, because I believe it is good....I have tried hard to contribute to the institution too: to find community in our parish, to spend hours researching local Catholic schools, saving to pay for them....then I came home from Mass, and while the kids napped beside me, I started reading the grand jury report of sexual abuse in several dioceses of Pennsylvania. I could only get through a few pages before feeling physically ill and being filled with a sense of disgust and anger and betrayal that I know only a fraction of what the abuse victims and their families must have felt for so long."
Kerry was confirmed by and handed her high school diploma by the first U.S. Bishop indicted on child sex abuse charges. She had allowed herself to think, perhaps naively, that the worst was over for the Church, that the majority of abusers had been rooted out, that the new policies and procedures put in place had helped prevent new cases of innocent children - and unduly pressured adults - being abused.
Now, she says, "I have found myself for the first time truly afraid of what it means to ask and to allow my children to be part of the Church. Can I trust that they will be safe as altar servers or students or just going to Mass? And what would I say if my children were to one day ask me, why? Why in the face of such systemic horrors committed by the people supposedly leading the Church, did we stumble down the street to Mass each week?"
Fr. Matt Malone, S.J., editor of "America," also speaks in the Sept. 17 issue of "America" about his anger and sorrow over the broken state of the Church around the world today, because this is a sexual abuse scandal that is happening internationally. He also has had to ask himself why, as a priest, he should stay. Priests whom I know are terrified of being priests today. Some fear to wear their collars in public because of people's possible reactions, fear to answer the phone and hear that they have been unjustly accused themselves. Their self-images of being "other Christs" are in tatters. Will any of them be tempted to leave, to slip back anonymously into society to escape the terrible public pressure of being judged guilty because of their chosen vocation?
Kerry's memories helped her as she struggled with her crisis of faith. Two years before, the priest who baptized their son had asked her and her husband to write a letter to their son, telling him what they hoped for him in the faith. The couple read their letter out loud at their son's Baptism, and now Kerry took this letter out, reading it and re-reading it, praying for her own faith and hope to be rekindled. What she discovered was that "so much of my hope for my children and myself and our place in the Church rested on the belief that, in the process of becoming holy, they might help to make the Church holier too." The couple's letter reads, in part:
"We hope that your faith inspires you to be just, loving, humble and merciful. We hope that your faith inspires you to encourage the church to be more just, more loving, more humble and more merciful.
"We hope you find community here, people who will support you, love you, challenge you. We hope that your faith community inspires you to reach out to the larger community - to love others, to challenge them and support them. We hope that your faith inspires you to care for those in need, to be like the shepherd who smells like the sheep, to perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, to be mercy for others.
"We hope that when the world makes it difficult to live out your faith, you find the strength to persevere. We hope that you find strength in the Eucharist, in the real presence at Mass, and in the people of God.
"We hope that you are inspired by the lives of the holy men and women in heaven, and the holy men and women around you now. We hope that you read and learn about your faith, drawing on the wisdom of those who have helped to shape our Church. But even more, we hope that you use this knowledge to live your faith - that your life gives witness to the joy of the Gospel."
Fr. Matt Malone thinks that today someone's answer to the question of whether to stay in the Church will depend on what he or she thinks the Church is. While good things and good people can be found everywhere and in all faiths, there is something, according to the Second Vatican Council, that is unique about the Catholic Church and its relationship with Jesus Christ. The Second Vatican Council states that the church of Christ is constituted and organized in the world as a society which subsists in the Catholic Church, "which is governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him." This is why we say that the Catholic Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic: the "apostolic" refers to the fact that down through the centuries, Catholic Bishops in union with the Pope at Rome have ordained priests, in an almost unbroken line which leads back to the very first Pope and Bishops, the apostles.
Fr. Matt says, "I am one of those people who believe in faith that Jesus Christ founded a Church and that it exists in a unique way, even today, in the Catholic Church; that the Church is the visible, efficacious sign of the City of God and, as such, is aptly called a sacrament."
But, as St. Augustine pointed out, there is a City of God and a City of Man. Human beings have complicated hearts, and the visible Church is a community like all other communities, comprised of people with evil hearts who belong to the City of Man, and people with good hearts who belong to the City of God. If you are a Catholic, regardless of whether you are a lay person, a sister, a nun, a brother, priest, deacon, bishop, or pope, there is no guarantee that you belong to the City of God. ONLY GOD KNOWS! And God will allow the harvest to come to fullness before there is a separation of the weeds from the wheat, because God is patient with every human soul.
Every sacrament that we celebrate allows us to participate in the life of God THROUGH THE WORK OF JESUS THE CHRIST IN THE POWER OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. Jesus made the Church holy to begin with! That is why we call Jesus the Primary Sacrament, or encounter, with God, because that is what a sacrament is - an encounter with God. When you are baptized, Jesus baptizes you. When you receive the Eucharist, it is Jesus who has consecrated the bread and wine.
The community chooses priests to be "other Christs" - but the sacraments operate and are givers of grace "ex opere operato." This means that if a priest is validly ordained, every sacrament that he "performs" will give God's grace to the recipient, as long as the recipient believes and is ready to receive grace. A sacrament's "efficacy" does NOT depend on whether the priest is good or evil - because Christ, through the Power of his Holy Spirit, and through each sacrament, is still at work in the world, baptizing us, forgiving us, nourishing us, uniting us, blessing us. To repeat: whether the priest himself is in the state of grace or not does not "count." What counts is if he is validly ordained. God is the One Who bestows each sacrament's grace through the priest as God's instrument.
Because Jesus made the Church holy and is still making the Church holy, the Church is different from any other human organization. Fr. Matt says, "either that difference is real, or it is not. If it is real, than how could I ever leave? If it is not, then why would I ever stay? Why would I care?"
But Fr. Matt cares - and cares deeply. He is staying!
And, in re-reading the letter she and her husband wrote, Kerry Weber renewed her commitment to the Church. She says, "In a broken and hurting Church, it is good to remember that the Church as an institution is not why we are here or what we are here for. Yet we are responsible for it, and that means holding it accountable and working to make it more truly reflect the Kingdom of God. The grand jury report is one painful step toward doing just that."
Scandals in the Church are certainly not new. In spite of his vows to be a celibate priest, Pope Alexander VI (1492 - 1503) romanced several mistresses, including Giulia Farnese (known as Julia the Beautiful), and fathered numerous illegitimate children with longtime mistress Vannozza dei Cattani (who was married at the time), according to "The Last Judgment," (Macmillan, 2009). His hedonistic ways were so shameless that even as crime and violence overtook the streets of Rome, the pope busied himself with staging comedic plays, lavish banquets, masquerades and dance parties – paid for with the church's funds, according to "The Borgia Pope" (Kessinger Publishing, 2006). Possibly as backlash for his playboy lifestyle, rumors of Alexander VI arranging orgies began to surface, according to the 2006 book. There will always be scandals in the Church. But the Church is so much greater than any scandal. The Church will always endure.
Jesus has promised to stay with his Church until the end of time - but he depends on us, his body, to be his sacraments, his ever-new instruments through which others can encounter him. As Kerry says, Jesus asks us that, as we become holier, we help to make the Church holier too. Jesus asks us to BE mercy and healing for others, working together as ordained and laity.
But we can only unite as ordained and laity, to become a stronger faith community which helps to make the Church holier, by invoking the Holy Spirit. Fr. Richard Rohr calls the Holy Spirit the Divine Connector, and says,
"Any staying in relationship, any insistence on connection, is always the work of the Spirit, who warms, softens, mends, and renews, all the broken, cold places in and between things." (from "The Divine Dance.") The Holy Spirit is always at work renewing the Church, the "wind from nowhere...the bush that always burned and is never consumed."
We can choose to see the Catholic Church as a human institution "on its way out," or a visible sacrament, the Church of Christ, which has been humbled and broken as a purification so that God can renew it. We can either be bushes that are consumed and destroyed by disgust, bitterness, and disillusionment, or we can choose to burn with unquenchable fiery love, zeal, and a desire to heal, in the power of the Holy Spirit. God is calling to us, saying "I chose you to be a member of this Church. I have called you and you are mine. Be filled with healing love. Be Mercy. Encourage my broken, sinful Church to be transformed. I need you to live your faith and witness to the joy of the Gospel!"