Father Thomas Berg is the vice rector at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York and author of a book titled Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics. He wrote it while drawing on his experience as a member of a religious order whose founder was guilty of great evil. He talks here about the still-unfolding crisis in the Catholic Church.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why would anyone stay in the Catholic Church in this current climate?
Father Thomas Berg: Because no one or 100 morally depraved Church ministers, or derelict bishops, or chancery offices, or morally malaised conferences of Catholic bishops are “the Church.” The Church is more than any one failed element of its institutional reality. Catholics need the sacraments more than ever; we need the supernatural life Jesus offers us through them. We need the forgiveness Christ offers us in the sacrament of Penance. We need the Eucharist. We need more than ever the life-giving moral teaching of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. We need the solid and spiritually nourishing preaching of the Church’s faithful, holy priests. Even as it becomes painfully clear that so many of our shepherds have failed or even committed crimes, we need to hold together as the Body of Christ.
Lopez: Why didn’t you leave the Church when you learned of the lies you were fed as a Legionary of Christ priest, betrayed by leaders you trusted and facing tremendous evil?
Berg: To walk away from the Church was to walk away from Jesus. The Church is simultaneously a spiritual-supernatural reality and an all-too-human reality with an institutional nature and structures, whether that pleases us or not. The latter reality has, throughout the Church’s history, been in need of constant penance, purification, and renewal. After the hurt I experienced, I still knew that I was in love with Jesus and He had called me to serve Him as His priest, no matter how repugnant some of the institutional failures of the Church were or would be. It was never really a question of walking away; it was always more one of discerning: “Lord, how do you call me to serve—in this mess?”
Lopez: Who on earth — never mind Heaven — can be trusted?
Berg: Trust necessarily entails risk. Always has. Always will. And in the current context of the Church crisis, we are still called to trust. But isn’t it true that you can really trust only a person you have come to know in a personal way? If we are ever going to renew the bonds of trust that are seriously challenged today, laity, priests, and bishops are going to have to first renew the bonds formed by interpersonal contact, vulnerability, and openness. Those in leadership — bishops and priests especially — if they expect the lay faithful to trust them, might have to open themselves in a new, candid, transparent kind of vulnerability to let themselves be much more deeply known by those whom they serve. Much could be said about the ways bishops especially need to be particularly vulnerable, honest, and transparent with the faithful in their dioceses. Otherwise, trust is not possible.
Lopez: How do you as a priest speak with parents about these issues? A concern I kept hearing last week was: My son was going to be an altar boy this fall, but I don’t know if I can let him.
Berg: Ask and inform yourself as a parent whether your parish has implemented and follows the myriad protocols that have been set in place over the past 15 years to create safe environments for children in parish settings. Get reassurances — if you do not have them — that these standards are followed, that all involved — clergy and laity alike — in formative roles with children in the parish are respecting proper boundaries. And get to know whoever will be in a formative role with your children. By and large, our parishes are safer than they have ever been. We all play a role in ensuring that is true.
Lopez: Some will think you’re delusional to believe celibacy isn’t the problem. Why would you suggest something else?
Berg: Celibacy of itself means technically the commitment never to marry. But for a Catholic priest it entails, among many other things, the commitment to live in abstinence from sexual activity with others. Why am I convinced celibacy is not the problem? Because I have lived celibacy. Faithfully and fruitfully. I don’t say that pridefully. I say it in recognition that it is a gift and a charism I’ve received, and that I am able to persevere only because I am sustained by His grace. I know many other priests who I have every reason to believe live celibacy faithfully. We know how life-giving it is. We have experienced it as a call within the call to priesthood. The problem can be the failure, at the seminary level, to help prepare candidates for ordination to live that commitment successfully and for life. Formation has failed often in the past. Our challenge today is to help men form hearts ready for a life of faithful, Christ-centered celibacy that will fuel their hearts to love Christ’s bride the Church.
Lopez: Many are doubting the existence of God in the midst of evil like the rape of children, its cover-up, and the seeming routine indifference. Do you see Him?
Berg: Yes, I see Him — agonizing on His cross, this cross, the cross of the sins and crimes committed against the most innocent. I have often seen Him at work in persons whose hearts and souls were crushed by gruesome cruelty and abuse by clergy, whose hearts and souls were brought back to life by His love, by His promise of eternal life, by the transformative power of His grace. He has been present to me every time I’ve wept bitterly over the betrayal I have suffered for love of Him, at the crimes committed by clergy, over the omissions and failures of the Church’s shepherds, over the darkness of this moment. And in my own sinfulness, He has never ever abandoned me. Jesus is the only answer here. We simply must keep our minds and hearts centered on Him. There is no other way forward.
Lopez: Do you have any reason to believe you are part of the solution through your current work in seminary formation?
Berg: There are many excellent Catholic seminaries in the U.S. with excellent faculties and formation teams. Personally, I think they offer great hope for the future, even as we continue to rethink and discern the approaches to formation that best fit the needs of today’s candidates. But I am convinced that the active engagement of rectors and formators across the country in this prayerful, professional, discerning search for the best approaches — that get at the deepest needs in the men — this is contributing to produce for the Church hundreds of happy, holy, and healthy priests each year. I have heard some lay Catholics suggest that they have seminaries in their crosshairs and that they plan to withhold money in support of their seminaries. I think that’s utterly wrong-headed. Now is the time to support priestly formation more proactively than ever.
Lopez: What do you say to priests who don’t know what to make of this, are angry, and themselves feel betrayed?
Berg: Share that with your parishioners. Preach on it. Be open and vulnerable with them about how you are hurting with them through this moment. They need to hear you.
Lopez: What’s your prayer for the Church?
Berg: Purification — that the Holy Spirit will work in and through the present crisis to purge filth from the Church, to purify us, to bring about new and startling manifestations of holiness of life.
Lopez: What do you say to people who think prayer is useless?
Berg: Perhaps you have never actually prayed before, or seldom, or you do not understand prayer. Prayer is communion with the Divine. He never fails. True prayer is simple and deep. It is communion of the heart with God. When it’s that, it never fails in its purpose of uniting us more deeply to Him — and in a sense, that union with Him is the answer to every need.
Lopez: What can the average Catholic in the pews do to be part of the solution in this time of moral catastrophe?
Berg: To the extent that you are able to do so prudently and respectfully: Demand answers. And do not let up on the Church’s hierarchy until we have gotten all the answers we deserve regarding the McCarrick disaster. Those answers are necessary for our healing. Most of all, pray. Pray deeply. Do Eucharistic adoration in reparation for the sins of all members of the Church. Pray daily for our brothers and sisters who have suffered the horror of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy and others in leadership in the Church. Pray for, and publicly and vocally support, courageous and faithful bishops who are actually beginning to lead us through this crisis. Publicly, personally, and vocally support your good and faithful priests. We need to know that we are loved and supported. Most Catholics have little idea how deeply we are hurting and how we ache for all those who have been victimized, exploited, and hurt in the Church.
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