Trust is being tested, big time. In the wake of the horrific details in the massive Pennsylvania grand-jury report on sex-abuse allegations in the Catholic Church, one of the most frequent messages I received this week was from moms not knowing what to do about sons who were going to be altar boys. What adult can be trusted? We were told priests could be trusted now, but can I trust mine? We were told, after all, that we could, in no small part by a cardinal who is no longer one because evidence finally surfaced (thanks to a victim of clerical sexual abuse who came forward in New York) that could confirm rumors that Theodore McCarrick preyed on young men. The depths of his criminality are yet to be revealed, with settlements involving him in New Jersey dioceses. How many people, including bishops, knew, and for how long did they know, that this man should have been in no position of leadership and influence, and nowhere near seminarians or children?
On Thursday of this week a bishop had something to say. I don’t mean another press statement or even the announcement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that there would be “substantial” lay involvement in getting to the bottom of this unfolding “catastrophe” and in doing the rigorous work that needs to be done to transform a culture that has allowed evil to be bureaucratized. Gregory of Nyssa, a bishop in the third century, wrote about “Christian perfection.” On a good day most of us are a far cry from it. With recent headlines, it seems an absurd impossibility: Men whose lives are supposed to be about service have once again become suspect because of evil that has been done and hidden.
Gregory’s words were in the Office of Readings of the prayer of the Church on Thursday, and they stood out in light of the darkness of the Pennsylvania grand-jury report:
When we consider that Christ is the true light, having nothing in common with deceit, we learn that our own life also must shine with the rays of that true light. Now these rays of the Sun of Justice are the virtues which pour out to enlighten us so that we may put away the works of darkness and walk honorably as in broad daylight. When we reject the deeds of darkness and do everything in the light of day, we become light and, as light should, we give light to others by our actions.
If we truly think of Christ as our source of holiness, we shall refrain from anything wicked or impure in thought or act and thus show ourselves to be worthy bearers of his name. For the quality of holiness is shown not by what we say but by what we do in life.
Some variation of, “How could you possibly stay in such a church?” is a frequent question these days, particularly on social media, as people are understandably struggling. The answer that, for those of us in tears and anger, could never lose its meaning has everything to do with Christ, who, I am more certain than I am that I am alive, is present in the sacraments of the Church. The Church does not belong to any cardinal or priest, present or former, or anyone else. The Church is Christ’s body, and it is for Him we stay.
Gregory of Nyssa also seems to offer an important caution:
He is our peace, for he has made both one. Since we think of Christ as our peace, we may call ourselves true Christians only if our lives express Christ by our own peace. As the Apostle says: He has put enmity to death. We must never allow it to be rekindled in us in any way but must declare that it is absolutely dead. Gloriously has God slain enmity, in order to save us; may we never risk the life of our souls by being resentful or by bearing grudges. We must not awaken that enmity or call it back to life by our wickedness, for it is better left dead.
No, since we possess Christ who is peace, we must put an end to this enmity and live as we believe he lived. He broke down the separating wall, uniting what was divided, bringing about peace by reconciling in his single person those who disagreed. In the same way, we must be reconciled not only with those who attack us from outside, but also with those who stir up dissension within; flesh then will no longer be opposed to the spirit, nor the spirit to the flesh. Once we subject the wisdom of the flesh to God’s law, we shall be re-created as one single man at peace. Then, having become one instead of two, we shall have peace within ourselves.
Now peace is defined as harmony among those who are divided. When, therefore, we end that civil war within our nature and cultivate peace within ourselves, we become peace. By this peace we demonstrate that the name of Christ, which we bear, is authentic and appropriate.
These last decades have been a time of division and dissent in the Church. The sacrileges — and even cold, bureaucratic mismanagement, as seen in some of the early reactions to the McCarrick news — described in the grand-jury report are the very antithesis of anything in the gospel or Catholic Church teaching. Like never before in our lives, we are going to have to demonstrate radical love for God in the Church and a desire to unite under Him. And, yes, through the anger and tears, we are going to have to truly love those who have been harmed and sacrifice and pray and be support for one another — and that includes priests and bishops who are committed to the same journey of renewal.
Cardinal Dolan, who is one of the more recognized of the hierarchy, has been saying for a long time that “the days of old, fat, bald, Irish bishops are over.” Those words have never been truer than now. The Church needs all her members with all their talents and with their true desire for God, knowing His desire for us, living the examined life. The Church — and the world — needs people committed to Christ alone, free of ideological agendas and pride, knowing that God has them living at this time for a reason: to be bold heralds of virtue. That’s a high bar for humans, especially when the old corrupting realities of the world exist within any structure, present or future. Which is why we sinners need the Church, and need to be all-in for its purification and ours, till the day we die.