‘I beg you, stay with the church in this dark time’

Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond
Clarion Herald

Archbishop Gregory Aymond delivered the following homily at a Mass for Forgiveness and Healing Aug. 28 at St. Joseph Church in New Orleans.

This week in New Orleans, we remember that it was 13 years ago that Hurricane Katrina hit our beloved city and caused the deaths of many people as well as incredible destruction. It was in time that the people of New Orleans came to accept God’s compassion and his faithfulness in the midst of this disaster.

Thirteen years later, we are hit by another storm, not rain, not wind. It is indeed a manmade storm.

Yes, all of us have heard of church leaders being unfaithful to their vocations, unfaithful to the promises they made at ordination. And, yes, this has included a cardinal, bishops, priests and deacons. They have taken advantage of the young and the weak and have abused them sexually.

There is no excuse in the world for abusing a child, especially by a church leader. If we look closely at the recent stories and we carefully analyze them, we know that most of these cases happened 30 to 60 years ago. Nevertheless, the victims have carried the pain and shame for decades and so only recently have come forward.

We are here tonight, my sisters and brothers, to reach out spiritually to the victims and also to the survivors and to pray for their healing.

I would like for a moment to speak directly now to victims and to survivors who are present in the church with us this evening. As a bishop of the church, I offer my sincere apology – and these are not empty words, I can assure you. Yes, they really do come from the depths of my heart and the brokenness in my heart.

I am sorry that a church leader misused his power and abused you. I am sorry for your pain and the ways in which this abuse has affected your life’s journey. For those who have been abused, none of us here tonight know the depth of your pain. We cannot; though we try, we cannot.

But we want to walk with you and do our very best to walk with you to healing. Please forgive us.

Tonight, I also ask forgiveness from many, many good Catholics – all of you here – for you have been scandalized by this abuse and you have been hurt by this abuse. You have been disillusioned by all of this. We acknowledge that as leaders we have failed you.

I am sorry that we have caused you disillusionment, and perhaps you even questioned your faith in the church and whether you will continue to remain in the church. Thank you for being here tonight. Please forgive us.

I also ask forgiveness from the many, many good priests in the Archdiocese of New Orleans – and there are many. Look how many came tonight. My brothers, in a particular way, because most of the abuse took place by priests, you are tainted by the sins of others. I’m sorry that you have to bear that burden. Some priests have expressed to me recently that they feel self-conscious in wearing the Roman collar, wondering “what are people thinking about me, what’s going through their mind.”

I’m sorry that you have to go through that, but I beg you to continue to bear the burden of the cross of that and thank you for being faith-filled priests and serving God’s people in this local church.

This has also affected deacons. To you, my brothers, thank you for your ministry. I’m sorry for your pain.

And seminarians – seminarians, you are not a part of the problem. May I suggest as the church moves forward, you are a part of the solution.

To all of you, as leaders of the church, it is time for us to repent. And I promise, as a bishop and your local bishop, your shepherd, I promise not only to pray but to fast. Some things can be driven out only by prayer and fasting.

We as bishops hope some day that we will be able to regain your trust. I know it will take time. I ask you to be patient with us and to help us repent.

As painful as all of this is, our sin is public. Therefore, because it is public and we admit it and we see the depth of it, it is a time of purification, a time of repentance in the church. In the midst of this darkness. my sisters and brothers, we must be mindful of our weakness and sin as leaders. But let us also be mindful of God’s great fidelity.

‘Woe to the shepherds’

We just heard that a few moments ago from the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 34: 11-16). Through the prophet, God says, ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel. They have used my sheep. They have abused them. They have taken advantage of the sheep.’ And God says, ‘I am faithful. I will save my sheep. I will be their shepherd. The injured I will bind up myself.’

In the Gospel (John 21: 15-17), we are reminded that it was St. Peter who betrayed Jesus three times and said, ‘I do not know the man. Who is he?’ And after his resurrection, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? And if you do, feed my sheep. Be a humble shepherd.”

It is the same Lord Jesus who asks of our church leaders today – and especially the bishops – “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Then feed my sheep and be a humble shepherd.”

We are now called in many ways to move forward, yes, as a wounded church. But as a wounded church, we can move forward. When someone is wounded, they can still walk, and we must move forward, asking for God’s mercy and healing.

Recently in a conversation with someone who had been abused, I was told, “Your apology is not enough.” I agree. It’s not enough. It’s a first step. And I can assure you that with this apology will come action in our archdiocese and throughout the United States.

Cardinal (Daniel) DiNardo, the president of our bishops’ conference, outlined some things that we promise to do, outlined some things that will help us to be repentant and to change.

He promises that a full investigation regarding Archbishop McCarrick will take place because this can never happen again – someone who is a cardinal of the church. It can’t.

He also says that we must find a way to report the abuse and misconduct of bishops and to be able to report it in such a way that it is swift and effective.

He promises that we as bishops will form a lay commission so that bishops will have greater accountability, and this independent lay commission will help us oversee our handling of abuse cases.

He also promises that he will very soon be in Rome with our Holy Father Pope Francis and ask for an apostolic visitation – for the Holy Father to appoint someone from outside the United States – to look closely at what has happened and to be critical and to show us the way forward.

My sisters and brothers, thank you for being here tonight. I am overwhelmed, truly overwhelmed by this crowd. Thank you. And you came here tonight knowing the sin of the church, the sin of church leaders. You feel the pain of victims and you experience darkness, but you are here. You are here. Thank you not only for your presence but also thank you for your prayers.

Thank you for holding the bishops accountable to what we have promised and will promise to you.

Help victims come forward

To all of you, if you know anyone who has been abused by a church leader, help me find them. Yes, help me find them so that we can walk with them toward healing.

In this storm of 2018, many have been hurt, and we also know that some are tempted to walk away from the church because of our sinfulness. May I recall with you very briefly the Gospel from last Sunday (John 6: 60-69).

We see in that Gospel that some are disappointed and scandalized by Jesus, by his words and by his actions. And what did they do? They left him. They went off. They will no longer be his disciples.

And then Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Will you leave me, too?” Then he looks at all of the apostles and he says, “Will you all leave me, too?”

And Peter says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”

My friends, I beg you to be like the apostles and to stay with the Lord Jesus and to stay with his church in this dark time. Together, with the help of Jesus himself, we can purify the church. We can renew it, but we must do it together. Yes, with the help of the Lord Jesus, we can renew his church. Please, be with us and join us in that renewal. 

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