By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
The body of Christ is an image often used to describe how we, through regular acts of charity, can further God’s kingdom on earth, in the here and now, by living out our salvation, as St. Paul says, “with fear and trembling.”
Living a Christian life with fidelity doesn’t mean being fearful or anxious, but it does mean regularly examining our lives in relation to a God who “wonderfully made” us. That examination of conscience ideally should lead us to identify and root out our sins, both little and big, that blind us to the bleeding traveler in the roadside ditch.
The body of Christ.
The last month for the Catholic Church has been a road-to-Jericho experience, which, of course, pales in comparison to the lifetime of pain endured by victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy.
Those individuals bear a lifetime wound, and no amount of apology or prayer on the part of the church is adequate, as Archbishop Gregory Aymond made clear Aug. 28 at a Mass for Forgiveness and Healing at St. Joseph Church. Especially when it was the church that, in many cases, facilitated the sexual abuse by looking the other way, like the Levite who veered to the other side of the road and abandoned the battered pilgrim.
Nothing to see here. Just move on.
“The church is wounded at this point but can still continue to walk,” Archbishop Aymond told reporters after the Mass, which included his emotional, 15-minute apology and statement of purpose as a bishop intent on pushing his brother bishops to atone for and clean up the unspeakable tragedy. “I hope that people heard my cry for forgiveness, asking for forgiveness from (the victims). There are many things we can do.”
Prayer is wonderful; action is demanded. Ora et labora.
“One person said to me, ‘I’m tired of praying for the church,’” said Dominican Father John Restrepo, pastor of St. Dominic Church in New Orleans, who was among the 100 priests who concelebrated the Mass with Archbishop Aymond, along with 80 deacons, in the standing-room-only congregation of more than 1,100. “So it has affected me. What do I say to that? There’s nothing I can say but just that we are all the church. Everybody’s affected, and it’s just sad that it comes to this.
“I was here to support the archbishop, support the hierarchy, support those victims. We just have to start here to begin cleaning house, whatever that means.”
The archbishop made a point of tailoring his remarks to various groups, first to the victims, and then to the priests, deacons and seminarians present. Turning to the seminarians, he said, “You are not a part of the problem. May I suggest, as the church moves forward, you are a part of the solution.”
Those words hit home for Ajani Gibson of St. Peter Claver Parish, in his second year of theology studies at Notre Dame Seminary.
“That hit me deep because that is the reality of what we’re discerning – to be a priest of God,” Gibson said. “Part of being a priest of God, especially in today’s age, is being a priest of God who is holy, healthy and pure so that these types of things don’t happen in the future.
“The archbishop conveyed the pain and the suffering that we all feel, but he also conveyed hope. The reality of our hope lies in God and in God’s promise that the gates of hell will not prevail. It was definitely a call for us to move forward and really repent and fix the ills that we have.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Father Doug Brougher, 81, a chaplain for many years at Touro Infirmary, said the focus needs to remain on the victims, while priests “remain humble and repentant.”
“This has very much affected me,” Father Brougher said. “It’s kind of hard. I’m fighting a mild depression and trying to be hopeful. But at my age, I say, ‘We just went through this 20 years ago.’ To be Christian is to be hopelessly hopeful. I know God’s with us, but it’s been kind of tough.”
Realtor John Caron said he came to the Mass as a sign of hope for the church to do “the right thing.”
“I know Archbishop Aymond wants to do the right thing,” he said. “I suspect there’s a group of priests in this church that just don’t really care, one way or the other.”
Does he think there’s a chance of the church, as Archbishop Aymond said, purifying itself? “Yes, I do,” Caron said.
“I thought it was a beautiful expression of unity of the people of the archdiocese,” said Daughter of Charity Sister Juanita Chenevert. “I was in tears, really. It was overwhelming to support the archbishop, because I think he is grieving so much. There’s so much to pray for, but as (Vincentian) Father Tom (Stehlik) was saying, we need action, and the archbishop was saying there’s going to be some action.”
Laywoman Theresa Touchet said she came to the Mass because she was so “shocked” at how far the abuse scandal had gone. “The prayer is good, the Mass is good, the counseling would be good, but if it was anyone else who had committed child molestation, they would be in jail,” she said. “And, you should hold priests to a higher standard, anyway.”As secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Archbishop Aymond is a key player in the four-member Executive Committee, and he said, “I’m privileged to be part of it at this critical time.”
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, USCCB president, has asked for a personal meeting with Pope Francis to discuss authorizing an apostolic visitation of the United States “to look at what we’re doing wrong” and offer concrete suggestions for seminary formation. That meeting should be held sometime this month, Archbishop Aymond said.
The bishops also want to create a more effective way for persons to express concerns about how bishops have handled sex abuse cases, and they want a lay board to oversee what dioceses in the U.S. are doing to foster a safe environment for children.
“We really believe by that kind of action, purification of the church can take place,” Archbishop Aymond said. “It has to happen as soon as possible. I do believe we can renew the church. This is the beginning of that. It’s the beginning of our purification.”
The body of Christ has never been more in need of a divine physician.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.