On holiness in the midst of the flames

Clarion Herald Guest Column

Several weeks ago, when I first heard of the contents of the recent Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, I needed to find a quiet place. It was hard to stomach what I had just heard.

I was disgusted and angry. But, I think the emotion that I felt most of all was a deep sorrow. It was a sorrow that so many victims who looked to the church for grace instead found the most repulsive contradiction of Christianity that one can imagine. It was a sorrow that so many clergy had failed to understand the value of their vocation. And it was a sorrow that so many Catholics would be tempted to reject Christ’s Church now that its filth was on public display.

As I stepped outside into the quiet to process and pray about what I had just heard, I felt a keen conviction that this was an important moment. This wasn’t just another Church scandal that would disappear in a few weeks. In fact, the scandal is only beginning. This was a purifying fire. Jesus, who claimed his reason for coming was to “set the world on fire” (Lk 12:49), was letting the church burn.

Jesus won’t abandon church

In recent weeks, it has become only more apparent Jesus is indeed letting the church burn from top to bottom. And, while the thought of so many Catholics hurt and betrayed by the church ought to shake us, we can take courage in the trust that Christ desires to heal every effect of human sin. Even now Jesus will not abandon his church. As I prayed outside that evening, I realized the value of this moment: out of the flames of scandal and sinfulness, the Lord is looking to forge a generation of saints. Ours is the generation of purification. Ours is the generation of renewal.

The words of St. John Paul II at his last World Youth Day Mass in 2002 came to mind.  Following the scandals in early 2002 that shocked and staggered the American church, the press wondered: Would the aging pope address the scandals at what would likely be his final World Youth Day? Barely able to keep his head up due to debilitating health, a microphone was brought to the seated Holy Father. He slowly began his homily.

Pope John Paul II’s words

Acknowledging the deep sadness and shame over the hurt done to so many young people by members of the clergy, nevertheless John Paul encouraged them not to give up on the church.  “If you love Christ, love the Church! Do not be discouraged by the sins and failings of some of her members.”

Energized by the vocal support of the over 800,000 young people in attendance, the Holy Father then began to conclude with a stirring reminder: “At difficult moments in the church’s life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent. And holiness is not a matter of age, but a matter of living in the Holy Spirit.”

It is this reminder of the Holy Father that has come to me over and over in the past several weeks. We are not passive spectators in this scandal. Whether bishop, clergy or lay person, our role is vital. The call to holiness is urgent and it is a call that affects every single member of the church. We are not merely called to watch the church burn down, but to beg the Lord to personally set us on fire with a zeal for reparation, for holiness and for evangelization.

Desire to be a saint

In recent days I have witnessed the Lord setting on fire with His Spirit both clergy and laity. In a conversation with a room of young people, I heard a local priest respond to how this scandal has affected him.

“I used to just want to be a good and decent priest,” he began. “But now, I don’t want to be a good priest. I want to be a saint. I want to be holy.”

In another conversation, a local priest related to me that he and at least seven brother priests were beginning a weekly holy hour together in reparation for sins done by the clergy and for healing for victims of clergy sexual abuse. Maybe you have heard of #sackclothandashes, a movement of Catholic laity agreeing to offer prayer, fasting and sacrifice for reparation over a 40-day period.

Let us take advantage of this important moment in the church’s life. Many victims of sexual abuse await the justice and healing they deserve. Many dioceses await bishops after the heart of Christ. Our prayers and fasting are not in vain. In fact, Christ promises us the power to “move mountains.”  Now more than ever is the time for increased prayer. Now more than ever is the time to embrace holiness. Christ is counting on us!

Alex Lorio is a theology teacher at Archbishop Rummel High School and a volunteer youth minister for Catholic Charismatic Renewal of New Orleans.

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