Sinners and saints
What do the recent scandals tell us about the future of the church?
By Susanne Janssen
Maybe you still feel it — this numb pain, like an ache caused by a recent sore that bothers you for a long time. It seems to take an endless time to heal. The recent abuse crisis in the Catholic Church hurts because of its unbelievably sheer scope, and the intentional cover-up of what is even worse than recent scandals in the entertainment industry.
This measure of hypocrisy causes the faithful to be deeply disturbed and disappointed. Priests, people who try to be shepherds guiding the flock, who often preach in favor of a decent, morally upright life, are responsible for the most despicable actions: abusing children, destroying lives, some even publicly discriminating against LGBT people while acting differently in hidden rooms of exclusive circles.
What are the consequences? Feeling anger and losing hope, people may wonder “why not just leave the church?” Personally, this is not an option for me.
Let’s be clear. The church is made of sinners. It has been like this from the beginning: Jesus chose Peter to pasture his flock, knowing that he would deny him three times before the rooster crowed (see Mt 26:34). He called him to lead his church, despite his human weakness.
Throughout history, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has seen all kinds of figures on the papal and cardinals’ thrones — sinners and saints. While the saints helped to bring the church ahead on her journey, the sinners may have slowed it down and caused people to leave the church, for which they will be held accountable (see Mt 18:6).
I have started praying not only for all the victims, but also for all the cardinals, bishops and priests who abused others or covered abuse. But all the past sinners haven’t been able to destroy the church. It’s God’s work, not human, thus she will endure.
The crisis will certainly have an influence on the church’s image and character, bringing back a virtue that has almost been forgotten. Namely, that the church, and with her all her members has to be humble.
“There’s no humility without humiliation,” said Pope Francis in his morning homily on February 1, 2016. He was reflecting on the story of David, the holy king of Israel who became a sinner but did penance and entrusted himself to God again.
This is an ever-repeating story, a lesson each one of us and also the entire church has to learn: we are fragile, and none of us is immune to the temptation of hypocrisy. People in power especially — and in a closed system made up exclusively of Catholic priests — can easily become involved or silenced.
On a much smaller scale, I also have to face my daily hypocrisies: I treasure honesty, but a little lie slips from my lips without hesitation. I want to be open, but have prejudices when it comes to entrusting someone with a task. I cannot be proud or feel superior just because I think I have a higher moral standard than others.
To be clear: this is not an excuse for the horrendous crimes that priests (or lay people) have done and are committing. And those who are found guilty need to be held accountable. But the changes that are needed in the church are structural, and the abuse scandal reminds us of the steps that need to be taken: lay people have to be involved on all levels of the governance of the church, global as well as on the diocesan and parish level.
But besides knowing that God wants a humble church and humble Christians, our dilemma when faced with the church’s imperfections also comes down to a fundamental decision I have to make: am I here for the church or for Jesus? I may have met incredible people who helped me along my way to God, who inspired me and from whom I learned many things: to pray, to understand the teaching of the church, and to live out the Gospel. But eventually my choice has its roots in one “yes” that I said many years ago and that I have to renew every day: a Yes to Jesus, the son of God whom I discovered in the church despite all human weakness and wickedness. For him, I stay faithful no matter what happens.
That doesn’t mean that we should not openly face the wounds, and work toward a holier church that resembles more the plan that God has for her — we should do this, and we have to take active steps to take care of the victims and put policies in place to avoid future abuse as much as possible.
And we should come up with ideas on how to change the current system of governance! A spirituality of communion, proposed also by Saint Pope John Paul II, can help prevent priests and bishops from covering up their mistakes, as it calls the whole people of God to journey together. Many of my priest friends say that, as a parish priest, you can easily end up overworked and lonely; only experiencing real communion and family in the church can help to face temptations and struggles effectively. Do you know what kind of struggles your parish priest is facing? We have to share the burdens of the church together! But in the meantime, every scandal can remind me of all the times I didn’t live up to the measures of holiness either.
These wounds will leave a huge scar. And since these are not new wounds, but only recently discovered, it will take a long time to heal. That’s the price to pay for having ignored them so long. But with the right treatment, these wounds can also give us something new: making the church a bit holier, authentic, truthful and humble. If we put these virtues into practice again, there’s a chance that the church can be again light for the world.
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