The Desolate City:
Life Among the Ruins
By Rev. Joseph F. Wilson,
Priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn
I was in a rush a few days ago, and had phoned for a cab to take me to the airport. I hopped into the car and gave the driver his directions, and we took off. But within a few minutes I became acutely aware of what was playing over the car radio; it was a vulgar skit, in which two commentators were crudely teasing a third, twisting his words to insinuate that the third man was homosexual. The skit was getting more and more vulgar and explicit, the volume was turned up far too loud, and it became evident to me that my driver was playing a prank.
"Would you turn that garbage off," I said to him.
And, with a smirk, he did so, saying, "I guess you really don't want to hear that, what with all these scandals in the priesthood."
What else can one expect? Here in New York City, we wake up every morning and find news about clerical sex scandals headlined in four major daily newspapers. Even more damaging is the coverage of how the Church has dealt with these problems -- or rather, avoided dealing with them. I wasn't too angry with the cab driver. He was, at least, open and honest about his contempt. I am saving my anger for those who really deserve it.
There is no need for me to rehearse here the sordid facts of this scandal. The secular press has revealed a great deal, the Wanderer coverage has been excellent, and, frankly, we have only just begun: this is going to get worse, and worse, and worse.
It is a terribly depressing, demoralizing situation. An archbishop who, over the course of his eighteen year administration of a major see, presided over a travesty in which a sexual predator was repeatedly reassigned and found new victims insists, as of this writing, that the healing of his archdiocese necessarily involves that he stick around to continue presiding. A bishop who was assigned to replace a predecessor who had been removed for sexual scandal is himself found to be a sexual offender. The bishops are clearly aware that they have a problem, but one suspects that they think it is bad publicity. Nobody anywhere, as far as I can see, seriously thinks the bishops would be dealing with this clergy sex abuse situation were it not for the heinous publicity. Yet the bishops are surprised at the ferocity of the public reaction; I think they actually wonder why everyone is mad at them. The laity are scandalized, the clergy demoralized, the Church's enemies have their darkest suspicions confirmed.
And the victims, and their families -- one simply wants to weep in frustration. Over the several years that I have followed through the press these stories in Dallas and Boston and elsewhere, one thing I have noticed as a common thread is that the first step is rarely the lawyer's office, still less the press. The victims and their families weren't looking for publicity. They came first to the Church; the contact with the attorney and the press only came after the pastors of their Church had stonewalled them, after they found that Father Bob had not been relieved of his duties but was still buying ice cream cones for little boys in a parish at the other end of the diocese. And now, of course, now that we have managed to destroy whatever trust we had built up over the generations, I would guess that the lawyer is the first thing a family thinks of. The victims and their families are hurt at being treated as though they were the problem. What a travesty -- and the Church has only itself to blame.
If I might make a suggestion, it would be this: anyone in the Church who is in a responsible position -- whether archbishop, bishop, provincial, personnel director, pastor, principal, director of religious education -- anyone holding such a position who has been part of the problem in terms of how these matters have been mishandled needs to resign. He does not need to put people in the embarrassing position of trying to dance around his intransigence. He needs to resign for the good of the Church. If one is ordained and in this situation, there will always be some quiet corner to which one can go and where one can quietly serve, and by patient, humble, quiet service gradually rebuild the reputation and put back together the shattered pieces of one's useful ministry. Not to realize that this is what is called for is evidence of a breathtaking personal impoverishment. At the point when my being here is no longer a service, there is no longer any reason for my being here. That should go without saying, but evidently it does not, and so I just said it. Get the hell out of the way!
And now, to turn to the purpose of this essay -- how we should live as faithful members of the Church through this turmoil.
My thoughts have turned so often, in recent days, to the words of our Lord, "I have said this to you that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world (John 16:33)."
While we might be tempted to think that these headlines in the press are the worst thing imaginable for our Church, this is not true. A fever is the sign that the body is fighting the infection. These terrible abuses have been going on for years and years, quietly, insidiously, under the surface. People were hurt, the innocence of the young corrupted, lives were ruined, families torn apart, and the Church was often unresponsive, for generations. Indeed, as I review the sentences I have just penned, I realize that the truth is even worse than that. These things have not exactly happened "under the surface;" faithful readers of the Wanderer, for example, have read these stories and stories like them for forty years, week after week. To pretend that these and other abuses could go on for so long because they flew under the Church's radar would be dishonest. So much of this has appeared in print already, and was met with indifference.
Nor does this scandal of clergy sexual abuse exist in a vacuum. It takes its place quite neatly among a host of other problems which characterize the Church's life in this year of our Lord 2002. Forty years ago, we dismantled an extremely effective method of catechesis, the handing on of the Faith from generation to generation. We replaced it with coloring books, rap sessions, freethinking, freewheeling and finger painting, and that is NOT an exaggeration. At least two generations of Catholics have grown up almost entirely ignorant of Catholic doctrine, and securely in possession of a do-it-yourself morality. Seminary formation was turned on its head; Religious communities, indoctrinated in the necessity to get in touch with their feelings and seek personal fulfillment through Rogerian and Jungian workshops, dissolved before our eyes. Children have had their innocence injured through mandated sex education programs. We allowed our colleges and universities to be secularized, and our beautiful liturgy to be vulgarized to the point where it often seems like an especially vulgar karaoke night.
All of these problems are on display for all the Church to see, and have been for two generations, and not only has there been no effective effort to address them, there has been no ATTEMPT to effectively address them. The Pope himself can, and has, written exhortations pointing out abuses in the Liturgy which need to be corrected, directed that a searching evaluation of American seminaries and religious communities be carried out... and the seed of his directives fell stillborn on the rocky soil of this Amchurch, our American Church, for our leadership was totally uninterested in shepherding an authentic renewal. It would have been too demanding, too costly. As searingly dreadful as these current scandals are, they fit neatly into the context of our postconciliar denial of reality. How often have we heard that tedious, worn-out word "renewal" chanted like a mantra in the face of this pervasive disaster.
This is not a moment to despair. It is a moment of grace, a moment of hope. If ever there were a moment to despair -- and there never is -- it would have been back when these things were going on unnoticed and unchallenged, worsening from year to year. Today is a time of grace, and of hope, as painful as it is to see these things in the daily papers. The whole cumbersome, clanking machinery of denial is breaking down before our eyes. The time of denial is coming to a close; the ice has run out on the postconciliar happy hour. It has been two whole months since I've heard anyone say, "renewal," and that, in itself, is a miracle.
Genuine renewal, the working of God the Holy Spirit, is a marvelous grace which comes at a time of great pain, as you'll see if you look back at the Gregorian Reform, the Carolingian Reform, the Franciscan and Dominican movements, the glorious flowering of holiness which was the Counter-Reformation. Generations from now, after the Holy Spirit has raised up the saints of our generation and poured His dew upon our dryness, Catholics will look back on our day and wish that they had been alive to witness to the Faith today. But you and I ARE alive today; it is our privilege to offer that witness.
Each of us needs to begin again, to lay hold of the helps God has given us for our own sanctification. In the Eucharist we have our greatest treasure, in Eucharistic adoration a tremendous privilege, in Confession a great help to holiness. What if, throughout the Church, faithful souls committed themselves to receiving Holy Communion each Sunday and Thursday (the day of the Last Supper, the establishment of the Eucharist, and of the sacred Priesthood), and offered a decade of the holy Rosary each day, for the intention of the authentic Renewal of the Church? What if each of us made a personal commitment to make it part of our daily prayer to read a chapter of the Gospels, with the intention of coming to know Jesus more deeply?
Our Catholic Faith is a tremendous Gift. Those outside the Church will no doubt find our profession of faith more bewildering than ever in light of these clergy scandals, and what is the remedy for that if not our joyful, committed witness to the Faith that enrichens and gladdens our lives? After all, if one were to abandon that Faith because of the sins of the clergy, one might just as well have jumped ship as soon as one discovered that Judas betrayed Jesus! Catholicism is far more than what those outside of the Church perceive. It is not a list of rules and commandments, of things we must do and things we mustn't. It is far, far more than a mere institution governed by a body of, ahem, rather obtuse potentates. Catholicism is the loving self-revelation of God to us; it is His gracious pouring out of His very life to us in the sacraments. It is a deep, and wide, and fruitful way of looking at all reality, and seeing all things in light of the Mystery of the God Who became Man, and shared our life, and died for us, and Who rose, and lives. Once one has understood that, everything is changed, everything is transformed, everything is seen in its light, and it is this which is the source of our joy. It is this upon which we need to focus, this to which we need to witness.
Now, this is not going to make the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops go away, more's the pity. Each year, November will still come, and nature will start to die; the days will grow cold, and short, and dark, leaves will fall off trees, bushes will shrivel, the ground grow hard, birds will fly to more hospitable climes, the winds blow cold and sharp, and we will know that the bishops are gathering for their annual November meeting. This is the way it is, my friends -- the cross is the gift God gives to His friends, as the Cure of Ars once said. If you prefer W.C. Fields, I believe it was he who said, "That's the way the cookie crumbles." Let them meet, let them deliberate, let them publish position papers on whatever they care to, enlighten the western world on the economy, and peace, and racism, and add another twelve volumes to the Lectionary, and eliminate more holy days, and solemnly authorize us to high-five each other at the sign of peace. Whatever they choose to do is so utterly beside the point that our best refuge from the anger they might provoke within us is hilarity at such idiocy. I did not decree their irrelevance; they did. It was not our decision that they would do absolutely nothing, over two generations, to address the problems afflicting our beloved Church. Let them do whatever they choose to do; it won't matter in the least. But while they are gathered in solemn session, deliberating on whether to permit priests to wear blue vestments for advent, or merely to authorize us to wear the "bluer hues of purple" for advent while saving the "violet-er hues of purple" for Lent, let's you and I get on with it -- the wonderful privilege of living our Catholic Faith.
We mustn't lose heart. The raging fever is the sign that the body is fighting the infection. This is a moment of grace, a moment of hope; it is only when we are brought low, made mindful of our need for God, that authentic renewal can come about. He has told us these things so that in Him we may have peace. In this world we will have tribulation, but we must be of good cheer; He has overcome the world. Our good Lord Jesus has overcome the world, and He, our risen Lord, will surely, as He always does, send the saints through whom He will effect the true Renewal.
Fr Wilson was ordained in 1986; he presently serves in St Luke's Church in Whitestone, N.Y., where he is curate and Director of Education of St Luke's School.