Imagine praying intently while all alone, and then hearing something – not a little voice in your head or heart, a but one outside of you which you hear with your ears. This happened to St. Francis many centuries ago. He was praying in the dilapidated church at San Damiano when he heard physically God ask him to rebuild and repair his church.
At first, he took this command literally, thinking that God meant that he needed to repair the church building there. In time, he realized that the invitation was far bigger, and probably a lot scarier, than taking on a religious building in ruins. It was to help bring about reform in the church at large.
Today, we need to also hear that same call to create reform, as our church is now in ruins from one abuse scandal after the next. In St. Francis’ time, there was no small share of corruption that he was intent on taking on, though it was of a different kind. Today, it is clericalism, abuse, and secrecy which are choking the church like a giant python.
In the last couple of weeks, there have been letters and homilies in response to the current wave of abuse crisis news. Pope Francis issued a letter, made a number of statements during his trip to Ireland, and included, in one Mass, petitions that were specific to abuse.
Our bishop in the Diocese of San Jose, Patrick McGrath, published a statement on the DSJ website which you can find here. While it conveys our communal sense of horror and grief and it calls for prayer, it falls short in that it does not promise transparency, which is sorely needed. The diocese here, like everywhere in the U.S., needs to open up its files and make known all credible accusations. (Note: the diocese later provided a list of those credibly accused.)
As a diocese, we can and must do more than say words of commiseration. We must act.
Also in San Jose, it was heartening to hear the homily of Fr. Brendan McGuire of Holy Spirit parish in Almaden. You can hear his homily on the parish’s website, or watch a video of it here: https://youtu.be/rvemKFa3g-8. (I would have embedded it in this article as it is very worthwhile had that link been available.) Sadly, it does not appear on the Valley Catholic website. Something far blander sits in its place. We can only guess that Fr. Brendan’s brave and honest comments were too much for the diocese, who wants to smooth things over, perhaps?
This is not something that can be smoothed over. It needs to be faced head on. And we, the laity, and some brave priests and religious, need to force the point. It is, after all, the church of the people.
Last week, I attended an insightful, helpful talk at Santa Clara University, given by Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, on the abuse crisis and what can be done. He spoke of putting the victims first, of the bishops and priests repenting, of transparency.
The main points of what he said can be found in an article on the National Catholic Reporter: https://www.ncronline.org/news/accountability/signs-times/four-things-church-must-do-respond-sex-abuse.
The pope has gone beyond just making statements. He has been meeting with victims, he has been praying with them, making inquiries to learn what has happened. Pope Francis has more to do in the areas of transparency, and it seems he needs to put some systems in place, but he has been a leader among bishops.
For most U.S. bishops, it appears – and I hope I’m wrong – that it’s just a lot of talk. And we, the faithful, are sick of talk without action.
Do you remember Eliza Doolittle’s frustrated song to Freddy about how he’s all talk and no action?
Words! Words! Words!
I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do?
Even where there are task forces, there are very few dioceses with a compensation fund set up for the victims. The only one I’m aware of the the Archdiocese of New York, which has shown outstanding leadership to put its money where its mouth is. (If the Diocese of San Jose has such a fund, I am not aware of it.)
Masses across the country were a little emptier last weekend. The faithful are disgusted with the way bishops have handled the crisis and the way too many bishops and priests have behaved. We need lay leaders to be on boards to which bishops are held accountable and to force better behavior.
We have been very fortunate to have Bishop McGrath as our local bishop. But he has been slow to act with transparency in this issue.
The first step in most dioceses – including our own, I believe, is to get a lay board involved in diocesan oversight, or a board which at the very least includes the laity. Perhaps it should also include members of religious orders who do not report to the bishop (they report to their religious superiors instead, a different chain of command). It is the laity and other outsiders who will break the bonds of secrecy and clericalism, will force transparency, will protect our children and the vulnerable. The board’s job should be to help effect transparency and accountability. It should also advise the bishop to do what must be done to help most us through the abuse cases. The listening sessions encouraged by Fr. Reese are a good idea, if a very difficult one for most bishops.
We should also remember that many priests and religious are innocent and also reeling from the last 2 – 3 weeks of events. We need to encourage them to take breaks as needed. No one should be “on” 24 / 7, yet when we go into crisis mode, that is exactly what can happen. Burnout is a challenge in normal times. Care to avoid it must be intentional now.
My hope is that all of us who consider ourselves Catholic will hear the call to reform. Those guilty of abuse and cover up need to repent, and part of that, it seems, will be giving up some of the power they are used to having. Just as God spoke to Saint Francis in the church in ruins in San Damiano, so the Holy Spirit is whispering to us all today: rebuild my church. How can we change course for our diocese, our church? That’s what we need to ask ourselves so that we are not also just words.