20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
A commentator recently suggested that the present abuse scandal is the worst crisis in the Catholic Church since the Reformation. Certainly in the U.S., with one of the most prominent American churchmen of the last century credibly accused of abuse, a rash of new cases coming to light in PA, and closer to home, the situation in Buffalo NY, it’s hard not to see some truth in this.
While it is true that real reform has taken place—most of the cases coming to light now occurred before the measures put into place in 2002— that such abuse could have happened at all, and worse been covered up, again and again, that so-called Shepherds chose to protect themselves rather than the lambs entrusted to their care, even at times, seemingly to throw those lambs to the wolves…has to be deeply troubling to anyone who cares about their catholic faith.
Even if many of the abuses took place in the past, it is we as Catholics today who have to come to terms with the fallout from the scandals. The crisis is made much worse by the strained nature of the relationship between clergy and people since Vatican II—too often a kind of “bad faith” has prevailed.
On contraception, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, so many complex, delicate, intimate questions, people have too often found priests flippantly permissive on the one hand, or rigidly moralistic on the other. With no one to meet them where they are, and help them do the possible, to bring them encouragement and hope, people drift away…or outwardly toe the line but do their own thing, simmering perhaps, with unspoken resentment. In such an atmosphere when the sins of church ministers come to light it’s very easy to disregard the challenge of what they teach: if these “professional” Christians get into such trouble and/or cover it up …who are they to tell me how to live?
So why are we here this morning? Why remain a part of such a broken and conflicted church? When we think of “the Church,” what comes to mind? What are our associations? If we think of “the Church” as we find it in the press, it’s a never-ending deluge of abuse, corruption and cover-up; if we think of our weekly experience of Sunday mass…? perhaps bad music, weak homilies, a lackluster congregation…It may not be very exciting…and yet here we are. At the most basic level, we’ve come, I think, to be fed; we’ve come to receive life, and despite the banality we find on the surface, at a deeper level, we are nourished in a completely singular way, nourished with something we can’t receive anywhere else.
The Church after all is not just, or primarily, a human institution; it is Wisdom that has built this house, the risen Lord Jesus who has set up the seven columns of the sacraments, sacraments that give life and grace no matter how compromised their human minister.
Deep in our hearts we hear the invitation: Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed. The risen Lord Jesus comes to feed us with his life in and through a broken, wounded church of sinners… he is ultimately the one true Shepherd of his flock, and he remains with and for those who eat his flesh and drink his blood in faith.
He gives his flesh for the life of the world: in Guardini’s famous expression, the Church itself is the cross that he carries. He suffers at the hands of the Church. “Whatever you do to one of these little ones, you do to me.” He takes to himself all the shame and violence, he suffers it in himself on the Cross, with and alongside each victim. So if we eat the bread of his body and live with his life, we too will live in solidarity with the victims of abuse. Judgment belongs to the Lord. As he said: “It is inevitable that the stumbling blocks of scandal will arise but woe to those through whom they come! It would be better for them to have a millstone hung around their necks and be thrown into the sea than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”
For all the mediocrity and hypocrisy we might have encountered in the Church, when we really consider our experience, we also find a unique bond of communion, a sense of rightness and belonging, and each of us, I’m sure, a cloud of witnesses, other Christians who have deeply touched and inspired our lives and shown us how uniquely good and beautiful a life truly faithful to the gospel can be. When many were outraged by Jesus’ teaching on the bread of life and left him—those who remained said simply—Lord to whom are we to go? You alone have the words of eternal life—you alone can feed us with the bread we hunger for.
So what are we to do? ‘newspapers lead only to despair’; we can’t “fix” the global church, but in our immediate world, in our parish, among the people we live with, we can work for good, trying to understand what is the will of the Lord ; we can get more involved precisely when it’s tempting to drift away…and we can go deeper in our faith; only the eyes of faith can see Wisdom, even now, re-building her house in the wreckage, the new in the shell of the old; and only faith can hear her invitation to each one of us… to roll up our sleeves and help.