Author’s note: I was asked by a friend who is a recent convert to the faith to share my take on the Catholic Church in all her messiness. I’m just one Jesus girl who loves the Lord and who cannot imagine life without the Eucharist, and therefore her Church family, and this is my take. Whatever you read in this, know one thing for sure. You are loved beyond all measure by God. Always. -ST
“Who is going to save our Church? Do not look to the priests. Do not look to the bishops. It’s up to you, the laity, to remind our priests to be priests and our bishops to be bishops.” –Archbishop Fulton Sheen
When I was an 8 year-old at St. Lawrence Catholic School, I remember a morning filled with genuine heart ache—and a few tears too. You see, nearly every member of my fairly large class had some important role to play in the all-school mass being organized by Miss Mecklenburg’s 3rd grade class. I did not. Cue the pathetic meltdown. I have always worn my heart on my sleeve, been a little too emotional for my own good, and the truth is, the Lord used this amazing teacher to help draw me to Himself that year. It wasn’t about “I’m a better reader” or “that’s not fair” for me on that sad little morning. It’s a moment I’ve never forgotten (almost 40 years later) because that little girl was just authentically sad about not being able to do something special for Jesus that day. I wasn’t worried about what any of my classmates thought of me, I was just this innocent child who wanted to show the Lord she loved Him. The truth is, it never occurred to me that my ridiculous sniffling might cause my teacher or my classmates to disapprove or think less of me. Eight year olds don’t think like that. With children this age, the one thing you can you can almost always be assured of is authenticity. In good news, I’ve since come to realize that Jesus can see our hearts, even if we don’t get picked to bring up the gifts at mass.
To this housewife from Indiana, therein lies the critical disconnect in this current crisis in my beloved Church. When we forget that in the end, it’s all between us and our Lord, we are lost.
In all walks of life, at all ages and stages, our humanity inevitably oozes forth. When you’re eight, it’s transparent. Unfortunately, as we age, we often lose the ability to be truly genuine. That means that on the edges of the humanity continuum, there are some childlike (genuine) souls who pour out their lives working to be the face of Jesus, and others become more wicked or manipulative and end up reminding us more of Judas.
Miss Mecklenburg? She was the former. She noticed my pained face and pulled me aside. She promised another role, another day. I knew in that moment, because of her kindness, that God had something else in mind for me (and the fact that it involved me getting a brand new green velvet dress for Christmas mass was pretty cool too). She also taught us about satan that year. In fact, she is the only teacher I can remember in 12 years of Catholic school, bringing up the topic of evil in such a courageous way. She encouraged us, when we encountered the diabolical (my word, not hers) in our lives, to speak the name of Jesus, aloud, repeating it if we must. “He will flee if you do that.” I recall that conversation scaring me, as I had not considered the presence of darkness in that way. However, she loved us enough to speak truth, in love. I have always used her sage advice.
Unfortunately, on the other end of the spectrum, far from everyday heroes like my 3rd grade teacher—across all walks of life– are folks who violate all goodness and commit acts which I would characterize as gravely depraved. Turn on CNN. The profound lack of moral integrity exists in all types of folks including parents, teachers, coaches, police officers, doctors, priests, bishops…and the list goes on. This article is not really about the fact that there are deeply disturbed criminals among us. You already know that if you ever watch the news. A neglectful mother doesn’t make us all neglectful, a careless doctor doesn’t make them all careless, and an abusive priest doesn’t make them all abusers, obviously.
The challenge for me is, what about the rest of us, and what about people in positions of moral authority who fail to lead? What is our collective responsibility? There are (I would argue, otherwise decent) folks who overlooked the misdeeds of Dr. Larry Nasser. There are fellow officers of the law who performed their own roles lawfully but who noticed their co-worker’s propensity for violence or racism and said little. There are shepherds in our church who turned a blind eye to abusive clerics at all levels.
“Cry out! Cry out with a thousand tongues! This world is rotten because of silence.” –St. Catherine of Siena
When we avoid all controversy, choose the path of least resistance, and work to keep from offending everyone, it sets us up for a lukewarm life. We all want to be in the inner ring, so to speak. If we who are essentially good reveal the content of our hearts, we fear we will lose approval, acceptance, or prestige. When we have too much to lose, we tend to compromise, lest we lose our upward mobility, our power, or whatever it is we are valuing more than truth.
Our religious leaders are a lot like many of us in that way. We all want an invitation to the party. We feel we have too much to lose to make a stink. Have you ever had a close friend or family member you knew needed honesty, but whom you feared losing even if you lovingly tried to point out a serious concern? Did you go ahead and speak the truth or did you decide it wasn’t your place?
When our Bishops have this mindset, though, it’s a huge problem. Their failure to act on their moral authority in a holy way undermines the life of the Church. Discretion seems to be the word they love more than they should. It’s probably partly what landed them in pink hats, actually. We are to be impressed when they speak like elite academics. The problem is that when they are insulated from genuine communication with the laity, when they insist on formal letters from the priests in their diocese who have urgent issues to discuss, when they are long on administrative skills and short on pastoral experience, when they are positioning themselves instead of shepherding real people, it gets us precisely here.
I don’t want a confessor who assures me “it’s ok” when I commit a serious sin. I want mercy and forgiveness to be sure, but also I need fraternal correction. I’m looking for Christ in that interaction. I have a holy, courageous priest and other friends willing to do that in my life.
Guess what? Our leaders need the same. Some of them have forgotten who they are and to whom they ultimately belong. I’m not suggesting our priests and bishops start sending out their cell phone numbers to everyone. You know what though? That would be standing alongside your flock, huh? Right now, a little more authenticity and courageous leadership would sure be a breath of fresh air.
I’ll leave it to the most holy, clever and creative of the bunch to find a way to be the salt and the light and show us the path forward. However, we must demand honest and courageous shepherds! Indignation and righteous anger have a place at the table right now for us who sit in the pews. In the midst of this diabolical masterpiece unleashed on us by the devil himself, though, I vote we cry out every day like I was taught in 3rd grade and call upon our Savior by name. Let’s just keep crying out to the Lord. Why over complicate things? Pray! I read once that even Pope John XXIII, now a canonized saint, would pray before bedtime in a childlike manner and say, “Oh Lord, I’m going to bed. It’s your church. Take care of it!”
“The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine—but for unbelievers a proof of it’s dignity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.” –Hilare Belloc
ABOVE: Bl. Stanley Rother
Because a funny Irish priest once told my mom, “Ye gots to leave ‘em with a wee bit of hope”, let me give you a shining example of a saintly shepherd by whom I find myself inspired. Oklahoma native, Stanley Rother, became a priest who eventually served the poor in Guatemala. A dangerous civil war broke out and all religious were targets. He was urged to leave. He defiantly refused. On July 28, 1981, he was attacked and killed in his rectory. Shortly before he died, he explained why he was staying with his people, despite the incredible courage and fidelity it must have taken to stay with his flock and lead at an impossible time. He said, “A shepherd doesn’t run at the first sign of danger.”
Amen to that. To all you holy priests and bishops out there, I stand with you. You are heroes who bring us the sacraments, without which, we cannot live. I urge you to remember this is no time for weakness and I want you to know of my daily prayers for you. Thank you for all you do each day. Truly, I love you amazing men!
To those who have been abused and victimized by evil people, my prayers are for your healing and for justice.
Bl. Staney Rother, first martyr born in the United States, PRAY FOR US!
Footnote: For those in the area, Fr. Don Wolf, the cousin of Bl. Stanley Rother, will be coming to give a first person account of his holy and inspiring life on Oct. 23 at 7pm at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Carmel, Indiana. It’s a free event, and all are welcome.