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Correspondent Chuck Colbert left a message on my answering machine Thursday morning updating the happenings in Boston. He ended by saying, “This isn’t what we’re used to for Advent.” It’s been an unusual season for those deeply affected by the sex abuse scandal. We originally had intended to skip lightly over the scandal for this issue, believing that we all deserve a reprieve from this awful episode.

But the story keeps tumbling on us -- more documents, Cardinal Bernard Law goes to Rome, nearly 60 of his priests sign a letter asking him to resign, Voice of the Faithful breaks with past reticence to also call for his resignation and rumors swirl that by Friday the cardinal would be offering his resignation to the pope.

And that’s just Boston. Much more is underway across the country, with prosecutors in numerous locations digging for the same kind of documents that have been unearthed in Boston, and the church in California is braced for an unnatural disaster in the form of a lawsuit avalanche after the New Year (see NCR Briefs, Dec. 13).

I find it difficult to sink into the sense of expectation and wonder that the season normally inspires. One of the more tragic results of the scandal is the loss of credibility the church has suffered in the wider culture. We’re in the middle of an open-ended war and about to embark on another one in Iraq, and the bishops have had precious little to say about any of it. There are no leaders who can be looked to on the national church scene. So many of them are understandably preoccupied with the sex abuse mess.

So what is the image, the metaphor, that helps us understand? Can we apply this liturgical season’s fascination with light to the sordid tales that we have been hearing, to the extended abuse of authority and the breach of trust that has grown between our leaders and the larger Catholic community?

Perhaps, I’ve told myself, the distress I feel is rooted in a somewhat incorrect view of the season, one that, despite better instincts, seeks tranquility, not the nervy beginning of a difficult journey, one that wants to tease out the happy ending.

In the course of those thoughts I came across the appreciations by Professor Harvey Cox and Claire Schaeffer-Duffy of, respectively, Ivan Illich and Philip Berrigan (Pages 16 and 17). It has become clear over the past year that the sex abuse story is perhaps incorrectly, if conveniently, named. The story is really about power and control, exercised in secret, sometimes violently, by an elite, closed group of leaders accountable to no one. It is banal in the sense that misuse of power is nothing new in the annals of powerful organizations. It has captured the imagination widely because it has been fashioned and overseen by those who, from positions of privilege, make such a public display of being moral arbiters, who make such exacting moral demands of their flocks. Berrigan and Illich were of a different order. They, too, could make exacting demands, but from positions of extreme vulnerability. And each paid a price. They were, if you’ll allow, the kind of building blocks over which the institution stumbles. But their scandal is that they asked questions, pushed the institution to accountability, dared to dream. Cox writes of Illich, “Some people thought Illich was either a bothersome gadfly or a wailing Cassandra. He was neither. He was a prophet, a teacher and a realistic dreamer.” I think those words could be said of Berrigan, too, for both, in their individual ways, followed faith to its roots, to its most radical applications. Schaeffer-Duffy writes of Berrigan that he “clearly was a student of the world, always analyzing the events of his time in the context of his faith. The combination spared him from incapacitating despair.”

I found a strange comfort in the stories of those two giant, authentic Catholics. The hierarchy, I am certain, will eventually take care of itself and, if its members learn anything from the current troubles, will allow essential reforms to occur. No doubt there will be more intrigue before the press finally moves from the chancery doorstep. But lives like those of Berrigan and Illich invite us into something far more powerful and essential than intrigue. They lure us to deeper mystery, to the enticing paradox of the Bethlehem story, to the double- edged sword of Christian wholeness and vulnerability.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 2002