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Church in Crisis

Praying for courage to name the pain

“We are entering into a new ecclesiology. We are entering into a culture socially and ecclesially of accountability. Church leaders must be accountable. Please accept my comments today as part of my being accountable as a pastor. As a pastor I think there must be an openness and an honesty and a sharing about things that are real no matter how difficult they may be.” With these words, a California pastor focused attention on key issues in the sexual abuse scandal roiling the Catholic church.

Msgr. Clement Connolly, pastor of Holy Family Parish in South Pasadena, Calif., said: “This is a time that is good for the church. Bad for the image, perhaps, but good for the church. It is a passage of purification.” In his 38 years as a priest, Connolly told the congregation, he had never “felt the power and the challenge that is abroad today in life. It is a time of painful suffering, but it is necessary to face it, to own it and to share it. Purification is always painful. It always takes courage. It always takes faith. That’s what lies before us.”

Connolly’s stature in the Los Angeles archdiocese is undisputed. He was secretary to both Cardinals James Francis McIntyre (1948-70) and Timothy Manning (1970-85), immediate predecessors to Cardinal Roger Mahony. Excerpts of his March 17 homily follow:

All spirituality is incarnational, which is to say that we pray and we reach out for an experience of God in the place in which we find ourselves and according to the condition in which we live. It is true that we see things as we are, not as they are. It is through the lens of our own experience that the voice of God is heard and the presence of God is seen.

We stand in a place where we are educated. We are free. We can look back and draw from the past and look into the future knowing that we need a renewed faith. It’s a defining time in the life of the church, and we, the privileged participants in that time. I can look back and remember the beginnings when I celebrated Mass in Latin with my back to the people. Those days, if you ate meat on Friday, that was a mortal sin. If you were late for Mass, if you got in after the gospel, you were in sin. Catholics marrying non-Catholics were barely tolerated in the life of the church.

A respectful silence

Discourse [priests or laity discussing the life of the church] under any circumstance was not allowed. And I can vividly recall as a young priest passionate division in the church over a document [issued in 1978] titled Humanae Vitae, which, among other things, [reinforced the church’s proscription of the use of artificial birth control by married couples]. In this day and age, young people full of faith do not struggle with the issues of Humanae Vitae. For better or worse, most of the young people have set [it] aside from their menu of concerns. Now we’re confronted with very heavy moral issues such as genetic engineering or in vitro fertilization and late-term abortions.

There was a time, easily within our remembrance, when only the priest could proclaim the word of God, and people were cautioned from privately reading the Bible.

In those good old days, the faithful exercised a respectful silence and obedience. In those days, the priest was the uncontested oracle, and once the priest spoke, it was definite and it was final. But the world has changed. We have changed. And when we have changed, the church therefore has changed.

However, the changes did not in any way infringe on our fundamental belief and attachment to the Eucharist, Eucharist being our central prayer, which defines us as Catholic.

Therefore, the presence of priests in the life of the church, in liturgy, in prayer, and in pastoral practice, to this day is still essential in the minds of the people. In recent times, the shortage of vocations to the priesthood has become an enormous concern. There are thousands of parishes in the United States that do not have a resident priest.

In very recent times, the media has directed intense attention to scandals in the priesthood. It is in this environment we pray. It is from this place that we begin to discover who we are as a church. And when we want to discuss and discover who we are, it is important for us to touch our feelings. Feelings reveal who we are. There is a broad range of strong feelings now in the life of God’s people and perhaps even in society at large. Feelings of anger, shame, embarrassment, outrage, feelings of betrayal and, sometimes, feelings of cynicism.

Facing the feelings

It is unwise to neglect a recognition of these feelings. Perhaps some of the troubles we face might be more emphasized, more burdensome because we have not faced the feelings that reveal who we are. It may well be that to face these feelings we might begin to understand or begin to touch the fringes of the feelings of those who have been abused. Feelings of victims, children, young persons, parents, irreparably damaged in the life of the church.

The passage that we are now encountering and experiencing in the life of the church is perhaps more burdensome because it has been neglected up to now. Perhaps that’s why it has a more pronounced character of suffering or pain. The malignancy has become ever so much more grave. It is but a small consolation to know that the percentage of offending priests is very small, and yet it is tragic. Our leadership has failed us on occasion, but we don’t make any progress standing in public judgment over leadership.

However, not to speak now, not to discuss these matters now, may indeed be to compound and continue the malfeasance.

We are in ecclesiology of accountability that’s new to us. We are praying for the raw courage to name the pain, to own it and to share it. We are seeking a wisdom to know the difference between a moral failure and a pathology, a sickness that is irreversible, that is a critical understanding. What was once thought to be a moral failure is clearly now a pathology possibly irreversible. The icon of the priest has been badly damaged, maybe broken.

[The priest], once sent to preside over a community, is now sent to be blessed by the prayer of the community, to be anointed by the faith of the people, and to be sustained by the forgiveness and the embrace and the confidence and the trust of the people. There is more courage. There is more faith. There is more accountability. There is more ownership of the church by all those who claim to be part of the body of Christ.

In some miraculous way, the coming together of God’s mercy and God’s love, [in and through the] Holy Spirit in the church, we will find our way to a new day where there is more honesty. Pray, and pray for your diocese.

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2002