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I have lived as an active, practicing Catholic for 35 years now, and in that time I've witnessed several huge "revelations" from the Catholic Church about heartbreaking abuse of members at the hands of its clergy, the most recent being the grand jury report covering six out of eight dioceses in Pennsylvania, my home state. (The quotes I put around "revelations," are quotes of anger and sarcasm, as the reports always include damning evidence of fellow clergy who, though not directly abusing, were complicit in its continuation.)
And as it happens every time such a "revelation" occurs, I find myself swirling down the same drain of despondent questions: Why do we as a Church continue to allow this to happen? What is wrong with our leadership that they can't fix, once and for all, this grave systemic sin in our midst? Is my best form of protest to leave the Church, or is it to stay and advocate for reform?
The last question is the most fundamental, and no matter my disgust, dismay, or despair, I always elect to stay. Why? Because in my 3.5 decades of churchgoing, my participation in very human parishes constantly reveals to me that the true Church is not the gilded halls of Vatican City, but the humble communities that strive, together, to make sense of a crazy world and a mysterious God.
Here are just some of the ways my churches have revealed the Body of Christ to me:
- My childhood parish taught me that I had the ability to participate in lay ministry from an early age. I lectored, I sang, I served, all alongside other lay ministers who were using their gifts, talents, and interests to make manifest the Kingdom of God on earth.
- My college parish underscored how a safe and welcoming community acts as foundational glue that binds its members through love, respect, and shared worship.
- My time at a cathedral parish demonstrated the transformational and transportive power of liturgy, when prayerfully curated readings, music, and homilies created a serene solemnity that heightened my contemplation of mystery.
- The parish where I met my husband exposed just how much influence an ordained minister can have over a parish community, in this case dramatically changing the tenor and personality of the church (in my opinion, in an exclusionary way) through force of will and exercise of power.
- The parish I now attend illustrates the Body of Christ each week in a literal way: We all join hands through and across the pews to pray the Lord's Prayer together. And every.single.week, I well up when we do it. Because in that moment we really do become one body, welcoming every "imperfection" our society rejects and empowering our lay leaders to emphasize social justice so all might experience this tangible expression of grace somewhere in their lives.
In this spirit, I share with you the letter I plan to send to Pope Francis, as well as adapt for my bishop in Arlington and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). I am but one cell in the Body of Christ, but cells agitate and move and work in concert with one another. So will I do for my Church in my insignificant way, because it can and must do better in the name of the God and Christ we claim to follow.
Letter to His Holiness, Pope Francis re. the Catholic Church's Sexual Abuse Crisis
Dear Your Holiness:
In light of yet another dramatic unveiling of clergy sexual abuse in America, I -- an actively practicing American Catholic woman -- write to you insisting on your bold, courageous, and creative leadership to address this systemic sin.
For too long, offending clerics' love of power (and the community's near-idol worship of them) has blinded our ordained leaders to the heinous crimes happening in their midst and clouded their conscience-driven judgment. Every level of church hierarchy -- from you, Your Holiness, to the Spiritan priest who leads my parish -- must unequivocally denounce and renounce the systems and bureaucracy that encourage complicit silence and criminal behavior.
While our collective prayer is certainly essential to the entire Church's healing process (as you called for in your recent letter), swift, visible, and lasting change led by righteous leaders must accompany it, or else their apologetic words are merely that: words.
As you prayerfully consider how to enact this change and demonstrate the Church's core commitment to the Body of Christ, please also consider the following as part of your discernment:
- how you can encourage lay members, particularly women, to rise up and assume Spirit-driven, fruitful leadership within their faith communities;
- how the Church's response might continue to divorce pedophilia from homosexuality within its discourse, and continue to show sincere, loving support for gay religious who lead chaste and celibate lives;
- how existing charters, procedures, and processes for identifying and prosecuting criminal abuse can be enforced, improved, and made absolutely transparent, so that no other child of God need experience the trauma that so many have endured over the long life of the Church.
Prayer #326: For Our Wounded Body
As a body bears its wounds -- bruised, bloody, lacerated -- so our Body of Christ limps toward You now. How endless our capacity for self-harm, how raw the wailing for our injured parts.
Our only comfort right now is that we remember You love us, broken and bestial as we are, and that You heed our collective moan and wordless plea for healing. Salve our hands, our feet, our very souls, so that we regain the strength to limp back out into the world and transform our scars into marks of redemption.