Myles N. Sheehan, S.J.
Given on the 4th Sunday of Lent
I was in Boston last weekend to give a couple of presentations. The presentations went fine. What did not go fine was discovering the deep mess of the Church in Boston over sexual abuse of children and the assignment and reassignment of priests who were known as child molesters. Over the last few days, the Boston Globe has had stories about Jesuits at two high schools who are accused of behavior that ranges from inappropriate to molestation. People in Boston are calling for the resignation of the Cardinal. Tensions are very high in parishes. Morale is very low among priests. While in Boston, I was saying at the Jesuit residence at Boston College and a Jesuit friend came to visit. He told me about an incident at a parish where an elderly priest during Mass who, to direct him which way to go, put his hand on the shoulder of an altar boy. The altar server, during the liturgy, jumped back and yelled: “You get your hands off me. My parents told me never to let priests touch me.”
I find myself torn with a number of feelings. First is revulsion and disgust over child abuse. Second is anger that kids were repeatedly exposed to danger. Third is anger that our Church has been so badly hurt and that so many people now distrust and despise the Church. Fourth is a strange feeling of worry that people might think all priests are perverts simply because they are priests. Fifth is the reason I am trying to preach today. I do not have any conclusions, I do not have any solutions, I am not able to come up with a plan for reform. But I figure the people of God need to hear from a priest that this is a terrible mess and that the Church has been badly wounded. I know that the most important thing is to say clearly that what has happened is terribly wrong and there is a need for a searching examination of conscience and sincere prayer for conversion and forgiveness. It also is too early for victims, their families, and maybe ordinary Catholics to forgive, because anger runs deep.
St. Paul, writing to the Church in Ephesus, urges: “Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them, for it’s shameful even to mention the things done by them in secret; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible ... “ St. Paul then quotes what was probably a portion of a very early hymn used by the Church “Awake, O sleeper and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
It is not a bad thing for the Church, its leaders, its priests, and all its members to recognize these lines are meant for all of us. Exposing the shameful works is tremendously painful and will bring forth enormous amounts of anger. The anger has such deep roots: there are many people who have turned to priests and the Church for healing and acceptance and have received no comfort, rather not a finger was lifted to remove an impossible burden. So when one hears that child-abusing priests were reassigned and celebrating the sacraments denied to others it is just too much to bear.
“Awake, O sleeper and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” St. Paul’s admonition to the Church of Ephesus about works of darkness and the need for our actions to be visible and transparent makes it clear that the Church has always been in need of repentance, reform, and conversion. The history of the Church is filled with deeds of darkness. What is now coming to light in Boston is another hideous chapter. I am not suggesting that makes it all fine, I am trying to remind myself that Christ will continue to work in and through the Church despite its inadequacies. And part of that work is to bring shame and repentance for what is wrong.
Today’s story of the man born blind from John’s gospel relates a cure of Jesus. In John’s theology, the Jesus who is revealed is one who is preexistent, divine, and whose every action reveals the presence of God in Jesus. The man who comes to see is interrogated by Pharisees and scribes who are, in fact, the ones who are blind to the revelation that comes through Jesus and whose powerful signs of healing should bring them to see hat Jesus, God has come to save his people. Coming to see the presence of God is not easy. It means being able to recognize that God is active in ways that upset us and in places that surprise. The blind man sees and comes to worship Jesus. The Pharisees and scribes are certain of the clarity of their vision and thus, remain in the darkness of sin.
The prayer I have today is that we come to see the presence of God more fully in what is happening in our Church. I pray that we will approach it with maturity and balance, recognizing that sin, and scandal, and secrets are regrettably part of our history as Church but also realizing that we are called to open our eyes and be cleansed. I pray that the anger and contempt not lead to witch hunts and the glib acceptance of sweeping generalizations. I pray that anger at the Church over the way children are treated not stop with the Church and that our society begins a serous examinations of the pervasive nature of sexual abuse of children. The sexual molestation of children is not something that is limited to a few twisted men who perhaps thought they found a refuge or haven in the Church.
But most of all, I hope that we pray hard for this Church. We can debate issues of ordination, and clerical discipline, and transparency of Church structure, and the need for more inclusive leadership. But we also need to listen, not only to each other, but to pray for the grace from God that we reveal to us not only sinfulness but also show us the way to ongoing reform and conversion for the Church. God tells Samuel not to anoint one of David’s brothers as king, even though Samuel found him very impressive. But the Lord said: “Do not judge from his appearance ... because I have rejected him. Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.” We must judge that what has happened with the sexual abuse of children and the way it has been handled as terribly wrong. Yet we must not leap to a quick solution. Lent is a time that calls us to look deep in our hearts. We need to pray for the grace to ask what the Lord wants and then the courage to do it.