Repentance of the Church
Back when I young priest, I was approached by a man who told me he had left the Catholic faith twenty-five years earlier. “What kept you away?” I asked. “You,” he replied. Then he explained, “I don’t mean you personally, Father. I mean the Church.”
Somewhere along the line, he and many others like him became disaffected or disillusioned because of a bad experience or because of a belief that the Church had nothing to offer. At the same time, some who oppose the Church’s teachings have used the scandalous behavior of certain Catholics to say that those teachings and the Church herself should be rejected.
The gentleman who approached me came home, but many of our sisters and brothers still have not and our task now is to invite them back. As part of this effort, it is critical that we individually and as a Church repent of those things that might have led them to leave.
In the Creed, we profess that the Church is holy – and she is. The mystical body of Christ – which includes the saints in heaven, the faithful in purgatory and those of us living on earth – is pure and holy. The Church is sanctified by her nuptial union with Jesus Christ and by being filled with the Holy Spirit. Yet, we know that this transcendent reality of holiness has a human dimension with human imperfections. The Church is a holy nation, but her members on earth are sinners.
Jesus has established his kingdom on earth, though not in the fullness of its glory. It is truly here and will be fulfilled at the end of time, but in the meantime it is still growing and that growth is sometimes compromised by the scandals that arise from the sinfulness of the members of the Church. Our realization of this paradox is an occasion for working to remedy the evil, for purification and renewal.
At the last Jubilee in the Church, on the eve of the new millennium, Saint John Paul II recognized the need to acknowledge in an explicit way the wrongs done by those in human history who have called themselves Christian, many of which are listed here. This is necessary not only so that we might receive the Lord’s pardon, but so that those who have been offended by these failures might be healed and the way is opened to conversion (Incarnationis Mysterium, 11; Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 33-36).
During this current Jubilee of God’s mercy, it is incumbent that we likewise examine our collective conscience and take responsibly for the things we have done, or failed to do, that might have presented a counter-witness or otherwise had a scandalous effect. Following the lead of Saint John Paul, let us confess again “our responsibilities as Christians for the evils of today. We must ask ourselves what our responsibilities are regarding atheism, religious indifference, secularism, ethical relativism, the violations of the right to life, disregard for the poor in many countries. We humbly ask forgiveness for the part which each of us has had in these evils by our own actions, thus helping to disfigure the face of the Church” (Homily for the Day of Pardon, March 12, 2000).
The gravest of these wrongs in our time is the scandal of betraying the trust of children by violations of their innocence or otherwise by failing to care for them. The unspeakable crime of sexual abuse can leave behind substantial emotional and spiritual scars, and the Church can never express deeply enough our sorrow and contrition for the abuse itself occurring and also for the failure in various quarters to respond as they should have when it came to light. Even though we personally might not have been involved and while it is true that child sex abuse is a crisis throughout the secular society, we all have a responsibility to see that this evil is exposed and steps are taken to help survivors to heal and to protect children now and in the future.
We need also to acknowledge that in recent decades in our Catholic institutions there has been “explicit dissent, miscatechesis or personal conduct that tends to draw people away from the communion of the Church,” as I discussed in my pastoral letter, Being Catholic Today: Catholic Identity in an Age of Challenge (22). In addition are instances of a harsh word, indifference to someone’s needs, and disunity, including various factions within the one body of Christ. All these things, which both clergy and laity might engage in, could lead someone to think that the Church is not for them. For this, we must implore God’s mercy and his grace to do better.
In repenting, we must also remember that the scandalous behavior of a few Christians will not invalidate the Church. Much less will it void the kingdom of God. Our moral failings must not cloud our belief in the truth of Christ’s teachings. And believing in that truth, we must not fail to proclaim it.
The greatest of these teachings is that the Lord loves us, and “when faced with gravity of sin, God responds with the fullness of mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus, 3). So, in this Lenten season, let us acknowledge our sins so as to prepare ourselves to receive that mercy in the Paschal Mystery and the grace of new life.