The Church Needs Saints

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Fr. Brent Shelton, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Oak Ridge, TN, has allowed an open letter he wrote to be published by blogger Faith Hakesley. The letter reveals his own experience of being sexually propositioned by a priest and his admitted neglect in reporting this behavior to superiors. He also discusses the too often lack of transparency and truthfulness by those in positions of leadership in the Church. I would encourage you to read the letter in its entirety. I am not going to comment on the letter. I think it speaks for itself.

The Vatican has recently updated Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, the section that includes the penal code. The Code includes revisions in the punishments for those who neglect to report abuse and revisions on the abuse of adults, as well as other changes. The sense is that the Code of 1983 was too complicated and failed to adequately address sexual abuse and that it encouraged, or at least allowed, a sense of laxity to prevail when it came to dealing with priests accused of abuse. Pope Benedict XVI initiated the reform of the Code and Pope Francis signed the revisions last month. Crux does a good job of explaining in plain language the most important details.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich in Germany, has tendered his resignation to Pope Francis. The Cardinal gives as the reason his desire to take personal responsibility for his role in the “catastrophe of sexual abuse” in the German Church. All bishops of dioceses are required to submit their resignations at the age of 75, but Marx is only 67. It is always up to the pope to accept or reject a bishop’s resignation. Cardinal Marx has told reporters that Pope Francis has asked him to remain Cardinal Archbishop of Munich for now. Cardinal Marx wrote to Pope Francis, “Only after 2002 and even more since 2010, those affected by sexual abuse have been brought to the fore more consequently and this change of perspective has not yet been completed. … Overlooking and disregarding the victims was certainly our greatest fault of the past.”

The Church has suffered a great winnowing over the last three decades. It has been rough, but it is a good thing. Crimes cannot be addressed if they remain undisclosed. Blisters cannot be healed if they remain closed. They must be lanced and the pus removed. Reforms adopted in the 1980s have certainly resulted in progress, progress being measured in the number of children abused. One is too many, of course, but there is no denying that far fewer children have suffered abuse by those in the Church in the decades since 1990 than in the decades from 1960 to 1990, peaking in the middle 70s. The Church monitors cases of abuse more closely with annual audits, and the culture where cases of abuse were handled only internally and secretly is, for the most part, a thing of the past. But there, again, is that word: “most.”

The problem with leaders is that they like to hold on to their positions of leadership. This is natural. But, in the Church, leadership is supposed to be measured by service. One of the pope’s titles is “Servant of the Servants of God.” Each bishop has three primary responsibilities: to govern, to teach, and to sanctify. Each of these is a means of service to the faithful. It is not supposed to be primarily a position of honor or power, though it is both. When honor and power get in the way of service, there is a problem. Based on Fr. Shelton’s open letter, it is still too often the case for too many bishops and others in leadership in the Church that honor and power become desired more than service. Anyone who thinks this is a new phenomenon has read little Church history (or secular history, for that matter). The Church has survived these two thousand years often in spite of her leaders rather than because of them. Few bishops, even, would deny as much. Few laity, I think, would deny that there are still too many who have not been held accountable for their bad decisions, their neglect, and their irresponsible or even criminal actions or inaction.

The Church needs continued reform. The Church needs good bishops, good priests, and good deacons. The Church needs heroic members willing to speak out on abuse and provide comfort to the abused, as well as to those falsely accused. But, what the Church needs more than anything is saints.

I can do little about reforming the Church. I do not choose bishops or priests or deacons (though I hope to be a good deacon someday). I can speak out, though the occasion has not presented itself to me personally, thanks be to God. I have not met anyone personally who has confided in me that they were abused by a priest, though I hope I would offer comfort. I do know one person falsely accused, and I offered what support I could though, granted, it was little. In these areas, there is not much I can do. But, what I can do is be a saint. Dorothy Day said, “If you do not become a saint, it is your own fault.” We think of saints as extraordinary people, but they are not really. They are ordinary people with extraordinary faith, and faith is a gift from God available to us all. We can choose to believe, and we can choose to beg God to help our unbelief, just as the father of the child possessed by a mute spirit begged Jesus (Mk 9:24).

Do you want to do all that you can to address the scandal of abuse in the Church? Do you want to do all you can to help the victims as well as the falsely accused? Do you want to do all you can to make sure this never happens again to any child or adult? Do you want to do all you can to help the Church heal from this horror? Then, become a saint. Ask our Lord for extraordinary faith. With extraordinary faith comes extraordinary courage to live that faith unreservedly, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Do not settle for anything less.

Lord, give your Church saints!

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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