As a former Fleet Street hack, I was asked soon after my studies for the priesthood had begun: “Wasn’t that an extraordinary change, going from journalism to the cloth?” The temptation was to answer: “Yes, in some ways leaving the gossip column to become a Catholic priest felt like abandoning a mildly disdained occupation to join what many of one’s contemporaries believe to be a criminal organisation.” That was five years previous to the explosion of revelations of sexual abuse within the archdiocese of Boston, and a full two decades before the new disclosures of gross betrayal of trust and abuse of authority which have been shaking the Church on earth to Her foundations in recent weeks.
Fleet Street was not exactly a saint factory. But the transgressions one was likely to encounter there – heavy drinking, professional jealousy, and other indiscretions which are not so hard to guess – were generally of the variety that can be attributed to the frailty of fallen human nature. In contrast to this, the recent Grand Jury report on sexual abuse in America details events of such wickedness and depravity as to leave the most cynical tabloid reporter shaken.
All of this can only be disheartening for anyone who loves the Church. That pastors who have been ordained to be the living image of Our Lord and Saviour on earth could deliberately do such harm to those little ones whose angels behold the face of their Father in Heaven defies words. The resulting crisis of credibility which has hobbled the Church’s mission of evangelisation in recent decades can only have been exacerbated wherever the institutional response has been to issue defensive official statements crafted by expensive lawyers and spin doctors. With the latest revelations, and the promise of worse to come, the Church has experienced a paradigm shift in which PR-speak has lost any power it might once have had to reassure.
The Church is not a criminal organisation. Yes, history furnishes us with examples of clericalist mafias of various types which have managed to hijack Her hierarchical structures in the service of their own agendas. It was the Oratory’s own Baronius who coined the phrase saeculum obscurum (dark age) to describe the corrupt papacies of the tenth century which later Protestant historians would label “the Pornocracy”. Despite the transgressions of Her members, however, the Catholic Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of mankind. She is where we find saving truth in its fullness, and where we encounter Our Lord in the Sacraments and receive Him in His entirety in Holy Communion. A supernatural field hospital in which our sins are forgiven and the wounds that they inflict on our souls are healed, She also produces saints today – among those laity and religious who devote their lives to the poorest of the poor, among priests who give their lives sacrificially for the salvation of their parishioners’ souls, among bishops who in some parts of the world risk their lives daily in the service of their flocks, and among all those “ordinary” Catholics who live the Beatitudes heroically from day to day.
After Our Lord scandalised the Jews by insisting that He is the Bread of Life and that we must eat and drink His flesh and blood if we are to have eternal life, His disciples left Him in droves. He turned to the twelve Apostles and asked “Will you also go away?” Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we have believed and have known, that thou art the Christ, the Son of God.” If we now begin to witness a new exodus of members from the Church in response to revelations of dreadful scandals, we need to keep these words of the fisherman inscribed on our hearts. We must hold tight to the Faith – not some counterfeit version of ambiguities and compromises as peddled by the compromised, but the Catholic Faith in its fullness, as handed down from the Apostles and believed and lived by the Saints. If you find that current events have made you doubt your own place in the Church, please find a priest whom you trust and open your heart to him.
The chastisement which it seems the Church on earth must endure for Her renewal is a most urgent call to sanctity to each one of us. A body is only as healthy as its individual parts. As living members of the Mystical Body of Christ, we contribute to Her health by responding to that call more generously and lovingly. Any hope of restoration of the Church’s credibility in our time rests on a living witness to our Catholic Faith, which means living in charity and devoting ourselves ever more wholeheartedly to the service of the most needy and vulnerable in our society. At the Oratory, we have various study groups to encourage parishioners to deepen their understanding of the Faith. What brings our community and parish to life, however, is the active witness to Our Lord’s redeeming love that we show in the support we give to the disadvantaged, and the hope we bring to the lost. So this is a challenge to us. One initiative for which we are grateful is the Wilfrid Faber Counselling Service, which provides support from trained counselors at the Oratory on a charitable basis, supporting the priestly work that the fathers are supposed to be doing here. Among those who find support from this valuable resource are victims of abuse.
We should pray for the victims of those shepherds who have turned out to be wolves. The consequences of this betrayal include ruined lives of isolation, sustained anguish and sometimes suicide. May they encounter the healing presence of Our loving Saviour from which they were driven by pastors who were demons in disguise. We must also commit ourselves to reparation. These sins cry to Heaven for vengeance, and we cannot know what torments they added to Our Lord’s Passion. This is a time for much prayer, fasting, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Masses of reparation. Let us also take up the prayer to the St Michael the Archangel, whose feast we celebrate this month, for the restoration of Christ’s wounded Church, and for the protection of the innocent:
Holy Michael, the Archangel, defend us in the day of battle. Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do you, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the wicked spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen
Fr Julian Large