The following article was published in the November 18, 2018 Christ the King bulletin.
As I write this on Monday morning, the Bishops gathered in Baltimore for their annual meeting were just told by the Vatican NOT to vote or take action on measures that would hold them accountable, address the injustice of abuse, and restore trust until a meeting in February. More waiting? Couldn’t this shocking news from the Pope have arrived before the first day of their conference? Can we trust the Pope and the Bishops to clean this mess up? Will they ever examine how the molester Cardinal McCarrick rose to such power and prominence? Will the Bishops ever address the fact that the majority of the abuse (80% in fact) has been perpetrated on post-pubescent adolescent males? The abuse is not clericalism but Priests acting unchastely and, in the vast majority of cases, homosexually. What has happened to the Priesthood and to the Church?
I would lose my own faith in the midst of this were it not for one simple distinction, a critical one: The Church is not simply an aggregate of all of its members, a club of individuals. The Church is actually the Mystical Body of Christ. This is why we profess in the Creed that it is “one, HOLY, catholic and apostolic Church.” Have you ever wondered about the inclusion of that word “holy” among what are commonly called the marks of the Church? In every age – but especially now – how can we say the Church is “holy” with a straight face?
To be holy means to be set apart for a special mission by and for God. It doesn’t mean that the institution of the Church is unable to sin or that its members are free from sin. In fact, the Church exists for and is composed of sinners. Rather, the holiness of the Church comes from Christ’s own holiness, He Who founded the Church to continue His saving work in the world. He is the Head of the Church from which the Body, its members, receives its holiness. He is the vine that feeds us, the branches. The Church shares in the very life of God. The Church IS the Mystical Body of Christ (Rom. 12:5, 1; 1 Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 3:6; Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18; Col. 1:24).
I know this distinction may be a bit mystical and perhaps mystifying but allow me to put it another way. Christ clearly and intentionally instituted the Church: “Upon this rock I will build my Church” (Mt. 16:18). He called the Twelve Apostles to be the first Bishops. Jesus called them even though He knew that eleven of them would betray Him: Judas formally sold Jesus out; Peter, the first Pope, denied Him three times; and the rest of the Apostles abandoned Christ at Calvary. They were nowhere to be seen save St. John, the Beloved Apostle, who shielded and cared for the Blessed Mother at the foot of the Cross. Only one Apostle, one primordial Bishop, remained steadfast with Christ and protected the Church at her birth and at her gravest hour. Only one out of twelve Apostles was a good shepherd. One out of twelve! Even Peter, after the Resurrection and Pentecost, erred and dissembled regarding the gentiles and had to be corrected by St. Paul (Gal. 2:11). The Apostles before and even after the Resurrection were sinners. They were not only members of the Church but comprised its first institutional hierarchy.
Here is the essential point: Christ saw all of the Apostles’ future failings and yet He still chose them. He still sees the gross misconduct of many in the hierarchy and still chooses to work through the Church He built. He has seen our own sinfulness, what we have done and, sadly, what we will do, and He still made us and wants us. This is perhaps the greatest scandal: A perfect God works through flawed humanity. Despite our sinfulness and limitations, Christ still wants to work out salvation through us, and our cooperation. Christ is still what makes the Church the Church. Yes, the Bishops, Priests, and even the Pope may disappoint and fail at times, even grievously, but that doesn’t strip the claim that the Church is still the Church. It may even prove that claim, strange as that may sound.
Lastly, YOU, the laity, are members of the Church. The Church is not just the hierarchy, it is every member and you play an invaluable role even if you have not always been appreciated. Admonish the Bishops, pray for the Bishops, encourage the Bishops, serve on Lay Review Boards for the Bishops. Do what you can to demand the unadulterated Truth of the Gospel and the redressing of these wrongs. St. Catherine of Siena was not in the hierarchy or even a religious Sister. As a holy laywoman, she chastised the popes living then in peaceful and luxurious France to return to Rome where they belonged… and they listened to her. You have a unique and essential voice and role in the Church: Use it. The Church and, even more, Christ need you.
If you have been rocked by these scandals – and you should be filled with outrage and anger – you may be tempted to move away from the only Person Who can really see us through them: Christ. The Eucharist is still Jesus. The Holy Word is still the Lord’s voice. Prayer is still conversation with God. Let us not forget the many heroic Saints who have embraced and truly lived out our Faith. I fully understand the temptation to want to give up or flee from the institutional Church because of the scandals but to whom would we go (John 6:68)?.I don’t fully understand God’s ways and I never will but that doesn’t mean I distrust Him.
These are deeply dark days but so was Calvary. The same eternal choice remains before us: We can leave… or we can stay.
Father Damien Cook