Didn’t you know how important they were?

Like many Catholics these days, my mind has been so full of the Church’s sexual abuse scandal that I hardly know what to do. I hardly know what to write. I hardly know where to begin.

But over and again as I read the accounts of abuse and cover-up, I return to one elemental, heart-rending cry:

“Didn’t you know how important they were?”

I imagine the abuser staring at his prey, the bishop staring at a pile of unwelcome paperwork, and I want to shake them both by the shoulders.

Those children – didn’t you know how important they were?

When I stare at my own children, when I notice their outlines – the places where their hair, their skin, their eyes meet the world, I see the brush-strokes of a master. I see art. I see treasure.

I stop to consider my children – their personalities, their histories, their particular sets of talents and challenges – and I am struck by the enormity of their presence. Each, so full of his own ideas, so full of possibility, seems to contain an entire universe.

Someone stared at those children, the ones who were abused, that way. Their mothers, probably. But if not their mothers or their fathers, then definitely God the Father, who could number every hair on their heads.

Didn’t you know how important they were?

Didn’t you, Father? Didn’t you, your Excellency? Your Eminence? Didn’t you, lay brothers and sisters who knew things, but didn’t tell? Who suspected, but didn’t help?

Didn’t you know how important they were?

That’s the angriest, most sincere cry of my heart right now. It has called out many times, in many situations, regarding victims of terrorism, war, abortion, racism, harassment, and other sin. But this time it’s got an edge.

It is harsher for being directed at people who should have known better.

Our Church is the one that speaks about the sanctity of life from conception to natural death. It is the one that protests at abortion clinics and detention centers and execution chambers. It is the one that testifies to the importance of each individual life, no matter how humble.

Men who promised to serve that Church should have recognized the sanctity of their victims’ lives – of their subordinates’ victims’ lives.

Instead, some treated those children as objects. Abusers saw them as pathways to pleasure, as perks of power. They were things to them, to be enjoyed and used up.

Those who covered up the abuse saw its victims as problems to be smoothed over, as causes of scandal rather than results of it.

Too many of today’s bishops seem to see abuse victims primarily as public relations disasters.

Didn’t you know how important they were?

Don’t you see it now? Now, when we are so well acquainted with the sins of the past? Now, when we can see how those sins wreaked havoc on victims’ lives? Now, when we see the effects of those sins rippling outward, driving people away from Christ?

We are a Church in crisis. Because of the abuse and the cover-ups and the sin that undergirds it all, yes. But also because of what this situation says about us – about what we value. Too many of us have cared more about trappings than people. The trappings of office, of power, of achievement, of reputation, even of liturgy and politics.

While our society has grown ever more factionalized, ever more tribal, so have we in the Church. And the danger here (the relevant danger; there are many) is that when we think in terms of tribe, we cease to properly value individuals.

Priests may rush to the defense of their brother priests, bishops to their brother bishops, conservatives to the champions of their causes, liberals to theirs. We don’t want to think ill of our kin. We hate to think that a favorite son of our neighborhood, our city, our nationality, our side could possibly do evil. We are convinced that our goals are so worthy, they’re worth brushing aside the faults of their proponents.

What I want to know is, will we keep walking this path? Will we read news articles and bishops’ statements and the Vigano testimony and believe them only insofar as they align with our preferences? Or will we – clerics and lay people alike – resolve to seek the truth wherever it leads us?

Will we remember the cry: “Didn’t you know how important they were?”

Will we value the victims of the past and present? Will we value the youth of today? Will we be brave enough to challenge the people and the systems we’ve loved? Or will we cling to trappings, unable to let go?

 

To listen to an audio recording of this post, please click below:

 

These Walls - Didn't you know how important they were

 

Reeling

Yesterday morning I sat in Mass and cried.

I cried for those who were abused by their priests. I cried for those who were not believed, who were hushed, who were too scared to come forward.

I cried for the parents who could not protect their children – the ones who found out too late that they had misplaced their trust, the ones who didn’t know how to help their babies pick up the pieces.

I cried for those who have been, and who will be, pushed away from Christ by this disaster.

I cried as I imagined evil making its way through this mess, spurring men and women to do its bidding: sneaking, touching, hurting, pressing, obscuring, shushing, pretending, lying, demoralizing, denying, dividing, destroying.

I cried for those who cooperated in the evil, for those who still do.

As I walked up to receive the Eucharist under the gaze of Christ crucified, I cried for Mary, whose feast we were celebrating. Mary, who witnessed her own son’s abuse. While the evil one might not have targeted Christ with sexual abuse, he did use humiliation, betrayal, pain, and exhaustion. He used mankind to subject Mary’s beloved son to physical, emotional, even spiritual torture.

I cried for Christ, who bore all that suffering for us two thousand years ago, and who must surely continue to bear it today.

Men who were charged with bearing Christ’s light into the world instead chose the enemy’s darkness. People who should have protected His lambs instead left them vulnerable to wolves.

~~~

Like so many Catholics, I’m reeling from the news of the last few weeks. First (former) Cardinal McCarrick, and now hundreds more in Pennsylvania. Except of course there’s no “first” about it. This is a problem we’ve known about for more than 15 years.

Do I get to reel now if I didn’t back then?

Back then I thought it was awful, but it didn’t seem so overwhelming. It didn’t come with one-thousand detailed pages. It didn’t (to my knowledge) involve people I knew.

Today it feels so incredibly heavy. So pervasive. I’m reading the report (and if you’re a Catholic who wants to be part of the solution, you should consider reading it too). I’m feeling all the horror of the evils I’m learning about. And I’m experiencing a conflicted sort of disgust from knowing a few of the characters involved.

I’m also seeing it with a mother’s eyes.

I read about these victims and I see my own boys and girls in their places. I cannot grasp how anyone could do such horrific damage to a child. My instinct is to want to save these kids, to pull them out of their abusers’ clutches, to spirit them away. I don’t know why our bishops didn’t have the same impulse.

Such evil. Such evil has persisted through all of this.

A few years ago I wrote about the evil I saw in ISIS’s actions and I connected it to the evils we cooperate with in our own everyday lives. I wasn’t thinking about the clerical abuse crisis when I wrote it, but re-reading it now, I might as well have been.

I am stunned to trace the evil in these cases: It is a winding way swirling about the abuser, his victims, the adults who were supposed to protect them, the superiors who should have stopped it all. It continues through each life it touches, causing mental, spiritual, and physical anguish that can last a lifetime. It jumps from those individuals to others around them.

Do I get to reel now if I didn’t back then? I don’t know. Maybe I’m a hypocrite. But I’d rather be wrong in this direction – wrong not to have fully accepted the depth of the problem in the past, but moving to shoulder it now – than to persist in my milder disapproval.

I am sorry for not feeling then as I do now.

I am sorry for wanting the issue to just go away.

I am sorry for treating those who brought it up with anything other than respect.

If you have been personally impacted by the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, please allow me to say I’m sorry – for what you went through, for my own actions and inactions, for the sins and insufficiencies of my Church.

I am so sorry.

 

To listen to an audio recording of this post, please click below:

 

These Walls -- Reeling

If I Believe (or Why I Remain Catholic)

Last week Elizabeth Scalia, who is Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos, issued a call for Catholic writers to answer the question, “Why do you remain Catholic?”

This “spontaneous symposium,” as Ms. Scalia described it, is a reaction to the recent Pew Research Center report on America’s Changing Religious Landscape. The report found that “The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing.”

Of particular interest to the Catholic Church, Pew reported that the share of Americans who identified as Catholic dropped from 23.9% in 2007 to 20.8% in 2014. (The number of Americans not identifying as members of any faith jumped from 16.1% to 22.8%.)

Even more concerning to the Church, perhaps, than that three-point drop, Pew reported that “[W]ithin Christianity the greatest net losses, by far, have been experienced by Catholics. Nearly one-third of American adults (31.7%) say they were raised Catholic. Among that group, fully 41% no longer identify with Catholicism. This means that 12.9% of American adults are former Catholics, while just 2% of U.S. adults have converted to Catholicism from another religious tradition. No other religious group in the survey has such a lopsided ratio of losses to gains.”

Enter Ms. Scalia’s invitation: “Why do you remain Catholic?”

She’s listed a number of folks’ responses in this post and more in this one. Check them out, or search the hashtag #WhyRemainCatholic to see how other Catholics are responding.

I think it’s a terrific question.

But it’s not the one that occurred to me as I followed coverage of the Pew report’s release last month. For me, another question arose, prompted by the image of a jam-packed school gymnasium on Easter Sunday.

The Churches That Were Never Built

The parish we were attending at the time had an old, lovely, small church. On any given “regular” Sunday, the pews were full and so was the tiny vestibule. But on Easter Sunday, not only did the parish need to add Masses in the church to accommodate the crowds of Catholics who seemed to keep coming, coming, coming out of goodness-knows-where, it also had to add Masses in the parish school’s gymnasium.

The day was always carefully choreographed: two Masses were celebrated simultaneously, cars occupied every square inch of the parking lot, and volunteers would usher one group of Mass-goers off the property just in time for another to be ushered on. It was an impressive operation. And I was always grateful for the uptick in numbers that made it necessary.

But one Easter I looked around at the crowds and wondered how many more churches we would need to build if these Catholics were to attend Mass regularly. I thought of those still at home, too – those who couldn’t even muster the will to celebrate the most important day of the Church’s calendar. What if all those fallen-away Catholics were to fully “come home”?

I was used to looking around at a full church on Sunday mornings. I was used to thinking of the Church as vibrant and diverse and full of young, squealing babies. I was not used to thinking of the churches that had never been built.

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Rippling Away From the Center

That image has stuck with me over the years, especially as I’ve thought about loved ones who have drifted – or who seem to be in the process of drifting – away from the Church.

When I stop to consider Catholics as I know them, I envision a drop of water falling into a pool: The drop sinks down and splashes back up to create a thick circular ripple, which, over time, spreads out into thinner, gentler, wider ones. At the farthest reaches, they are barely noticeable.

I know few of those whom I would consider to be inhabitants of the first ripple: those who are really, purposefully devout, who never miss Sunday Mass or Holy Days of Obligation, who make it to lots of daily Masses too, who are whole-heartedly committed to following the Church’s teachings and who work hard to create homes and families that nurture the Faith. (I seek out such people online. I admire them and strive to be more like them.)

I’m much more intimately familiar with (and probably feel more at home with) those of the next ripple: those who are regular Mass-goers, committed members of their parish communities, but not as exact about meeting every obligation or following every teaching.

I love so very many in the next, wider, ripple: those who feel attached to the Church and would undoubtedly identify themselves as being part of it, but – whether due to disagreement with the Church or the simple slide of placing priorities elsewhere – find themselves attending Mass more infrequently as time goes on.

I also love many in the outermost ripples, which fade into the still water surrounding them: Many, sadly, were only raised Catholic in a nominal sense, often by parents who would drop them off for CCD in the years they were to receive a sacrament, but otherwise offer no instruction in the Faith. Others were once more devout, but have since become disenchanted with the Faith (or with the Church), due to any number of (sometimes frustratingly insignificant, sometimes heartbreakingly valid) reasons. Most seem to no longer feel any connection to the Church. They might consider themselves Catholic because they feel like they should be categorized as something, but others wouldn’t even claim the label.

A Different Question

When I saw the results of the Pew survey, I was concerned about the Church’s reported losses. But more than that, I was saddened because I knew that many who identified themselves as Catholic – who would not have shown up as losses on the Pew survey – were likely to be barely hanging on. So many of them are in the outer ripples, so few of them in the inner. If Catholics dropped by three points in the period from 2007 to 2014, how many more would we drop in the next seven years?

Honestly, I don’t feel like the Church has much to fear from a rising, alternate system of religious belief that will poach our members if we’re not careful to modernize in x,y,z ways. I think we should fear losing people because they no longer believe.

The pew numbers might bear this out: “Today, 59% of those raised Catholic still identify with Catholicism as adults, while 41% do not. One-in-five people who were raised Catholic now say they have no religious affiliation, while 10% identify with evangelical denominations, 5% with mainline denominations and smaller numbers with other faiths.”

So of those once-Catholics who no longer identify with the Church, half no longer identify with any religion at all. Given the huge jump experienced by the “no religious affiliation” category (or the “nones”) in 2014, I see every reason to expect that this half-share will increase.

“Among adults who currently have no religious affiliation, there are more former Catholics (28%) and about as many former mainline Protestants (21%) as there are people who were raised with no religious affiliation (21%).”

Of course, the Pew report makes clear that the “nones” aren’t necessarily unbelievers. But the share of nones who are atheist is rising (indeed, the percentage of Americans identifying as atheist nearly doubled in the 2007-2014 period), and I can’t help but wonder whether there’s a long, slow slide from believing in a Faith, to believing in no particular Faith, to maybe believing in something, to not believing at all.

So for me, the question generated by the Pew report isn’t, “Why do I remain Catholic?” It is “If I believe, then what?”

Whether a result of stubbornness or habit or some worthier motivation, there is no question of me leaving my Church. The struggle isn’t between staying and leaving – it’s between conviction, caring – and the apathy that could lead me down a long, slow slide to unbelief.

If I Believe

I think for most Americans, belief in God is a given. It’s how we understand the world: we’re framed by God and country and society. Our givens float around in the background somewhere, vague and harmless.

That’s probably the basis of my own belief, at least – Of course I believe! That’s what people do, right? We say ‘One nation, under God.’ We celebrate Christ’s birth on Christmas and His resurrection on Easter. We pray when people are hurting and we find comfort in the idea that those whom we have loved and lost are enjoying their eternal rest in heaven. It’s just what we do.

If we’re Catholic, our givens might also include Mass every Sunday (or every Sunday that’s convenient), an acknowledgement that the Eucharist is special, a fondness for Mary, and a tendency to rely on a certain few saints (especially St. Anthony when we’ve lost something or St. Joseph when we’re trying to sell a home).

But do we delve further?

Do we function entirely In This World, heavy emphasis on country and society and work and busy schedules and family obligations and sports and music and, and, and? Are we content to let God float there in the background, ready to be pulled out when we face a crisis?

Or do we stop to think about it? About Him?

Do we stop to ask ourselves whether we really, truly, actually believe? If we do ask, and if we indeed find that we really, truly, actually believe – then what? How does our belief impact our lives?

Those are the questions that stop me cold. They scare me a little. If I strip away those givens, those expectations of general, vague, publicly-accepted belief, what do I have left?

I can’t tell you how I came by it (I can only assume it was a gift from God), but I have found a firm conviction lying underneath that surface. I’m grateful for it, because if I were only to rely on the feeling of faith to assure me that my belief is real, I would undoubtedly sometimes think I had none at all. Sometimes the feeling comes, strong and warm, and other times it fades to nothing.

But I do find that conviction.

I believe that God exists. I believe that He made the heavens and the earth and little ol’ me to boot. I believe that He sent his only, much-beloved Son to earth to save us from our sins. I believe that Christ suffered horribly so that we – you and me and that person who cut us off in traffic – might one day enjoy eternal life. I believe that Christ instituted His Church here on earth and that he intended it to always remain One. I believe that humans have free will, which means that we’re just as free to do evil as we are to do good. I believe that our highest calling in life is to choose the good and the right, over and over again until we have united our will to God’s, which is goodness itself.

So if I believe, then what?

If I believe that God created the heavens and the earth and me and my family too, then the least I can do to thank Him is to show up for Mass every Sunday. And say Grace Before Meals. And strive to develop a decent prayer life.

If I believe that God sent his only Son to save us from our sins and that Christ died a horrible death so we might live, then I need to take responsibility for my sins too. I have to work on my faults. I have to ask for forgiveness. I have to forgive those who hurt me.

If I believe that Christ instituted His Church here on earth, then I have to follow its teachings. Even when they’re inconvenient or unpopular – even when they make me strange to those around me. I have to do my part to build up the Church – even when it seems unpopular and strange, too.

If I believe that humans have free will and that we are called to choose the good and the right, then I must strive to do just that. Again and again, over and over, ad infinitum. And I have to – in whatever small ways I can – encourage others to do the same.

When All is Stripped Away

At the end of our final day, however far away that is, what will we find when we strip away those things Of This World?

Will we still cling to country and society and work and busy schedules and family obligations and sports and music and, and, and?

Will we grasp at the God we’ve been content to let float in the background?

Or will we not need to grasp, because we’ll know that He’s been right there beside us the whole time? Will we have lived our lives in such a way that the living has enabled us to return to him as to a dear, old friend?

That’s what I want. For myself, for my family, for all those Catholics who inhabit the wider, gentler ripples – and for you too.

So there is no question of me ever leaving my Church. There’s just me deciding, over and over again, to live my life as if I believe. Because when I strip away the givens and the expectations and the trappings – I do.

These Walls - If I Believe (or Why I Remain Catholic) - 2

On Authority

I have always known (or at least, my brother has always told me) that I’m a bit of a dork. Growing up, I never quite felt like I fit in with people my own age. With babies and old folks, I was golden. But from the ages of, say, 8 to 25 (dare I admit it lasted that long?), I felt a general sense of unease with my peers. It’s a good thing I’m not the least bit shy and I have a pretty healthy sense of my own worth, because if I’d been a timid, insecure little thing, I imagine that unease would have made for a miserable childhood.

As it was, I had a very happy childhood: I had a loving family and lots of close friends who were kind, funny, smart – all sorts of good things. When I did encounter classmates who saw through to my unease with the middle school sense of humor or the teenage sense of fun and gave me a hard time about it, I was usually able to stand up to them.

My adolescent social standing, though, was not helped by the fact that I was born with an innate distaste for anyone and anything “popular.” You know all those images of screaming, crazy-out-of-their-mind teenage girls waiting to greet the Beatles? And subsequent crowds of girls swooning over New Kids On The Block, Justin Bieber, etc? Umm… yeah… that wasn’t my thing. Not only did that obsessed-fan behavior kind of baffle me, but I had a knee-jerk reaction against anything that smacked of a fad. Torn jeans? Six-inch-high bangs? My response was almost desperate: “No! It’s a fad! Get awaaayyy from it!”

I also didn’t have the teenage rebellion thing going for me. When my classmates were sneaking out to go to parties or driving around with forbidden friends, I was… exactly where my parents thought I was. Behaving nicely.

I know – I probably sound very boring to you. (And yes, my brother would assure you that I was/am.) But I promise that I do indeed know how to have fun, if perhaps a tamer version of fun than you prefer. In high school my friends generally congregated at my house, playing volleyball in the summer, board games in the winter. In college my house was also the gathering place, full of friends and good food. It still is.

Reflecting on all of this afterward, in my late twenties or so, I couldn’t quite figure it out. Why did I have no rebellious impulse at all when it came to my parents, but a strong aversion to being influenced by my peers?

After a while, it came to me: It’s all down to authority.

Because really, I know how it feels to have that rebellious, “Don’t you tell me what to do!” attitude. I experience it frequently. I experience it when I feel like all the lovely ladies are obsessed over some new trend in fashion, when everybody’s talking up a new diet or exercise regimen, when all the mommies seem to be jumping on some new parenting method bandwagon, when my Facebook feed is alight with the latest “it” political cause. I get this stubborn urge to do just the opposite of whatever it is everybody is so excited about.

I know – it’s pretty ridiculous. You don’t have to tell me that it’s just as silly to dislike something because it’s popular as it is to like something because it’s popular. I know that. And I recognize that sometimes (many times?) I reject something that I might otherwise enjoy, just because everyone else seems to be enjoying it. Silly.

When it comes to rules handed down by institutions, however, I’m usually onboard. Parking signs, using your blinker every single time you turn, underage alcohol laws, college rules regarding who is allowed on which floor after which hour, Church precepts on sex or marriage or mass obligations… I’m fine. I have zero rebellious impulse when it comes to people/institutions I perceive as having authority over me. (That is not to say I never struggle with following their rules. I simply feel no urge to rebel against them.)

The lack of a rebellious impulse in that respect is part of my nature. It’s just how I’m built. But I also have a rationale for my obedience to authority.

Let me pause here and draw attention to that word for a moment: Obedience. We don’t seem to like it much these days, do we? I certainly don’t like its relatives – follow, conform, imitate – when they pertain to people in whom I do not recognize authority. We are each the protagonist of our own story, are we not? I am the central character in my own life. I determine how I view the stage; I decide the direction I take. So shouldn’t I also be the authority? Why should I be obedient to someone or something else?

Back to my rationale… As an example, let me sketch out my line of thinking insofar as it relates to the Church: Do I believe that God created the heavens and the earth and little ol’ me to boot? Yes. Do I believe that God’s son, Jesus Christ, came to earth to live among us and that he suffered a horrible, painful death to redeem humanity – including me – from sin? Yes. Do I believe that Christ established the Catholic Church and that it continues to hold the authority He gave it? Yes.

If I really believe those things, what choice do I have? What is more important to me – to view myself as the ultimate authority, or to submit to the authority of the Church? I choose the latter.

I recognize that to a lot of people – especially young people, and perhaps especially Americans – the idea of submitting oneself to the authority of a church is… shocking, maybe? Horrifying, even? Inconsistent with our society’s secular ideals and sense of personal independence?

Okay, then – call me a rebel. (If one can be both rebel and dork, that is.)

I would wager that very few people lead lives completely independent of outside influence. Few are genuinely self-determined, free spirits. Most people submit to something – perhaps to parental or institutional authority, perhaps to the advice given by experts in the sciences, perhaps to the trends handed down from celebrities. We may not think about it much, but we follow, we conform, we obey. It’s just a matter of to what.

Certainly, my personality (my “Don’t you tell me what to do, popular person!” personality) predisposes me to favor obedience to parents/church/state over peers/culture. But I still make choices. I think. I assess. I keep my eyes and mind open, aware that parents and institutions make mistakes. That sometimes they act unjustly. That evil exists and each one of us is vulnerable to it.

So I walk the line, I suppose. Perhaps it’s not a very neat philosophical ending. When I recognize authority in a person or an institution, I obey. I trust. I do not rebel, but I do watch. Trust and watch: I can do both.

When I do not recognize authority, however, I run. So if you ever want to get me to do something, for heaven’s sake, don’t tell me it’s popular.