1) Name the moment:
Not everything can be fixed or cured, but it needs to be named properly. Jesus called this “reading the signs of times”. This scandal, this particular time in our history as a Catholic Church, is a moment of humiliation, a moment of humbling, a moment of pruning. We must begin the process of healing by clearly, and with courage, naming that – and then not, through an over-defensiveness or personal distancing, try to escape the humiliation and what that calls us to.
2) The call to compassion:
Our faith is biblical. So the question is: What does our biblical tradition ask of us at this moment, in this painful situation? First of all, to radiate the compassion of Christ. To carry something biblically means, first of all, to reground ourselves in the non-negotiables of Christian compassion – respect, tolerance, patience, and graciousness.
And our compassion must, first of all, go out to the victim. The cross itself teaches us this. It highlights the excluded one, the one who has been hurt. Empathy must always move first towards the victim. This crisis, however, asks us to take compassion to another level: We are asked too to have compassion for the perpetrator because this person was also a victim and he or she is ill … and ill with the most unglamorous of all sicknesses. Compassion for the paedophile is, I believe, a biblical test as to the real measure of our compassion.
3) Healing, not self-protection and security.
To carry this scandal biblically means too that healing, not self-protection and security, must be our real preoccupation. In the vortex this crisis, what has to be our primary preoccupation? To protect the innocent and to bring about healing and reconciliation. Everything else (worries about security, lawsuits, and the like) must come afterwards.
Part of this too is how we must understand the role of the media in all of this. They are not the problem; in fact, they are rendering us, the world and the church, a great service, irrespective of how painful this is. Granted that sometimes their coverage hasn’t been fair, but that’s ultimately not the issue. Beneath it all, the substance is true.
4) Carrying this crisis is now our primary ministry and not a distraction to our ministry.
There are very few things that we are doing as Christian communities today that are more important than helping the world deal with this issue. If the price tag is that we are humiliated on the front pages of the newspapers and that various religious organisations end up financially bankrupt, so be it. Crucifixions are never easy and they exact real blood! It might well be worth it in the long run if we can help our world come to grips with sexual abuse.
5) Painful humiliation as a grace-opportunity.
This is a moment of purification for the church. Now we’re being pruned, humbled, and brought back to where we’re supposed to be, with the poor, the outcasts.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, before Jesus has his life-and-death conversation with his Father, he invites his disciples to “Watch”. He wants them to learn a lesson. He has just come out of the Last Supper room and he invites his disciples to go with him into the garden. “Watch and pray!” he tells them. But they sleep through it, overcome not by wine or the tiredness that comes at the end of a day, but, as Luke says, “they fell asleep with sorrow”. They fell asleep out of disappointment, as we also often do. And they missed the lesson. Luke captures it in one phrase: “Wasn’t it necessary!” There is a necessary connection between humiliation and redemption. We can only carry this scandal biblically (offering ourselves up on the altar of humility for the sake of the culture) if we recognize and accept this connection, redemption comes through this kind of pain.
This scandal is putting the clergy and the church, where we belong, with the excluded ones. The invitation to us as adult Christians is to help carry this scandal – and not, first of all, to protest our own innocence and distance from it. Carrying it also means that we don’t simplistically project it onto the hierarchy, shrugging and saying: “They have a real problem on their hands!”
We carry that tradition, but we need to carry all of it, not just the wonderful parts. Yes, we stand in the tradition of Jesus, Paul, the great martyrs, and all the grace that has entered history through the historical church. But, we also stand in a tradition that carries murder, slavery, the inquisition, popes who had mistresses, racism, sexism, infidelity of every sort, and paedophilia. We need to carry it all, as Jesus carried everything, grace and sin, good and bad, without protesting his innocence, even though he was innocent.
6) To carry this scandal biblically asks of us “a new song”.
Sing to the Lord a new song! We are invited to do that often in Scripture. Have you ever wondered what the old song is? Jesus specifies this quite clearly: He tells us that unless our virtue goes deeper than that of the scribes and pharisees (the “old song”) we can’t enter the kingdom of heaven. What was the virtue of the scribes and pharisees? Actually it was quite high. It was an ethic of justice and fairness: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, give back in kind to everyone. What’s wrong with the simple virtue of justice?
A paraphrase of Jesus might read like this: “Anyone can be nice to those who are nice to them, anyone can forgive those who forgive them, and anyone can love those who love them. But can you go further? Can you love those who hate you? Can you forgive those who won’t forgive you? Can you be gracious to those who curse you?” That’s the real test of Christian orthodoxy. And it’s what is being asked of us in this scandal: Can we love, forgive, reach out, and be empathic in a new way? Can we have compassion for both the victim and the perpetrator? Can we have compassion for some of our church leaders who made some blunders? Can we give of our money when it seems we are paying for someone else’s sin? Can we help carry one of the darker sides of our history without protesting its unfairness and distancing ourselves from it? Can we carry a tension that’s unfair to us for the sake of a greater good? Can we help carry something that doesn’t make us feel good and clean?
7) We need to “ponder” as Mary did.
Inside of this, we must begin to “ponder” in the biblical sense. How do we do that?
Notice that, at the foot of the cross, Mary doesn’t seem to be doing anything. She isn’t trying to stop the crucifixion, nor even protesting Jesus’ innocence. She isn’t saying anything and overtly doesn’t seem to be doing anything. But scripture tells us that she “stood” there. For a Hebrew, that was a position of strength. Mary was strong under the cross. And what precisely was she doing? She was pondering in the biblical sense. To ponder in the biblical sense means to hold, carry, and transform tension so as not to give it back in kind.
We can be helped in our understanding of that by looking at its opposite in scripture. In the gospels, the opposite of “pondering” is “amazement”, to be amazed. To be amazed is to let energy, the energy of the crowd, simply flow through you, like an electrical wire conducting a current. In the gospels only two people aren’t amazed – Jesus and Mary. Mary ponders and Jesus sweats blood. They take in the energy, good and bad, hold it, carry it, transform it, and give it back as something else. Jesus models this for us. He took in hatred, held it, transformed it, and gave back love; he took in bitterness, held it, transformed it, and gave back graciousness; he took in curses, held them, transformed them, and gave back blessing; he took in betrayal, held it, transformed it, and gave back forgiveness. That’s what it means to ponder and this is the opposite of amazement.
And that is what we are called upon to do in helping to carry this scandal biblically, namely, to hold, carry, and transform this tension, so as not to give back in kind – hurt for hurt, bitterness for bitterness, accusation for accusation, anger for anger, blame for blame. And this might mean that, like Mary under the cross, sometimes there is nothing to say, no protest to be made. Rather all we can do is “to stand”, in strength, silent, holding and carrying the tension, waiting until we can transform it so that we can speak words of graciousness, forgiveness, and healing. That’s not easy.
8) We must re-affirm our faith in God as Lord.
This too will pass. There will be resurrection, even from this. God is still God and firmly in charge of this universe. Our prayer in times of crisis must be a prayer that precisely affirms that God is still Lord of this world.
We need, in the midst of this crisis, to affirm our faith in the lordship of God. God is still firmly in charge, the centre still holds – betrayal, some bad choices by bishops, inflated media reporting, and predictions of doom on all sides, notwithstanding. The church isn’t dying. Crucifixions don’t end life, they lead to new, enriched life.
9) We must patiently stay with the pain.
This is a dark night of the soul which is meant, like every dark night of the soul, to stretch the heart. To be stretched is always painful and our normal impulse is always to do something to end the pain, to make it go away. Pain of the heart never leaves us until “we get it”, get what it is meant to teach us, and get stretched in the way it’s meant to stretch us. This pain will stay with the church until we learn what we are meant to learn from it.
And what is it meant to teach us, beyond a new humility? That there is a terrible pain within the culture right now, the soul-devastation caused by sexual abuse, and we, the church, are being asked to be like Christ, namely, to have our flesh be food for the life of the world so that this wound might be opened to healing.
Note that this is a summary of talk given by Fr Ronald Rolheiser OMI