Sometimes change comes as a trickle, sometimes as a flood. The current sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church continues to roar like a dam break down a mountain. Lay people across the country are beginning to float ideas for institutional change in the hopes of reforming the church they still love. Or at least the church they have not walked away from.
While changing church policies and actions is needed, we should also change the ways the church speaks. As a general rule, let’s use clear language as a guiding principle, and let’s be sensitive to how words are understood by the people reading or hearing them.
People who communicate on behalf of the church often get caught up in using words by habit. Doing things the way they’ve always been done is deeply rooted in any large institution. It’s human nature to think the way you’ve spoken or acted in the past is just fine for the present. But times change, and we need to consider whether the present is demanding a new approach to today’s climate.
I offer as exhibit A the knee-jerk reaction for using the word “reparation” whenever the church speaks of sin. Theologically, I understand the link between genuine sorrow and forgiveness as a means of repairing a broken relationship.
Many parishes and dioceses have begun to offer Masses and prayer services with the theme of reparation for the sin of sexual abuse and the scandal of cover up by church officials.
Reparation is by definition an atonement for sins. Now, I am not without sin, and for those sins I seek forgiveness and grace from the Father of mercies through the sacrament of reconciliation. But I did not sexually assault anyone. I did not turn a blind eye to sexual assault. I did not attempt to cover up sexual assault by ordering the reassignment of known abusers.
Asking me to offer up prayers of atonement for deeds I did not commit is troubling. Shouldn’t reparation be sought by those who committed these deeds, not by the majority of the faithful laity and clergy who did not?
Yes. But what about Christ’s radical call to forgiveness? It’s demanding, and unavoidable.
So in imitation of the innocent Savior who died for the sins of all, I will pray for those involved with abuse and its cover up.
While the call to prayer at this time is wise, the words inviting people to prayer must be chosen carefully, with a full understanding of not just what the speaker thinks they mean, but how they are understood by the people receiving them.
If the connotation with prayer is negative, people increasingly will walk away from their faith. The last thing the church needs is an acceleration of that already ominous trend.
The cost of not changing what we do and say is too high to ignore. Pastors already are well aware that attendance for Mass and the sacraments, and the accompanying contributions of money and talent, are in continuous decline, in some parishes steeply so.
Let’s not grease that slide with opaque, ill-chosen words. While we’re working on what the church must do, let’s use words that will help people, that “impart grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).
And after the prayer services and the finely spoken statements, each of us should go home, open a Bible to the Gospel of Luke (10:29) and read how a man left on the road beaten nearly to death was aided by a traveler who acted – with his hands to heal the wounds, with his feet to take him to an inn, with his money to look after his care.
If we care enough to call ourselves members of the Catholic Church, to live up to our call at baptism, let’s use words that will draw people to Christ, and take actions that will heal his body on earth.
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