It’s been about six weeks since the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse was released, which followed revelations earlier in the summer of sexual harassment allegations against retired Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick.
As we head into the fall, the scandal of clergy sexual abuse continues to burgeon, not only in Pennsylvania but across the United States and several other countries. Today, it’s no longer Boston’s problem, as many saw it in 2002, or Philadelphia’s problem as they saw it in 2005, or even the Catholic Church’s problem alone.
Rather, sexual abuse is a societal issue, affecting families, schools, community organizations and faith communities of every kind, as well as the Catholic Church.
Given that scope, I’d expect more outrage than what I am hearing in Catholic circles. Yes, there is anger and disgust over the acts themselves, as well as a sense of betrayal over how the Catholic hierarchy handled those crimes.
Frankly, I am underwhelmed that the outrage isn’t louder and more intense. Most faithful Catholics might be moved by past events, but they seem unmoved to do anything about it now — specifically, to help bring reform to the church, the church they profess to love and which needs the energies and ideas of all its members.
Of course, some Catholics have shown their feelings by walking away, for reasons of their own. Perhaps you’ve seen the gaps in church pews in recent weeks.
But not everyone is silently apathetic or absent. In recent weeks I have sensed an answer to my prayer, “Come, Holy Spirit.” About a dozen parishes that I know of have begun to call concerned parishioners to share their thoughts and feelings on the crisis and what the church should do about it.
Many pastors have expressed their feelings of anger and betrayal in homilies and in parish bulletin letters that reflect the sentiments of their parishioners. And some of those pastors have begun what could be called “listening sessions,” town-hall meetings in the parish church where people can express their views, ask questions, grieve for the generations of victims of sexual abuse and learn more about the issue and the church’s responses to it, past and present.
Ideas for reform are bubbling up from motivated parishioners and their priests.
Proposals vary from the practical — new rules for holding Catholic bishops accountable (such as those outlined just yesterday by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) and for ensuring transparency in all aspects of church life (especially with regard to finances and other goods of the church) — to the aspirational, such as reexamining clerical celibacy as well as the role of women in ministry.
The point is that people are beginning to speak and to listen to one another, to take seriously the responsibility every Catholic has for building up the church. It never was the sole responsibility of a bishop and his clerical advisers, but of all the members of the body of Christ.
I spoke with one pastor after he held a listening session that drew about 70 people, and with a lay woman whose parish had 200 at its session. Both said that the parishioners who attended were grateful for the presence and passion of the Catholics (lay and clergy) coming together to share their pain and to begin the task of reform.
It’s a modest effort, but this stirring of people beginning to partner to “protect the people of God, not the institution,” according to one pastor, is surely the work of the Holy Spirit.
It’s a work rooted in prayer, as CatholicPhilly.com’s coverage of a recent seven-hour prayer vigil at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul shows. Devotion, guided by the Spirit, can animate us — but it is, as one participant observed, only the beginning. Our work must intensify to make greater accountability and transparency a reality. And not a moment too soon.
This sense that the Holy Spirit is ultimately in charge and cannot be denied has helped to assuage my own disillusionment with Holy Mother Church. If she is to be holy, we each must be holy. If she is to be rejuvenated – literally, made young again – we must put our hands to the plow, guided not by our own efforts but walking in humility and simplicity with Jesus to the Father. He alone deserves our loyalty, our love and the best work that we can offer.
In this darkest hour of the church, hope still flickers: “Come, Holy Spirit.”
Matthew Gambino is editor of CatholicPhilly.com.
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