Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Got Yours?

You never know what you will find on the internet.

There are many ways to divide the human race, but there may be no greater chasm than this one: People who read the dictionary for fun, and people who don't. OK, I exaggerate slightly.

Recreational dictionary reading is not a scripted affair. It often begins innocently enough by looking up a word, but the next question that pops into mind, perhaps "Why did the author select that word and not _____?," leads to looking up that new word, maybe a secondary meaning, or the origin of the word, and before you know it you're off skipping through pages that lead you down arcane paths and back, through a string of modern idioms, and over the proverbial pond for a foreign phrase, or two. No two "dictionary tours" are alike, and each is an adventure unto itself. It is a safe bet that the peregrinations across the internet by members of this select group similarly do not follow the common click-through surfing style. It was on such a web tour that I happened across one of Fr. Stephen Hamilton's homilies from 2002.

For better, or worse, there have been only a few homilies that I can consistently recall over the years, and this is one of them. It was at the evening Good Friday service, which is remarkable itself because it marks the only time I have ever attended a service other than at the Hour of Mercy. It was in the wake of the revelations of the widespread priest sex abuse scandal and was memorable for two reasons. The first was the voice, or I should say "The Voice."

All the public statements up to that time responding to the scandal were being made by bishops. Bishops, as a class, have a certain manner of speaking that I call the Bishop Voice; that soothing, chant-like quality that seems to slip into the seat next to you while they are speaking. I imagine it is supposed to be a Good Shepherd kind of thing. In fact, until just recently I only half-jokingly thought it was requirement to have the Voice to be elevated to the episcopacy. Archbishop Sheen certainly had it. Archbishops Roach, Flynn, and Nienstedt all of St. Paul and Minneapolis have had it. Archbishop Beltran of Oklahoma City does, too. As does Archbishop Chaput of Denver, and Bishop Kinney of St. Cloud, Bishop Pates of Des Moines, Archbishop Listecki of Milwaukee, and Archbishop Burke. Cardinals Bernardin and O'Connor had it. Cardinal Egan has it. As do Cardinals Rigali, McCarrick, and Mahoney. Not to mention all four popes in my lifetime. I could go on. Meanwhile, I've only noted two priests with it so far. One was the late Fr. Neuhaus. And after the first time I heard the other one, Fr. Metzinger, speak after he became pastor of St. John the Baptist, I told more than one person, with a knowing wink-and-a-nod, that he was probably being groomed to become a bishop because they moved him to the largest parish in the archdiocese, and he had the Bishop Voice going for him. (They looked at me like I was nuts.) I now think it can be an acquired affectation. Fr. Taylor didn't quite have the Voice, but it is easy to imagine he has it as Bishop Taylor of Little Rock. I'm not sure that Archbishop Dolan of New York has it (yet), but it is much closer than the stridency of Fr. Dolan's earlier days.

No, that night, Fr. Hamilton did not use the Bishop Voice; his was a full-throated teaching voice. In those days, if you had been abused sexually by a priest you were reliving your ordeal. How do approach the altar where there is a man who outwardly does not seem all that different from the man who exploited his position of authority to exploit you personally years before? How do make an individual Lenten confession when you can't get the memory of having been propositioned in the confessional out of your head? Or if, like me, you were just learning of the scandals and had that sick feeling of disgust in the pit of your stomach from what you were hearing and the slow burn from feeling betrayed as bishop after bishop was discovered to have enabled abusers by reassigning them to new posts and keeping it all quiet. Fr. Hamilton provided much needed clarity to a laity longing to hear some (read the whole thing):
First of all, sin, scandal, and crisis is nothing new in the Church. It has existed from day one because the Church, which is Christ’s Body, is composed of sinful members. Consider scriptural events that demonstrate this to us... [The apostles] had witnessed his miracles and his power. He had shared his power with them. And still they sinned and betrayed him. We have seen the same sin in the current scandal.

Secondly, we must be clear about the difference between the Church, which is holy, and her members who are sinful and constantly in need of reform. It is not the Church that has sinned. Rather, it is members of the Church who have sinned...

Thirdly, we must remember that only a few of the Church’s priests are at fault. Available statistics show us that there are at least similar, if not higher, rates of abuse among clergy of other churches and faiths. This in no way minimizes the tragedy, nor does it absolve the guilty, but to listen to the media one would think that most, maybe all, priests are guilty and that the only solution is to jump on the worn out bandwagons of those opportunists who are seeking to further dissident agendas such as doing away with celibacy or pushing for women’s ordination...

Next, as this scandal involves bishops who, though themselves not guilty of abuse, covered up the truth and failed to protect others from abusers, theirs is a sin against the duty to govern the Church. This dereliction of duty in governing the Church does not touch upon Catholic doctrine (the teaching office), nor the validity of Sacraments (the sanctifying office)... It would be irrational to confuse a bishop’s failure to govern well with evidence that Catholic doctrine or the Sacraments are flawed.

Finally, I want to state emphatically that sexual abuse by clergy, though forgivable by God’s incomprehensible mercy, is absolutely inexcusable. Likewise, a bishop’s failure to remove such clerics from active ministry is a horrendous display of incompetence. In both cases, such offenders lose our trust and ought to be removed from office. Clerics who are guilty of such criminal acts have committed the spiritual equivalent of murder. The fallout from such abuse is often ruined lives and lost faith. But, while we must lament this spiritual murder, we must be careful not to become guilty of something at least as bad. In the maze of misinformation and opportunist slogans, we cannot let this scandal take our faith, for then we would be guilty of spiritual suicide. Jesus says in the gospels, "[D]o not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Mt. 10:28). In other words, the death of the soul is a far worse reality. We must not let our souls die at our own hands by abandoning the Faith. We place faith in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and, because of what God has revealed, we have faith about the Church. We do not place faith in bishops, nor priests, nor lay men and women.
And then he brings it home:
So what does this have to do with Good Friday? As my mind has been consumed by this betrayal and the betrayal so evident in the Scriptures, I have come to marvel anew at the astounding dedication of Jesus to remain faithful and obedient to his mission – the salvation of souls! And because of this mess, I recognize what great divine wisdom there is in God’s design to make his covenant and the new life it promises dependent not upon us sinners, but upon the faithfulness and obedience of Christ Jesus! God, Who desires the salvation of all and Who longs to give his very life to His people, knew better than to make the conferral of His grace dependent upon the sanctity of His ministers. If the grace that comes from Jesus were dependent on the personal holiness of ministers, God’s people would be the spiritual hostages of sinful priests and bishops. Instead, it is Christ who acts, even through sinful human vessels, to impart his abundant grace and blessing. He himself guarantees the validity of the Sacraments and grace. This guarantee doesn’t excuse clerical sins, nor does it absolve clergy from striving for holiness like any other disciple, but it does guarantee that you and I aren’t deprived of the presence, the action, and the grace of Christ simply because we may happen to fall under the spiritual care of a sinful minister.
As Fr. Hamilton noted, scandal has been with the Church from the beginning, and it is with us today. There are new revelations of sex abuse scandals, this time in Germany and in Ireland. In our own country, we are learning that our bishops are connected financially to organizations who are working to undermine directly certain teachings of the Church. And we, as a nation, are sitting on the precipice of devaluing the least among by subsidizing their destruction in the name of charity.

So what do we do? Fr. Hamilton again:
What astounding wisdom, fidelity, and unflappable obedience are seen in the Cross! Whatever the legal outcome of this scandal, we focus on the eternal outcome of our souls, confident that the ultimate solution to this crisis is our own striving for personal holiness, faithfulness, and obedience to the heavenly Father as modeled by Christ Jesus in his suffering and death on the Holy Cross!
Archbishop Sheen pointed out the same answer 60 years ago, during WW II:
Each of us, too, has a cross. Our Lord said: "If anyone would be my disciple, he must deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Mk 8:34). He did not say: "Take up My cross." His cross is not the same as mine. Every cross in the world is tailor made, custom built, patterned to fit the bearer and no one else.
So... you know that cross over there? Yeah, that one; the one you keep trying to ignore. It's yours. Go ahead. Pick it up. I've got my own.

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