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The Sting of Purification Print E-mail
By Joan Frawley Desmond   
Tuesday, 22 June 2010
[H]e said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And [Peter] said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” 

The loving yet ominous exchange echoed in my prayers as I paused this month before the tomb of Peter beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. As the Church marked the close of the Year for Priests, it seemed that the Holy Father, the bishops – indeed, the entire Body of Christ – had been thrown into an unexpected, often harrowing pilgrimage. New revelations of clergy sex abuse, combined with unjust allegations raised against Pope Benedict XVI and many others, forced us where we did “not wish to go.”

Yet Benedict refused to scapegoat the Church’s critics: “The greatest persecution of the Church doesn't come from enemies on the outside but is born from the sin within the Church,” he said, “The Church needs to profoundly relearn penitence, accept purification, learn forgiveness but also justice.”

During his years in the Vatican curia, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was often matter of fact about the very human limitations of Church leaders. This past week, however, he used much stronger language, stating that the scourge of clergy sex abuse confirmed the reality of sin within the Church “in a truly terrifying way.”

The exposure of grave crimes committed by priests is “terrifying,” in part because of the priest’s central role within the Church. Last June, in his letter proclaiming the Year for Priests, Benedict underscored this truth, quoting from the patron saint of priests, St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars: “Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put Him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest, always the priest.”

When Catholics no longer reverence a priest as Christ, or trust him, but instead view him as a potential predator, the faith is grievously threatened. Yet Benedict’s forthright remarks about the need for penance, purification, forgiveness, and justice also confirmed that this harrowing year has already produced great spiritual fruit. Led by the pope, the Church is on its knees, seeking forgiveness. Almost without realizing it, the Church has entered a period of profound reform. Centuries ago, the wheels of change would have moved slowly. In a digital age, the pent up call for justice and the drumbeat of rage and allegations swiftly orbit around the globe, gaining power with the 24/7 news cycle.

Understandably, many U.S. priests have resented the unjust media characterization of their vocation. The Church’s real estate assets, combined with its public opposition to the “tyranny of moral relativism,” have made it an especially appealing target for trial lawyers and left-wing ideologues. Cardinal Sean O’Malley told the stone-faced priests at his 2003 installation in the Boston cathedral: “Christ never said it would be easy.” By then, Cardinal O’Malley was already a veteran of several diocesan cleanup operations, and his expertise has since prompted his appointment to oversee the Dublin Archdiocese’s reform effort.

Yet amid the cynicism and angst, the pope’s remarks signaled an unexpected development. The Church’s public acknowledgement of sin marks a period of intense purification within the priesthood, but also beyond it. The sting of purification is not limited to Catholics directly responsible for the crimes. The entire Church is invited to offer reparation and ponder our utter reliance – priest or layman – on  the Creator.

During last week’s homily for the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, which marked the close of the Year for Priests, the pope acknowledged a paradox:  

If the past year had been a glorification of our individual human performance, it would have been ruined by these events. But for us what happened was precisely the opposite: we grew in gratitude for God’s gift, a gift concealed in “earthen vessels” which ever anew, even amid human weakness, makes his love concretely present in this world. So let us look upon all that happened as a summons to purification, as a task which we bring to the future and which makes us acknowledge and love all the more the great gift we have received from God. In this way, his gift becomes a commitment to respond to God’s courage and humility by our own courage and our own humility.

I asked one high-ranking Vatican official whether this period of purification was likely to make the Church stronger: “That depends on whether our seminaries have been effectively reformed and whether our catechesis is more complete.” In other words, reform also requires disciplined and courageous leadership at every level to nurture and form a new generation of priests – from families to parochial schools, seminaries to local bishops.

The fear is that the Church may grow complacent again, or that the scandals will weaken the Church’s witness in the world – a goal sought by many who dislike Benedict’s efforts to combat secularization, and Catholic principles on marriage and life issues.

But this octogenarian pontiff shows no sign of taking the easy way out. In his homily, Benedict suggested that Peter’s pontificate and martyrdom – like every good priest who strives for holiness – reveal the "audacity of God who entrusts Himself to human beings." This once introverted academic, who recoiled from the 1960s student rebellions, has  been taken where he “did not wish to go.” Yet he does not shrink from a path of hardship and of hope. Like Christ, he says, “follow me.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Maryland-based Catholic journalist; she blogs at The Cathoholic. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, she leads Theology of the Body study groups.
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Comments (5)Add Comment
Getting Better?
written by James Danielson, June 23, 2010
This piece isn't quite as bad as others of its kind; there is a sharper acknowledgment of the evil perpetrated by the Church. The comparison to St. Peter being led where he would not wish to go is silly and in sympathy with much of the other maudlin nonsense about the Church being persecuted. St. Peter was not a predatory pervert! (How many of these wicked perverts have become bishops?) The Church decided to ordain homosexuals so long as they were celibate, paying no heed to the disorder of the soul that this condition represents. It then facilitated predation and covered it up. There is no account of the mystical Body of Christ that can mitigate the wickedness of the Church in this atrocity. The Church is guilty of the most astonishing evil and has created for itself the condemnation it now rightly receives. It is shameful to reach for cover in the glory of the St. Peter. The Body of Christ has been soiled by evil men in vestments. This evil has to be purged with speed and repentance if the Church is to be for world the light is must be. For that, there needs to be clear and unambiguous talk. And that is not sufficiently on display.
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus.
written by Vincent C. Muscarello, MD, June 23, 2010
At times like this, it might be constructive to remember that the Catholic CHURCH Herself is indefectibly holy being the Bride of Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit. It is truly the audacity (and infinite love) of God that He trusted His Church to fallible human beings--beginning with St. Peter himself. Why? I haven't a clue, but I suspect the Creator will tell us Himself in time, and that His reasons are better than any criticism we can level. Meanwhile, it is safe to say that 100% of lay persons and 100% of our priests are sinners. These sins mangled and bloodied the face of our Lord on the Cross making him unrecognizable as God. By the same token, sinful man mangles and bloodies the face of the Church today, but as unrecognizable as Her divinity may seem to some, SHE WILL RETAIN HER SUPERNATURAL CHARACTER AND HOLINESS TO THE END OF TIME.
Amen to penance, purification, forgiveness and justice. And PRAY for our priests who are always on the front lines of the battle and whose human weaknesses are the particular targets of Satan.
Frontier of the Church
written by Lee Gilbert, June 23, 2010
James Danielson,
Quoting Cardinal Journet in his book "On the Church of Christ," Jacques Maritain writes "'The frontier of the Church passes through our own hearts.'

"To the extent that a man acts in grace and charity, he lives by the life of the Church, his actions manifest in him the very life of the Whole of which he is a part. To the extent that a man is lacking in grace and charity, to the same extent, if he is a member of the Church, he withdraws from her life. And the evil actions that he commits are no stains on the Church, because the Church has no part in them; they do not soil the face of the Church, except as the spittles of the soldiers soiled the face of Jesus. The sins of Alexander VI related to his own person, from which they proceded; they did not relate at all, except in order to offend her, to the person of the Church."

It is true that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict have apologized for the sins of the Church, for this is not the time for lectures in ecclesiology. Nevertheless, what really is at issue is the sins of individual members of the Church.

The person of the Church remains what she has always been, "wholly resplendent, without stain or wrinkle or anything of that sort, but holy and immaculate, sancta et immaculata."
A Desperate Harbor
written by James Danielson, June 24, 2010
There is, of course, a mystery at the heart of the Church. The greatest of mysteries we encounter is the body and blood of the God-Man on the holy table. This indeed is holy and unsoiled. So what? If a band of missionaries entered a village with the Good News, and proceeded to molest the children, the villagers would be right not to care about claims of mystical holiness. We're talking here about comportment. The Church has nurtured and facilitated a most grievous evil. To seek solace in what is, given the circumstances, an abstraction, is desperate business. Jesus chased the money changers out of the temple. They didn't corrupt any innocent children. Too much of the Church's response is weak and feckless. When we need focus, and a lash to scatter off the predators, we get too much unmanly talk of mystical holiness and other dispiriting examples of whistling past the graveyard.
James son of Daniel
written by Achilles, June 24, 2010
Dear James, you have been gently rebuked- to no avail, you appear to be immensely intelligent, articulate and educated, possibility into [error].
Of course we have no words to describe the despicable horror of the behavior of some priests, still you have things largely out of order. Your village analogy hints at relativism and you would be wrong about what the villagers would be right in not believing, and to your comfort, the media would agree with you. Alas, as JPII reminds us, the “Truth is not consensus, but the convergence of the mind and reality.” Re-read what the Holy Father said about this terrible trial. I pray for your heart to understand and your mind to be discerning, please pray for me too! Achilles

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