The Sting of Purification

[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.