Priests these days are often getting messages from people worried about the present state of the Church. This is a large question and not one to which we have many immediately comforting answers. A lot of people are certainly aware of the problems: the homosexual network; the sexual abuse of children and young adults; the warping of doctrine; the inability of many bishops to respond to crises; the progressive stuff coming out of Rome (e.g., The Instrumentum Laboris for the Youth Synod).
Laypeople have every right to be horrified – and even angry – at all this news. But some things have not changed, particularly that they are still baptized and confirmed. This is the time when we will see what stuff the laity are made of.
The sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation signify that laypeople are adult members of the Catholic community, responsible for the “practice of the faith”– words suggested for the homily at Baptism.
The practice of the faith involves everything from one’s personal following of Jesus Christ, to making the Christian community a living reality, to participating in the redemptive mission of the Church. This involves what was described by Vatican II and the tradition as “spiritual sacrifice.”
Spiritual sacrifice is a positive, interior spiritual choice of the individual Christian. Such sacrifice is the basic attitude needed for facing current – or any – crises.
The first step is not to treat membership of the Church like some club membership, but rather to acknowledge the profound spiritual bonds that join us together. Among other things, this means not leaving in a huff – but if you do, please, also be sure get the abuse figures for the church or the secular institution that you think you want to join!
Interior spiritual sacrifices do not depend on clergy or Rome. They are the sacrifices needed to build a personal life of virtue and the life of the Church community and to further the mission of the Church, all at the same time.
The teaching in the Catechism is more than sufficient to help people understand a virtuous Catholic life, which means seeking to make everything you do or say conform to divine truth – in short striving to live a fully Christian life and become a saint. (See Part Three of the Catechism.) When laypeople put Part Three into practice, we then see what laypeople are made of!
Then there is participation in the life of the sacraments. This too involves spiritual sacrifice as one joins the community prayers and says a heartfelt “amen” to the priestly prayers. Now one can participate in the celebration of the Eucharist regardless of the various crises in the Church.
The Eucharist is the time to offer the perfect sacrifice to the Father. It is untouched by crises. The Eucharist is the key temporal realization of what Church means. We ritually gather to offer praise and worship and to ask for help from God– who is the chief reason for our existence.
The angry secular way of communicating that we see all around us now should not be imported into our responses to the present Catholic crisis. A crisis is not an opportunity to indulge in adolescent tantrums. It takes real spiritual sacrifice to come together and communicate like Christians – all of the time, on every issue.
The Catholic equivalent of “town meetings” might achieve something or other, but they will not resolve the many deep challenges we face unless they are also times of prayer. Legitimate anger may wake up a bishop to his moral and doctrinal responsibilities. The long-term solution, however, is going to require a deep spiritual change of attitude that leads both to different behavior and to a willingness to remedy many poor choices of personnel in the past.
It is also a Christian sacrifice on the part of the laity to be better informed – and I don’t mean finding the stats about abuse or clergy affairs. I mean being inwardly formed about how you may fully be a Catholic layperson. How do I participate in this sinful Church at this time, like a saint, instead of closing down and hoping that it goes away?
The deeper you advance in understanding this, the better you can stand as a layperson and put questions to clergy. Be aware, however, that the large majority of clergy are as angry as you are about the abuse of the young, but also about the abuse of our Church. It takes collusion by only a very few clergy to hide a case of abuse or to promote an abusive bishop. Just as it takes just a few laity to conceal abuse in a family, which is where the majority of abuse occurs. Know that most clergy are very much on your side.
A further sacrifice involves accepting that this crisis will be a long term-affair. There are fifty states in the United States and information from the fifty State Attorneys General will be coming out drop by drop, for years. Further, much of the past crisis cannot be “solved.” Whatever new policies are put in place and administative or even criminal penalties are imposed, in the last analysis, the only full resolution is for such sins to be repented of and made reparation for.
There will now have to be much penance and fasting and prayer. Laity should practice this too because they play as important a role in the process as anyone: “if one member endures anything, all the members co-endure it, and if one member is honored, all the members together rejoice.” (Vatican II)
*Image: St. John the Baptist Pointing to Christ by BartoloméEstéban Murillo, c. 1655 [Art Institute of Chicago]