In 2003, when then-Archbishop Sean O’Malley arrived in the Archdiocese of Boston, then reeling from an explosive clergy-abuse scandal, he told the congregation convened for his installation: “How ultimately we deal with this present crisis in our Church will do much to define us as Catholics of the future. If we do not flee from the cross of pain and humiliation, if we stand firm in who we are and what we stand for, if we work together, hierarchy, priests, religious and laity, to live our faith and fulfill our mission, then we will be a stronger and a holier Church.”
The passage of time has not dimmed the painful and luminous truth of now-Cardinal O’Malley’s words, even as the faithful confront fresh clergy scandals and the U.S. bishops struggle to defend the effectiveness of the Dallas Charter. As Archbishop Charles Chaput notes in the In Person feature of this issue, “There is a pervasive fear in the hearts of many priests that they will be unjustly accused. It makes them less free and hesitant with young people. ... But if these fears are dealt with appropriately, they can draw the priests into a greater trust of God, leading them to be more authentically faithful to their vocation and give themselves over to the Church. The crisis is an opportunity for humility for the whole Church.”
It’s worth pondering the wisdom of these reflections as we come to grips with the decision of Father John Corapi, one of the nation’s most beloved and popular priests, to, in his own words, “not ... be involved in public ministry as a priest any longer.”
In 2003, as Archbishop O’Malley delivered the homily at his installation, he looked into the stony faces of the Boston priests assembled before him and said with deep passion: “Jesus never promised us that nothing would ever go wrong.” He urged them: “Model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”
By then, Archbishop O’Malley had already addressed scandals involving bishops and clergy in several dioceses, yet he offered his priests words of encouragement and hope. He also reminded them of inconvenient truths: Suffering should not be feared, for it builds up the body of Christ.
In the first half of the 20th century, the Church in Boston had grown stronger, even as the faithful encountered harsh discrimination. So the suffering now endured by the local Church was not an anomaly — a sign of weakness that served no purpose and should be kept at arm’s length.
But these are hard times for Catholic priests, whose commitment to their vows have been called into question by screaming headlines in the mainstream secular media marking new clergy-abuse allegations. And it’s not uncommon for a priest in clerics to be confronted by a virtual stranger and accused of being a child abuser.
In a world that increasingly expresses doubt about man’s capacity to judge what is good or evil, the “predatory priest” has become a scapegoat — a placeholder for all our inner moral doubts and failings.
“Jesus never promised us that nothing would ever go wrong.”
This painful truth reminds us that the life of the Church is nourished, not starved, by a deepening humility burnished by suffering and an acceptance of Christian realism: Sin is real.
At the dawn of the new millennium, Blessed Pope John Paul II formally asked forgiveness for the sins committed by members of the Church. Cardinal O’Malley reflected on the Holy Father’s unprecedented action during his installation homily: “I dare say, we of the Church in the United States could not have imagined just how important this gesture of asking forgiveness would be for us. Little did we realize the dimensions of the problems that beset us.”
American Catholics, perhaps, were the first to learn that spiritual complacency can be a danger to a rich spiritual life. No one wants to return to the anti-papist bigotry of the past. But we are slowly realizing that a comfortable existence must not lead us to recoil from the tough decisions demanded by Christian discipleship.
As Archbishop Chaput notes, the path of a true shepherd is not to retreat from the hard truth of sin, but rather to call himself, his priests and each of the faithful to live the Gospel. That means drawing our strength through the cross. The Church is made for sinners — for us.