The “scandal” of the Gospel used to be a badge of honor for Catholics.
It was “scandalous” that God should become man, die on the cross, and grant us life through death. All of these affronts to the world’s wisdom were summarized by St. Paul:
“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:21-25).
“Scandal” comes from skandalon (stumbling block). Some things about the Gospel are supposed to be “scandalous” in that good, Pauline sense of the word.
But not sin. Not the sexual abuse of children. Not the shame of pastors who shuffled around abusers rather than protecting their victims. That sort of skandalon is not a stumbling stone, but a millstone that Jesus hated and solemnly warned against. It has been one of the many painful realities of the Long Lent of 2002 that the Pauline meaning of the “scandal of the Gospel” has been buried under the disgraceful scandal caused by those to whom the Gospel had been especially entrusted.
On April 17, 2008, Pope Benedict had a private meeting with several victims of the priest sex abuse scandal. It was, by all accounts, a powerful encounter in which the Pope both apologized to these wounded men and women and listened very attentively to them. As author and blogger Amy Welborn beautifully summed up Benedict’s pastoral leadership, not only at that meeting, but throughout his visit to America:
“First of all, [he came] to do what he emphasized in his talks — do what he can to meet the needs of victims and bring healing. But secondly, he is, very pointedly, teaching the bishops how to be pastors. You cannot watch these people speak of their past suffering and what the Pope listening to them today accomplished without hoping and praying that in humility, those of his fellow pastors who have refused to listen and instead dedicated inestimable resources to re-victimizing victims are watching and learning from him.
“And perhaps feeling something. A word Benedict has used time and time again these past days. Shame.”
The shame of these crimes and of their coverup needed to be named, and I am grateful that he did it. But even more, I am grateful that by naming it, I think he finally seems to me to have lanced a spiritual boil and really begun the process, not merely of preventing such tragedies in the future, but of healing the wounds of the past.
For me, the single most arresting display of Christlike humility in the meeting of the Pope and the sex abuse victims belonged to Olan Horne. After Benedict apologized to them and asked forgiveness, there occurred this amazing exchange:
“I asked him to forgive me for hating his Church and hating him,” said Olan Horne, 48, of Lowell, [Mass.,] who gave the Pope a picture of himself as a 9-year-old boy, just before the Rev. Joseph Birmingham started molesting him. “He said, ‘My English isn’t good, but I want you to know that I can understand you, and I think I can understand your sorrow.’”
Horne’s act is, quite simply, a miracle only possible by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. It will be seen by no small number of people as scandalous (like the cross itself). The notion that a victim should apologize for his unforgiveness will (according to the “It’s All About Power” interpretive grid of the world) be taken as an act of self-hatred, of the hideous Mind Control of the Church, etc.
In fact, what Horne did was liberate himself from the last and most insidious shackle of the monstrous sin committed against him: the temptation to believe that bitterness is healing.
More than that, by his unfathomably noble act, Horne made it possible for many others to likewise forgive and let go of the imprisoning rage that always tempts us to remain in the power of those who have harmed us.
This act of forgiveness and humility is the power and the scandal of the Gospel on display in full strength. I am humbled and shamed by it as I look at my own slowness to relinquish anger and bitterness when I am hurt.
God bless this man and Good Pope Benedict for this beautiful scandal of reconciliation and healing!
Mark Shea is senior content editor