When Silence Hurts More than Truth

It is time to uproot the vice of sexual abuse that has infested the Bride of Christ and to speak up.

Pope Francis at St. Patrick’s Hall in Dublin Castle, Aug. 25, 2018.
Pope Francis at St. Patrick’s Hall in Dublin Castle, Aug. 25, 2018. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

The Power of the Nativity Scene (La Forza del Presepe) is a booklet of insightful reflections on the profound meaning of Christmas, written by Jorge Mario Bergoglio in 1987. The future Pope Francis reflects on the profound meaning of Christmas as the feast of life and light that ought not be devoid of its profound religious meaning – God becoming man in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Before this mystery, the most profound mystery of the Christian faith – the Incarnation – one cannot be “rigid” or hardhearted, Bergoglio argued. In the same booklet, reflecting on Christmas, Bergoglio includes a meditation on silence – its meaning and how he understands it, practices silence and steps from silence to truth.

I reread this part with great interest and curiosity, given the current response of silence and prayer the Holy Father is proposing in the face of the Catholic Church’s grave crisis of sexual abuse and cover-up. I found Bergoglio’s thoughts on silence to be in symphony with the theology of silence as practiced in the Church, East and West, for millennia.

The future pope reflects on the writings of the masters of silence, beginning with the desert fathers. He cites Abba Arsenius the Great (350-445), a very quiet and often silent man, most famous for saying, “Many a time repented I about my words, but about my silence – never”; St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who found it a grave fault if a sister did not observe silence; St. Ignatius of Loyola; St. Augustine and other saints who had practiced silence before action, reflection before reaction.

He reflects on the crux of silence and proposes the paramount importance of solitude, arguing that if there is no solitude there is no silence, and without both of them combined, solitude and silence, there is no truth – no solitude, no silence, no truth is the proposed motto. Bergoglio believes that the words of truth are forged in silence and solitude. Obviously, what Bergoglio is arguing is that silence leads to truth-finding and action, which searches for and eventually finds the truth. Sounds prudent – and, after all silence is a virtue that Christians are called to practice.

St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, addresses the importance of silence in the sixth chapter of the Rule. The silence of which St. Benedict speaks, the taciturnitas, is not only material silence, but an attitude of the heart that is indispensable when listening to the Word of God and paying attention to the brother. Silence, then, for St. Benedict, is total availability on the part of the monk to welcome the Divine Word and to pay humble attention to the neighbor. Hence, the silence that the Rule prescribes can be interrupted whenever charity requires it to stop. Moreover, for St. Benedict, in silence there is a force of purification and clarification which leads to the truth. So, St. Benedict’s silence is a fruitful, active and productive silence that begets productive actions.

Chapter 16 of the Rule of the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa focuses on silence and aloneness with God. Mother prescribes steps to cultivate deeper interiority among the sisters; these steps include silence of the eye, ear, tongue, mind and heart. As Jesus spending time in silence and contemplation in the desert before active ministry, the sisters of St. Mother Teresa are called to withdraw at certain intervals into deeper silence and aloneness with God together as a community as well as personally. So, silence before action – contemplation before action – is a requirement for the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa imitating Jesus, the prototype. Ultimately, for St. Mother Teresa, silence and prayer lead to love and service and what makes service a work of love and justice.

Since the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Sex Abuse Report released on Aug. 14, 2018, and Archbishop Viganò’s Aug. 25, 2018, letter, the Church is facing a crisis of silence in addition to other crisis including the crisis in faith and credibility. The Holy Father does not seem to follow the steps to discern truth he himself proposed in 1987 in The Power of the Nativity Scene: solitude – silence – truth.

On Sept. 3, 2018, in his homily on the Gospel of Luke, commenting on how Jesus was expelled from the synagogue and from the city (Luke 4:16-30) the Holy Father proposed silence and prayer in the face of those who cause scandal and division; he stated that in the face of “a pack of wild dogs” seeking war and not peace, nothing else is needed but silence and prayer. This is rigid, derogative and culturally charged language which raised eyebrows in the media and among the faithful. “No, Your Holiness, a Pope cannot call his neighbor ‘wild dogs’, and especially when they are Catholics, Christians, and believers,” writes Marcello Veneziani for the Italian daily Il Foglio.

The question is: Is the Holy Father indirectly referring to Archbishop Viganò, comparing him and all concerned Catholic faithful who have reacted to the sex abuse scandal as a pack of wild dogs and people sowing division? The pope concluded his homily from the Domus St. Marta saying: “May the Lord give us the grace to discern when we should speak and when we should stay silent.” Weeks of silence and discernment since Viganò’s alleged revelations have passed and there is still silence.

Now it is time not to stay silent, Holy Father. The Body of Christ is aching for truth to come from the Vicar of Christ. Ecclesiastes 3:7 speaks of “A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to be silent, and a time to speak.” Well, time is ripe to uproot the vice of sexual abuse that has infested the Bride of Christ and to speak up. When will you be ready to speak up?