Pray for Friends With Fuzzy First Impressions

The mainstream media has devoted enough ink, airtime and pixels to the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church that the situation could accurately be described as the mother of all disaster stories. Think: “The Hindenburg Collides With the Titanic — Every Day for Eight Years.”

But there is another less obvious element to the wall-to-wall “coverage” that may call for a little more introspection on our part.

There’s no need to revisit what we already know from 30,000 feet — yes, the scandals have represented a monstrous breach of trust, and yes, the media have exploited this breach for their own purposes — but it may be worthwhile to explore the effects and challenges presented by this confluence of factors at ground level.

As other shoes continue to drop in other parts of the world, as they did during the closing months of the Year for Priests, the prurient interests of the mainstream media here in the United States continue to stoke the fire. A sensationalistic cheap shot on the June 7 cover of Time magazine, for example, showed Pope Benedict’s head and shoulders as viewed from behind. A block-letter headline over his bishop’s miter teased: “Why Being Pope Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry.” Meanwhile, talk is afoot of at least one major motion picture based on the scandals coming to a theater near you.

The difficult thing is: Perception, as the cliché goes, is oftentimes reality. And right now the Church is perceived as a collection of misfit sexual predators, buffoonish enablers and sinister manipulators.

How does Joe Catholic go about repairing the damage that has been done to the Church’s evangelical and catechetical commissions?

In my day job I do communications work for a large, nonprofit charity built on a non-Catholic Christian foundation. In a previous chapter of my rather eccentric employment history, I worked at a small, prestigious and rigorously faithful Catholic college. So it is that I have gone from being the worst Catholic in the place to the only Catholic in the place.

Ironically, God’s placement of me here among our separated brethren has invigorated my faith in the Church. I believe I am a better and stronger Catholic than I probably would be had I been able to continue inside the comfortable cocoon of my Catholic employer.

All my co-workers know I’m Catholic. They have seen the “smudge” on my forehead on Ash Wednesday. They see the large image of the Blessed Mother in my office every day. No one takes offense, though I suspect some of them are offering up special petitions to Jesus for my personal deliverance from “Romanism” or “Churchianity.”

A young intern has worked for me over the past several months. A recent college graduate, Jessica (not her real name) is very smart and very devoted to Jesus. The other day she told me she did not want to fully commit to the religious credo of the organization we work for. Why? Because she was born into the Methodist church and doesn’t like the fact that the organization does not believe in a sacramental expression of Christianity.

Jessica said she misses her Methodist communion service and so she cannot fully embrace this other Protestant tradition.

When she expressed this, I couldn’t help but think, What a great opportunity we Catholics have missed.

This young lady is well aware of my “Roman” leanings. I’ve explained various aspects of the Catholic faith to her, and we have discussed the sex-abuse scandals — which understandably (and rightly) repulse her.

They say that you only get one chance to make a good first impression. I don’t know if that holds true always and everywhere, but it’s obvious that the Catholic Church has made a profound impression on Jessica. That’s profound as in profoundly bad.

Observing this effect on a real-life person of sincere Christian faith made me think of courtship. How do two independent singles make a connection, get to know one another, and then become husband and wife?

It begins with the connection. Despite the fantasy promulgated by a million pop songs, love is a little more involved than seeing someone across a crowded room and falling straight into happily ever after. Still, it is true that, before there can be true and lasting love, there has to be some kind of initial attraction — that first impression thing.

When I met my wife, I was first attracted to her even though I didn’t really know her. I’d been told she was some kind of wonderful, so I was intrigued. Over time, as I got to know her better and see the person for who she really was, I began to appreciate that her friends had not exaggerated their praises of her.

But I would not have spent another minute in her company — I would never have known this wonderful wife, mother and caregiver — had I not gotten that first positive impression of her.

Interestingly, I got it from what people said about her.

Which brings us back to my intern. Jessica won’t investigate the Eucharist-sized hole in her heart, not now at least, because she thinks of the Catholic Church in the terms set by the news media and the rest of the popular culture. My attempts to reassure her that the accounts she has heard are misleading — not to mention biased, inaccurate and sensationalized — only make me look like an apologist in the worse possible sense of the word.

Arguments like “Well, you ought to see the abuse rates among public-school teachers” and “Most of the victims were not children, but male teens” don’t resonate at all.

The media has indeed been bloodthirsty, but the scandals have been genuinely scandalous, too. It will take time to undo bad first impressions based on such vivid bad press and observed at such great distance.

So, God bless you, Jessica. I wish you well as you continue your quest for communion and Communion. I hope you find the answer in a full understanding of the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist — body and blood, soul and divinity.

And I pray that, somehow, through the grace of God, you will look beyond the sickening sins of some Catholics to perceive the true identity of the Catholic Church according to God’s first and eternal impression: the Spotless Bride of Christ.

Robert Brennan writes from Los Angeles.