UK Bishop: ‘There Is a Three-Level Crisis’ in the Church

‘Keep your nerve and draw closer to the Person of Jesus’: Bishop Philip Egan considers a response to the clerical sex-abuse scandal.

Bishop Philip Egan
Bishop Philip Egan (photo: Official photo)

Bishop Philip Egan, the eighth bishop of Portsmouth, England, lent his voice to the chorus of Church leaders appalled by the burgeoning clerical sex-abuse scandal and cover-up Aug. 22, when he wrote a letter to Pope Francis requesting that he convene an extraordinary synod of bishops to address the scandal in the United States, Chile, Honduras and elsewhere. “Clerical sex abuse seems to be a worldwide phenomenon in the Church,” Bishop Egan’s letter said. “As a Catholic and a bishop, these revelations fill me with deep sorrow and shame.”

The bishop, 65, said that, in addition to expressions of sadness, he felt compelled to offer a more “constructive suggestion” and asked the Holy Father to consider calling an Extraordinary Synod on the Life and Ministry of Clergy.

Dallas Bishop Edward Burns penned and published a letter, dated Aug. 29, to join Bishop Egan in suggesting to Pope Francis that a synod on the life and ministry of clergy was needed. And Aug. 30, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia reportedly told the Cardinals’ Forum that he had written to the Pope requesting that he cancel a synod on young people and instead hold one on the life of bishops. Register correspondent K.V. Turley interviewed Bishop Egan via email Sept. 5.


You called for an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Life and Ministry of Clergy Aug. 22. What exactly would that consist of?

First, we need to get through the immediate situation and its scandal, but a synod, I believe, would be a huge help. It would need careful preparation.

I would envisage it comprising, first, a congress of laity and others who are experts in the abuse crisis, in the safeguarding of children and the vulnerable in our dioceses, the psychological issues around clergy assessment and recruitment, matters of human sexuality, the commitment to celibacy and the realm of “human development” of seminarians, priests and bishops. It could share experience on the lifestyle of priests and bishops and offer some suggestions for improvement. The members of this congress, not to put too fine a point on this, would need to be chosen carefully to ensure they have a deep love for the Church, for the priesthood and for the psychological well-being of all.

I would envisage the bishops of the synod taking part in this initial congress, say lasting the first week, but principally as “listeners.” The fruits of this discussion could then be taken forward into the synod proper.

The synod could then address the identity of the priest/bishop, modeled on Christ the High Priest. I suggest the synod look at practical guidance on lifestyle and supports for celibacy, proposing a rule of life for priests/bishops and establishing appropriate forms of priestly/episcopal management, accountability and supervision. Canon law could then be revised in the light of the outcomes, and each diocese [could] be required to apply it by developing its own “Directory for Clergy.” At this part of the synod, the laity from the initial congress could attend, but principally as listeners and advisers.


And why is it necessary now?

There is a massive international set of scandals going on here, filling us all with shame, sorrow, bewilderment, anger. How can all this have happened? How was it allowed to happen?

Think of the poor victims whose memories are blighted and who perhaps will never fully recover. We must pray earnestly for them.

Remember, too, the vast, vast majority of bishops, priests, religious and laity who are doing their best to live their faith authentically, but who now feel tarnished by these scandals.

The state of the Church in the early 21st century seems akin to that of the late 15th century. I think of the words of the philosopher Bernard Lonergan, who once spoke of the “shabby shell of Catholicism.”

The structures of the Church are there, but have some of the home fires gone out? Many Catholics, including members of the clergy, no longer believe the Church’s teaching, especially on matters of personal morality. There is confusion over conscience, sin, grace and the mechanism of confession. Many seem to have lost a sense of heaven, the angels and saints and the transcendent, and are thus not strongly evangelized, catechized and converted to Christ. Secular attitudes and affluent lifestyles seem to have infiltrated.

Most baptized Catholics do not practice: Here in the U.K., it’s around 10% to 15%. There is a real need for a pastoral overhaul of the Church, not changing structures, etc., but what the Second Vatican Council called for: the universal call to holiness.


How do you see the Church passing through this current “dark night”?

The Church belongs to Christ. She is Divine, although, as we can see, she is made up of sinful human beings like you and me. She exists to call sinners and to help them become holy.

There is a three-level crisis here: first, the alleged catalogue of sins and crimes against the young by members of the clergy; secondly, the homosexual circles centered around Archbishop McCarrick, but present in other areas across the Church, too; and then, thirdly, the mishandling and cover-up of all this by the hierarchy up to the highest circles. We know that all these issues affect many sectors of modern society, and we know that in many parts of the Church, such as here in the U.K., there have been robust safeguarding protocols in place for some years. Yet scandal impacts the very sacramentality of the Church and damages our evangelizing mission. Of course, we must also remember that evangelization is always two-way, like breathing in and breathing out.

We cannot give what we have not got. In the midst of scandal, it’s not easy to give witness. Yet what we can all do is turn in prayer to the Holy Spirit, asking, too, the help of Mary, Mother of the Church, that we might grow in holiness, deepen our faith, redouble our prayer, our Bible study, our love for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, our attempts to live out in practice what we profess.


And where do you think we are headed thereafter?

If we cooperate rightly with God’s grace, this present crisis could lead to a purification of the Church: to helping us all become more like what we are meant to be, disciples of Christ, a holy people. Christ is at the helm. The origins of the difficulties come from the coincidence of Vatican II with the social, sexual and family revolutions of the late 20th century. Where before religious men and women lived in strictly determined ecclesial structures, the Church was now inviting them to “update” the way they lived, thought and spoke. The good intention was to engage with the modern world. But this was (and is) a world undergoing radical change. To me, the removal of altar rails was symbolic of a removal of boundaries and the subsequent confusion of the sacred and profane. Yet, even if liturgically we no longer need altar rails, religious men and women do continue to need appropriate boundaries in which to live out their vocation. They need boundaries and a rule of life — such as the address of “Father” to a priest or bishop — in order to protect themselves and to remind themselves of their sacred identity. This is where I believe a synod could be helpful.


As a bishop, have the last months been especially difficult?

Yes, they have. These months have shaken and eroded trust, especially in the hierarchy. People see the bishop and clergy through a hermeneutic of suspicion. They are worried and want action. The current difficulties cannot be ignored or passed over in silence, and in homilies and talks I try to refer to them sensitively. I wish to console and reassure the faithful who are hurting and bewildered.

In any case, being a bishop is grueling work, as there is so much to do. I thank God for the wonderful priests and laypeople who work closely with me. They help and support me both personally and professionally. On the other hand, it is the Lord’s Church, not mine. I so often see this in my daily life: the power, love and joy of Christ at work among his faithful. There is so much to thank God for in this Diocese of Portsmouth.


How do you keep going?

It’s all God’s grace. For me, every day must begin with a Holy Hour of Eucharistic adoration, a time to be close to the heart of Jesus. Prayer and study are crucial in developing that personal-passionate friendship with Jesus, who transforms us. Offering Mass each day and regularly going to confession is central, along with the daily Liturgy of the Hours and the Rosary, fasting and other devotions.

It is important to have a spiritual director and to undertake an annual retreat. I like, too, to go to conferences, which help me keep up to date. I also have bishop friends that I can phone for advice. My personal friends and family are important to me, too, especially my priest friends from of old. I try to have a rest day each week. I also like taking short breaks regularly — it gives you something to look forward to! But over all this, I cannot thank enough the Lord for his closeness to me, and also all my patron saints, especially Our Lady, St. John Vianney and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati.


What counsel would you give Catholics in the midst of the many waves buffeting the faithful aboard the Barque of Peter?

Keep your nerve and draw closer to the Person of Jesus. Try to reach a deeper personal relationship with Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Study the Gospels. Say the Rosary. Be totally dependent on prayer. Be committed to serving the poor and needy.

In this way, you will become a more intentional disciple and, discerning your charisms, more actively engaged in the Church’s mission. Everyone should seek holiness of life in imitation of Jesus, obedient to God and to legitimate authority, loving and respecting one another, and filled with the Holy Spirit, fostering a joyful, positive, “can-do” attitude.

In its 2,000-year history, the Church has never before engaged with [such] a secular, relativistic, liberal culture. The challenge of this is great. The U.K. here is a fertile mission field in which the harvest is rich. It can be hard going, but there is no need for despondency. Jesus gave the Church a missionary mandate to “go and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). He is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6), and we believe that even at this moment, the Holy Spirit is at work in people’s hearts, wooing them toward Christ and his Church.

It is not the “Gospel product” that is defective, but the ability of people in a busy consumer culture, full of distractions, entertainment, mobiles and the internet, to hear God’s voice. For us, as Catholics, the Message we have is powerfully Good News. It is addressed to every single person. Our task is to communicate this Message, the Person of Jesus Christ, more imaginatively and attractively so that all can find their way to that true, lasting human happiness and fulfillment for which they long.


If you could say one thing to the Holy Father today, what would that be?

Holy Father, accept our prayers, and please, please, “strengthen the brethren” (Luke 22:32).

K.V. Turley writes from London.

Clockwise from top left: Christ is adored in downtown Indianapolis July 20; Bishop Andrew Cozzens blesses the faithful with the Blessed Sacrament from the Indiana War Memorial July 20; the Host is elevated at Mass and adored at Lucas Oil Stadium on Day 2 of the NEC.

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