Fourth Word: “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”

The Victim and the Victims

Diego Velázquez, “Christ Crucified” (detail), c. 1632
Diego Velázquez, “Christ Crucified” (detail), c. 1632 (photo: Public Domain)

Editor’s Note: The Seven Last Words, taped at EWTN April 11, will be broadcast on Good Friday at 5 p.m. Eastern, hosted by Father Raymond J. de Souza.

The Scandals in the Church and
the Scandal of the Cross
“Father, forgive them,
for they know not what they do.”
“Today you will be with me
in paradise.”
“Woman, behold your Son.
Behold your Mother.”
“My God, my God,
why have you forsaken me?”
“I thirst.”
“Father, into your hands
I commend my spirit.”
“It is finished.

At the center of any consideration of the sexual-abuse scandal must be the victims, and so the fourth word, the central word of the Seven Last Words, invites us to put them before our eyes and hearts as we look upon Christ Crucified.

In the face of those who have suffered great evil, words often fail. And when our words fail, we wisely turn to the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures. Jesus is praying Psalm 22 on the cross, the first words of which are: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If we stop there, we might think that Jesus has been forsaken by his Father. He has not been forsaken, though it may seem that way, though it may feel that way. The Psalms address the full range of our humanity, all that we feel, all that we experience.

Psalm 22 begins with a cry of dread, of a cry of desperation, a cry of dereliction, but it ends with a promise to proclaim the Lord’s name in the assembly. It is a prayer both of pain and praise, of enormous suffering and enduring fidelity. Jesus cries out to his Father, and it is a cry that, despite its familiarity, has not lost its power to tear at our hearts. The Son of God is crying out.

And yet that cry goes unheard; only a few heard it on Good Friday, and throughout history the cry of the Son of God has often been stifled. The great Victim’s cry goes unheard.

So it was in the scandals. The cries of the victims, their cries of abandonment, went unheard. They too could have asked whether God had forsaken them, given that priests, ordained to act in persona Christi, instead acted in the name of evil. Especially for those very young, it would have seemed that, if God’s ministers brought them horror and degradation, then God himself must be at least absent, perhaps even worse. Perhaps God was not good. Perhaps God was not God, did not exist.

In a recent essay on the scandals, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI recalls a meeting he had with a victim of priestly sexual abuse. The woman recalled that the priest, a chaplain, would begin to abuse her with the words: “This is my body which will be given up for you.” Here we confront the face of evil, the devil who appears as an angel of light: a priest of God employing grave sacrilege to manipulate and exploit.

Benedict comments: “It is obvious that this woman can no longer hear the very words of consecration without experiencing again all the horrific distress of her abuse.”

How can such a woman not feel completely forsaken by God? When the very presence of God upon the altar becomes for her a thing of pain? When the Eucharist, the divine remedy for sin, becomes a reminder of it? 

In his letter to the bishops of Chile, Pope Francis writes about the “victims of abuses of sexuality, power and authority and those who at the time believed and accompanied them” that their “cry reached the heavens.” The cry of Jesus reaches the heavens. The Father hears it. It is a cry of dereliction and a cry of vindication. The victims’ cry of dereliction was not heard; now their cry of vindication is heard.

The cry of the Victim on the cross is the fourth word. It is united throughout history with the cries of so many other victims. The Father hears their cries. So too must we.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Glory be to the Father …