Sunday, August 26, 2018

Lord, to whom shall we go?


There was a story in the New York Times this week that really caught my attention. It was from a parish in Atlanta, Georgia, where the local priest there preached last weekend about the priest abuse scandal that has once again taken center stage. The priest there said, of course, the scandal was terrible and that the church had to change. Just as he was moving on from that topic, a man in the congregation stood up and said loudly, “Hey, Father! How?” The priest did not have much of an answer for the distraught man except to suggest that he write to his Bishop and the Pope and share his concerns.

When I read that story, I had two reactions to it. As you know, I too preached about the crisis and, calling upon the image of St. Francis, about our need to rebuild the church together. So, my first reaction was, “Oh, thank goodness that no one stood up and shouted here!” Both because it would be shocking to have someone in the congregation do that, but also because if they did, I’m not sure that I would have had an answer that was much better than the priest in Atlanta. My second reaction, though, when I stopped thinking about myself and how I would have felt on the spot, was to think, wow, how courageous of that man. He had the courage to stand up in front of his whole parish, to take ownership of his faith and call for change.

He wrote about that moment later in the week. He said, “I wouldn’t exist without Catholicism. It was the church’s own teachings that made me stand up on Sunday. Catholics are taught that it’s imperative to help others. We are told to protect the innocent. Aside from my own family, two institutions helped form my character: the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts. Both encouraged me to stand up for what is right and to use our strength for those in need.” That story really struck me deeply and I have not been able to shake it. What would I say if someone challenged me that way? And, as I was reflecting on that question, I received an email from a parishioner. I’ll share a little bit of it with you, but not enough to give away who it came from. They wrote, “This is being sent to inform you of our decision to take a sabbatical from Saint Margaret’s and the Catholic Church. This has not been an easy decision in that both of us have been raised Catholics and have been parishioners for all our 56 years of marriage. But the on-going scandals and Rome's continued inaction has us doubting our continued attendance and financial support, so until or unless Pope Francis shows some sincere interest in response to this matter, we'll simply say goodbye for now. Our decision has nothing to do with Saint Margaret's and we wish you and all the parish the very best.”

I’ve been thinking and praying about how to respond to these members of our parish, and how I would respond if someone stood up in the middle of Mass. Here’s what I thought I might say but decided I’d like to run it by all of you first.

Dear parishioners, Since receiving your email I have been thinking and praying about how I should respond. First let me thank you and commend you for the courage to write to me this week. You could have simply vanished from the pews and we would never have known why. Please know that I hear your anger and frustration, and I share it. I, too, cannot believe that the church has not fully addressed these issues, especially in the 16 years since the scandal first came to broad attention. There simply is no excuse for that inaction. Change must happen.

You may have seen that Pope Francis issued a letter to the whole church this week, one that I hope you had the chance to read. In it he quite bluntly acknowledged the abuse of power by some members of the clergy, named our closeness to those who have been harmed, and pledged to take final and decisive action to get this right. It will be our job – all of us in the church – to make sure he and our bishops follows through on those words.

But, he also wrote, “We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people…The only way that we have to respond to this evil that is to experience it as a task regarding all of us as the People of God. Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change.”

In other words, the Pope is saying, and I’m saying to you: We need you. The Church – even in its brokenness - needs you. We need you to stand by our side, to cry with us when we cry, to laugh with us when we laugh. We need you to pray with us and for us shoulder-to-shoulder every time we gather at Mass.

In our Gospel today, ironically, Jesus puts this very question to the disciples, “Do you also want to leave?” He places the question to us today as well. Do you want to leave? But, when we ponder leaving the church and giving up on her, hear the words of St. Peter today, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of everlasting life.” The disciples, too, were caught up in the scandal of the Eucharist. They could not understand Jesus’ teaching about His Body and Blood. But, they also knew that they could not leave their Lord.

You know, in the midst of my own reflection on this moment in the church this week, I found myself in many special places in addition to my usual duties: at the funeral of a dear friend who passed away this week who so deeply loved the Lord; later celebrating Mass in the nursing home and seeing the great joy that our Eucharistic Lord brought to the people there. I worked with music ministers excited to bring a unique vibrancy to our worship as we embark on our new Sunday evening Mass next week. I found myself gathered with a family around the bedside of a loved one in her final hours of life and the calmness that the presence of Jesus in the Anointing brought her and her family. I met with staff at our school excited for a new school year and the chance to teach our children in a faith-filled environment. I met with parishioners who want to make anonymous donations to fellow parishioners in need from the goodness of their hearts. In other words, I met Jesus over and over this week, and I met Him through good and faithful people like you.

So, my dear parishioners, I know the pain of your heart, the anger that you carry, and the desire to step away from the church, even if for a time. And, if that is your ultimate decision, I support and respect it.

But, more than that, I hope that you’ll stay. “Lord to whom shall we go? We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One from God.” If you love the church, remain within and work for her reform. Pray with us, cry with us, laugh with us, learn with us. Help us together make this the place where we find those words of everlasting life that only Jesus can offer. Stay and ask the Lord to lead us through this moment back into his glorious light.

If you’d like to talk about this more, I’m always available. Just let me know.

Lord, to whom shall we go? May the Lord give you peace.

With love and prayers, Fr. Tom.

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