Letters from the Vatican #5

Reading Time: 25 minutes

Reports and Commentary, from Rome and Elsewhere, on the Meeting for the Protection of Minors. A special international journalistic collaboration between The Catholic Herald, First Things and The Catholic Weekly.

Number 5: February 23-24, 2019: In this weekend’s special double edition Xavier Rynne II writes on how Abuse is a Summons to the Church to Greater Fidelity, Mary Rice Hasson writes on Obstinate Misdiagnosis of the Causes of Abuse, Fr Brett Brannan writes on How to find the Right Men for the Priesthood, Andrea Picciotti-Bayer writes on Spotting the Early Warning Signals of Abuse and Fr Thomas Ferguson writes on the Importance of Involving Lay Expertise in Addressing Abuse.

A summons to fidelity

At the beginning of February, a month in which an intense, global media spotlight has been focused on Catholicism’s struggles with clerical sexual abuse, the Church celebrated the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. As February now comes to a close with a global meeting of Catholic leaders to address that abuse, it’s worth reflecting on the fact  that the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord was once known as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In the second chapter of Luke’s gospel (v. 22-38), the child Jesus is “presented” in the Temple, thus inaugurating his life in Judaism; at the same time, Mary is “purified,” forty days after giving birth, and returns to the Jewish community and its rituals. The gospel narrative of presentation/purification concludes with the famous prophecy of Simeon, a righteous elder of Israel who had been given a divine promise that he would not see death until he met the Messiah. Taking the child Jesus into his arms, Simeon blesses God for having fulfilled his pledge – and then prophesies that, just as Mary’s child will be a sign of contradiction who will cause the rise and fall of many in Israel, she, too, will have her soul pierced by a “sword,” so that the thoughts of many hearts will be brought to light.

On 21 November, 1964, at the end of the Second Vatican Council’s third period, Pope St Paul VI proclaimed Mary to be Mater Ecclesiae, “Mother of the Church.” The Church’s history, read without blinders, makes clear that what was prophesied for the mother – a sword of sorrow – has also applied over the centuries to her children.  Catholicism, today, is being painfully reminded of this.

The soul of the Catholic Church is being pierced, day after day, by a seemingly endless scandal of sexual abuse. And it must be hoped that, as many secret thoughts – and temptations, and, worst of all, actions – are being revealed, this piercing is an unavoidable and necessary part of a great process of purification: the purification that is essential if the Church is to preach the Gospel credibly and offer that friendship with Jesus Christ that is the greatest of human liberations. As these LETTERS have insisted, and as will be argued again below by Mary Rice Hasson, the reform of the Church is a summons to greater fidelity, for the abuse crisis is, at bottom a crisis of infidelity.

Related: Letters from the Vatican #4

The Church will never be completely cleansed of infidelity – the Church will never be completely pure – until it is finally and definitively purified in the Kingdom of God: after the Lord Jesus returns in glory, the Last Judgment has been rendered, the wedding feast of the Lamb has begun, and the New Jerusalem – the heavenly City built on the foundation of the apostles – is the dwelling place of the righteous and the saved. To understand that the final purification of the Church is an eschatological, or Kingdom, reality ought not cause us to lose heart, though, about the work of purifying the Church that belongs to every Catholic here and now. It should, rather, invite us to greater efforts in the work of reform, because we are assured that, whatever our failures, God will ultimately make things right.

History also teaches us that reform in the Catholic Church has rarely come from the top down – or, perhaps better, whatever reforms are mandated “from the top” only achieve effect when they are embodied “from the bottom up,” by a more radically converted Catholic flock and by more effective local pastors and bishops. Roma locuta, causa finita [Rome has spoken, the case is closed] is an old Catholic slogan; but Rome’s reformist “speech,” when and if it comes, only has real effect when it is embodied in the life of local churches. And if Rome’s reformist “speech” is hesitant or inadequate, responsibility for purification rests even more heavily on local churches, which need not wait for permission to do the work of reform in ways appropriate to their situation.

It was never on the cards for this global meeting to produce a comprehensive template for Catholic reform. The Church is too diverse, the meeting is too short, and there is still too much denial, fear, and institutional lethargy at play in the Vatican and in some sectors of world Catholicism for any such dramatic turning point to be reached in a mere four days. All the more reason, then, for concerned Catholics to become aware of what reformist efforts are underway, to encourage what is life-giving in them, and to urge their local pastors and bishops on to even deeper, more effective reform initiatives.  This weekend’s double-issue of LETTERS FROM THE VATICAN will therefore focus heavily on reforms that are underway, or that could be readily adopted, in the Church in the United States and parallel local situations around the world – after a bracing reflection on the imperative of defining today’s crisis correctly. – Xavier Rynne II