One of the interesting things about preaching as a priest is that you are very rarely picking what you preach about. Apart from weddings and funerals, the readings for each Mass are the same around the world. Everyone is hearing the same things and then whoever is preaching must do their best to explain and apply the readings to our actual lives.
As I said weeks ago, we have the whole month of August to look at chapter 6 of the Gospel of John - the Bread of Life discourse; but sometimes things come up in our own lives and the life of the Church that deserve to be addressed, even when they don't tie directly into the scheduled readings.
I think I can assume that almost everyone has seen the news this week coming out of Pennsylvania. A grand jury investigation has not only uncovered an overwhelming record of children being abused by priests but also those incidents being covered up and ignored by authorities in the Church. While it's true that this report covers a period reaching back over 50 years and many of the clergy accused in it have long since died, but it is horrifying anyway.
Even more sadly, this isn't the first time we've seen news like this.
When something like this comes out, it can be very difficult for those of us who are Catholic to know how to feel. This is the Church many of us have grown up in, given time to, and often defended against criticism. As a priest, I find myself feeling a lot of things: anger, frustration, betrayal, embarrassment.
Even though these most recent events took place in another state and other dioceses, they touch all of us because we are all members of this Church. For you, it could put you in a situation of explaining why you would choose to belong to a group that would behave this way. For me, I could be lumped in with men who have done terrible things just because I wear clerics in public.
It is a terrible scandal - one that could discourage people from becoming Catholic; that might confirm the awful things someone already believed about the Church; or even cause a Catholic to leave the Church or lose their faith. Scandals like this hurt the credibility of the Church, especially its leaders, and our ability to proclaim the Gospel to the world.
And that is beside the fact that some of God's sons and daughters were abused by men they should have been able to trust with their lives - and many were ignored when they asked for help. Who could blame them if they left the faith and hated the Church?
What are we to do then, give up?
If we believe in what the Catholic Church is at its roots, then we don't have that option. To be a Catholic means to believe that Jesus founded this Church. He sent His disciples into the world to proclaim, to baptize, and to build up this family, the Body of Christ. He gave Himself on the cross, rose from the dead, and promised that He would be with us until the very end.
The Church must continue proclaiming the Gospel, celebrating the sacraments, and making Jesus known - that is our purpose.
I have three suggestions for you in the face of terrible news like we've heard this week:
Our first reaction as Christians is always prayer. That includes our own personal prayer but also begging for God's mercy in this situation. We must ask God to console and heal those who have been hurt as well as asking Him to purify the Church, that our desire would not be to protect ourselves but to sacrifice and to serve. Prayer must be our first reaction because God is the only solution to this problem.
Second, we must remember our history. Many times in our history, the Church has faced terrible things. Catholics were persecuted by the Romans, in the French Revolution, by the Nazis. We've faced heresies where the majority of bishops abandoned the faith. The Church is still here because the imperfect people who make it up aren't the whole story. Our foundation is Jesus Christ and He never changes.
I'm not saying this to lessen the seriousness of what we face or to belittle what people have suffered at the hands of those who were supposed to be good shepherds to them. We have faced dark times before - and in these dark times, we should remember who started this thing: not us, but God Himself.
Finally, we must make holiness the priority of our lives. That goes for all of us - being a priest or a bishop doesn't automatically make you a holy person. Holiness means being united with God and that is the true end of everything we do. Let's make a new start in seeking that end with everything we have.
That means being people of prayer and service. It means being people of compassion. Compassion literally means "to suffer with" - and we must be ready to stand with those who have suffered.
This is an extraordinarily challenging time for us as Catholics - but it is not the end. Terrible moments like this call us to live out our faith in a more radical way. To quote something I read today: "The Church does not belong to any cardinal or priest, present or former, or anyone else. The Church is Christ’s body, and it is for Him we stay."
Let us embrace Christ, especially as He gives Himself to us in the Eucharist. Let us show the world that the Church is not the nightmare they saw in that grand jury report - it is the Body of Christ, offering love, compassion, and healing to anyone who needs it.