In his book The Long Dark Winter’s Night: Reflections of a Priest in a Time of Pain and Privilege, Father Philip Bergquist, formerly of St. Raphael Catholic Church in Fairbanks, Alaska, uses the metaphor of living through the long Alaskan winter to describe his own struggles with the crisis gripping the Roman Catholic church over the sexual abuses committed by priests. These struggles, say Bergquist, are not merely his, but rightly belong to all the ordained, and indeed to the church as a whole:
For now it is winter, and as I have said, I fear our winter is barely half spent. It is here in the midst and depths of winter that the prophets do dwell. These prophets, like winter itself, speak with a certain crass rudeness. They speak, and at first we are intrigued, perhaps even fascinated. Their mystical presence captivates us. But when the truth of their words, like a two edged sword, begins to pierce deep into our hearts, we find them — much like a long winter — utterly too much to bear. . . .
I believe that we as church owe a deep debt of gratitude to the press and the media, strange as that might seem. For when we could not, when we would not face our inner demons, they dared to show them to us. When we lacked the integrity due our calling, they demonstrated the relentless commitment of theirs. When we lost our prophetic voice, imparted to us on the day of our baptism — called forth from us on the day of our ordination — they found theirs, all the while we fearfully clung to our silence. And while the media might not have gotten everything exactly right, they nonetheless did their level best. (We need always to remember that ours is a church not easily given to full disclosure.) When we needed to be prophets, even within the very mess we had created, we couldn’t be, we wouldn’t be. Perhaps we were like the prophet Jonah and simply chose to turn and flee from our appointed Nineveh. In the end, like Jonah, we simply couldn’t run away from ourselves. . . .
I cannot help but believe that the redemption of the Roman Catholic priesthood will be found not in our being “set apart” but in our solidarity with those who weep. [pp. 23, 25, and 31-32]
Bergquist is a storyteller, who lets go of the fear-inspired silence and unsparingly opens up himself as he ponders the abuse scandal and its impact on his ministry, his calling to the priesthood, and his very soul. He speaks of his interactions with others, giving them pseudonyms to protect their privacy even as he tells their powerful stories and their even more powerful effects on his life.
He introduces us to Sister Susanna, a friend of his whose story of abuse by a neighboring priest it took Bergquist years to accept, not because he didn’t trust her but because it shook his own understanding of priesthood to its very core. He recounts his encounter with Lazarus, a friend of Bergquist’s parishioners, who told his story of abuse at the hands of a priest to Bergquist in a coffee shop two weeks before Holy Week and then again (at Bergquist’s invitation) to the people of St. Raphael’s in the midst of the Good Friday liturgy. He tells of Simon, a parishioner whose struggle with chronic pain taught Bergquist powerful lessons about suffering. The focus, though, is on Bergquist himself, not in a self-centered “look at me!” manner, but in an effort to show us how these powerful teachers changed his life — and can potentially change our lives as well.
Bergquist is clear that he himself was never abused by a priest, nor is he an abuser. He is, however, bound tightly with both victims and perpetrators, and his agony at the pain in the church is palpable.
I would never pretend to know the depths of this pain [felt by the victims of abuse]. Yet I have listened. I have listened to them tell their stories, and having listened, found myself weeping alongside of them. When no one would come to dry their tears, or bind their wounds, or simply just to say how sorry they were, their brokenness grew into anger. Who could really blame them? Strangely, perversely perhaps, my church can and does still blame them. I offer these stories not that someone’s pain or shame be deepened or cheapened but to illustrate how this crisis of soul has come to change the heart of at least one priest — me. I plead with you to listen with me to the voices of those who cry out in the wilderness and apparent wasteland of our church. Hear their voices and share their stories. For it is only in the sharing of their stories, their agonizing heart-wrenching stories, that we priests might find purpose, meaning, and even healing in ours. [p. 35]
Alongside the stories and personal reflections, Bergquist juxtaposes Henry Nouwen’s image of the Wounded Healer and Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s understanding of the five Stages of Loss (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). The former, says Bergquist, is essential as the church in all its fullness goes through the latter.
Making our way through this long winter’s night of the sexual abuse crisis, we most urgently need the gift of hospitality. But we also need humility — not humility that is meek and mealy but humility that leads to hope. . . .
As devastating as the fall from paradise was, it does not negate the very nature of who God is and who we are . . .
A wounded, but healing, priesthood clings to a humble deity, a more human Christ. While never denying Christ’s divinity, our broken but blessed priesthood grabs hold of a Savior who is ever present in our sufferings. . . .
Mine is neither a Church Triumphant nor a Church Militant. It is just a Church Grieving. [pp. 62-63, 66]
And liturgically speaking, what better day to lift up a Church Grieving than Good Friday? As Bergquist sat across from Lazarus in the coffee shop, having heard his story of abuse, having heard of his healing with the support of counselors and the unconditional love and understanding of his wife, Bergquist realized he had been given a great gift:
While I had been pondering and praying about how best to communicate the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ to my parishioners, the paschal mystery was staring me in the face. How could I not have made the connection between Holy Week and Lazarus’ story? How can any of us not see the face of Christ crucified in Lazarus — but also resurrected in him as well? . . . And so it was that on that day as I sat across from Lazarus that I asked, knowing just what it is to ask, if he would consider sharing his story with my parish, the good people with whom I share my life. Unbelievably, he said yes.
Imagine, if you can, a victim of the priest sex abuse scandal, a survivor, standing in the midst of a stripped and empty sanctuary, save for the crucifix. Imagine a Lazarus, standing beneath the crucified Christ. . . . Good Friday is good, not because of the tragic events that transpired long ago, but because of the opportunities that arose from such tragedy. The foot of the cross is where heaven’s hope and humanity’s wounds meet. However, it was not necessarily Lazarus’ wounds that needed binding that night. It was ours. So on that long winter’s night Lazarus ever so gently, but ever so courageously, unbound the wrappings of his wounded soul in order to bind ours — to bind my soul and the souls of the good people I feel blessed to serve. . . .
Good Friday is almost always a night full of tears, and our grieving nearly drowns us. But it is important to remember that our tears of mourning will one day be transformed from grieving to grace. I really don’t think I could appreciate Good Friday, I don’t believe it will be possible to survive this scandal; I don’t believe that I could even now be a priest, had it not been for Lazarus sharing his story earlier as he stood under the cross of Jesus. [pp. 44-45, 49]
The cross is a central figure of The Long Dark Winter’s Night, just as it is central on Good Friday. But this is more than a generic “cross of Christ” for Bergquist. Again and again, he refers to the specific crucifix that hangs on the wall behind the altar of St. Raphael, shown here to the left. It is a large, life-sized crucifix, and midway through the book [p. 89, emphasis in the original], he describes some of its background and points to how it speaks to him, and through him to us.
Throughout this book I often make reference to the crucifix that hangs in our parish church, under which we have so often gathered when we hurt and are in pain. I do so because the crucifix speaks to me. When our parish commissioned a local artist to carve this image, he told me that after much research, he was dismayed to see how Jesus was usually portrayed as emaciated. But he thought of Jesus as a working man, a man of the people. Furthermore, as a working man himself, this artist deliberately chose to give Jesus working man’s hands. Looking now at those same hands, I am moved by their size and strength, their longing and their love. It is as if, had they not be permanently nailed and bolted to the cross, they might actually reach out and hold me. The work and ministry of healing needs working hands. It needs hands that are not worried about getting broken, or bloody, or bruised. For these are the hands that are truly blessed to be stained, servile, and scarred. And though our hearts should never be callous, perhaps our hands should very well be. And so we pray, “O Lord, prosper the work of our hands.” (Psalm 90:17)
As Good Friday approaches, may we all add our “Amen.”
The photo of the crucifix from St. Raphael Roman Catholic Church is the copyrighted property of Focus Unbound Photography of Fairbanks, Alaska. My thanks to them for their permission to use it to accompany this post.