Rebuild My Burning Church

On the Exultation of the Holy Cross this year, our bishop lay prostrate on the floor of his cathedral.  In his homily that followed, Archbishop Charles Thompson explained that lying prostrate was his own:

Photo by Sean Gallagher, The Criterion

“act of penance and a pledge of doing everything in my power to do what is right, just and holy in eradicating the great scourge of sexual abuse and sexual harassment of all persons, most especially children and young people, making every effort to prevent it from happening again” (The Criterion).

Archbishop Thompson, as have so many bishops, have sought to say something—do something—which might help the faithful grapple with the growing lists of their pastors, chaplains, deacons, and teachers who have been charged with sexual assault.  How many names have you known?  How have you responded to the crisis—or crises—of sexual abuse unfolding and unravelling like some poisonous, stinging creature across the cold stone floors of our Roman Catholic churches?

Some of us in the Roman Catholic world may try to ignore this most recent scandal—which eerily sounds like one which unfolded 17 years ago in Boston, Massachusetts.  But, teaching Catholic theology in a Catholic school hasn’t afforded me that luxury.  My students—most of whom are active in ministry themselves—need to talk about it.

In my Catholic history course, we took a sharp detour from discussing 17th-century Jesuit missionaries running deep into woodlands of the American continent: we turned into an open forum in which the students (mostly college seminarians) grappled with what it felImage result for church on firet like to have their process of vocational discernment suddenly start to feel as if they were running deep into a burning building.  In another course, a student presentation likened the terror of abused children and minors of the present century to the suffering of the martyrs in the 200’s; our class observed that, while the 3rd-century martyrs were the Church being persecuted by the state, today, it is the Church who is the perpetrator of persecution.

Such conversations have been necessary, whether they take place in the classroom, or in a ritualized setting like our bishop’s holy hour.  Yet, these instances don’t stop at simply naming pain, or promoting healing.  Some of these conversations promote, I fear, deeper division: I have heard conversations and at least one homily which have blamed the sex abuse crisis on the existence of homosexuality.  In other cases, I’ve had people tell me, “Great, it’s another terrible way the Catholic Church is alienating people.”  Why would anyone want to stay in the Church if abuse, lies, and scandal provide the basis for the Church’s reality?

For me, though, I don’t intend to go anywhere—despite the deep horror of the sex abuse crisis.  And, while I’ve had difficulty articulating my feelings, I found a metaphor I could carry when I had a conversation with one of our Franciscan sisters here at our school.  A few mornings ago, she and I paused in the hallway, exclaiming our sadness over the names of priests in our own diocese who had been implicated in sexual abuse.  “I’m afraid,” she said, “that so many people will find this as an excuse to leave the Church.  And, if this is all the Church is—people that fail—I’d be right there, leaving with them.  I’d say, ‘Last one out, turn out the lights!’”

She continued, “But, the ChImage result for rebuild my churchurch is so much more than that.  It’s not just an institution—it’s Christ’s Church.  And, that’s what Francis calls us to do.  Things were bad in the time of Francis and Clare, too, but God called them to Rebuild My Church.  We have to Rebuild the Church from the inside.  That’s what we’re called to do now.”

I think she’s quite right—reminding us of Francis and Clare.  We are called to be here.  We are called to rebuild the Church—from the floor, up.


  1. “Some of us in the Roman Catholic world may try to ignore this most recent scandal—which eerily sounds like one which unfolded 17 years ago in Boston, Massachusetts.”
    The reason for this is because the PA grand jury report serves up once again the revelations we have known since the John Jay report that was triggered by the disclosures in Boston. The coverage has left plenty of people to conclude “additional thousands of abuse of minor cases by another 300 priests”. But because these revelations deal with sexual acts involving presumably depraved clergy, derelict bishops, and innocent children all onlookers seem obligated to stare at such a horrible scene and wag their heads in horror and disbelief. I read the John Jay report and the PA grand jury report and I was horrified by the graphic detail but I was also disgusted that buried only deep in the latter report was the disclosure of the vast progress that has been made since the 2002 Dallas Charter and that virtually all of the reported incidents and coverups occurred before 1990. What is needed are solutions to the following: 1)instituting iron clad procedures to hold bishops accountable to lay controlled investigative and review boards. 2)Determine a procedure that recognizes lay people as having the right and obligation to participate in decision making at every level of the church. No more safe, house laity who can be counted upon to rubber stamp what the clergy say. I respect archbishop Thompson and other prostrating bishops and priests, but what is needed is action.

  2. At a recent staff meeting we discussed how the latest scandal has affected our parishioners. Our people are suffering through a crisis of faith. I suggested that our society is currently going through a crisis of faith with our governmental institutions too. I know that I am very anxious about Trump and the direction our country is going. The latest church scandal has contributed to a “double whammy” of angst among us. Both church and state seem to be on paths of corruption. I think our jobs as church leaders is to gently restore faith and give hope as best we can in these times of trouble.

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