The anger and fury that many feel over the current revelations of sexual and emotional abuse and cover-up by priests and bishops of the Roman Catholic communion is palpable. Those parishes and faith communities, which have taken great care and diligence in trying to navigate and distill the range of emotions and reactions may find themselves at a point of frustrating helplessness. The lack of a plausible or satisfactory response for the faithful to this crisis, short of storming the diocesan chancery or leaving the community of faith altogether, only amplifies the very real feelings of powerlessness in the face of such a tragedy.
In the wake of betrayal and negligence on the part of leadership within the Roman Catholic communion the only place to turn, perhaps, is prayer. It was telling that the second Sunday after the crisis broke, August 26, we heard the last portion of John 6, the chapter proclaimed for the past five weeks. The sixth chapter of John’s gospel ends with Peter’s, anguished (?) declaration, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And herein lies a compelling reflection — in all that may or might be said or spoken or demanded of someone or something in this crisis, what, if anything, has been demanded of God? God, after all, is in control, is God not? And if God is in control what then of God’s response and role in this crisis? It would seem to me that not to consider such a question would run the risk of cloaking this entire moment in a Deism that unintentionally excises God from it.
Still, what type of prayer or liturgical expression suffices to meet the demands of the faithful at this moment? Some dioceses such as Richmond, Bridgeport, or Indianapolis have attempted a penitential response, where the bishop has lain prostrate before the Cross or the altar in an action of humility and contrition. Some bishops have even removed skull cap, ring, and pallium, and laid aside the crosier. A very powerful ritual action, and quite moving, but once the liturgical action ends these items are taken up again leaving one to wonder why they were removed in the first place. Here, again, the question of an adequate response at the systemic level of the crisis is wanting.
The faithful are angry and there is unfortunately nothing in the presidential sets of the Roman Missal, which fully capture the need to express such anger liturgically. There is no Mass for Doubt, no Mass for Unburdening of Anger and Rage; there is nothing on healing when the Church itself has offended inside or outside the community. No Mass in the Missal would ever dare to lash out at God, or at least question God in supreme moments of despair and trauma. And yet, is this what is needed at this time? Is there indeed a need to “ritualize anger” in the Church? It would seem to me to be quite consistent with a Biblical perspective on humanity’s relationship with the divine. The psalms again and again ask God to do something when things are not right, and for God to remember who God keeps proclaiming God to be in these moments.
The lack of adequate liturgical texts in the Western Church’s repertoire to address this particular pain of sexual and emotional abuse increase the frustration of the faithful and may inadvertently add to the inaccurate belief that it is all on us to “fix” this crisis. We may be able to resolve some of the immediate consequences of these revelations, but greater and inner systemic issues are the domain of the heart and it is there that only God can act in transformation. Perhaps prayers or petitions that express the anger, the rage, and helplessness are what are needed most at this moment. Petitions that call upon God to be God from the most raw and wounded places; petitions such as some of the following, composed for a liturgy of healing in the Diocese of Raleigh:
O God who leads the flock of Joseph hear us, we pray. We come before you struggling to understand, struggling to make sense of, struggling to find explanation or reason for the shocking and horrifying acts of abuse committed by those who betrayed the trust placed in them. We come before you struggling to believe. Be for us, we implore you, the light that shines in this darkness, and show us the path toward healing. O God in whom we trust, hear us:
O steadfast God hear us, we pray. We come before you saddened and shocked by allegations and facts that reveal the carelessness and the neglect, which can arise when secrecy and loyalty are prized above transparency and accountability. Grant us the wisdom to call forth justice and correction for those who not only took away innocence, but faith, from the vulnerable. O God in whom we find healing, hear us:
O God our Righteousness hear us, we pray. We come before you with feelings of paralysis and helplessness; not knowing what we can do and yet needing to know how to respond to the pain and suffering experienced all around us. Make of us, we entreat you, heralds who challenge our church to sincerely and authentically respond with all its heart to the needs of those who have been harmed and damaged by the church’s inaction. O God in whom we find courage, hear us:
O God, Horn of Salvation hear us, we pray. We come before you humbled and awed by the voices of those who have been broken and damaged by the abuse they suffered, which voices now speak powerfully of the impact and consequences of abuse in their lives. Grant us, we pray, the ability to truly hear them. May the ways in which they interpret and reveal their suffering offer hope for healing and repair a damaged view of the sacred in this world, O God who speaks to us in suffering, hear us:
They may not be much, but then again they may be a way to begin expanding the horizons of our own understanding of who God must be for us in all times and places.