Papal letter to People of God resonates

WelCom October 2018: Last month, WelCom published in full an unprecedented letter from Pope Francis to the people of God, following the release in August of the Pennsylvania grand jury report…

WelCom October 2018:

Last month, WelCom published in full an unprecedented letter from Pope Francis to the people of God, following the release in August of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse by priests and others in the Church and the cover-ups that have enabled this behaviour to continue. In his letter, 20 August 2018, Pope Francis has called on every member of the Catholic Church to be involved in needed change within the Church. A number of priests in our dioceses have spoken to their parishioners about the Pope’s letter and, at their September meeting in Wellington, the Wellington Archdiocese Council of Priests reflected on Pope Francis’ letter to ‘all People of God’. The Pope has asked for us all, as the Body of Christ, to be involved in needed change and healing within the Church.

Archdiocesan clergy invited to a day of fasting and prayer

At their September meeting, the Wellington Archdiocese Council of Priests reflected on Pope Francis’ letter of 20 August 2018 to ‘all People of God’. The papal letter was about the various revelations of sexual abuse by a significant number of clergy and consecrated persons, of children, young people and vulnerable adults and the way in which these abuses have been covered up.

Following the Council of Priests’ meeting, Cardinal John Dew wrote on behalf of the Council to the archdiocesan clergy about the Pope’s letter.

Cardinal John cited that in the papal letter, the Holy Father recognised the deep wounds this abuse had caused to the victims, survivors, their families and the wider Church and community. Pope Francis acknowledged that no effort to beg pardon or seeking to repair the harm caused will ever be sufficient. Looking ahead he said no effort should be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, being covered up or perpetuated.

Cardinal John wrote, ‘Pope Francis has asked the whole Church to look at the truth of what has happened, its gravity and extent, and to be converted in thought, word and action to an ‘ecclesial change’, a new culture within the Church. This is particularly so with regard to clericalism – the practices which put clerics at the centre of the Church and undermine or nullify the gifts of all baptised. Those practices and attitudes have contributed to the evils confronting the Church today.’

All clergy in the archdiocese have been invited to reflect on their roles and responsibilities around these questions and to make Friday, 5 October, a day of fasting and prayer. They have been invited to gather with fellow clergy that day to reflect on the Pope’s letter, and to make the fast an act of solidarity with the pain of the victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse and abuse of any form suffered at the hands of the clergy.

Cardinal John also advised that he will ‘call on all in our archdiocese to a day of prayer and fasting on the first Sunday of Advent (2 December), a traditional time of conversion.’

We are called to transparency of heart in Christ’s light

Fr Michael McCabe, parish priest at Our Lady of Kāpiti Parish, delivered the following homily on Sunday 2 September.

There are gospel passages where Jesus is very blunt and today’s is no exception.

The Pharisees are preoccupied with externals, with how things look, with how things appear. Their very name means the separate ones. And Jesus challenges them to look into their hearts. He gives them, and us, a very blunt reality check.

Every culture has its strengths – values it holds as sacred and rituals that are life-giving. Similarly, every culture has its shadow side, and, likewise, every individual. We can all think of examples close to home. Those ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ examples from our own personal, or cultural history, or from current international issues, such as issues of race, colour, and identity, or the status or non-status of refugees and migrants. (Even saying the words ‘status or non-status’ indicates a prejudice.) Some world leaders are welcoming to migrants and refugees, while other politicians play the race card and regularly open up wounds of division and hatred.

In Italy there is a principle called ‘la Bella figura’. Literally meaning ‘the beautiful figure’, it can also mean that appearances are regarded as being so important that the real issue cannot be talked about or addressed for fear that someone may be shocked or offended. So real issues are either ignored or they are swept under the carpet.

When that process of denial occurs our hearts become segmented. Such fracturing of the heart can occur also in cultures, in societies, and in the Church, as it has with the ongoing scandal and evil of the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults.

After the recent widespread revelations of clerical sexual abuse in Pennsylvania, and the subsequent cover up by bishops and Church leaders, Pope Francis wrote a letter calling for all members of the Church to be close to victims in solidarity and to join in acts of prayer and fasting in penance for these atrocities. He also called for all members of the Body of Christ to be involved in needed change within the Church. Simply put, we must all be involved in this change and in the urgent healing required for the Body of Christ.

The letter is reprinted in the latest issue of the WelCom [September, p 20], with a commentary from Monsignor Gerard Burns, and I encourage you all to take a copy and reflect upon it.

We must very clear the sexual abuse of children and the vulnerable is evil and leaves wounds that take a lifetime to heal ‒ if they ever heal. The covering up of such wounds does not enable healing at either a communal or personal level. Let me illustrate this with a story.

I recall going to a house in the Hutt Valley to visit a parishioner whose very elderly mother had died. The man, her son, was in his late seventies.

‘Tell me about your mother’, I asked, and the man started to cry. I was sitting there thinking, how touching that he loved his mother and is obviously grieving at her death. He began to tell me how he lived in a very abusive house, physically and sexually, and how his parents were also, and equally, obsessed with the cleanliness of the house, always scrubbing and polishing the wooden floors of their State house. If he ever walked into the house with muddy shoes he was sent outside and made to stay there. ‘My punishment’, he said, ‘was sitting outside in my underpants…even now, although I have loved her, and visited her regularly in hospital, I cannot get over the shame. I am a grown man, and an old man, but I still feel like a little boy in Riverside Drive, sitting in my wet underpants, and wanting to be inside like other children were late in the day. I only ever wanted to be dry, and warm, and safe, but that was always beyond my reach because the rigid boundary of cleanliness and abuse had broken my spirit…’

That man is now long dead himself ‒ and I have often prayed that he finally knows what it is like to be at home and safe in God’s arms. For the evil of abuse hides the very face of God and leaves the individual confused and broken, but, equally, the failure to address the covering up of such evil in families and in the Church leaves us all feeling complicit and dirty in its wake.

There are those who say, ‘well that was a long time ago and that was the culture of the time. That’s what we did then…’ Others, correctly, say, ‘that is still the culture of the time ‒ just look at the issues we do not talk about in the Church at a local or global level.’ These are the prophetic voices that must be heard if there is to be transparency within the Body of Christ.

Transparency is not helped by tightly controlled meetings, or covering up painful truths, nor by the fact we have such a hard time talking about all the issues that underpin abuse in the Church, specifically, issues of sexuality and issues of power. We don’t even use these words and think that if we are silent long enough the issues will go away.

The misuse and abuse of power reveals itself in clericalism – a failure to understand our baptismal call to service. Pope Francis is clear that, notwithstanding the evil and sinfulness of abuse, the clerical culture that underpins the covering up of such evil is equally egregious, for that is equally evil.

He says: ‘To say no to abuse is to say an emphatic no to all forms of clericalism.’ Ultimately, he says, clericalism is the denial of abuse by another name. Pope Francis uses the word ‘Excision’ meaning elimination, or, in this context, a denial of the evil of abuse – a very cynical ‘Bella figura’ indeed!

Today’s gospel calls us to transparency of heart where the way we live and act and think can be illuminated by the light and integrity of Christ.

A return to the heart and a return to the gospel is ultimately the only way our children and vulnerable adults will be kept safe and protected by everyone in the Body of Christ.