Guest post by Terence Sweeney.
I was painting a window on the side of the church when they came, a gaggle of boys, probably high schoolers. They knew that here at the church was an empty parking lot and a nearly flat wall. They started throwing the ball against the wall, slapping it back and forth, and arguing about the rules: who was in and who was out? who hit the ball last? who was supposed to hit the ball next? I thought about intervening—I was painting windows damaged, in part, by years of tennis balls ricocheting off them. But on the day after the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, my breath was taken from me by the sheer sorrow of seeing them.
I could imagine the scene from not too long ago. Boys playing next to the rectory. The priest steps out of the kitchen and calls to one that he needs help moving a couch in the rectory. Of old, a good kid would have left the game, trudged into the rectory, and moved that couch. It was a world with much good in it. The young should respect their elders, should respond to the summons of a priest to help. But in too many such scenes, more would have happened than moving a couch. A suddenly serious child returns to his peers to play wallball. Does it happen again when the kids come back? Does he ask that they play somewhere else, only to be rebuffed because it is the best wall in the neighborhood. They go back, and padre asks him to move another piece of furniture. He helps again, the other kids call him a kiss-up, and another part of him dies.
What so many in the hierarchy don’t seem to understand is the aching sorrow of what was done to those children and, to a lesser extent, to all of us. They seem unable to understand how hard it is to stay Catholic after 16 years of scandal. They seem unable to understand that they themselves created, or allowed to be a created, a hierarchy of the sorrowful. The victims abused, ignored, and shamed. The whistleblowers silenced. Good priests, embarrassed by their clerics, ashamed though they did no wrong. And all the faithful, who have seen their Church and their faith bludgeoned by an endless array of legal reports, news stories, lawsuits, and callous press releases from our bishops. We too are victims.
The Pennsylvania Grand Jury report is becoming old news in our fast-moving media cycle. But we fear that the story won’t really end. My whole life as a Catholic has been marked by the sometimes slow, sometimes fast, forced disclosure of evil within the Church. My high school graduation Mass was presided over by a bishop implicated in the Boston scandal. A couple months after that long lent of 2001, we were meant to celebrate with a disgraced Bishop who didn’t even have the courtesy to show up on time for our graduation. Since then, in dioceses all over the world, the stories have come out, usually because of brave people who wrenched them out of the hands of bishops and their chancelleries.
As a I look around amongst my peers who were on the fence about being Catholics and see them leave that fence, I realize there are more victims. Those people who can’t imagine being a part of this Church, they too are victims. So too are the unborn in Ireland left behind because, well, who could possibly listen to bishops claiming to defend children.
So why stay? How could someone, in good conscience, stay? At my lowest, I think of the recent Sunday gospel, when the Apostles, the original Christian sinners, told Jesus: “to whom shall we go?” How could I live without the wafer and wine on Sunday? Without those words of absolution administered by priests I can barely look in the eye? I stay because of the words of Jeremiah: “woe to you shepherds.” Our Lord is a God of mercy for victims and justice for perpetrators. I stay because of good priests who, chastened, continue to provide the Bread of Life and the Chalice of Salvation. I stay to support and demand the countless reforms the Church needs. I stay because of the people in the pews who, more resolute than me, won’t leave and whom I can’t leave. I stay for my parish’s Eucharistic ministers, readers, altar servers, ushers, and choir-members. We are the pilgrim people of God and in God is our trust.
At the end of the day, I stay for that young boy, playing wallball. Because Christ is with the victims. Our Church is built on a victim, who was naked and abused on a cross. I still believe, that the Divine Victim carries us, and that He will never leave any victim behind. He will welcome that boy into his Kingdom with his wounded hands. As long as He stays, I’ll stay.
Terence Sweeney is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at Villanova University. He is a parishioner at St. Francis de Sales in Philadelphia.