Guest post by Rachel Sherlock.
Jesus arrived in Jerusalem hailed as a king. Three days later he was crucified as a criminal. It is somewhat comforting that our faith has a precedent for volatility.
Like almost all young Catholics I know, I confess that I approached the World Meeting of Families with a sense of tepid uneasiness. The irony of celebrating Catholic families in an Ireland that had just voted to legislate for wide ranging access to abortion was coupled with an onslaught of bad press from mainstream media not to mention critiques from various Catholic quarters about how the event was run, everything from outrage at some of the selected speakers to online scoffing at the design of vestments. When the woes of the wider church reared their ugly heads, not only did they raise the spectre of past abuses of the church in Ireland, but it directly impacted on the Congress, with Cardinal Wuerl pulling out as keynote speaker amidst accusations of neglecting to stop abuse when it was reported. It was clear, things did not bode well for the World Meeting of Families.
Because of this I distanced myself. Despite being someone very engaged in a variety of Catholic groups and events, I had noticeably taken little initiative to engage with the events for the World Meeting of Families. I had tickets for the final Mass and nothing more. However a last minute request from a friend to help out at a stand at the conference brought me straight into the thick of things. What I found there surprised me, the atmosphere was energizing and uplifting. Young and old alike had come together to engage with and celebrate their faith. With so many reasons to fear for Catholicism today, I found perhaps the last thing I was expecting, a sense of hope and excitement for the church.
But those opening days were held within the confines of the paid and ticketed conference. The weekend saw the World Meeting of Families take to the public stage, and by Sunday’s Papal Mass in the Phoenix Park, the sense of uneasiness had returned.
Bad weather, low turnout, protests, there were plenty of things to take the wind out of our sails (although not out of the blustery Phoenix Park). But the damning blow had been struck the night before with the release of Archbishop Vigano’s letter, detailing the high ranking clerics who knew and covered for the disgraced Cardinal McCarrick, among them he named the pontiff himself. It was dark news to wake up to on that Sunday morning. I am not in a position to determine the necessary response to the letter. Pope Francis has refused to comment on it, however the accusations have been widely deemed credible. All I can speak to is my own experience on hearing the news. I lay in bed intently following the reactions on Twitter, not wanting to get up and start the day, to make a decision on what I should do.
The easiest response would have been simply to turn away. Go to another Mass, any other Mass. My conscience might even tell me that I shouldn’t support someone implicated in crimes that go to the very heart of the Church. I want to be clear that I make no excuses for abuse of any sort or its covering up. The sins that have to be answered for, I want to see them answered for in all justice. I ache for a church that has been cleared out of all these festering depths of sin and complicity. I want to see all criminals held accountable and all victims heard and supported.
But I didn’t stay away from the Papal Mass, I couldn’t. That Sunday was a day Catholics in Ireland were being asked to stand up and be counted, and I was being tempted through shame simply to opt out of that.
I couldn’t have felt less jubilant or celebratory. I did not feel like waving Vatican flags for the pope’s arrival. I wanted to save face, have nothing to do with it all. I was stricken by my genuine desire to stand with victims against abusers, but also by my pride, my wish not to be caught up in all of this. Nevertheless I made the long walk to the Papal Cross in the Phoenix Park, sat in the cold and the rain and tried to pray through my anger. As I did so, I came to reflect on the small but significant sacrifice that Jesus was calling me to. Christ, in his wounded and bleeding self, was asking me to embrace my humiliation.
Being a young Catholic, who openly proclaims their faith, generally brings one into the sphere of apologetics. Having the right quotes and the correct explanations always ready to hand, ready to defend the faith, or spark a question in non-believers. There’s always an onus to be right, even beyond reproach. Walking into a situation where you can be justly criticised for upholding people who may be complicit in awful sins goes against your very core.
There is nothing more I’d rather do that slink away to the shadows, put my faith in a box, and have no one hold me accountable for its affiliates. But I can no more walk away from the Body of Christ than I can from my own body. And so I understood what was being asked of me, I have to cast off my desire to be seen as right, as sensible and to embrace the fact that I am part of a fallen church who has made me look like a naive fool. There have been few times when the Gospel has so thoroughly spoken to the exact moment.
“What about you? Do you want to go away too?… Lord, to whom shall we go.”
The path of following Christ has always been one of humiliation. We are in the company of Mary and John following Jesus through his grueling and shameful hours of his crucifixion. There too Christ was betrayed by those who ought to have loved and served Him. Judas and his betrayal for earthly riches, the Jewish elite and their love of power and the status quo, even Peter who lies about his associate rather than own up to the embarrassment. The Church is full of people who do great harm to Christ and His followers. We do not have the luxury of only being associated with good and upright people. It would be easy to follow people who were always right and good, even if they didn’t match up to the world’s standards. Yet we are still called to follow our limping and broken Saviour, even as he is attacked from within and without.
It might be a strange moment to recount the passage in the Gospels that states ‘Resist not evil’ (Matthew 5:39) given the clear and present need to actively resist the evil that has overtaken many areas of the Church, nevertheless I find myself reflecting on this, and the instruction immediately following it: ‘If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.’
I think perhaps this instruction speaks to our tendency to put as much distance between ourselves and those clear manifestations of evil. Our anger and even our desire for self preservation can lead us to strike out against all things touched by evil, annihilating the good with the bad, or it can tempt us to distance ourselves, blaming others and cutting ties. Instead we need to own up to the fact that evil is real and present around us, affecting us and our brothers and sisters. We need to not resist the fact that this evil is our reality in the Church, and then we need to work swiftly and thoroughly to root it out. I am part of the Church, and so I am culpable just as I am betrayed. I do not get to stand aside and pretend that this grave calamity has nothing to do with me. As the Confiteor reminds me, ‘through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.’
And so in that way I will attempt to ‘resist not evil.’ I will stay, I will work to build up the Church. And when the next scandal breaks, as they always do, I will turn my cheek and continue my work.
I will continue to try to set aside all my sinful tendencies, my pride, my need to be seen as being right, my self image, my dignity. I hope in humilation to find humility, to serve a Church that is filled with much rot and decay, which is scorned by the world, and which is bowed under with division. The Church is glorious, but I do not need it to appear so in order to serve it.
Rachel Sherlock is a writer living and working in Dublin. Rather incredibly she does in fact have a housemate called Watson although they have yet to solve any crimes together. She has a deep love of literature and a background in Viking and Anglo-Saxon Studies.