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Rebuilding Our Structures and Our Hearts

At a staff meeting here a few months ago, we struggled mightily to find the right image for the cover of this special issue: “Crisis in the Church: Our Search for Healing.”

We floated all kinds of trial images around the room. Finally, someone asked, “How about a broken church being cradled by caring hands?” With a little help from the Holy Spirit perhaps, we quickly came to a consensus that this was indeed the image we needed. And artist Julie Lonneman rendered it beautifully.

Reform in the Spirit of St. Francis

The cover illustration reflects well the  charism of St. Francis of Assisi—and our mission as Catholic communicators committed to the Franciscan vision.

The image of the broken church takes us directly back to that day in the early 13th century when Francis of Assisi, searching desperately to find his mission in life, stepped into the small, tumbledown chapel of San Damiano, just below Assisi. Francis slowly approached the crucifix hanging there and fell to his knees. Gazing at the image of Christ, he heard these challenging words: “Francis, repair my house which, as you see, is falling completely into ruin.”

Although Francis took Jesus’ request literally and, stone by stone, began to restore that church, he soon saw that his deeper mission was rebuilding the larger Church of Jesus Christ. In Francis’ day, too, the Church of Rome was seriously damaged by corruption in many forms, including the scandalous behavior of clerics and bishops.

The reforming style of St. Francis was that of a peacemaker. In his Rule of 1223, he advises his followers that, in going about the world, “they do not quarrel or fight with words, or judge others; rather, let them be meek, peaceful and unassuming, gentle and humble, speaking courteously to everyone....”

In the spirit of St. Francis, we see two attitudes needed in the Church for bringing about reconciliation and healing.

Respect the Voices of All

The clergy sex-abuse scandal has revealed a faulty tendency in our hierarchical system, namely, the unequal distribution of respect. Those higher up the hierarchical ladder often received more respect and protection than those lower down. Often the reputation of a priest or bishop was protected at all costs, while children and laypersons received very little attention.

The greatest scandal during the current crisis was the failure of Church leaders to put those abused and their families first. This kind of horrific neglect should never have happened. After all, our biblical faith tells us that we are all created in the divine image and have equal dignity as God’s children—and if God has special love for anyone, it is for the poor, the broken and the most vulnerable.

Yet many of us seemed to accept, as God-given and eternal, a certain pyramid model of authority that grants  those on top more protection and secrecy than those at the bottom.

This was not the mind-set of Jesus. Jesus often called religious leaders to task for giving scandal and laying oppressive burdens on those in their charge. Those in leadership were to serve others. Jesus dramatized this by washing his disciples’ feet.

Then, too, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) came along and stressed that all members of the Church make up the “People of God” and all, by virtue of their Baptism, deserve equal respect. This does not negate, of course, the need for legitimate leadership structures in the Church.

One positive consequence of the clergy sex-abuse scandal is that the faulty priorities of the hierarchical system have been unmasked and exposed from the housetops. And now wholesome changes in these structures are starting to take place, thanks to decisions by the U.S. bishops, with the welcome assistance of a growing number of lay experts and groups.

Move Toward Reconciliation

It is abundantly clear—just from reading this special issue—that there is a lot of anger, hurt, resentment and disillusionment keenly felt by many Catholics, not to mention those who have walked out its doors in disgust. For all those responsible for this enormous harm, there is an ongoing need to express frank repentance.

We are also keenly aware of tensions and divisions within the Church—divisions between victims (and their families) and those who have sexually abused them or ignored their cries of distress; divisions between laity and clergy, between priests and bishops.

How can we begin the work of reconciliation? We all know it takes time to deal with one’s anger, disillusionment and shame, and that we have to respect each other’s timetable in moving toward healing and forgiveness, if that is indeed possible.

There is a great need for listening, for respectful dialogue and collaboration among all these groups, especially between laity and clergy. If we seek to learn anything from St. Francis, certainly it would be his gentle spirit of respect, humility, courtesy, peace and forbearance toward all. Under present circumstances, a spirit of antagonism is certainly understandable (and honest confrontation may be the best option at times). But antagonism alone will  never bring us fully to reconciliation and a true taste of God’s Kingdom.

If St. Francis represents a good model for us, then his path of truthfulness, love, collaboration, understanding, pardon and joyful trust in God will bring us more quickly to the healing and reconciliation our damaged Church so clearly needs. —J.W.

For up-to-date information on the clergy sex-abuse crisis, visit our online feature "Clergy Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church."

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