A deacon in Alaska sent me the letter below and, with his permission, I’m printing it here in full. I’d like to hear what readers, especially deacons and priests, think of this proposal for public penance:
As I know you have, I’ve been following the heartbreaking news as it has broken regarding the clerical sex abuse scandal in Europe and the response from the Holy Father and the Vatican. As I’ve pondered this crisis, I’ve wondered what role of diaconal service God might be calling us to. How might we serve as deacons, as the ‘eyes, ears, and heart’ of our bishops and as ministers of charity and justice? (I think too, of how in the early Church when the pope or a bishop witnessed to Christ by enduring martyrdom, their companions were inevitably deacons.) How might we stand with our bishops during this crisis?
The problem of course, is that in our country and in Europe (and probably worldwide), our bishops have, at best, failed to protect our children and at worst have betrayed the trust placed in them. There are many ways in which those who govern our Church need to respond to this crisis, and in this country our bishops have done a good job since 2002 in safeguarding children and removing clerics who abuse children and young people. But what has been missing I think, have been clear and visible signs of repentance and contrition on the part of our bishops. One repeated criticism of them has been that even in their apologies, they have resembled corporate executives rather than pastors. In a real sense, they have not yet responded, either as a body or as individual bishops in a Catholic enough way. All the more remarkable because of our rich tradition of public penance and outward signs of repentance and contrition, but unfortunately, to date, very few of our bishops have entered the public practice of our Catholic penitential tradition.
The Holy Father in the past couple of days has called us as a Church to penance, which is good and appropriate up to a point (because we are all part of the Body of Christ) but misdirected, I think, because the faithful were not responsible for the decisions that caused so much harm to victims and scandal. It is the bishops themselves who need to seek God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of those who were harmed because of their failure to protect the most vulnerable members of their flock from abusive priests and to implore God’s mercy on behalf those clerics who molested children and young people (most of whom are unrepentant and evade all responsibility for their crimes).
So here is my question for you. What if our bishops chose to do public penance? What if they lay prostrate or knelt in front of their cathedrals as penitents before each Mass on the weekend closest to the feast of St.Peter and Paul or on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus or some other appropriate day or days? Or, even better, on the first Friday of every month for the next year starting with the feast of the Sacred Heart or Sts.Peter and Paul? And what if we, as their deacons, as an order in the Church, in all humility, not only called on our bishops to do public penance, but offered to join them in it?
As deacons we invite God’s holy people to pray for mercy in the Penitential Rite. As deacons we call God’s priestly people to pray for the needs of the Church and world at every Mass. As deacons on Good Friday, it is our part to invite our bishop and priests and all the faithful to kneel in prayer.
Just as I think it is our part to call our bishops to do public penance, I think it is also our part to join them in penance as well. Clearly, our place is with our bishops: we stand at the side of our bishop during every celebration of the liturgy and the sacraments, ready to assist them. We lie next to them every Good Friday as we prostrate our selves before the mystery of the Lord’s death on the cross. And I think that if we, as deacons, are willing to stand (or kneel or prostrate ourselves) at the side of our bishops, they might say yes to doing public penance.
I realize that this proposal calls for additional reflection and prayer, but it is one that I would hope that deacons around the country and in the rest of the Church would seriously consider. Is there a forum in which deacons as a body could discuss this together? Please let me know what you think of this.
I think that we, as deacons, are in a providential position to ask our bishops to pray publicly for forgiveness in word and action and to join them in doing so as their deacons.
In Christ the Servant,
Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
Any thoughts? I think this is a bold idea, and he just might be on to something. But would it have any impact? Is it even workable? I’m curious to hear what others think about this…
UPDATE: Fr. Z has linked (thanks!) and adds a few thoughts of his own.