I know it’s a bit late, but here’s a terrific homily delivered at Easter Vigil by my Beliefnet co-blogger Deacon Greg Kandra, at his Catholic parish in Queens. The theme: “What does it mean to be a Catholic today?” Excerpt:
It is about the people who made that mission happen: sisters and brothers, priests and religious and lay people by the millions who did the unsung, heroic work of building up the church, often at enormous sacrifice, sometimes paying with their lives. It is immigrants who gave spare change to build churches, and nuns who cared for the sick when no one else would, and who taught our parents and grandparents and great grandparents. It is priests who celebrated mass in auditoriums and gymnasiums, and who walked arm in arm through the south with Martin Luther King. It is standing in solidarity with the smallest, the weakest, the defenseless: the unborn.
True. I was speaking on the phone today with a scholar of the secular left, who’d just returned from a European conference, gloomy about the continent’s future. He was especially down about the agonies in the Catholic Church, which he said is being badly battered in Europe by the abuse scandal. He said that though he isn’t a religious man himself, he doesn’t want to see a future without the Catholic Church, because there is so much good it does. Similarly, I read over the weekend a lament for the Catholic Church’s travails from a liberal Protestant woman, I forget who or where she blogged, who said we should remember that whatever the sins and failings of the Catholic Church, in many times and places, it was the only thing speaking up for the weak and the poor. People who are happy to see the Church flailing today amid scandal and weakness ought to recognize what we all stand to lose as the RCC’s authority and influence wane.
Yes, there are critics of the Church in the scandal who are seemingly delighted by this mess. But Catholics ought to recognize that not all criticism is malicious, and, as a Catholic friend put it this morning in another context, comes from people (both Catholic and non-Catholic) who want to see the Roman church being more Catholic, not less. I’ve said time and time again here that I desperately want the RCC to deal forthrightly and effectively with the scandal not only as a matter of basic justice and human decency, but also so it can effectively witness to this post-Christian culture. I believe all traditional Christians in the West, of whatever sort, are going to live — indeed, are now living — in a kind of permanent cultural exile. I think Pope Benedict gets this too, generally, but may not appreciate how hard it is for people to hear him and take him seriously given the revelations, and the inability or unwillingness of the hierarchy to reform itself. As my secular liberal interlocutor indicated today, there is both culturally and civilizationally a lot more riding on what happens to the Catholic Church than many people think.
But this crisis didn’t come about suddenly. I was stunned to read this story from a Catholic reader of Andrew Sullivan’s, who talked about the time an old monsignor stood up to prevent him (the reader, as a little boy) from being taken on an outing with a friendly younger priest. Excerpt:
The monsignor summoned my father for a whispered consultation. My father listened, nodded, and then turned to me and said, “No.” Nobody would tell me why, so I threw a tantrum.
Years later, when I was in college–Holy Cross College, as a matter of fact–I asked my father why the monsignor wouldn’t let me go to a Red Sox game with Fr. Callaghan. “Because Fr. Callaghan did bad things to little boys,” my father told me, “and we didn’t want that to happen to you.”
“But it was okay if it happened to other kids?” I said.
All my father could do was shrug.
The shrug — a gesture I find morally incomprehensible, and I bet you do too — is the key to this whole mystery of iniquity. How did this happen? How could this monsignor stand up to prevent a child whose family he knew from getting raped by this fellow priest he knew to be a pervert, but not take a stand for other Catholic boys? How could this boy’s father know that this pseudonymous Father Callaghan was preying on other boys, and choose not to do anything about it. Why the silence? Why the collaboration with evil? How is it that a Church — that is, priests and laity alike — conspired to allow this sort of thing? Catholic journalist Jason Berry brought down a lot of grief on his head from his own south Louisiana family when he wrote the seminal “Lead Us Not Into Temptation,” about the Louisiana priest who molested the children of Catholic families in his flock, and the bishop who protected him. His family didn’t want these things spoken of — even though Berry was doing what good Catholics ought always to do: standing up for the weak, the voiceless, and the defenseless.
The shrug is also, unfortunately, what it has meant to be Catholic.
A final thought: As a Southerner born in the post-civil rights era, I’m often chagrined by how quick non-Southerners are to stereotype the South, in particular Southern whites. But at the same time, I look back on the history of my region, the region that defined me and that I love fiercely, and I wonder how on earth white people who knew better, or who ought to have known better, stood by and accepted inhumanity against black people, even if they themselves didn’t directly participate in it. That is part of what it meant to be a (white) Southerner, once upon a time, and what it means to be a (white) Southerner today is not only loving what is good about our region and culture, but accepting that it’s impossible to separate the good from the dreadful historical legacy, except by an act of morally insupportable cognitive dissonance. About the time that I’ll be fed up with anti-Southern stereotypes, I’ll read or see something about what life was like for black folks in the South prior to 1964 or thereabouts, and I’ll be reminded why there isn’t a lot of sympathy in many quarters for my people. Doesn’t make it fair, but this is a legacy we have to carry for a time. We too shrugged like cowards.