Last week I attended a volunteer orientation at a center for youth experiencing homelessness. The program director noted early on that many of the youth who come to the center for a warm meal, bus money, or other assistance are survivors of some form of abuse.
“We need mentors who are good listeners, compassionate, and nonjudgmental to help our youth reach their goals,” the director said while eyeing the room.
I try to meet those qualifications most days—and I credit that effort to my lifelong formation as a Catholic. This church, with all its flaws and failings, has been a conduit for my experiences of prayer, service, and justice.
That’s part of what makes the sexual abuse and cover-up crisis so hurtful and confusing. The has church taught me Christian values such as respect and honesty, values that some of its “leaders” are dreadfully far from living out themselves. Still, those values shape my life. Twenty-seven years ago my parents dunked me in the waters of baptism, and from that moment on the church commissioned me to proclaim the gospel with my life.
And proclaim it, I will—even when some of our ordained leaders are painfully and publicly not.
My decision to spend a few hours each week with young survivors of abuse is a direct response to the abuse and cover-up crisis in the Catholic Church. I spent the better part of last week fuming at the imposters who abused fellow human beings and exploited the sacrament of ordination. Inspired by the wailing women in Jeremiah 9, I, too, lamented to God. How could some men who the church sacramentally anointed to live in persona Christi chose to act in such blatantly anti-gospel ways?
I am still fuming today—and allowing that anger to spark action. Because here’s a truth that needs to be claimed: Ordained men do not have a monopoly on Catholic action. A collar is not required to be like Christ. Believing so only perpetuates a sick clericalism that threatens to squash the call of each and every baptized person. We are all called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love our neighbors, and protect the vulnerable. I as a laywoman can contribute to the common good in the name of my Catholic faith. I cannot erase the sins of ordained men like Theodore McCarrick. I cannot vote for stronger accountability policies in a United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting. But I can welcome a pregnant teenage mom who walks into our center and work with her to find safety from her abusive partner. I can be a positive Catholic presence to a survivor of abuse.
This is how I keep from feeling totally overwhelmed and hopeless in the midst of this monstrous scandal. I claim my baptismal right to act as Christ in ways big and small. I also lift up all the holy lay, religious, and ordained ministers doing the same in a litany of gratitude. I’ve taken to pausing throughout the day, especially after reading or hearing about the abuse crisis, and calling to mind church ministers who I trust.
For Jane, a parish director who listens carefully to her flock.
For Shari, a parish trustee who shows up without fail in times of crisis and in moments of calm.
For Nick, a college chaplain who inspires worshipping communities in his preaching and presiding.
These ministers, and countless others I’m privileged to know, are the hands and heart of Christ in the world. Some wear collars. Others wear suits or shawls. None of them are perfect. All of them are striving to live lives of service, love, and integrity as best as they can. Their witness keeps me going in church ministry. Many Catholics are leaving or taking a break from the church—and I completely respect their decision. I am choosing to stay, a discernment made possible by recommitting to my baptismal call and drawing on the inspiration of ministers who reflect the true meaning of Catholic.
Image: Rosie Fraser on Unsplash