I’m living in a current epicenter of the Catholic Church’s clergy sex abuse scandal—Pittsburgh. Right now, I am going through all the questions I believe any soul-searcher formed by Catholic schools and traditions should: What can I do? What could I have done? Should I walk away from this church?
I am frustrated that few church leaders in my diocese are publicly exploring the same questions or offering parishioners places to have these conversations and together discern how to work together toward ways to better live out Jesus’ life, words and work.
For me, it’s near impossible to imagine leaving this church. Throughout my life, the people I’ve met in and through Catholic practices and places are my closest family—biological and non-biological. In church or on a retreat, I feel as near to home as one gets in this life and deeply connected with the presence of the communion of saints and to all good people who’ve gone before us. We are the body of Christ.
While many of the people I’ve come across are Catholic, some don’t identify as Catholic or Christian at all. Still, for a moment or for years, we connect in some element of this ancient tradition—in grace before a meal at a diner, on a labyrinth walk on convent grounds, or through a deep vulnerable talk over coffee or a phone call.
Right now, these connections are helping me lean in to where God’s presence is most obvious to me. I scour emails and Facebook events for prayer meetings, listening sessions, and healing services. I go to Mass and experience the Eucharist in a way I haven’t before—a way of desperate dependence and connection—perhaps now more with blood than the body. While I often feel demoralized, I show up. And I do find the body of Christ, the essence of this faith in so many people and moments and places of wisdom and hope.
The people who have symbolically or literally linked arms with me and swept me along or who’ve simply walked beside me are women religious, seminarians, priests, and precious lay sisters and brothers. In the past few weeks, these professional and personal connections have offered me moments of light in the darkness and kept me walking the Catholic road.
In late August, a few weeks after the Pennsylvania grand jury reported 1,000 cases of clergy sex abuse, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, near Pittsburgh, hosted what I believe was the first healing service in our area in response to the crisis.
One of the sisters, Mary Pellegrino, sent an invitation with these words:
“In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul promises us that when we don’t know how to pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in groans too deep for words. This is one of those times. We really don’t know how to pray and so let’s take some moments of silence to allow the wordless groans of the Holy Spirit who lives within each one of us to raise our prayers like incense to God.”
The darkly lit little chapel where the prayer service was held was packed with about 150 people. Penitential music and readings accompanied a guided meditation about Jesus’ healing of the bleeding woman. In addition to creating a space for shared prayer, the congregation invited everyone to stay after for lemonade and cookies and made available several sisters and laypeople who are professional therapists.
A facilitator asked if anyone had questions they wanted to share aloud. One woman asked how to explain to others why we would stay in this church.
Sister of St. Joseph of Baden Lyn Szymkiewicz responded that one doesn’t throw away a body because one part is diseased.
“When there is a sickness in the body, we all need to work to heal the body,” she said. “We are all part of the Body of Christ.”
It is a simple answer, and yet it contains wisdom that I’ve repeated to myself in the days since. I think about what such a healing could look like. Would the metaphor carry to an amputation—the resignation of bishops, cardinals, and the pope that some are calling for? One morning at Mass an image entered my mind of the body of Christ as a shining orb, like a sun that could burn off the dross—our church’s wealth and abuses of power and diseased structures—leaving only what is full of true power and healing energy.
The day after the healing service, I traveled to attend and write about an ordination at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. in my role as an oral historian to the Paulist Fathers. I felt great unease about a Mass in the Basilica: Then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was once a major presence here and spent so many years abusing seminarians and minors, possibly even within these walls.
I was buoyed somewhat, as I often am, in my interactions with the Paulists. This community doesn’t shy away from discussing thorny issues in our church and world. At their mother church in New York, they offer one of the few Catholic ministries I’ve seen for LGBTQ Catholics. They have a focus on ecumenism and their missions of media and communications tends to mean they’ll talk about anything.
During a pre-ordination Mass, Paulist President Father Eric Andrews shared reflections from seminarians.
“No matter how ugly things get, all of us have the God-given ability to change these things—even just a little bit,” one said.
Andrews offered his own moving insight, telling us, “Ugly can be a part of the religious experience—as well as joy and beauty and goodness and faith. We are called to be part of this journey of Christ, one that leads to the cross, leads through the cross, and leads to life everlasting.”
Imagine the feeling of walking through wood. We’d be splintered and bloodied. That is a painful metaphor, but it feels apt for where we are. And yet Andrews’ words are also hopeful, because as Christians we do know how the story ends. We know that all will be well.
It’s not just vowed religious who’ve shown hope and inspiration at this time.
Resilience and healing were at work elsewhere when I needed it. A friend is getting more involved in a lay Catholic community, and I asked to attend a four-hour faith formation event with him. I said I couldn’t bear to be alone after news of the scandal broke.
The group prayed the liturgy of the Hours and the rosary and studied St. Francis’ example of how to reform the church—a way of life that seems ripe for revisiting now. The moderator suggested that since emotions were so raw that we not discuss it as a group, but consider how penance and fasting could take place individually.
I wished there was an opportunity to talk here but understood that this might not be the right time.
I’m a longtime journalist who believes sharing stories can be healing, and St. Francis’ admonition to “seek first to understand” has always resonated with me. So I approached one woman I knew and told her that I wanted to meet a victim of clergy abuse.
“We’re all victims,” she told me. “I had friends who were abused.”
She shared uncomfortable stories about a group of boys she grew up with who were repeatedly exploited by their parish priest.
One left the church “never to return and never married,” she said. Only when she met up with him in her 20s did she learn what happened to him and others years before. The sins of the clergy are toxic to victims, their families and friends, and any new loving relationships they might try to form.
Another one of this woman’s childhood friends committed suicide—she says she’ll never know if his abuse was a factor.
Another afternoon, over a beer and Coke with my friend at the faith formation meeting, I again said I wanted to talk with victims.
“You’re sitting across from me,” he said. “Didn’t I ever tell you my story?”
He hadn’t. This person was victimized by a seminarian. I listened to his story of parents who sent him for one-on-one catechesis and how the man took advantage of him repeatedly.
My friend is an upright and joyful person with a brilliant mind—if you heard his interpretations of church history and composers whose music reveals the divine, you would be moved and uplifted. He is in a relationship with an equally awesome and spirit-filled woman, and theirs is a love delightful to see.
I have wondered how my friend can be so resilient, and he has been careful to tell me that his story could have been much worse. I’m filled with gratitude and humility that I have walked in friendship with this person who was hurt by our church. And it is only through this church that our relationship deepened—through our connection in the body of Christ.
It is the same body of Christ that we are all called to be part of—that same diseased body Sister Lyn Szymkiewicz said should be treated. It is that same holy and broken church in which a Paulist seminarian will keep showing up, and a laywoman like me will, too.
Image: Josh Applegate on Unsplash