“Things are a lot better now! No one has been abused in 20 years!” Hearing these words come out of the mouth of a priest right before the final blessing, you can only imagine my utter shock and sheer rage.
I was visiting the Catholic community of another university in the area when I heard this. Citing recent listening sessions about the Church’s sex abuse scandal and cover up, that community’s campus minister announced that she had printed out a recent article to share. The priest appeared upset about this and began a rant about how the news is not to be believed, that Cardinal Sean O’Malley had given him assurances that abuse has not happened, and that a priest friend of his has been accused then cleared of the allegation.
They say that you can find God in some of the most desolate places and that was definitely true for me. I found God in that community that night, especially in those students who spoke out. Our Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, states in article 37: “To the extent of their knowledge, competence or authority the laity are entitled, and indeed sometimes duty-bound to express their opinion on matters which concern the good of the Church.” The students in this community, both those who spoke with their words and those who spoke with their actions, lived out their “duty-bound” call as faithful Catholics to make their voices heard.
That priest failed the community. Even if we were to believe his arguments that the news was lying to us, that Cardinal Sean had not found any cases of abuse in 20 years, or that his priest friend had been falsely accused, his words served only to inflict more pain this community which was trying to understand how to rebuild trust with a clergy and hierarchy that had failed them, and continues to fail all of us. This priest abdicated his responsibility to “listen to lay people…and recognize their experience” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 9).
To throw more salt in the wound, there were two students sitting behind me who I heard talking about their excitement to experience a Catholic Mass for the first time. After this incident, I find it hard to imagine a scenario where they might feel willing to come back and experience the beauty that the Catholic Church would otherwise have to offer.
Following this incident, I have continued to question myself: Why didn’t I, a lay Catholic and master of divinity student, say something? Where was my courage and conviction? I have since either assuaged my own disappointment or simply convinced myself that since it was not my parish or particular Catholic community, it would have been inappropriate for me to say something. I had forgotten my right and duty as a faithful Catholic to speak up against the injustice unfolding before my eyes. Next time this happens, could I—could we—be courageous enough to live in to that call to speak?
Clericalism and our deference to it will never change unless we live into our vocation to be vocal, to offer our experiences and opinions to those who are ordained to listen to us.
I pray for the courage to speak, for the ability to not defer to someone simply because they wear a collar, and for the strength that I need to stand up to the injustices that unfold before me. I hope that you and I can share this common prayer.