It’s All in the Stories We Tell

It’s the stories, plain and simple. No doubt about it!

Happy May Day!  As a very young kid in Hartington, NE we decorated small baskets with crape paper, pipe cleaners and ribbons. After filling them with candy we’d sneak to our friends’ porches, place them near the door as we rang the bell only to dash into hiding before being found-out! Such childhood memories delight me still.

At school during the 1950s we learned something much more sinister that made us feel unpatriotic celebrating May Day with such frivolities. We were taught the frightening lesson that May 1 is International Workers Day, an occasion for atheistic communism to brandish weapons of unimaginable destruction and the inevitable march of Soviet Marxism to world supremacy. So much for adults destroying the imaginations of innocent youth!

Yes, it’s about stories — the kind of stories we tell ourselves and the stories we choose to believe! At the same time teachers at St. Cecilia Grade School taught us about International Workers Day, we were reassured that Pope Pius XII instituted the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955 as a direct counter to atheistic communism. Of course, everyone knew that God and Joseph, foster-father of Jesus, are bigger and stronger than Karl Marx and Nikita Khrushchev combined!

Stories about May baskets, atheistic communism or even pronouncements of popes no longer charm or frighten me as they once did. But I still love our stories and get excited about what we choose to tell and believe. Stories about real people living real lives of incredible achievement, scaling unimagined heights, standing up to power, transforming the lives of others.  That’s a vital part of being Catholic I will never regret or relinquish — we have the best stories!

We take a lot of bashing about our devotion to the saints. Like the discipline we remember so well from Catholic school, such admonishment is probably deserved to keep us in line and on the straight and narrow. But kids need more than doctrine and discipline. We all need an abundance of inspiring stories with action heroes proving that good triumphs over evil and lives of exemplary valor are not only possible but more common than we think.

Here is just such a story… How many Americans do you think could name the current Cardinal Archbishop of New York? Too hard? Name any New York archbishop since the 1950s. Now, how many Americans do you think recognize the name Dorothy Day? Hmmm… Cardinal Archbishop or poor single mother, both from New York?

But hasn’t that always been the case? How many stories of heroic virtue and lives that truly changed the world are about the hierarchy or are about bishops? Isn’t it much more common that ordinary people living extraordinary lives is what inspires and transforms?  Beginning with a poor girl’s unplanned pregnancy in Nazareth, the great stories invariably teach that genuine reform more often comes from the bottom up than from the top down.

An indefatigable poor, single mother started the Catholic Worker Movement 82 years ago today. The many who love and cherish her story celebrate that Dorothy Day turned the Catholic Church — indeed, much of twentieth century America — on its head! She died 35 years ago. Ironically, Timothy Dolan, the current Cardinal Archbishop of New York is now spearheading her cause for canonization as a saint of the Catholic Church.

Imagine that!

Giving Pause

Boston has long been my favorite American city — yes, it surpasses San Francisco. Graduate study at the Boston Theological Union remain four of the happiest years of my life. My affection is bolstered by the fact that my maternal grandmother, Annie Elizabeth Casey, was born there. Currently, a nephew and his wife are raising their two daughters in the metro area.

A nephew from South Dakota will be fulfilling a bucket-list dream of running the Boston Marathon in a couple of weeks. Back in grad school it was still possible for weekend runners like me to jump into the race without an official registration. I did just that at the beginning of Heartbreak Hill to pace a housemate in his quest for a personal best time. So, I’ve had the thrill of crossing the finish line in Copley Square even though I’d run only six of the 26.2 miles!

As a nation we were all traumatized by the tragic bombing at the finish line two years ago. Personal association with the city as well as my years as a runner made me feel the pain in an acute way. Remember how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was apprehended after being found hiding under the tarp of a boat in someone’s driveway? Well, that all occurred at the family home of my niece-in-law’s best friend from college.

Now 21 years of age, Tsarnaev has been found guilty on thirty counts associated with the bombing, seventeen of which carry the possibility of capital punishment. The young man’s defense never contested his participation in the bombing that ultimately killed four and seriously injured hundreds more. Having been convicted of his crimes, the jury now turns this next week to consideration of his sentencing.

Last week the Catholic bishops of Massachusetts came out strongly in opposition to imposition of the death penalty in this case. Citing the official Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2267), they remind us that cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are “rare, if practically nonexistent.” [link]

Church teaching allows using force to stop an aggressor, and accepts that such force might sometimes be lethal. Nevertheless, this argument cannot be invoked to defend the death penalty. The reason is simple: with the death penalty, people are being killed not for current acts of aggression, but for something that happened in the past —  they are already held within circumstances that prevent them from doing more harm!

Longtime readers of this blog know of my strong opposition to the death penalty as well as our family’s personal association — my cousin’s son was sentenced to death for murder.  Here is a [link] to my earlier post.

All that aside, evidence is incontrovertible that capital punishment simply does not serve as a deterrent. It is clearly applied in an arbitrary manner with people of color and poor people bearing that disproportionate cost. Lists of innocent people whom we have executed — before exonerating evidence or judicial malfeasance has come to light — are staggering.

Yes, a big part of my heart remains in Boston and I proudly tout my family associations. I have reveled in the Boston Marathon for decades and remain outraged by the death and injury caused by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s self-acknowledged actions. All this having been said, I am left with two nagging questions:

How can there be any social value in the death of another young man? How would his state-sanctioned execution be anything more than retaliation and revenge? To my mind, it is a sick sort of reasoning that concludes yet another death constitutes restitution or can in any way be restorative.  Such is a pretty base perversion of “justice.”

Finally, a group of 400 Evangelical Christian and Catholic leaders issued a joint moral condemnation of the death penalty during Holy Week [link]. My final question: Does it make any difference that the one whose Resurrection we have so recently celebrated, as the source and promise of our salvation, was the subject of a state-sanctioned execution?

Should this not give us pause?

Pure or Poor?

Why do we go to church? What are we looking for? What is it we want from our religious practice? What good is spirituality? These sorts of questions were prompted by a headline that grabbed my attention. Essentially, the article [Link] frames the question whether the church is meant for the “poor” or for the “pure”?

At 48, Las Cruces, NM Bishop Oscar Cantú is the second youngest bishop in the country. He is the son of Mexican immigrants. He is a clear sign of hope as well as an indication of where the church in the US is headed.  This bishop gives me hope — not because he is young, not because he is focused on those securely ensconced within his churches, but because he has laser-beam focus on who the church is for!

In response to self-appointed watchdog groups that claim it causes “scandal” for the church to have any association with organizations that are not in total agreement with Catholic moral teaching on every issue, Cantú worries about who is being left behind.

“The Incarnation is messy,” Cantú reminds us. “There was nothing clean about that stable in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Sometimes we sterilize the stable, and we lose the mystery of the Incarnation. We can’t be afraid to get our hands dirty. … What about the scandal of not caring for the poor?” he asked. “This is the silent scandal.”

For Cantú, the church already has a clear road map for responding to urgent needs in a messy world. “When we read the Gospel, Jesus goes out to those on the margins.” We can never let “a fear of being contaminated” to allow us to be complacent or distract us from our call now to be Christ’s real presence in our day.

Instead of giving-up desserts or alcohol, in place of resolving to attend daily Mass or a commitment to an exercise routine; what if more of us declared a fast from secure isolation, abstained from passive indifference, gave up a piety of individualism?

What if more of us resolved to spend an hour a week in community service with those who really are “on the edge” in place of going to Mass?

What if we gave heightened attention to the Stations of the Cross being played out in our communities rather than expecting to find them in our sanitized churches at noon on Fridays?

Rather than spending an hour in Eucharistic Adoration, what if we actually were to become the “Real Presence” with someone whose body is broken or who knows what it is to shed blood?

Why do we go to church? What are we looking for? What is it we want from our religious practice? What good is spirituality? Do I go to church to become “pure” or am I sent forth from church to engage with any who are “poor”?

Lent is our invitation to renewal, to return, to finally “turn around,” to be raised from all that is death-dealing in our lives. I am in desperate need of all that Lent has to offer! Even more, our poor broken world is in desperate need for all of us who claim church membership to have a profoundly grace-filled Lent.

The Real Reason I Left

July 24, 2014

Open Letter to My Family and Members of the Church of St. Luke:

In February 2002 I wrote letters to you announcing my plan to take a leave of absence from the Jesuits. This meant that I would no longer be your pastor and would be giving up priestly ministry – two roles I cherished.

I regret that shame, fear and deep pain prevented me from being more forthcoming with the truth. The real reason I left Jesuit priesthood is this: I was sexually abused by a Jesuit superior. The abuse occurred on five occasions over a period of eighteen months. In addition to his role in my life, the man had held numerous roles of authority and remains highly esteemed in the Jesuit province.

In my letters to you I explained that I desired “a life that includes deeper relationships and experiences that are not now an option. An important part of this is a desire for greater stability in relationships and the freedom to have a ‘home’.” Although factually accurate, these were not my real reason for leaving. You deserve to know the truth and this rather lengthy explanation gives you the full story.

My personal journals from those years – long before I came to St. Luke’s – are boxed away in storage. They would give exact timelines and many more specific details. Suffice to say, the fifth and final “time away” with this man was the lowest and most humiliating experience of my life. Devastated is too weak of a descriptor! Resolving this would never happen again, I was determined to reassert moral discipline and tight control over my life. Despite my best efforts, what’s buried alive stays alive!

About a year after the abuse ended I initiated a meeting with the new provincial to “manifest my conscience” (a peculiarly Jesuit term meaning to come clean about what’s really going on). He was quiet and thoughtful. In asking “Do you think he has done this to others?” I got the impression that he understood the gravity of the situation. Soon I received a welcome new ministry assignment in Washington, DC. However, in all future meetings with him as provincial he never once initiated any conversation or inquired about the sexual violation I had brought to him.

In addition to this early overture to the provincial I reached out to no fewer than five others – four men and one woman – who held various positions of leadership in the province during the following years. Every victim of abuse knows what incredible strength it takes to break through the shame, secrecy and intimidation that holds us locked in fear and silence. In a letter dated December 2, 1997 I confronted the man himself – not for the first time but by explicitly naming his behavior as abuse. His response was apologetic but hardly satisfying.

All the while I felt like I was spewing out my guts, emotionally hemorrhaging in front of people who should be in positions to help, struggling to get through the anguish and to regain some vitality for life and spontaneity in ministry. In every case, the person to whom I reached out was empathetic in the moment. But no one followed up with any expression of personal, pastoral or practical assistance. In a conversation shortly before I officially left the Jesuits I was able to ask one with whom I had shared my pain in the context of my annual retreat, “Why didn’t you do something?” He said, “I thought it was only once.”

There was one shining exception, Brad Schaeffer who was superior of the Jesuit community in Washington, DC where I lived immediately prior to being assigned pastor for St. Luke’s. Brad had been provincial of the Jesuits of the Chicago Province. His experience obviously served him – and me – quite well.

Brad cut to the heart of the matter with an explicit question, “What do you need from the Society?” My response was immediate, easy and simple… “All I need is for someone in authority to tell me that I am valuable and valued; that what happened to me was wrong, should never have happened, and in the name of the Society, he is sorry!”

I moved to St Paul on May 1999 knowing that “someone in authority” could only be the Jesuit provincial. How hard could it be? He had already heard the core of my story years earlier! Right!!! If you believe that any of this can be easy you don’t understand the cold, tight grip in which a culture of abuse keeps its victims paralyzed.

The steep learning curve of becoming a pastor and getting to know the community of St. Luke’s provided a welcome distraction from the pain buried just beneath the surface. Winter 2000 turned into Spring 2001. We’d be getting a new provincial in June. I could delay no longer. On May 7 I mustered sufficient courage to phone the provincial to explain what I needed – an explicit apology in the name of the Society that what I had experienced was wrong and should not have happened. In that conversation the provincial said we would meet when I came to Milwaukee for a province assembly at the beginning of June.

Suffice to say what I was led to believe would happen did not. Again at my initiative I had to intercept the provincial between Morning Prayer and breakfast on the second day of the assembly or our conversation would never have occurred. I returned from Milwaukee feeling ignored, used and taken for granted once again. I left for a two-week vacation experiencing the festering wound of abuse as something not simply perpetrated by one who violates sexual and emotional boundaries. Abuse is compounded many times over by others in an abusive system of defensive denial and acts of omission.

Sexual abuse is a “structural sin” imbedded within a culture that either believes denial will make it go away or is hell-bent on protecting the organization’s prestige, privilege or power. This has intensified and prolonged the violation I have felt. A deep pain in this sad scenario is that I still want to believe the Society of Jesus, at its core, is better than all this!

I have concluded that people in these dysfunctional systems are like fish – they don’t have an awareness of, nor can they acknowledge, the water in which they swim. Though far short of acceptance or comprehension, I remain a victim if I cannot compose some explanation for how this could happen. If this is not part of a healing process, talk of forgiveness or any future reconciliation is out of the question.

I’m not fully there yet. Yes, telling my story out loud and in public still frightens me. The first of two superiors of the Jesuit community in Washington where I lived immediately prior to coming to St. Luke’s – the one before Brad Schaeffer – faced allegations of sexual harassment from a young Jesuit under his supervision. The story broke on CBS 60 Minutes in 1999. The Society of Jesus fought hard in Federal court to stifle litigation. After a successful appeal to have his case heard in open court, the evidence was never presented. The Jesuits settled with the claimant out of court for an undisclosed sum.

Jesuits speak of being Companions in the Lord. “Companionship” is the heart of Jesuit identity and is strong, real and rich. It also has its “shadow” side. I remember the “circling of the wagons” among Jesuits immediately after the 60 Minutes expose. I have never met our superior’s accuser but I heard plenty of nasty character assassination and charges of being a “gold-digger.” Some who knew the young Jesuit said he was a willing accomplice and even basked in the erotic attention. The culture of abuse was very much in evidence – blame the victim!

I simply don’t know – I never met the man and evidence was never aired in court. Yet, he was shunned, shamed and called a liar by people who had no knowledge of the case. Jesuits are called “the Pope’s Marines” for a reason – you can count on them to rally to the defense of any perceived attack from outside their tight brotherhood. Most often this is a blessing. In this case of alleged harassment, I silently sided with the claimant and witnessed a bludgeoning. Who wouldn’t feel intimidated?

In the spirit of transparency I should say that I do know the difference between sexual activity between consenting adults and sexual abuse. After many years of “living the letter” of my vow of celibate chastity, I became involved in a sexual relationship with a Jesuit peer and colleague in ministry. I sought counsel and help from the man who would later violate my trust. I went to him because of his roles in my life, his position of leadership and reputation for spiritual wisdom. Rather than offering assistance I have concluded that he interpreted my overture for help as an indication of availability.

Fast forward again to June 2001… I returned from vacation after the Milwaukee assembly clear in my determination to seek a leave of absence. I called the newly installed provincial early in July to inform him of my disposition. Through all the months leading up to my leaving St. Luke’s and the Jesuit community on March 1, 2002, I never had a face-to-face meeting with the provincial or anyone on the province staff. It seemed strange – then and now – that something so significant would be handled with a few phone calls and a series of emails. Was I not more valued, more valuable? I have concluded that, yet again, they did not take me seriously or believe what I was saying.

My hope that the pain and reality of sexual abuse would be left behind with a leave of absence was soon dashed. Archbishop Rembert Weakland, OSB of Milwaukee had long been my hero and icon of the great churchman. I eagerly attended his 8 a.m. Sunday liturgies at the Cathedral whenever I was in town. His leadership with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in drafting their pastoral statement on the US economy epitomizes episcopal leadership and the church’s social teaching at their best. I was honored to have been ordained priest by Archbishop Weakland in 1988.

Imagine my heartache upon hearing the report on national news in May 2002 that Weakland had resigned after it was revealed he had secretly used $450,000 of diocesan funds years earlier to prevent a lawsuit for sexual assault. The payment had been made to hide his relationship with a 30-year-old male graduate student. Does the pain and reality of sexual abuse ever go away?

On January 6, 2004 an email arrived that flashed me back into exasperation and initial disbelief. The province was looking for a new pastor for St. Luke’s and the name of the Jesuit who had abused me was frequently surfacing as one for consideration. The insidious nature of abuse is that it continues to resurface and poke its ugly head into one’s face again and again. At first, the email message sent a stab of pain and the price of loss washed over me again.

That evening I consulted with two members of St. Luke’s with whom I had worked closely and in whom I had confided the “whole story” when I was deciding to take a leave of absence. After sleeping on the matter I chose to focus on the positive and interpret the fact of being asked my opinion to be made in good faith and showed growing sensitivity, comprehension and respect. Nevertheless, I clearly expressed to the province the two parishioners’ thoughts – as well as mine – about the prospect of having this man as pastor of St. Luke’s. To say they and I would have a serious issue with such an appointment would be a gross understatement!

My reply quoted letters from March and May 2003 to the provincial which stated that my “experience of sexual abuse has so eroded my trust in Jesuit superiors and the Society’s ‘cura personalis’ [care of the person] that I no longer choose to be a Jesuit.” Still, this was a huge step forward. Now, a member of the province staff expressed “a deep down hesitation” about an appointment they had the authority to make.

The email asked whether “given [my] history and experience, should a position of leadership, especially in the same city, even be considered?” It went on to say they “want to be respectful of [my] experiences.” Though my first response had been that of a victim whose pain is again flashed before him, my current perspective chooses to focus on good intentions, growing comprehension and the sincerity of the gesture.

I don’t know the technical definition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I do know that depression and anxiety can arise seemingly from nowhere. Events in the news have and continue to send me into a tailspin. Such was the case in Spring 2010 when stories of abuse being reported in the media sent me back into therapy. This time I decided to write the Jesuit provincial to inform him of my lingering pain and the recurring struggle with which I live. His response, hand-written on Jesuit community stationery, said in part:

Thank you for letting me know about your return to therapy to address the ongoing consequences of your experience of sexual abuse that led to your departure from the Society. I also appreciate your helping me to have a better understanding of the effects of such abuse. I will keep you in my prayer both that what you hope and wish for me and others sharing your experience will be increasingly realized and that your recovery and healing will be realized as well.

Though an expression of gratitude and assurance of prayer falls short of what I have wanted and needed from Jesuit leadership, the fact he made the effort to respond at all and to name my experience “abuse” was deeply appreciated. Especially from the perspective of today, the note tells me a new generation of leadership is beginning to “get it.”

So, why now? Why am I telling my story at such length? Why not now? Essentially, within the past eighteen months I have felt an emotional loosening, an ability to breathe, and a gentle impulse to let-go, to let down my defenses, a resolve to smile more authentically. A growing sense of strength and freedom cannot help but express itself out loud!

Yes, my physician tells me that I will likely need to be on my anti-depressant for the rest of my life. And, I now keep six Klonopin on hand to forestall another 2 a.m. trip to the ER for panic attack. But without knowing the day or the occasion, I have moved from feeling like a victim to that of being a survivor. That difference need not be fully in place for me to recognize the change as dramatic.

My pain has mutated over the years through grief and deep sadness into something approaching acceptance. News in February 2012 that Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned after initially denying accusations by four priests of sexual exploitation seemed like “old news” and all too familiar. The fact that he was dis-invited from participating in the conclave that elected Pope Francis and was forced to resign carried a refreshing element of vindication!

Parenthetically, Pope Francis is not an anomaly. He is one expression of many really fine Jesuits who are very much the norm rather than the exception. Neither is the story I tell here to be interpreted as an indictment of all Jesuits or a distraction from the tremendous good the Society of Jesus does globally and through the Wisconsin Province. Ignatius wanted “a few abnegated men.” I believe he would be proud of what he’s got today. I choose to believe the abdication of responsibility and complicity in abuse described here is the real anomaly to the Jesuit norm, especially today.

Yes, I still get angry hearing stories such as Oprah Winfrey’s July 17 interview of Jerry Sandusky’s son. Matt Sandusky tells of his father grooming of his victims and his subtle forms of manipulation. Matt’s story is his story – but I recognize its truth and fully appreciate the years it took him to tell it. Something I also understand is his father’s continuing protestations of innocence. I have no doubt that Jerry Sandusky truly believes he did nothing wrong and was simply engaging in good-natured child’s play with his son and his other victims. That’s part of the tragic pattern of abuse.

One important lesson in all of this is about consequences. I still hold Rembert Weakland in high esteem and admire his leadership as international leader for all Benedictine’s in the world and then as Archbishop. His ground breaking work on behalf of economic justice endures. I truly grieve that he has lived the past twelve years alone in an apartment in Milwaukee and was informed last month that he is not welcome to return to his home abbey in Pennsylvania. Behavior has consequences. I concede he did not set out to hurt anyone. But behavior, the kind we call misbehavior, has tragic consequences for oneself – and others. Believe me, I know!

Again, what prompts my disclosure now? An important prompt was the self-disclosure by Washington Post writer Steven Petrow in his April 28 column. A friend had slipped a novel by Carrie Brown into his mailbox. The novel tells the story of Ruth, now in her “twilight . . . look[ing] back on a harrowing childhood and on the unaccountable love and happiness that emerged from it.” Petrow hung on a single line from near the end of the book: “If I can’t ever tell anyone the true story . . . then no one will ever know me.”

Petrow had been writing an essay about his life and the self-blame he’d long carried about having had cancer. But he stopped his writing, snagged in that very same way as when he had come upon Ruth’s admonition. Would he include a certain seven words: “I had been molested as a child.”? He went on to explain his experience of being sexually molested by his paternal grandfather. I have been hanging on Petrow’s disclosure since April. Like him, I do not believe in coincidences. There is a reason his story crossed my path at this time in my life. “If I can’t ever tell anyone the true story . . . then no one will ever know me.”

The sad news of Fr. Pat Malone’s death arrived yesterday as I was finalizing this “open letter.” I was soon reminded of a post Pat made on his Caring Bridge site during Holy Week 2010. He reflected on the sex abuse scandal roiling the church he loved with his decades long battle with cancer. Pat expressed outrage at clergy abuse of minors but I am encouraged and consoled by his wisdom:

What has most rattled the world, believers and non-believers, is not that an organization has criminals and disturbed individuals within its ranks, but that those who could put the individuals out of harm’s way did not always do so, sometimes until a public outcry demanded it. The way forward was to conceal. There is a place for discretion, especially when it helps the wounded find a new normal, but secrecy too often feeds on itself: it makes it easier to stay clandestine the next time, and the next time. When we do not speak of the corruption, we do not stop it. Secrets keep us ill. They perpetuate shame… Worst of all, secrets convince us that we either do not need redemption, or its beyond our reach.

Pat was a superb Jesuit, of which there are many. He was a beloved associate pastor for St. Luke’s. I trust that he would endorse this truth-telling.

Unquestionably, another powerful motivation has been the decades-long cover-up of clergy sex abuse in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Minnesota Public Radio broke open the horrendous story more than a year ago. It now finds expression in at least forty law suits against the Archdiocese working their way through the courts. MPR aptly titles its July 14 webcast, “Betrayed by Silence.” This 59-minute radio documentary meticulously recounts the efforts of three successive archbishops to hide clergy sex abuse, failures to comply with protocols enacted by the US bishops in 2002, and stone-walling investigations by law enforcement. Tragically, the “structural sin” of systemic abuse is very much in evidence.

The most immediate and by far the most powerful impetus for my disclosure is a story first broke on July 1 by Commonweal magazine. Since the end of 2013 Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been under investigation for “multiple allegations” of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests, and other adult men. Upon receiving complaints last year the Archdiocese has hired a law firm to conduct a full and independent investigation. In the past this would have sent me into a tailspin of depression, perhaps back into therapy. Today I choose the opposite of burying my feelings – rather, I choose to use a newly empowered voice to tell my story out loud and in public.

Regular readers of Kneading Bread know that I have frequently reiterated what rank-and-file Catholics know all too well… the root cause of our sex abuse crisis in the church is the culture of clericalism, hierarchical arrogance and preoccupation with protecting power and privilege. Now you know from where the passion and forcefulness of my conviction is coming. You now better understand the personal price and outrage beneath my words!

On July 7 – still outraged by the story about Archbishop Nienstedt’s alleged misconduct – I wrote on this blog: It’s long past time for more than a little honesty in our church. We are in urgent need of changing the sieve that keeps secret the tragic truth poisoning our church family. Honest confessions are long overdue. Telling my story is holding myself accountable to what I truly believe.

Actually, we need far more than “a little” honesty. I have become exhausted by holding my secret. More and more I am finding my voice – shame simultaneously dissipates. Confession is long overdue! Only now do I feel strong enough to add mine to the long roster of public confessions that still need to be heard in the light of day.

Finally, my family and faithful friends from St. Luke’s deserve yet another expression of gratitude. Your ongoing affection and practical support continue to nurture and inspire me. Over the last few months our paths have crossed at graduation celebrations, retirement parties, birthday recitals and other family get-togethers. We have shared losses and expressed grief as well as joy and achievement. Again without effort or awareness on your part, you remain a tremendous gift. When we have hugged and reminisced I have increasingly left with this conviction: You have a right to know!

Clergy sex abuse is perpetrated by a culture that holds its victims hostage within silence and secrecy. You have been victimized by this culture of abuse as well. As our paths have crossed this summer, especially in light of the scandals currently being exposed in this Archdiocese, it has seemed an injustice to you not to disclose the truth of my departure. Paraphrasing actress Ellen Page’s coming-out statement, “I am simply tired of lying to you by omission.”

You need not be a careful reader to see that I have deliberately not named names. Some in whom I have confided believe I should. But my purpose is not to seek revenge or retaliation. Yes, an undercurrent of anger, pain and grief flows through these pages. I have tried for too long to bury or disguise it. What’s buried alive stays alive. No more! I can achieve what contributes to my healing without saying more than I need to say.

One thing anger has taught is that it can be used to hurt or to heal. I sincerely want the hurt to stop – disclosing names just feels hurtful and stopping short of naming names feels right. I seek healing, for me and for all victims – not naming names seems like an appropriate way to express my strength and direct my anger toward that goal.

A composition of this length warrants a crescendo close. The only one that comes to mind is the quote from the Greek poet Aeschylus made famous by Robert Kennedy when I was seventeen and too young to fully comprehend its import. RFK concluded his remarks on the day Martin Luther King was assassinated:

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

But this composition is not history nor mythology – it’s my story, my life! Truly, it has become a story we share. It is our story! I am incapable of crafting a fitting conclusion alone. No longer do I presume to carry the responsibility of crafting that conclusion by myself.

Healing comes when we are open and honest, when the fullness of our lives is given as gift for others.

 

 

Dare We Hope?

The biggest, boldest headline doesn’t always tell the most important story. That’s the case this week with Pope Francis’ much anticipated and highly publicized meeting with victims of clergy sex abuse. Though survivor advocate groups cited deficiencies and questioned the Church’s resolve, Francis gained generally high marks for personal empathy and promise to hold bishops accountable.

But as ordinary Catholics know and this blog has reiterated many times, the root cause of our sex abuse crisis is the culture of clericalism, hierarchical arrogance and preoccupation with protecting power in the Roman church. Though not as insidious as the sexual abuse of a child, recognition of the urgent need to reform the Vatican Curia is a subset of the same core malignancy.

A sliver of light shone through the long socked-in cloud cover yesterday.  It came in the form of a copyrighted [story] by Carol Glatz for the Catholic News Service — to their credit, this is an arm of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Though it seems not to have even registered on mainline media it portends the level of awareness that must be in place for any meaningful change.  It suggests a few in church leadership are beginning to “get it” and we may have reason for hope beyond what the Pope promised.

“To some it might seem less than prudent to think that the church would go out of its way to seek out even more victims and survivors,” opening up further possibilities for lawsuits, anguish and “trouble,” Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin told representatives from bishops’ conferences from around the world.

However, when Jesus tells pastors to leave behind their flock to seek out the one who is lost, that mandate “is itself unreasonable and imprudent but, like it or not, that is precisely what Jesus asks us to do.”

Helping perpetrators, victims, parishes, communities and people who are distanced from the church out of “disgust at what has happened to children” won’t happen with “slick public relations gestures or even from repeated words of apology,” Martin said.

“Healing cannot be delegated,” the Archbishop emphasized. It requires every church member be humble and Christ-like in lovingly embracing “wounded men and women, with all the brutality and unattractiveness of wounds.”

It will come when the church recognizes “how compromise and insensitivity and wrong decisions have damaged the witness of the church,” he said, and when its members have their own personal healing, becoming more humble and journeying close to those who are lost and hurting.

“We are not there to tell the survivors what they have to do, but together to find new ways of interacting with respect and care,” and not hoping the problems go away, but seeking them out for reconciliation, he said.

Archbishop Martin was one of a number of speakers at an annual meeting of Conference on the Safeguarding of Children, Young People and Vulnerable Adults. The 2014 conference is being held this week in Rome.

In his address, the Archbishop said, “The greatest harm that we could do to the progress that has been made right across the church is to slip back into a false assurance that the crisis is a thing of the past.”

“What has happened has wounded the entire church,” he said, and “the entire church is called to put right what has happened.”

“We are not that kind of church yet: and by far,” he said.

With this awareness finally being expressed by church leadership there might finally be a toe-hold for hope in this tragic saga of clergy sexual abuse and a few cracks showing in a perverse culture of clericalism.

It’s a refreshing story and a welcome week when the most significant report coming out of Rome originates from someone other than the Pope.
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I have no intention to violate copyright laws and respect the restriction posted on the CNS story that is my source: Copyright (c) 2014 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed. But with good news like this, how could I not share it? I enthusiastically refer you to the full copyrighted story with the link provided above.

The Difference a Change of Filter Makes

Time for a little honesty! Time for true confession…

The investigation of our archbishop, John Neinstedt, for alleged same-sex dalliances leaves me so disillusioned and angry that I really had no desire to go to church yesterday. I’m really pissed off by his self-righteous arrogance and homophobic pomposity. It’s not as if his reputation didn’t precede him to the Twin Cities — just like a long festering boil, the infection is finally being lanced!

Out of force of habit or blind stubbornness I walked to the 9:30 Mass despite myself. It’s only a short distance from our house to Christ the King, hardly more than two blocks. Sunday of Fourth of July weekend is always one of the lowest attended services. Minnesotans are notorious for being “up North.” Still, parking spaces en route were quickly filling with family SUVs and elders arrived in a procession of vehicles giving front-door service.

Viewing this gathering congregation from the sidewalk just as it begins a gradual decent to the 51st Street entrance, something washed over me. My crankiness receded. My fixation relaxed. My heart softened. Screw the Archbishop! With the hard-won determination all survivors of abuse need to reclaim – and all Minneapolis-St Paul Catholics are surely victims of hierarchical abuse regardless of whatever John Neinstedt has done in his past life – who is he to hold power or retain control over our emotional lives or the full, free and mature practice of our faith!

Approaching the entrance along with familiar neighbors, well-scrubbed families and friendly congregants I physically felt an angry, cynical “filter” being lifted from my eyes and heart. Going to church felt like coming home – here is the church! If the Eucharist we come to share means anything, we are Christ’s real presence. This is the People of God I know, love, wish to serve and in which I hold my birthright!

We garden-variety Catholics have a long history of disregarding pious platitudes from remote hierarchs.  Tending a fussing child or paying the mortgage insulates us from  pontificating so heavenly minded it’s no earthly good. With my fixation filter lifted, I recognized that I was not going to church out of habit or obligation. I was going to church because of simple, sophisticated, mature, faithful folks whose faith is not their profession but the incarnational mess of our ordinary lives.

Every family, each person entering the doors of CTK on any given Sunday would balk at being called “exemplary” – but they are! Anyone who has been a parent has probably heard more confessions and ministered reconciliation more often than the typical pastor. Gathering here are those whose Baptism and Confirmation have become engrained — yes, becoming second nature, a matter of rote habit even.  If there is obligation, it is an obligation they have to themselves or one they pay their children.

It’s long past time for more than a little honesty in our church. We are in urgent need of changing the sieve that keeps secret the tragic truth poisoning our church family. Honest confessions are long overdue — and here in Minneapolis-St Paul we need more than just a change of filters!

The rank and file Catholic in the pews understands this far better than those for whom “church” has become a career and those blind guides who  presume they hold control by divine right.

How can we not gather to give thanks to a God who consistently seems to act and speak this truth!

How Long Must We Endure?

Today is a really, really, really hard day to be Catholic in Minnesota! If you care to read the details that leave me somewhere between exasperated on the way to enraged you can find them [here].

Let me simply summarize by saying that I called for the resignation of John Neinstedt as Archbishop of St Paul & Minneapolis [here] one month ago today. Now I am confident that it will only be a matter of time!  But how long, oh Lord?  How long?

Perhaps this is perfect context in which to reaffirm that our Christian faith is grounded — not in humans, not in a church or any authority, not even in any human interpretation of Scripture — but ultimately and solely in God alone.

So today is a day in which I feel the cost, challenge and pain of loving a church that is corrupt, sinful and in desperate need of a thorough house-cleaning! All the more need to keep my eyes focused on God alone! All the more reason to stay with the very same theme I had planned for today — living in the dark!

Yesterday, before the bomb shell news report, I could never have anticipated how I would come to value Barbara Brown Taylor’s quote from the 14th century classic, The Cloud of Unknowing: “… darkness and cloud is always between you and God, no matter what you do.”

Let me be clear, the anonymous author of this Christian classic was speaking of “darkness” as that intriguing, beguiling, frustrating mystery of God that is as impenetrable as its opposite, trying to look directly into the sun. This darkness — only metaphorically apprehended in what mystics express as a “dark night of the soul” — is the direct polar opposite of the sin and corruption we so vividly see in the Church of St Paul and Minneapolis.

Keeping our sights singularly fixed on God alone, we acknowledge that some things we will simply never be able to see by the light of human understanding. At times — thankfully not most of the time — faith feels like a forced exile, if not a long captivity, the spiritual life weighs like an imposing burden.

The anonymous text from the 14th century remains a classic because of its incomparable ability to express our universal and perennial experience. Ultimately, like the penultimate lawgiver, Moses, we are able to encounter or “see” the Holy One — if at all — only from within a cloud of luminous darkness.

Moses never made it to the Promised Land, being given only the gift of seeing it beckoning on the horizon. Others lead the People’s crossing over from slavery into freedom.

How long, oh Lord? How long!!! Our trust rests in you alone.

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Barbara Brown Taylor’s reference on p 48 of Learning to Walk in the Dark is from The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Emilie Griffin.  HarperSan-Francisco, 1981. p 15.

Warning: Strong Winds Possible

Remember that old, short, fat guy with big ears? His name was Angelo.

Who wouldn’t feel affection for a man who was so comfortable with himself that he constantly made jokes about his physical appearance? When he once met a little boy named Angelo, he exclaimed, “That was my name, too!” And then, conspiratorially, “But then they made me change it!”

Journalists once expressed concern about the many burdens of his office on such an old man — he was seventy-seven when elected!  They asked, “Do worries, stress or anxiety given all you have to face ever keep you awake at night?” He answered, “Not at all! At the end of the day I say, ‘God, this is your church. I’m going to sleep.’”

An experienced diplomat, a veteran of ecumenical dialogue, and a gifted pastor and bishop, John XXIII brought a wealth of experience to the office of pope. Blessed with a sense of humor and innate humility, he managed to escape the Achilles heel of all Catholics – conflating the hierarchy with the church.

When making a pastoral visit to a Roman medical center named the Hospital of the Holy Spirit he was introduced to the nun who was the administrator of the hospital. “Holy Father,” she said, “I am the superior of the Holy Spirit.” “You’re very lucky,” said the pope, delighted. “I’m only the Vicar of Christ!”

Three months after assuming his office, Pope John caught Vatican bureaucrats off guard by casually announcing his intention to convene an ecumenical council. Curial officers, long accustomed to running things, prepared documents simply reiterating tired old “truths” in the moribund language of ecclesial texts. Entrenched bishops were poised to condemn a whole new syllabus of modern errors.

John gave voice to a different agenda. “The church has always opposed … errors. Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.” He also hoped the church might reclaim its true identity and vocation as a “church of the poor.”

The pope hardly spoke during the opening sessions of the Council. He made one crucial intervention. After the first previously prepared document was rejected by a narrow majority, but not enough to table it definitively, John directed that it be returned for complete revision. That empowered the assembled bishops to set aside the entire set of draft documents and start from scratch.

His role was simply to “open the widows” for the spirit of Vatican II. Terminal cancer would cut short his participation but not his humor: “My bags are packed and I am ready to go.”

Four and a half years after becoming pope, John dictated a final message from his deathbed:

Now, more than ever, certainly more than in the past centuries, our intention is to serve people as such and not only Catholics; to defend above all and everywhere the rights of the human person and not only those of the Catholic Church; it is not the Gospel that changes; it is we who begin to understand it better…. The moment has arrived when we must recognize the signs of the times, seize the opportunity, and look far beyond. 

Sound vaguely familiar? As we approach Pentecost this Sunday we do well to remember that this isn’t the pope’s church, it is God’s! For all who would conflate hierarchy with church, the best we could do would be to get out of the way of the Holy Spirit.  We should all be starting more fires!

Saint John XXIII died on this day in 1963.

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I am indebted once again to Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses For Our Times. Crossroads, 1999. p 243-4.

Humor is from James Martin, SJ and more may be enjoyed [here].

Iznik, 2025

You know the look! It’s beyond glazed – that moment just before a friend’s eyes begin to roll back, often with a smothered yawn. At dinner with friends last evening at our favorite German restaurant I knew not to bring up the topic – we were there to have fun.

Earlier yesterday I had gasped upon hearing the news. Immediately doing the math, I calculated with delight, yes, I’d live to see the day! I wonder if my expectancy resembles that of a couple who are the only ones in the world who know they are pregnant — an irrepressible impulse breaks open, an indomitable hope and assurance of a future.

The only thing comparable in my lifetime came with the challenge set by President Kennedy on May 25, 1961: “First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

With a stillness and the nearly imperceptible display that invariably distinguishes God’s most dramatic “annunciations”, it has been disclosed that Christianity will be getting a Nicaea III.  A what? you say! (Please, fight the glaze rolling over your eyes. Resist the impulse to click the “close” icon.)

Who can calculate the consequences of the Great Schism of 1054? History books tell us of the centuries-old split between the Christian East and the West, with all the socio-political consequences from which our world still suffers. Only in our lifetime are we seeing healing, requisite humility and hope for reconciliation – the kind that is beyond human abilities and can only come from God.

The first Council of Nicaea called by Emperor Constantine occurred in 325 and bequeathed to us the core Christian beliefs we profess today – think: Nicene Creed. 318 bishops gathered at Constantine’s summer home to hammer out how this human being, Jesus of Nazareth, could also be God – funny how we seem to have the opposite issue today!

The second Council of Nicaea was held in the eighth century to clarify that it was okay and even helpful to use objects like icons to enhance worship space and prayer – hardly a burning issue compared to Jesus’ humanity and divinity! (Sorry! Glazed eyes are starting to roll… let’s move on!) 

Now in our own day, after a thousand years of division bordering on animosity, Bartholomew II, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, has announced that an ecumenical “gathering” will be held in Nicaea in 2025 — seventeen centuries after the first ever ecumenical council gathered there in 325!

“The dialogue for unity between Catholics and Orthodox” Bartholomew explains, “will start again from Jerusalem. In this city, in the autumn [2014], a meeting of the Catholic-Orthodox Joint Commission will be hosted by the Greek Orthodox patriarch Theophilos III. It is a long journey in which we all must be committed without hypocrisy”.

Kennedy’s May 1961 challenge was achieved on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong became the first human to step onto the lunar surface – a time frame not unlike the one set by the Patriarch for Nicaea in 2025.

That which was thought to be inconceivable happens even in our lifetime – for even when the past appears barren, nothing is impossible with God! (cf., Luke 1:26-38)
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Nicaea is now Iznik, Turkey and rests in a fertile valley aside a lake 56 miles SE of Istanbul.

See the exclusive report with Patriach Batholomew’s announcement [here].

A Sign of Hope

We have ground for hope, genuine signs of vitality and reason to risk optimism! Regular readers will recall that I recently expressed blunt criticism and serious disappointment in Pope Francis [link] accusing him of being insensitive and out of touch regarding clergy sex abuse.  I bemoaned the fact that he seemed to defend a perverted “clericalism” that underlies a corrupt power-structure in the Catholic church.  I had largely concurred with canon lawyer and priest Thomas P. Doyle: The survivors of abuse and countless others from the church and from society in general have been waiting for three decades for evidence that the institutional church “gets it.” There not only is no real evidence that it has, but from all appearances the hierarchy will remain on the defensive, hoping the problem will go away.  Fair is fair so I am here today to suggest — to express genuine hope — that I was premature in my harsh criticism and profoundly wrong.

Over the past 24 hours media have favorably reported on the new Pontifical Commission on the Protection of Minors.  It has to be significant that the first to break this story [link] in the U.S. was John L. Allen, Jr. for the Boston Globe.  You may recall it was the Globe who tenaciously pursued and really broke open the American clergy sex abuse scandal in 2002.  In a journalistic coup and demonstration of its resolve to provide ongoing and incisive coverage, the Globe recently recruited Allen from the equally tenacious, progressive and independent National Catholic Reporter. My purpose is not to repeat what is already well reported but to express welcome surprise and highlight reasons to be hopeful.

Of the eight commission members, four are women.  I have long argued that had women held meaningful leadership in the Catholic church – or the male hierarchy of college sports a la Penn State — the scandal of sex-abuse would have been addressed and resolved much more swiftly and with immediate reforms.  Five of the eight commission members are laypersons.  That in itself is a refreshing change.  Significantly, one member is an outspoken survivor of rape by a priest when she was 13 years old. Corroborating this non-clerical, non-hierarchical composition is that Pope Francis explicitly left it to the eight commission members to choose their own leadership and selection of additional members.

It also has to be sobering for bishops and national conferences of bishops to recognize that their only representation comes with Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM — of Boston! Having only one bishop on a pontifical commission of such import sends a pointed message.  Equally significant, and something I have not seen adequately appreciated, is that the other two ordained members are Jesuits.  The fact that all three “clerics” are members of religious orders is a message that cannot be lost on church hierarchs!  As religious, these three have had very different formation than their diocesan brothers and are much more insulated – and one would hope inoculated – from the careerism that is endemic to ecclesial bureaucracies.

The commission is bound to face strong head-winds of resistance, centuries of entrenched power interests and decades of denial – such is the nature of all abuse of power as with this distinctively “Catholic” manifestation. We owe them gratitude and uncompromising support

Commonweal magazine provides a little known reason to inspire additional hope [link].  In the current issue editors cite sources suggesting Jorge Bergoglio possesses the finest-honed political instincts of any Argentine since Juan and Eva Perón.  Let’s all pray the editors are right — we need such gifts right now!