A guide through the darkness

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The journey to recovery for victims of childhood sexual abuse is painful and often lonely. The betrayal of trust cuts deeply, and the heart it injures mends slowly. For those who aid victims, bringing a nonthreatening presence to that loneliness and bearing witness to their wounds takes a unique mix of compassion, patience and wisdom.

Father Lewis S. Fiorelli, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, possesses that special combination. A spiritual director for nearly a half-century, he began working with victims about four years ago. His approach is grounded in Salesian spirituality, and it resonates with victims, many of whom understandably have a strong sense of distrust.

"The call of St. Francis is a call of gentleness, humility, simplicity, a great respect - even reverence - for the other," said Father Fiorelli during a recent interview at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna, where he is parochial vicar. "You treat everybody with great care. You appreciate their uniqueness. You start from where they are as individuals and take it from there."

After several years offering workshops, retreats and some counseling to both victims and those who help them, he now hopes to share a path toward spiritual healing beyond the Arlington Diocese.

He has co-authored the book Veronica's Veil: Spiritual Companionship for Survivors of Abuse - A Guide for Integrating Faith with Recovery with Teresa Pitt Green, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. The book, slated for publication this fall, covers more than 70 topics that progress from the first stages of recovery and move toward spiritual healing. In October, he will give a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops-sponsored webinar on the spiritual healing of abuse victims. The webinar is part of a fall training session for those working in victim assistance and child protection.

"Father Fiorelli has been a gift to our local program," said Pat Mudd, coordinator of the diocesan Office of Victim Assistance. "I think (his book and webinar) will be a powerful help to priests and victims around the country."

Introduction to the devout life

God's providence is central in Salesian spirituality, and Father Fiorelli often has felt its guidance in his life. Loving providence is with us at every moment and under all circumstances, he writes in the draft of his webinar. "Providence says, 'You are loved. You are loveable.'"

Born in Waterloo, N.Y., March 10, 1942, Father Fiorelli was raised in a Catholic family that was not especially devout. The first pull at his heart was not toward the priesthood but the classroom.

While in high school, a priest asked him his plans post-graduation. When he answered that he wanted to be a teacher, the priest responded: "Oh, so you want to be a priest-teacher?"

"I'd never put the two together, but that planted the seed," said Father Fiorelli.

During high school he read The Seven Story Mountain, the 1948 autobiography of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, writer and convert. In the book, Merton shares his experiences as an agnostic in New York City, where he began visiting churches and was drawn toward the liturgy and beauty of the Catholic faith.

Father Fiorelli said the book served as a catalyst that awakened in him a yearning for the contemplative life that Merton described, and he began perusing a book on religious orders, even writing to a few.

When he came to the section on the Oblates, he remembers seeing a man riding a tractor on a farm. "That didn't appeal to me, and I quickly turned the page," said Father Fiorelli.

"Three months later I ended up on that farm, even helping out at times in the field," he said, laughing.

Not long after he flipped that page, Father Fiorelli was introduced to an Oblate priest and their apostolate of teaching. Although he didn't know anything about their spirituality, he was attracted to their work, and in 1960, he entered the Oblates seminary in Childs, Md.

Looking back, Father Fiorelli says entering the order was the work of providence. "I resonate completely with the spirituality," he said. "It fit me like a handmade glove. The Lord knew that; I couldn't have known that."

One of the things he loves is that it's a spiritual path that's doable. "This spirituality is decidedly not a one-size-fits-all approach," he said. It takes people where they are and uses the ordinary means that the church provides - the sacraments, prayer and meditation- to achieve holiness.

St. Francis de Sales, who wrote the spiritual classic Introduction to the Devout Life, speaks of the virtues, especially what he calls the "little virtues," that people can apply every day. "We can bring them to our relational lives - gentleness and kindness, forbearance and forgiveness, patience, cordiality, and warmth," said Father Fiorelli.

After entering the seminary, Father Fiorelli went on to pursue undergraduate studies in philosophy and modern languages at Catholic University in Washington and Niagara University in New York. He then studied in Switzerland before earning a doctorate in systematic theology from Catholic U.

Ordained Sept. 12, 1970, Father Fiorelli has taught dogmatic theology and Salesian spirituality in the Washington area and now serves as chaplain to several lay Salesian groups. He also is the auxiliary religious assistant to the Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary monasteries in the United States. He has given courses on Salesian spiritual direction in Rome and will give one next spring in India.

From 1994 to 2006, Father Fiorelli served as superior general of the Oblates, a role the order's constitutions describe as the "heart and soul" of the congregation.

The superior general does his best to keep the congregation faithful to its charism of living and spreading the spirit of St. Francis, said Father Fiorelli.

"Our founder wanted us Oblates to jump 'feet first' right into the midst of the world just as it is and do all in our power to win it for Christ - always following the example of Jesus, gentle and humble of heart."

And that's what Father Fiorelli has continued to do in his work with victims: jumping in feet first to attend to the wounds of the world.

The power of grace

"Salesian spiritual guidance seeks to win hearts through persuasion, never through force or fear," said Father Fiorelli. He said it is the humility and tenderness of St. Francis de Sales, and his authentic appreciation for each unique person, that appeals to survivors of abuse.

The challenges of ministering to abuse victims are numerous, especially if they were betrayed by a member of the clergy. "Many things associated with the church, its liturgy and its ministers can act as triggers to adult men and women who were sexually abused as children by clergy and/or whose pleas for help were met with skepticism or resistance by church authorities," said Father Fiorelli. "A trigger can suddenly bring all the worst of the memories and feelings back without warning.

"Trust is an essential element in spiritual guidance," he added, "and that may take a very long time to develop."

A spiritual guide, especially a priest like himself, is often the "face" of the church for victims. Thus, the spiritual guide "needs to offer them a sincere and heart-felt apology."

Listening is similarly important. "Listen to them and to their stories," he writes in the webinar draft. "Let them lead you."

It's important to remember, though, that "the Holy Spirit is the real guide, and it's OK not to know all the answers," he said.

In the search for answers and peace, Father Fiorelli hopes Veronica's Veil will offer spiritual assistance not only to victims of sexual abuse but also victims of other trauma. According to Father Fiorelli, the book fills a gap in recovery literature by providing a dialogue between a victim and a spiritual guide and addressing the recovery process from a Catholic perspective.

Tackling questions such as "Why me?" and themes like rage, shame and depression, Green and Father Fiorelli alternately share their thoughts in short essays. Frank J. Moncher, a licensed clinical psychologist who works as a psychological consultant for the Arlington Diocese and Catholic Charities, periodically contributes his insights.

The last section of the book is not for all readers, as the introduction notes. Entitled "Reconciliation," it offers reflections on sacred topics, such as the sacraments, the saints and forgiveness, and is for survivors who want and are able to delve into the Catholic faith.

The book also provides prayers and online and print resources.

Throughout his spiritual direction, workshops and the book-writing process, Father Fiorelli has been inspired by the men and women he has encountered who struggle so fiercely and keep seeking faith.

"I am humbled by the courage of every victim I have met. They have had so many obstacles to overcome in their often painful journey back to God and church," he said. "Their effort shows the power of grace that can get through all that darkness."

Get the book

To reserve an advance copy of Veronica's Veil: Spiritual Companionship for Survivors of Abuse - A Guide for Integrating Faith, email herself@teresagreen.org. It will be available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com in October.

For information on healing Masses, prayer services and other support for victims of abuse in the Arlington Diocese, click here. For additional healing resources, go to teresagreen.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014