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Letter to a suffering church

First slide

It’s been nearly a year now since we learned about the heinous deeds of once-Cardinal McCarrick and then sat, washed over by grief and anger, reading the Pennsylvania attorney general’s report of decades of abuse of children by priests. At once heartbroken and infuriated, Catholics in the United States have grappled with the reality of disappointment, disillusionment and distrust. We have waited for words that make sense of what has happened and set a tone for the future. 

This summer, Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron offers a letter. Careful to make it clear that he writes with the compassion of a shepherd, but not in an official capacity as a spokesman for the church, Bishop Barron writes compellingly from a perspective that at once understands the hurt and anger of Catholics in this country and firmly but kindly insists that there is hope and the hope is theirs. 

The first chapter of the book meets readers where they are. With great care, Bishop Barron summarizes the abuse scandal and is refreshingly forthright assigning blame to those who are guilty, including people who hid the abusers. He does not shy from exposing McCarrick’s grave sins and joining readers in their disgust for the whole sordid affair. The chapter lets us know that he knows how sorrowful and angry people are, and then assures us he shares those emotions. He pulls no punches when he writes frankly of Satan’s role in the scandal — not at all dismissing the human failures but pointing out that those who were complicit gave full assent of their wills when they cooperated with evil. He calls the shattered state of the church today “the devil’s masterpiece,” but he reminds us that the “Lord promised us he would never leave us, even until the end of the age. So we are forbidden to give up hope.”

The second chapter, Bishop Barron shines as the masterful teacher he is. A walk through scripture illuminates the historical precedent for the behavior that we have witnessed. To those of us who are horrified by one revelation after another, Bishop Barron asserts that, throughout the Bible, “distorted sexuality becomes a vivid countersign of the divine.” The reader is left wondering if someone looking at this age would see the divine in vivid contrast. Where is it and whose responsibility is it to be that contrast in the world? We begin to think about our own roles in rebuilding. One of the greatest strengths of this letter (it’s a short book) is Bishop Barron’s ability to articulate what has happened and how it’s made us think and feel about the church. To have someone put pain into words is a great gift toward healing. 

The third chapter reminded me of Ross Douthat’s prophetic book, “To Change the Church.” It is a clear-eyed recounting of the long history of sexually active clergy and truly terrible popes. Barron’s point is not to shock and horrify, but to make it clear that the powers of hell have not ever, nor will they ever, prevail against the church. “A time of crisis is not the moment to abandon the church; it is the moment to stay and fight.”

At first, I was disappointed in the final two chapters, Why Should We Stay? and The Way Forward. In a nutshell, we should stay because, like St. Peter, we recognize that there is nowhere else to go. “We are Catholics because the Church speaks of the Trinitarian God whose very nature is love; of Jesus the Lord, crucified and risen from the dead; of the Holy Spirit, who inspires the followers of Christ up and down the ages; of the sacraments, which convey the Christ-life to us; and of the saints, who are our friends in the spiritual order. This is the treasure; this is why we stay.” It is at once simple and infinitely complex. If we stay, though, what should we do now?

When we reach the end of the letter, we arrive at the place where holiness and activism come together. I know a lot of angry women — righteous, holy anger fueling a burning desire to take back the church for God. This crisis can bring us together in ways nothing else ever has. What’s the next step? For most of us it’s local. 

Bishop Barron wants to get this letter into the hands of every Catholic, and he’s made it exceedingly easy. Gather a group this summer. Read it in community. Hold each other accountable. Each one of us has been given unique gifts for the kingdom. Now is the time to be accountable to one another for how those gifts can be used to rebuild. Talk to each other. Pray with each other. Come up with a bulleted strategy that uniquely suits your small corner of the church. Stand with Mary at the foot of the cross and see the pain of the broken body. Then join with Mary to bind the wounds. Begin to mend its brokenness. 

Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia.


Get the book

Copies are available at https://www.sufferingchurchbook.com/ for $1 a copy (you cover S&H.) Proceeds go to charities that support abuse victims. Preorder now and receive your books in mid-July.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019