It's easy to despair over the recent events in our church. I've been thinking all weekend about the $166 million settlement by the Oregon Province Jesuits and the news from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Both places are dear to me: the Oregon Province because these are fellow Jesuits, and Philadelphia because it is my hometown. (One of the priests removed, in fact, was one of my childhood pastors.) I grieve to think that people have been hurt by any priests or brothers--Jesuit or otherwise. Like I said, it's easy to despair.
What helps us move from despair to hope? For me, it is theological: the knowledge that the Holy Spirit is ever with us, that Christ is risen and that God is always encouraging us to build a more and more compassionate church. All these things we believe, even in the midst of the sexual abuse crisis, which is clearly not "over." Also, it helps me to remember that it is well within our ability to make restitution to victims, to stamp out sexual abuse in the church, and to prevent any abusive clerics from engaging in ministry. And that God calls us to do so--quickly.
On a more immediate level, though, there are many signs of hope in the church. And for me, going to the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, as I did last week, is always one of the most hopeful times in the church year. Few things lift my spirits (and remind me of the power of the Spirit) than seeing 45,000 dedicated, devoted and often delighted Catholics living out their faith. Moreover, the vast majority of those who attend are very active in their local parishes--as pastoral associates, lay chaplains, spiritual directors, music ministers, DREs, and priests, brothers and sisters. When you give a talk, you can see many in the crowd taking notes, and it's not hard to imagine the note-takers doing so in order to take back what they've heard to help their parishes. Seeing this always fills me with great hope. Here are thousands of Catholics who simply want to help the church.
All this does not negate the church's ongoing sexual abuse crisis, but these signs of hope need to be put side-by-side with the abuse crisis. This is the church, too. Sister Rose Pacatte, a Daughter of Saint Paul, has a long piece in the latest NCR about "Congress," which she calls "a vibrant human mosaic," not a bad way to look at the church. (I also posted a little "photo essay" on my public Facebook page to give you an idea of what Congress looked like this year.) Here's an excerpt from Sister Rose's piece.
The Los Angeles Religious Education Congress began as an “institute” in 1962, and as it grew and developed, moved to the Anaheim Convention Center in 1970. By 2000, it was attracting 20,000 participants for the congress and another 10,000 for the associated Youth Day. [Sister Edith] Prendergast [the Congress coordinator] told me that the final count for this year was almost 45,000, including 16,000 for Youth Day. For the first time every U.S. state was represented, and 444 people came from 12 countries.
Master catechists Kathleen and Jeff Flood from St. Bartholomew Parish in Long Beach, Calif., work with the RCIA program and have been coming to the congress for 17 years. “Theater is to tell a story, to get an idea across in a given way, and I think that is what the congress is,” Jeff Flood said. “Each year it is a different story according to a theme. Everyone gets to be a protagonist in their own story.” Kathleen Flood said that they come “to search for whatever can inform adult faith formation, to take it in, to listen, to hear, to interact with others and bring it back to the RCIA candidates.”
One of the most beautiful aspects of the congress was the Blessed Sacrament “chapel” titled “Sacred Illuminations.” Designed by Notre Dame Sr. Rose Marie Tulacz, the space was described as “mystical choreography” of light, silence, fine art, reflections, the Stations of the Cross and a labyrinth. Confessions were also available.
I met Martha Vespi, originally from Peru, outside the chapel. She works with Magnificat (www.magnificat-ministry.net), a ministry for Catholic women that “helps us tell our stories.” She said, “I came here feeling very burdened, and this sacred space, and the opportunity to go to Mass, confession, to pray, to hear speakers, to get new books, is like a retreat for me. My whole self feels joyful."
“For me,” Vespi continued, “the Byzantine liturgy is so beautiful. I love the icons, the eyes of the icon that lead you into the divine reality.
“I am pretty much on my own here but everywhere I had a conversation and connected with the person next to me. I felt very safe here.”
“Martha,” I asked, “how does the congress change you?”
“It brings me to a place of ‘pause,’ of contemplation, to a sacred space. I am a visual person so I see all these faces coming together to learn, to share with children, with the women I minister to; all the talks are for everyone, for me this is special. I wish it were twice a year.”
James Martin, SJ