What can I say to my kids when they ask why we keep faith in this church?
I dragged my kids to 8 a.m. Mass this morning for the Feast of the Assumption. It was one of those days where the “obligation” part of the Holy Day felt particularly heavy. There is a small parish within a short walking distance of our home, but we are still adjusting to the logistics of leaving the house with two kids, so my husband, our 3-month-old, our 2-year-old and I managed to roll our stroller quietly to the back pew of the church around the time the first reading started. I pointed out the pictures in the stained glass of Jesus and Mary and Joseph to my son, who snacked on Cheerios while my husband juggled my daughter on his shoulder, slowly becoming drenched in drool.
We make the effort, however imperfectly, because I want my son and daughter to know that our faith is important, because I want them to choose to live it themselves one day, because I believe it is good. And my belief in the good at the heart of our faith is why I have tried hard to contribute to the institution, too: to find community in our parish, to spend hours researching local Catholic schools, saving to pay for them, budgeting to make donations to the church, to Catholic charities.
And then I came home from Mass, and while the kids napped beside me, I started reading the grand jury report of sexual abuse in several dioceses of Pennsylvania. I could only get through a few pages before feeling physically ill and being filled with a sense of disgust and anger and betrayal that I know is only a fraction of what the abuse victims and their families must have felt for so long.
I have found myself for the first time truly afraid of what it means to ask and to allow my children to be part of the church.
I was confirmed by and was handed my high school diploma by the first U.S. bishop indicted on child sex abuse charges, so there was never any doubt in my mind that the abuse and its cover-up reached high into the church hierarchy. But I, perhaps naively, had allowed myself to think that the majority of the cases of abuse had been found out, that the policies and procedures put in place would help prevent new ones and that we knew about most of the men who had covered it up, though few of them have faced consequences.
The revelations of the grand jury report indicate otherwise, and I have found myself for the first time truly afraid of what it means to ask and to allow my children to be part of the church. Can I trust that they will be safe as altar servers or students or just going to Mass? And what I would say if my children were to one day ask me, why? Why in the face of such systemic horrors committed by the people supposedly leading the church did we stumble down the street to Mass each week?
Robert Collins, S.J., the priest who baptized my son two years ago (and who also happens to be a long-time editor at this publication) had asked my husband and me to do an exercise prior to the baptism of our son that got me thinking about the answer to this question before I had asked it. Write a letter to your son, Father Collins said, and tell him what you hope for him in the faith. We did, and we read the letter at his baptism, and recently did the same for my daughter. I have found myself going back to it over these last few days, hoping to find some sustenance for my own faith life as well. In reading it, I saw that so much of my hope for my children and myself and our place in the church rested on the belief that, in the process of becoming holy, they might help to make the church holier, too.
The letter, adapted slightly here, reads as follows:
We hope that your faith inspires you to be just, loving, humble and merciful. We hope that your faith inspires you to encourage the church to be more just, more loving, more humble and more merciful.
We hope you find community here, people who will support you, love you, challenge you. We hope that your faith community inspires you to reach out to the larger community—to love others, to challenge them and support them. We hope that your faith inspires you to care for those in need, to be like the shepherd who smells like sheep, to perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, to be mercy for others.
We hope that when the world makes it difficult to live out your faith that you find the strength to persevere. We hope that you find strength in the Eucharist, in the real presence at Mass and in the people of God.
We hope that you are inspired by the lives of the holy men and women in heaven and the holy men and women around you now. We hope that you read and learn about your faith, drawing on the wisdom of those who have helped to shape our church. But even more, we hope that you use this knowledge to live your faith—that your life gives witness to the joy of the Gospel.
We hope that you love God with all your heart but that you also know that it is O.K. to be angry at God sometimes, that it may seem God is silent at times but that you are never alone and that God loves you right through it all. That we love you right through it all.
We hope that your faith inspires you to be forgiving, to let go of grudges and malice. And we hope that your faith inspires you to ask for forgiveness when you are in need of it.
We hope that your faith brings you great joy and that you share that joy with others.
We hope that you see this journey of faith as an adventure, that you know that none of us live it perfectly but that we simply try to do it sincerely and with great hope. We hope that you take time to be grateful for this life with the knowledge that this world, as beautiful and glorious and heartbreaking as it is, is not all that there is.
In a broken and hurting church, it is good to remember that the church as an institution is not why we are here or what we are here for. Yet we are responsible for it, and that means holding it accountable and working to make it more truly reflect the kingdom of God. The grand jury report is one painful step toward doing just that.
The Gospel at Mass this morning included a reading of the Magnificat, Mary’s powerful prayer of praise. The priest’s homily in response was unconventional and brief. He stood and simply said, “Every year, when the Magnificat is read, I just think, What more could I add?” and then he sat down. Indeed, Mary’s prayer both challenges and comforts, disturbs and offers some consolation and hope, hope in a God who “has scattered the proud in their conceit...has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly”—a God who will do so again.