I was born into the Catholic Church. Throughout my life, I have continued to choose the church, trusting her wisdom. For much of my life, I have said “yes” to a church that has become increasingly difficult to stand by. I have taken those difficulties in stride, sitting by, praying for better days. That changes now.
Earlier this month, terrible evil was unveiled in Pennsylvania. It is not new but the magnitude is staggering: the sexual abuse of 1,000 people, perpetrated by 300 priests and covered up by the bishops over a period of seven decades—and this in just six dioceses in one state. Add to that the systemic abuse by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and its cover-up by church leaders that has been revealed this summer.
The food I was looking for on this particular Sunday had nothing do with theology.
I, like many, have been left reeling. I am looking for answers, looking for an appropriate response from the leaders of a church that I have loved so dearly. Looking for fulfillment following the release of the report, I went to Mass.
This summer, the cycle of readings placed us in John’s Bread of Life discourse. The theological richness of these readings has been written on for millennia. I had hoped to hear a homily that would feed me. Those who gathered for the liturgy listened to a homily on the greatness of the Eucharist, the Bread of Life that will ever sustain us. While our priest fed us the truth of the faith, he neglected to provide the sustenance I needed.
The food I was looking for on this particular Sunday had nothing do with theology. I had been starving for answers or explanations or even just acknowledgment of the pain the church has caused. I got none of it. There was no apology, no remorse, no hint of penance.
After the homily was over, I stood up. From the back of the church, amid the entire community, I politely asked the priest if he had planned on addressing the news of the grand jury’s report.
The priest sat down in silence, seemingly dumbfounded by my question.
The congregation chided me to sit down.“This is Mass!” I was told. “It’s not the time.” “Be quiet!” After a few very tense minutes, the ushers came to escort me out. My wife, my infant daughter and my mother- and father-in-law followed. We walked to the vestibule to a smattering of applause punctuated by small pockets of jeers—but mostly to silent acquiescence.
From here on out, the culpability lies with us, the laity. We will be to blame if our voices do not cry out for change.
Once again, rather than facing the gravity of the situation, silence won out. This time, it was not the bishops or the clergy silencing me. It was the laity. I was silenced by the very people victimized by this tragedy.
In the vestibule, the ushers began to question me. They asked if I was Catholic. They asked if I understood what the Mass was. I was told that this is not the place or time to address “those things.” I calmly offered my credentials (life-long Catholic, master’s degree in Catholic theology) and explained that this seemed to me the best time to address this issue. Their escalating anger quickly made it clear that my family and I were no longer welcome.
While I was being questioned, a woman walked up to us with her daughter to say that she was a victim of child abuse and came to hear something. She, too, left hungry, perhaps starving. She voiced that she was saddened by the community’s response and how I was treated. She walked out just before I did, however, unlike me, I fear she will not be back. I can hardly think of her courage without breaking down into tears. I am sick to my stomach knowing that there were others who showed up to Mass looking to be given bread and were given stones instead.
My brother-in-law summed it up well: “I cannot help but see the irony here. You asked a question that needed to be asked and were taken out and hidden away as consequence.”
We cannot continue to allow this pestilence to spread in silence. I will keep asking questions, and I will keep looking for answers. As a church, we can no longer keep silent when faced with our own sins and evil deeds. From here on out, the culpability lies with us, the laity. The failures of the church will be on our shoulders if we do not demand transparency from our bishops. We will be to blame if our voices do not cry out for change. Because I love this church, I refuse to remain silent.