What Catholic leaders should give up for Lent this year
“Night is coming, when no one can work,” says Jesus to his disciples in John’s Gospel (9:1). Indeed, Lent this year comes at a time of deep darkness for the Catholic Church: Endless waves of disclosures have exposed the endemic character of the cover-up of sex abuse of minors; cardinals have either been forced to resign, been sanctioned or even been condemned to prison; a painful awareness is growing concerning the widespread sexual abuse of nuns and women religious by priests and bishops. The “work” of the institution as a whole is threatened because its credibility is in tatters. The church has been exposed as an institution incapable of dealing with its internal demons unless forced from the outside by the media and the justice system.
In this context, however, something unprecedented has happened. Unexpected actors have been allowed on the center stage. During the recent Vatican summit on the abuse crisis, both liberal and conservative commentators agreed in their praise of the astonishing speech to the bishops by none other than a journalist, Valentina Alazraki, who did not mince her words: any external observer of the church, she declared, feels “indignation and anger for the systematic concealment, for the silence, for the deception of the faithful and the suffering of victims who, for decades, had not been listened to, were not believed.” She added: “Behind the silence, the lack of healthy, transparent communication, quite often there is not only the fear of scandal, concern for the institution’s good name, but also money. Secrecy is strictly tied to the abuse of power: it is like a safety net for those who abuse power.” Concealment, secrecy, corruption, denial, abuse of power: a disheartening litany, especially because of its pervasiveness in a body that calls itself holy and is supposed to speak and act in God’s name.
With the beginning of Lent, we are all called to focus on one of the spiritual aspects of this crisis that underpins all the others: namely, the tragic failure to see.
There are serious institutional, theological and ethical dimensions to this crisis that theologians, journalists and commentators are patiently and relentlessly trying to unravel. With the beginning of Lent, however, we are all called to focus on one of the spiritual aspects of this crisis that underpins all the others: namely, the tragic failure to see. As wave after wave of revelations reach the public through investigations and legal reports, a question persists in everyone’s mind: How can all this have been hidden for so long? How can it be that nobody inside the institution has realized how morally dysfunctional the system had become? We know for a fact that there are many bishops and priests striving for integrity and holiness: How can they, too, have become complicit with the institutional denial? Pope Francis himself was forced to acknowledge that he had been in denial after the outrage caused by his comments on the Chilean situation and had to apologize publicly.
John’s Gospel offers a vivid picture of this spiritual failure in Jesus’ dealings with the Pharisees after the healing of the blind man. In this passage, as in many others in the Gospels, it is not difficult to equate the Pharisees with religious leaders and clergy of all times. If Jesus spends most of his time arguing with them it is not because they are worse than his other interlocutors—the apostles often come across much worse in the Gospels where they appear as bickering, wishful, hesitant and thick. The Pharisees, however, exemplify the most dangerous temptations of clerical systems of all times, namely, entitlement, condescendence and the claim to know better than anyone else. When they ask in vexation “Are we blind?” Jesus exposes their real problem: “You claim that you can see” (Jn 9:40). They monopolize the center of the stage, presenting themselves as the experts, feeling entitled to question, intimidate and silence people. They refuse to listen and keep asking the same questions because the obvious answer threatens their value system. And when they are challenged by the brave man who has been healed by Jesus they dismiss him: “How dare you lecture us!” (9:34).
Too many of the actors in this crisis, including commentators, have kept acting like the Pharisees.
This time, however, bishops let a brave journalist do precisely that: lecture them! They did not balk, even when she accused them of the same denial that Jesus denounced in the Pharisees. “How many times have I heard that the scandal of abuse is the press’ fault,” she said, “that it is a plot by certain media outlets to discredit the church, that there are hidden powers backing it in order to put an end to this institution.”
Too many of the actors in this crisis, including commentators, have kept acting like the Pharisees: They claim that they know better and that they can see. Few accept that there is a time where we should, first of all, repent and listen, leave the center stage to the victims rather than keep dominating the discourse with our narratives and our solutions. The unexpected positive impact of the recent Vatican summit on the abuse crisis can be attributed to this conversion: For the first time the pope and the bishops have acknowledged their blindness and allowed the stories of the victims to frame the conversation and sink in. They let “a journalist, a woman and mother” tell them uncomfortable truths: “The more you cover up, the more you play ostrich, fail to inform the mass media and thus, the faithful and public opinion, the greater the scandal will be. If someone has a tumor, it is not cured by hiding it from one’s family or friends; silence will not make it heal”.
No need to search for Lenten resolutions this year. We all are the Pharisees in this situation and need to repent of our unwillingness to see because we are too afraid of what it might entail for us and for our value systems. Let us accept to leave the center stage for a while, suspend our narratives, accept the discomfort of this displacement. Only then we might finally be able to hear Jesus through all those we have silenced so far: “You have now seen me: I am the one who keeps trying to speak to you” (9:36).