To reach young people, we must be honest about our broken church

The author with students at Lasallian San Miguel Cristo Rey High School

How do I guide high school students and young adults who want to grow in their faith in this imperfect, at times infuriating, church? It is a question I pray and ponder on every year at this time, as I welcome a new class to the Catholic high school where I have taught theology for five years in South Tucson, Ariz. The students at Lasallian San Miguel Cristo Rey High School are some of the most authentic human beings I have been blessed to teach. They are mostly Hispanic and Native American; some come from refugee families. These young people are used to working hard for everything. There is no entitlement in them. They have a great sense of humor and are compassionate, even as they struggle with the cycle of poverty in their lives.

Life is not easy for many of these first-generation U.S. citizens. Every day they face the fear of someone they love being deported. There are members of the Tohono O’odham Native American tribe, who have not given up hope of working to achieve their dreams despite the challenges of alcoholism and gangs that plague their community. The strong connection these young people have to their families and the support they give to each other enables the core principles of Lasallian education to resonate in their lives: They strive for “Faith in the Presence of God”; they experience “Inclusive Community”; they value “Quality Education”; they live “Concern for the Poor and Social Justice”; and they practice “Respect for All Persons.”

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How do I guide high school students and young adults who want to grow in their faith in this imperfect, at times infuriating, church?

Even though they may not recognize that in their lives in this Catholic high school they are participating in the church, I am convinced that a positive experience of church is found in their daily joys and struggles at San Miguel. All of us, students, faculty and staff, along with the Lasallian brothers, try to live out these core principles in everyday life. Still, many students are not convinced of what it means to be part of the church. I believe a new model of the church is needed if the faith is to be credible for my students and for all of the people of God. Influenced and informed by Cardinal Avery Dulles’s Models of the Church, I propose the paradigm of the “Church Penitent.”

Sinful but authentic and loved

One of my former students summed up in a sentence what such a church would look like. Thanking me for being his teacher, he said: “You loved us, even when we disappointed you.” (I can add that my students love me, even when I disappoint them.)

Is this not a call to be a penitent, to recognize that one fails, sins, disappoints and yet knows that despite it all, one is loved and forgiven? Is this not how we experience God’s love and forgiveness? The only real answer to the brokenness of the world is Jesus’ love, through us, his church. Yet when we as church fail to be authentic, to love and forgive each other, we, too, become broken. When those called to guide us in the church become the cause of sin, harm and evil, the brokenness leads to rejection, pain and distrust. Sometimes the damage seems beyond repair and reconciliation.

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Due to sinful, broken and inauthentic behavior in the church, my students and many young adults struggle with how (or if) the church is relevant in guiding their lives. I teach them that they are part of the human history of the church’s journey of a faith relationship with God. This faith journey and relationship is an ongoing divine and human dynamic. The church, the community of believers, must search for the truth of who we are with God and each other.

I believe a new model of the church is needed if the faith is to be credible for my students and for all of the people of God.

How do we identify ourselves as church? What images do we use? The Second Vatican Council urged us to search for new images of the church so that it could become what it was intended to be from the beginning. The question my students struggle with is, what is an authentic identity of the church today? I believe that the only way the church can be relevant is if it embraces the model of a penitent.

The relevance of church as an instrument of forgiveness and grace of the Holy Spirit has long been understood through the sacrament of reconciliation. But the theologian Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S., suggests there are times when the church has historically lost the right to be the mediator of reconciliation. He gives as an example the church’s failure to forcefully challenge apartheid in South Africa. When the church is not clearly on the side of the poor and suffering, it contributes to oppression, and as Fr. Schreiter explains, there can be no reconciliation without justice. Such historical events reveal the flaws of the church.

Reconciling and rising above sin

The sex abuse scandal is another event that has caused the church to lose the right to be the mediator of reconciliation. Honest self-examination results in identifying with the sinner, as the sinner. Fr. Schreiter writes that if the church has a sense of its own sinfulness and a sense of its own limits, it will find its place in the process of reconciliation.

The sex abuse scandal has caused the church to lose the right to be the mediator of reconciliation.

To teach the students the paradigm of the Church Penitent it is imperative to look at the foundation of what such a church looks like. St. Francis of Assisi provides us with a historical example. He chose to live among the lepers of his time, to take on the stigma of being an outcast and to befriend the sinners, the wretched and the poor. He took on this way of life as a penitent so that he might imitate Jesus, who shared our humanity and atoned for the sins of all through his living, dying and rising. Jesus accepted the sins and sufferings of others through death so that new life could be born. This is the call of the penitent, to face sin, to reconcile and to rise above it with the grace God offers.

The proposed model of the church as penitent views the church as human beings in relationship with God. This relationship is shared with all God’s creatures. Teenagers and young adults grasp the importance of relationships. They are often the motivating factor of daily life. The Lasallian prayer we pray before every class, seven times a day, begins “Let us remember...that we are in the holy presence of God.” This is the prayer of relationships. It is about discovering God in each other, in the daily joys and sorrows and within oneself. It recognizes that when one does not find God in the other, in the challenges of the day or within oneself, something is not right.

Through meditation, prayer and reflection the students come to learn that the distinction of being human, being unique, having value and goodness can be affirmed appropriately only against the backdrop of honest reflection. We must also acknowledge our human unworthiness. St. Paul writes, “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rm 3:23-24). The church as penitent reflects both the human and divine character of the people of God.

Honesty with teenagers is the only thing that works. It is their honesty about who they are and who they hope to be that gives me hope.

Accepting oneself as justified through Jesus’ love and forgiveness, is embracing the model of church as penitent. To be a penitent is possible if there is a shift in attitude. Karl Rahner, S.J., the noted 20th-century theologian, insisted that solely in acknowledging the truth of our sin and guilt as members of the church will we be able to move on with renewal and conversion. The central element that binds us together as members of the church is the reconciling grace of Christ. Living authentically is recognizing one’s limits and sinfulness while knowing that God’s love and forgiveness is more powerful and available when we act with truth and honesty. Young people recognize this when it is part of their own experience, as do my students at San Miguel. When my students discover that they are loved even when they disappoint, they find themselves capable of loving those who fall short of their expectations.

Overcoming the spirit of evil

Pope Francis recognizes and advocates for this radical honesty and transparency in reponse to the sexual abuse crisis in the church. “Notwithstanding the measures already taken and the progress made in the area of preventing abuse, there is need for a constantly renewed commitment to the holiness of pastors, whose conformity to Christ the Good Shepherd is a right of the People of God,” the pope said at the close of the historic Vatican summit on the protection of minors in February. “Self-accusation is the beginning of wisdom and bound to the holy fear of God: learning how to accuse ourselves, as individuals, as institutions, as a society.”

This is God’s grace at work. The response to this gift of God’s grace for ourselves and as church is to be penitents who walk in the way of humility and profound love of Jesus and each other. As Pope Francis says, “We need to take up the spiritual means that the Lord himself teaches us: humiliation, self-accusation, prayer and penance. This is the only way to overcome the spirit of evil. It is how Jesus himself overcame it.”

As a Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity, embracing the life of a penitent is my reality. It is how I am able to teach my Lasallian Cristo Rey students. I am able to walk with them in need of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. I teach theology about a church that is in disarray. Honesty with teenagers is the only thing that works. It is their honesty about who they are and who they hope to be that gives me hope. We are the church, we are a human faith community, but God is with us. We fall and sin and get up because of God’s love through and in each other. It is in this that we embrace the life of penitents.

I believe we are now called, lay and clergy, to be credible witnesses to the healing love of God in this broken church and world. All of us are in constant need of purification and penance. The more conscious the church is of this need of confessing failings and sins, the more the church will be able to complete the mission of reconciling peoples with God and each other.

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J Cosgrove
1 month ago

I am currently attending an Alpha series in our parish. It is a series of videos and then discussions about the video. So far no one has brought up a "broken church." Nor should there be any reason to other than to dismiss it. Not because it isn't important and has harmed many but because the purpose of the series is the justification of Christianity. Essentially God created a religion to facilitate people to reach Him through salvation. He also allowed some members of His religion to behave very badly. But the means to salvation is still there and hasn't changed. Jesus is still the Bread of Life and the Way, the Truth and the Life. The modern Jesuits and their authors have a hard time understanding why the Catholic Church exists.

Franklyn BUSBY
1 month ago

Your theology (at least for a Roman Catholic) is horribly flawed. God did NOT "create" a religion. God does not ALLOW people to sin--insofar as an action of God's express will is concerned. Christians do not "Reach" God. God desires to be in relationship with us through the sacrifice of Jesus, with the guidance and support of His Holy Spirit in concert with the entire community of God: The Church. God reaches down to us: "in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."

The “Alpha Course” (which you have obviously, and unfortunately, taken to heart) is an irredeemably a Protest-ant fundamentalist catechetical program. Please, please read a well-balanced but authoritative theological analysis of this program at the Catholic Culture web-site. Rather than teaching "basic Christianity," the Alpha Course promotes anti-Catholic Individualistic Christianity; an anti-Catholic Congregationalist Ecclesiology; an anti-Catholic Protestant Fundamentalist Perspective on the Sacraments (or the lack thereof); and a Charismatic Agenda (anti-hierarchical, anti-intellectual).

Any bishop allowing this travesty in his diocese out to be horse-whipped.

J Cosgrove
1 month ago

Then all those nuns, priests, Christian Brothers and Jesuits were all horribly wrong. They all professed to be Roman Cstholics. Jesus was not God according to you. He also did not start a religion according to you. 2000 years of confusion. I am glad you are here to straighten the world out.

J Cosgrove
1 month ago

So far the Alpha program has not presented anything that 16 years of Catholic education didn’t teach me. I know it was started by an Anglican in the UK. Have to wait and see what the rest of the program presents. Especially where the Church and Anglicans will differ, for examples the sacraments.

Jeanne Devine
1 month ago

Please pay careful attention to the contents of the Alpha program. It is not entirely compatible with Catholic teaching. I'm surprised your parish is participating in it. It takes a very evangelical Protestant approach to Christianity. Fine for those who can accept it, but I don't find it compatible with Catholic Christianity.

J Cosgrove
1 month ago

Thank you for your heads up. I will pay careful attention. The parish I am in is one of the most traditional parishes my wife and I have ever seen. I have 16 years of Catholic education including Jesuits. My first reaction to the first video was that it was not necessarily Catholic. But nothing so far in two sessions has indicated anything awry. From the internet there are several very positive reactions to Alpha by priests and laypeople and there are also negative ones. We will see.

Bridget Taumoepeau
1 month ago

I am soon to give a talk about Hope and the future of the church - this article will be very helpful- I will acknowledge the author of course. With grateful thanks.

Rhett Segall
1 month ago

Excellent perspective, beautifully expressed! In the Catholic high school where I taught theology we had an excellent sacramental sign of being "sinful but loved". In Advent and Lent we had a communal celebration of Reconciliation. A large percentage of the student body would avail themselves of the opportunity. Often we had 8-12 priests present. After the students went to confession many of the priests would go to confession to each other. It was an object lesson in the points you have stressed.

Michael Bindner
1 month ago

We need change, not penance.

J Jones
1 month ago

Authentic penance leads to change.

J Jones
1 month ago

Authentic penance leads to change.

Michael Bindner
1 month ago

Penance without intent to change is just saying I'm sorry and I will do it again.

J Jones
1 month ago

And real change doesn't happen until we engage in voluntary and thorough and genuine "self accusation". And not just in the confessional. The institutional Church still doesn't quite get that. Sister, I believe, is saying the Church needs to get on with it NOW if it does not want to lose another generation.

arthur mccaffrey
1 month ago

the critical words missing in this theology lite article are "crime" and "criminal"--no amount of talking about sin, confession and penitent will ever change the fact that this is a criminal Church whose leaders should be in jail. The big distinction that Spanjers fails to make is between the Church= Governance & Adminstration, vs. Church= Faith & Morals. The sooner her students learn that distinction, the sooner they will be able to challenge much of what Spanjers is trying to teach them. If she is trying to teach them to love abusive priests then she is being dishonest.

J Jones
1 month ago

Sister Mary Ann, you sound like an excellent teacher. Thank you for sharing your thinking and the insight, especially, of Schreiter and Rahner. "Do as I say, not as I do" has never been convincing when the listeners are healthy. Your students sounds healthy. As do you. It seems you are educating them to recognize and expect a healthy church.

Danny Collins
1 month ago

"Pope Francis recognizes and advocates for this radical honesty and transparency in reponse to the sexual abuse crisis in the church"

What a whitewash. Pope Francis is one of the biggest practitioners of cover-up, misdirection and promoting those who abuse others instead of exiling them. Zanchetta, McCarrick, Ricci, etc. Of course, the editorial staff at America and Fr. James Martin all knew about McCarrick, and they still honored him by making him the main celebrant at their centennial mass. It is dishonest pieces like this that drive the young away.

Nora Bolcon
1 month ago

This is true Danny. Pope Francis is just better at pretending to care about the abused and women. I have no doubt he knew, as the two previous popes knew, and probably every other pope has known how our priests and bishops have sexually abused throughout the decades and centuries, young children, teens and women and nuns. Only with extreme pushing is Pope Francis doing much about change and since sexism is at the root of this abuse, he won't really do what matters because he is sexist himself.

A hierarchy without gender parity will result in the continued abuse of the very young, and teenage children, seminarians, nuns and lay women. To stop the abuse, sexism must be completely done away with from our Canons and ordination practices.

John Chuchman
1 month ago

Thank God, young people will not pay, Pray, Obey the Good-0ld-Boys club which is void of transparency and accountability.

Annette Magjuka
1 month ago

The views presented in this article are good for person to person injustices. They are not so effective for institution to person interactions. When the institution itself is set up to protect ITSELF at all costs, with many deeply harmed individuals being acceptable collateral damage, your ideas perpetuate the abuse. When priests are raping children, and then their superiors hide these crimes, obstruct justice, petition to stop laws that would uncover and convict these crimes, then there can be no repair to this system. When the church is revealed again and again to be misogynistic to its core, and those in power double down and force women into tiny boxes, this is abuse. For women to accept this behavior as “Gods will” is self hate. When the institution calls for organized and cruel discrimination of LGBTQ people, this is antithetical to Christ’s teaching. We can forgive individuals as we would want to be forgiven. But forgive the institution? The institution has as some of its main teachings—misogyny, anti LGBTQ, etc Reconcile myself to this? Nope.

Thomaspj Poovathinkal
1 month ago

Annette, Please FIND OUT whether the TRUE Church of the Lord is an INSTITUTION or not. Look into the : Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Gospels and the WRITINGS of the outstanding, Holy Women and Men of the Primitive Church.

J Jones
1 month ago

Annette, I for one interpret this as a call for the institutional Church to start practicing what it preaches, which --- if it did with integrity --- would result in the **Church's** reconciliation to Christ. There is nothing here that suggests to me this author disagrees with Church teaching on these specidic points but Catholic Church truly reconciled with Christ could no more engage in sexism than racism, in exclusion than racism, in clericalism than racism, in abuse than racism, in cover ups than racism. All are degradations of the human soul and a penitent Church would reconcile itself to love the living Christ inside every human the Church currently excludes and lies to. THAT would be a Church young people could love and forgive and bring their own need to, even when it was imperfect. The current institutional Church? It is failing disastrously.

Thomaspj Poovathinkal
1 month ago

Why speak of RELIGION in the Context of the Lord's Church?

Did Jesus give us a Religion or a Church, how Word and his Holy Spirit?

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.]

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