The words we (and the church) need to learn to say: ‘I’m sorry’
The readings for the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time are timely, emphasizing wisdom, honesty and recognition of faults. Jesus shares a variety of proverbial wisdom statements and rhetorical questions to inspire and challenge his followers to learn and grow. The insights from today’s Gospel are particularly relevant to the challenges facing the church today.
“A good tree does not bear rotten fruit.” (Lk 6:43)
Do you ask for forgiveness?
What can you do to help people when they fall short of expectations?
How do you react to failures in leadership?
After critiquing injustice and affirming the importance of love, Jesus shares wisdom that calls for introspection and self-correction. He prompts his followers to identify ways that they have failed before highlighting other people’s shortcomings. “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?” Questions like these call on hearers to look inward and make corrections so that they are prepared and able to help others in their growth. Implicit in today’s Gospel is the need to acknowledge failures and ask for forgiveness.
In January, new details emerged about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s knowledge and mishandling of clerical sexual abuse during his tenure as Archbishop of Munich and Freising (1977-1982). The pope emeritus released a statement expressing his sorrow over events that happened under his watch. He expressed a “heartfelt request for forgiveness” without an explicit apology for his missteps and lapses, speaking only in general terms when precision was needed. Unfortunately, the church’s responses, mistakes and mishandlings of clerical sexual abuse have caused many within and outside of the church to proclaim as Jesus says in the Gospel, “You hypocrite!” These recurring setbacks exacerbate divisions between the clergy and the laity, especially when some leaders in the church are frequently outspoken on issues related to sex and sexuality. As with all people and institutions, honest self-evaluation and self-critique are necessary to try to correct the wrongs and rebuild damaged relationships.
Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, in her 1989 address to the USCCB, shared countless insights on a range of topics, especially experiences of Black Catholics in the church and world. In her address, she spoke on the relationship between the clergy and the laity. “The work of the ordained minister, of the professional minister, is to enable the people of God to do the work of the church…[and] the church is calling us to be participatory and to be involved.” Sister Thea Bowman stressed to church leaders that their role is to help and empower people to address the needs of the world, to teach, preach, witness, worship, serve, heal and reconcile. And the laity are also empowered to participate, not passively observing what happens in the church but actively participating in worship, leadership and correction of failures that happen within the church.
The wise statements and tough language of Jesus in the Gospel are followed by reassurance. As the sermon continues, Jesus proclaims to his followers that good people, like good trees, will produce good things. This goodness is what should motivate people and institutions to become self-aware and explicitly acknowledge failures. A very simple and direct “I’m sorry” is one of many things missing from the pope emeritus’s statement asking for forgiveness. Yet even in its shortcomings, it is another opportunity to try to repair and rebuild trust. As Sister Thea Bowman reminds us, laity and clergy are called to work together with equal access and opportunity to participate in repairing and renewing the church.