A few months ago I received a phone call from a parishioner at St. Leo’s Church, in Stamford, Conn. It was something of a surprise: the last time I had set foot in that church was almost 14 years ago. During our conversation, I mentioned how important the parish had been in my life, and that I would do anything for the priests there. At that point the caller revealed the purpose of her call: would I participate in a Lenten meditation series at St. Leo’s? Smiling at the trap I had inadvertently set for myself, I agreed.
When I attended St. Leo’s in the mid-1980’s, I was stuck in a miserable job and hated my life. The only day that made any sense to me was Sunday, when I could hear excellent homilies, beautiful music and the Mass reverently celebrated. To make a long story short, I gradually began to reconsider what I wanted to do with my life, and one day after Mass I asked a priest how one might go about becoming a priest. He suggested I contact the local vocations office and said, as an aside, You might also want to contact the Jesuits up the road at Fairfield University. By such asides are lives changed.
The evening at St. Leo’s was an unexpected grace. The current pastor is the same man who held the position in the mid-1980’s, so I was able to tell him how much the parish had meant during a difficult time in my life. After dinner, when he escorted me into the church, I was filled with consolation. Kneeling down in the pews, I realized that the last time I had prayed in this spot it was to ask God to help me be a good Jesuit novice. Fourteen years later, filled with gratitude, I thanked God for his grace in my life and for what the parish had meant for me.
The following night I spent some time with a Jesuit friend visiting from Boston, as well as two other Jesuits who live in New York. Not surprisingly, the conversation quickly turned to the appalling events in the Archdiocese of Boston, especially the case of John Geoghan, the former priest accused of molesting dozens of boys, who was recently convicted for a particularly disgusting incident. Though I was among some of my closest friends, it was a thoroughly depressing conversation. A few days later I learned that three Jesuits in my home province of New England had also been accused of sexual molestation.
Is there an American Catholic who has not experienced intense feelings about this recent wave of scandals? One is faced with a welter of emotions: sadness for the victims and their families, revulsion at the details of the crimes, anger over bureaucracies that would allow such men to be assigned and reassigned, frustration that the crimes seem to repeat themselves no matter how many directives are in place, confusion over the best way to respond (resignations? visible gestures of penance? new policies? stricter entrance standards for seminaries and religious orders? withholding of funds by the laity?) as well as a profound embarrassment on behalf of the church. It is an exceedingly painful time to be a Catholic.
The mystery is that the church is both the place of consolation as well as the place of desolation. Some who criticize the church focus only on the latter; some who defend it only on the former. In a deeply flawed world of sinful human beings, the church is the place where many have been deeply injured. And in a grace-filled world where Christ accompanies us, it is also the place where people draw closer to God. It is the place of spirit-filled parishes, and it is the place that has harbored pedophile priests.
The challenge for the church is to admit sinfulness, seek forgiveness, do penance and commit to change, without ever losing sight of God’s grace. The challenge for the church in the United States now is the hard work of repentance.