The last piece of mail I opened that Friday afternoon was a large white envelope bearing the return address of the Diocese of Cleveland. Having already received a memorandum about this mailing, I tore into the rectangular package with curiosity. Inside, I found the newly released Standards of Conduct for Ministry, the latest contribution in the effort to maintain professionalism in all we do as ministers in the diocese. The cover letter, signed by my bishop and the diocesan chancellor, directed me to read the document in its entirety and sign a form stating that I have received the document, have read and understood it, will abide by it and recognize that violating the standards can result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination and/or removal from ministry. I read it, signed it, stamped it and put it in the mailbox.
Opening my Magnificat the next morning, I read the words, “‘Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these’.... Then he embraced the children and blessed them, placing his hands on them.” I wondered what Jesus would think of the Standards of Conduct for Ministry. Like many of us, he would probably think, “It’s too bad it’s come to this,” and then proceed to read, understand and abide by the document. For the sake of ensuring the safety and well-being of all involved, for the sake of the church in the 21st century, it has to be done. But there is still much work to do.
Believe me when I say that the new document is quite thorough. It systematically presents a litany of behaviors that are always considered inappropriate when dealing with minors. It minces no words while explaining the importance of maintaining appropriate boundaries within ministry. The document fails, however, to mention neglect, an abuse that is more subtle, but just as dangerous as other forms and deserving of our attention.
Often when we think of sin, we think of it in terms of commission, things we have done that we should not do. But we are reminded in the Confiteor that we also commit sins of omission, things we should have done but failed to do. It seems to me that in dealing with younger generations of Catholics, a very easy trap to fall into for those involved in pastoral ministry, especially priests, is abuse by neglect.
I was one year away from ordination when the abuse scandals hit us hard in 2002. I remember wincing every morning as I read the newspaper with my classmates at the breakfast table. “Not another one!” “When is this going to end?” “Do I really want to be ordained next spring?” Needless to say, it was a tough time to be a Catholic, let alone a seminarian. There was a great temptation to freeze, put up all kinds of barriers and simply protect ourselves.
This sort of thinking may be “safe,” but it is anything but Christian. To imitate Christ is to lay one’s life down for others. It means living in faith, not in fear. It means serving, never dominating. It means loving with a pure and responsible heart, not a heart filled with selfishness and lust. Imitating Christ means letting the children come to you, and going out to them, getting to know our teens, being involved in their lives, playing the role of mentor and teacher and engaging in the ministry of accompaniment. It means leading them to the Way, the Truth and the Life in the midst of a world that all too often leads them down the path of self-destruction.
Looking back on my own faith journey, I wonder where I would be if it wasn’t for Father Basil, the Benedictine monk I met at Incarnate Word Academy as a seventh grade altar server. What if he hadn’t pulled us out of class for an altar servers’ picnic, which included pizza, ice cream, baseball and simply hanging out with the priest? What if Father Krizner, my chaplain at Holy Name High School, had not been willing to play the role of mentor for me, giving the priesthood a face and a personality? Or what if Father Carlin had been too afraid to support me as a seminarian at St. Charles, my home parish? What if he had played it safe, refusing me time and meals at the rectory, rather than encouraging me to get a taste of parish living? Simply put, I would never have been ordained.
As a priest, I want to be for my young people what those priests were for me. I realize that times have changed. In no way am I trying to cover up or water down the reality of the abuse crisis. I have known abusers and I have known the abused, and the whole thing still makes me sick to my stomach. Nonetheless, it must be understood that there is an enormous difference between protecting our young people out of love and neglecting them out of fear.
The new Standards of Conduct for Ministry is not an invitation to abandon the next generation of Catholics. On the contrary, we should follow the lead of Pope John Paul II, the greatest youth minister the world has ever known, and reach out more than ever to our young Catholics. Our situation is an invitation to embrace our young people with a pure heart and see in them the hope of which our late pope often spoke.
Writing in Crossing the Threshold of Hope about the church’s responsibility to young people, John Paul II notes, “They need guides, and they want them close at hand. If they turn to authority figures, they do so because they see in them a wealth of human warmth and a willingness to walk with them along the paths they are following.” God have mercy on the church that fails in this responsibility.