Click here if you don’t see subscription options
The EditorsMay 10, 2010

As a church we are a pilgrim people making our way together through history. Like Chaucer’s companions on the road to Canterbury, we have a variety of tales to tell and not all are edifying. The latest waves of the crisis of clerical sexual abuse of minors have made Catholics keenly aware that even in high places we are a company of sinners as well as saints, of fallible human beings as well as faithful followers of Jesus—everyone in need of the forgiveness Jesus proclaimed. That forgiveness is one of the religious experiences that binds us to one another along our pilgrim way.

The rituals of confession and repentance remain among the most identifiable practices of Catholic life. Their centrality to the Catholic imagination has made the reluctance of the hierarchy to acknowledge successive revelations of molestation all the more painful for us all. The church’s identity as a community of forgiven sinners makes particularly credible the demands by victims for public confession and open reconciliation. Even the church’s most bitter critics have been unwitting witnesses to that Christian duty. That same Catholic sensibility made the recent encounter between Pope Benedict and the victims of abuse in Malta both necessary and affecting.

The church has known dark times: domination by emperors, co-optation by feudal militarism and modern colonialism, gangland struggles by Roman families for control of the papacy, coercion of heretics and wars of religion. Still, we members of the church make pilgrimage together in hope that the church may be the visible expression in history of humanity’s new life in Christ. To us Jesus is the embodiment of fullest humanity and the model of its most appealing morality. Pope Benedict’s planned visit on July 4 to the tomb of St. Celestine V, a hermit who was elected pope and then resigned the papacy, will hold up for view a penitent form of Christian life marked by meekness, prayer and self-sacrifice, close to the pattern of Jesus that Christians strive to imitate.

One reason Catholics love the church is that it fosters just that sort of holiness. Even as the secular world exposes the hypocrisy of church officials, it acknowledges implicitly that the followers of Christ hold themselves to a “higher law” and try to practice a more demanding love. Some believe that calling is humanly impossible; others, even if they allow the Gospel little direct claim on their own lives, are disappointed upon failing to find holiness where they always presumed it might be found in a moment of need. But Catholics love the church because here we have companions who do strain, in their stumbling ways, to lead their lives by the light of the Sermon on the Mount.

We love the church because here we keep the company of men and women who have lived the Gospel even as they challenged both secular and religious rulers to reform. Among them are figures like Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Thomas More, Ignatius Loyola, Mary McKillop, Mother Théodore Guérin, Dorothy Day, Franz Jägerstätter and Oscar Romero. Their witness to the Gospel brought them into conflict with the church authorities of their day. Yet attachment to the visible, hierarchical church was intrinsic to their own path to holiness. In an age that experiences mostly opportunistic, transitory relationships, the church fosters high ideals and lifelong commitments. In a culture deprived of depth and transcendence, it encourages searching self-examination, ever more inclusive sympathies and attentive receptivity to the mystery of God. Some of the pain of the present crisis comes from the apparent loss of those practices and sensitivities when they were most needed among those from whom they were most expected.

We love the church, too, because, as can be seen in local parishes everywhere, it embraces the full diversity of humanity: the affluent and the poor, the native-born and the undocumented, conservatives and liberals, the simple and the learned. We also love the church because in every age, but particularly since the Second Vatican Council, it is dedicated to the service of the poor and defense of their human rights. Even non-Catholics see in the unselfish service of the poor the palpable holiness of the church. Asked once how he went from being a promoter of the free market to an advocate of the world’s poor, the economist Jeffrey Sachs answered, “The sisters—who, in so many places, took me to the back country to meet the very poor.”

Chief among the inexhaustible reasons that lead us to love the church is the Eucharist. For when we gather around the table of the Lord, the whole body of Christ in which we partake is made real. We are united with the risen Lord for whom we live, and with one another, not only those around the table but also those around every altar in the world, along with those who have preceded us in faith and those who will follow us, one great communion prefiguring the unity of the one human family in God.

Read "Pilgrim People Part II."

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Donald Hands
13 years 7 months ago

I appreciate the great deposit of faith described in the article. I made the pilgrimage from Rome to Canterbury 35 years ago. Although I feel the pain of the division, I had discovered that I was more Anglican in my thinking about Church than Roman, I appreciate the Anglican checks and balances on the authority of Bishops, our married priesthood and women in holy orders as well as our vowed religious. I regret our lack of a more visible and viable center as in the papacy. We would regard the pope as primus inter pares but not as solus supreme. No Church is perfect but I think we have a lot to learn from one another, especially in the light of the sex abuse scandals where our married and female priesthood and the checks on episcopal power offer effective safeguards against abuse.

John Boyle
13 years 7 months ago

It's getting a bit tiresome to keep reading and hearing about "forgiveness" in light of the current scandals in the Church.  I'll leave that to the mercy of God.  What the Church needs now is some backbone to deal with the transgressions at whatever level they are found.

I'm a Catholic because I believe in the Bible and the fact that the Catholic Church is the one founded by Jesus Christ in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies.  There have been good and bad among us since the inception of the Church and it appears likely to remain that way till the end of time.  We have the Sermon on the Mount as well as many other passages in the New Testament to guide us on our paths so perhaps we should dwell on the scripture instead of the steady stream of "mea culpas".

Richard T Rodriguez
13 years 7 months ago

As a wise old lady once said:  You can do more with honey than with vinegar.

Joan Fry
13 years 7 months ago

For me, the last paragraph says it all!

Molly Roach
13 years 7 months ago

I've commented before and I'll comment again on how much we Catholics want to change the subject from the core issue and turn to many other topics: the media, the culture, and, as above, how wonderful our Roman Catholic tradition is.  Perhaps this is to be expected as a consequence of actively thinking about the rape of children and the cover-up of that rape which has characterized our church in these painful years. The evidence is too clear to dismiss.  Maybe changing the subject is a way of saying, "That's not all there is to us,  we're more than that."  And I will grant that.  But changing the subject will not bring resolution to this horrible situation.   And I think it dishonors the survivors because it simply pushes their anguish to the side.  Their anguish is our responsibility right now.

sandra griffith
13 years 7 months ago

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
- T.S. Eliot


I worry about those in "high places!"  Could they really have been so blind and/or self serving?


Luke and Paul ask the same question:


 Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.


My heart aches for what they have done to my beloved church and the chidren entrusted to it.



Brendan Walsh
13 years 7 months ago

Perhaps the Papal visit to the tomb of Celestine will serve as an inspiration to do what needs to be done.

Alwin Hilton
13 years 7 months ago

Abuse of all types is wrong and hurtful; it goes totally against what God's plan for His once perfect creation.  Unfortunately, Sin, and the sin of sexual abuse will continue until our Jesus returns.  As a Seventh-day Adventist Pastor, this morning on my Prayer List I have prayed for both the abused, and the abuser - that the abused know that God still walks beside them in their hurt, pain, distrust and healing, while the abuser have strength in Jesus' name to lay aside what is unnatural and their need to choose walking this path they do.   Each one of us are sinners who have and are hurt - the whole of the human race need a Saviour.  We have a Saviour - Thank you Jesus.


john fitzmorris
13 years 7 months ago
I liked what you wrote. It thrills my heart and let's me know that in the end the Church, that is the pilgrim people of God - not the perfect society of Vatican I - is still the last best hope of humankind - thanks Abe Lincoln for that wonderful phrase. The problem is that your article still does not address the canker that festers in the hierarchial structure that dominates, stifles and frustrates the work of the Gospel. Until a prophet arises in New Israel, we will not travel along the path of reform. And going to the tomb of Celestine V, what is that all above? Hardly an exemplar of the grit and courage we now need in the Pope. Remember Dante put him in the Inferno because he betrayed his office. I don't share Dante's feeling for Celestine but I don't get the purpose of paying him a visit.
13 years 7 months ago

"The sisters took me to the back country to meet the very poor". I just returned from a visit to my Maryknoll Sister at the Mother House in Ossining, N.Y. where I felt the joy of these mostly elderly but vibrant women who cheerfully and often laughingly tell their stories of working with the poor all over the world. Their peaceful smiles after a life of dedicated and often dangerous work with the poor is contagious.   Rev. John Henry, S.J.     

John Pimenta
13 years 7 months ago

Thank you for the walk down our historic memory lane.  I look forward eagerly to Part II.

Your concluding paragraph of Part i says it all: "Chief among the inexhaustible reasons that lead us to love the church is the Eucharist. For when we gather around the table of the Lord, the whole body of Christ in which we partake is made real. We are united with the risen Lord for whom we live, and with one another, not only those around the table but also those around every altar in the world, along with those who have preceded us in faith and those who will follow us, one great communion prefiguring the unity of the one human family in God."

Watching the Easter Vigil Mass from the Vatican on EWTN made me realize how perfunctory the Celebration of the Eucharist has become at the Vatican and elsewhere wherever the power and privilege of the Church is on display.

Watching all those cardinals and bishops gliding in flowing robes across the stage made me feel I was watching a Kabuki dance with marionnetes instead of the Eucharist with the Lord.  In the context of our current spiritual condition in the Church would it not have been more appropriate to have "sack cloth" on display?

Richard Sullivan
13 years 7 months ago

"The rituals of confession and repentance remain among the most identifiable practices of Catholic life." In that few Church going Catholics seem to go to confession I am not sure that it is any longer an identifiable practice of Catholic life. In my life time I am not sure that it ever was because it never or almost never focused on the victim of sin. It was abouit reconciliation with God in whose name the priest forgave us. Reconciliation with the victim, I would think, is essential to reconciliation with God. It works that way with love as noted in 1 John 4, 21 "...whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God, whom he has not seen."

I think some work has to be done with the way that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is understood and administered. Vatican II opened the door but it is barely ajar today.

Kay Satterfield
13 years 7 months ago

I entered the Catholic Church as an adult 22 years ago.  There was a deep desire to receive the Eucharist and be part of something bigger than myself and I was marrying a Catholic.  The current exposure of sins of the leadership of the church is disheartening and discouraging. However, I do agree with the article and have experienced that the heart of the Church is real people who give their lives to work for the poor and encourage faith, hope, and love in others.  

Jesus said the truth will set you free.  Now that the truth is affecting Pope Benedict directly, I pray that his leadership will call for real actions that will be put into play that will prevent this tragic sin against children from happening. There has to be transparency not secrecy. Good has to come out of all of this.

The last paragraph beautifully states that the Eucharist is what brings us together liberal and conservative.  It is the core of our Church. It bring us all together to pray, receive and hopefully heal.

David Hourigan
13 years 7 months ago

I recently listened to a radio interview with an abuse victim who had been visited by Pope Benedict who expressed the sorrow and compassion felt by the church to the man. The victim was overjoyed and awed by the visit, however, he stated that he would not ever return to the church in his lifetime because of his horrific childhood experiences. 

The aspect of the loss of a soul through eternity, seems to be taking a back seat to the concern for the interest of the church in how it will repent, correct the problems in the church administration and move forward in new life.  I can't help but wonder how many others, both victims and the disgusted,  have been forced into non-belief and will never return to the church, consequently losing their heavenly place throughout eternity.  This must be the real sin. Offenders of commission and ommission can repent and be forgiven. Those victims who have hardened their hearts because of this "filth" in the church must be given all the help needed throughout their lives to restore them to their rightful faith in Jesus and His promise of eternal life, taken from them by His church. Imagine, a soul lost for eternity because of the church, what an unbelievable reality.    

Molly Roach
13 years 7 months ago

What God would condemn a person to damnation because a priest raped them when they were children and then bishops covered up for the priest?    This is not a God who I would want anything to do with.  If these people are condemned to hell, I will gladly go to hell with them.

Molly Roach
13 years 7 months ago

Let me unpack the above comment a little bit.   I don't believe that survivors who don't want to come back to church can be characterized as having "hardened their hearts."   You stay away from what is dangerous to you.  You just do.   These folks were harmed through no fault of their own.   And I do not believe that God, as revealed by Christ, condemns such folks to eternal damnation.   The harm that has been done is shared by both priest perpetrators and bishops who protected them and turned victims away.  Victims are still being turned away in this church by bishops who don't want to believe what they have to tell them.  To harm another, that might attract the attention of a God seeking justice. But to wreak further havoc in the souls/spirits of those already hurt beyond endurance, that is not the action of the Father of Jesus.

William Atkinson
13 years 7 months ago

A Pilgrim, yes, but again NO, as Catholics we are second longest living religion,  Which makes us well traveled, highly experienced and, well OLDies at church stuff. 

Mona Villarrubia
13 years 7 months ago

I agree, Molly, it is nonsense to think that God's compassion can be restricted by the doctrines of any human organization. While I may currently despair of my ability to participate in the sacramental and communal life of the church because it causes me so much distress to attend mass, I have no doubt that God has compassion for my struggle, for my pain.

Jesus weeps with me and all other victims. 

The latest from america

The choice by Pope Francis to release “Laudate Deum” eight years after the publication of “Laudato Si’” is an unusual one, signaling an imminent climate crisis.
Peter KnoxNovember 30, 2023
Speaking International Theological Commission at the Vatican, Pope Francis told theologians that "One of the great sins we have witnessed is ‘masculinizing’ the church.”
A Reflection for the Feast of St. Andrew, Apostle, by Cecilia González-Andrieu
Cecilia González-AndrieuNovember 30, 2023
Gloria Branciani alerted church authorities about Father Rupnik's behavior years ago, but her fight with the church system was, as she recalled, a lost battle.
Federica Tourn- OSV NewsNovember 30, 2023