I didn’t want to read it then, but I did. I don’t really want to write about it now, but I am. I mean the files released earlier this year by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, detailing the sordid history of sexual abuse among (too many) priests there. What I’m left with is a mixture of grief, anger, and confusion: grieved that so many people have been violated over the years by those in whom many placed so much trust; angered at the scale of the cover-up; confused by reading the names of priests that I knew and loved from my days in the high school seminary in the L.A. Archdiocese, and knowing that some of my brothers from those days were victimized. The scale of it just seemed so extraordinary.
I wanted to pull back when reading it. I wanted to distance myself from the accounts. I wanted to pretend I wasn’t connected, even indirectly. Maybe that’s why I resonated with a piece by theology student Jessica Coblentz. Wondering about her entanglement, through her Catholicism, in structures of abuse, she writes on her blog: “In moments like this when I am reminded that I am frighteningly proximate to this scandal, it is also easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of complicity. This Church … I am a part of it. I choose to be a part of it.”
Coblentz names this as the “tension of being Church: We are many and we are one. We belong to each other but we do not lose ourselves as individuals. We are responsible for one another, but we are also responsible for our own actions and inactions.” Somehow that responsibility seems easier to take up when I have a sense that I can make a difference, that there’s something I can give: my time, my attention, my service. It’s when I’m asked to draw close to something I can’t repair — to the suffering of the victims of abuse, to the shame of the Church, to the confusion of the faithful — when I’m called to bear a sense of complicity; that’s when I’m tempted to withdraw.
And it was with these thoughts, this tension, that I read this Lenten reflection by Los Angeles’s current Archbishop, José Gomez. Fraught as these times are with tension, anger, grief, and confusion, he says they should not be an excuse to back away, or for half-hearted efforts: “During these challenging times for our Church, we have to resist the desire to turn inward or to withdraw from our involvement with our culture and society.” Yes — and we likewise have to resist the desire to minimize the Church’s involvement, or our own,1 and also resist the desire to withdraw ourselves from the pain of involvement with the Church.
That’s the thing about Lent. It doesn’t let us turn inward or back away. Lent invites us to go to the cross. To face suffering and pain. And even if the pain isn’t my own, I’m asked to take up a cross and bear it for a time. Lent is a time to take up and bear even the pain and unease and tension, to strive for the holiness of the One Body and all its parts. From the beginning of Lent, when we mark our foreheads with ash, to today, when we embrace and kiss the cross: we take up the duty of Lent, we bear it, making our commitment visible and tangible.
And we do it together as a community, taking up our commitment in hope — in the hope that the grief and shame in personnel files of priests are not the last word, in the hope that while being part of the Church may put us in contact with complicity it even more puts us in contact with grace. And in the hope that tomorrow night, when the light dawns in the darkness, we will be ready to take it up again, together.
- We have seen an aspect of this struggle play out in Archbishop Gomez’s decision to relieve Cardinal Mahony from official duties following the release of the files, and Mahony’s response on his personal blog, widely reported, defending his actions. ↩