This week the Catholic archbishops of Australia will be called to give evidence at the full panel of Royal Commission in Sydney.
I should like to begin these difficult words on the Royal Commission with an adaptation of Carlo Caretto’s, Ode to the Church; an adaptation shaped by the story of Lazarus who, after several days in a dark, smelly tomb was raised back to life by his beloved friend, Jesus.
How much I must criticise you, my Church, and yet how much I owe you. The stench of abuse and death cling to my clothes. You have made me suffer more than anyone and yet I love you like no other.
I should like to see you destroyed and bound-up in a tomb, just as you have destroyed and bound-up so many others, and yet I need your presence.
You have given me so much scandal: cover-ups, lies, and wickedness; and yet you alone have made me understand holiness. It is you alone, who inspired me to say,
“Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
Never in this world have I seen anything more compromised, more false, more corrupt; yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous, more lovely. I’ve watched you hide behind lawyers, cling to money, and side with power. But I’ve also seen you stand with the weak, with those abandoned; I’ve seen you offer up everything, even your very life, for the sake of others.
Countless times I have felt like leaving, like slamming the door of my soul in your face; and yet, without you, I have nothing of worth; I am lifeless.
No, I cannot be free of you, for I am you, even if not completely you. And anyway, where would I go – to build another Church? But I could not build one without the same defects, for they are my defects. And again, if I were to build another Church, it would be my church, not Christ’s Church. What a disaster. No, I am old enough, I know better.
On Monday the Catholic archbishops of Australia will be called to give evidence at the full panel of Royal Commission in Sydney.
The three-week public hearings will be grim. They will recount a litany of acts of man’s inhumanity to man meted out on our most vulnerable: stories of innocent children, and their families, devastated by sexual abuse; stories of utter betrayal; stories we would rather not hear – stories we must hear.
In essence, the Commission will be seeking to do two things via a series of simple, yet poignant questions:
Firstly, what has the church learnt from the experience of the Royal Commission? What has the church done on the basis of what its learnt? What will we the church being doing in the future?
Secondly, the Commission will be asking our bishops in no uncertain terms. What were the cultural factors that led to the abuse and its shameful mishandling by church leaders?
The CEO of the Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council, Francis Sullivan, told the ABC “it’s the first time in the western world the Catholic Church has been so open about its data and its records.”
“What we hear,” he said, “will be very confronting… a miserable tale that you can’t put a coating on; it speaks of so much damage.”
Indeed, it is a distressing time, one in which good people, innocent people, are being condemned by association. But we should be careful not fall prey to self-pity, because as hard as it is for us, we are not nearly as innocent, or as damaged, as the children who are only now being given a voice.
It is a time to listen to them;
It is a time to be overwhelmed for them;
It is a time to avoid easy answers for them;
It is a time to be humble for them.
I’m loath to sound pious here, but this time of shame and humiliation has actually deepened my faith, has deepened my desire to draw closer to God – to Christ. I think this is so because without Christ I simply wouldn’t cope. Without this new found intimacy, I would fall prey self-pity and fear – and might very well slam the door of my soul in the church’s face.
I also believe that the church, like the addict who has hit rock bottom, has an opportunity for rehabilitation: to transform and reform itself. We can now start to peel back those masks that have blinded us: masks of secrecy and power that prevent us from seeing that most beautiful of things, the Truth: the very thing that sets us free.
We should be careful, though, not to think that the Commission is the end of the matter – really, it’s barely the beginning. We have much to do.
For starters, might I presume to say: We must end clericalism: that exclusive-boys-only-club mentality that seeks to lord it over others; We must allow women to shape our church as equal partners with the pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests; We must dare to take-up Pope Francis’s dream to be a Church which “is poor and for the poor”; one that embraces simplicity and humility and is at home walking on the dust of the streets.
In the end, Jesus Christ, who himself experienced religious brutality and humiliation, has left us an eternal and living legacy; a profound responsibility: to walk humbly and gently alongside others, especially the most vulnerable, whatever the cost.
That’s the wonderful, if daunting price of saying “yes” to Christ.
That’s what it is to be a truly Catholic church.
See also John Menadue’s blogs ‘Submission to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse‘ and ‘Catholic Church and the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.’
Peter Day is a Catholic Priest in Canberra. This was his homily for last weekend.