We are in Eastertime – the most joyful time in the Church’s Year and yet, following their recent meeting, the Bishops of England and Wales have issued a statement expressing their deep sorrow for the pain that has been caused to children, young people and vulnerable adults by clerical abuse. You can find it here. For those of us charged with nurturing new Catholics and those still on the journey, it offers a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is how to deal with a subject that causes us shame – or anger – or evokes our own painful memories. How do we come to terms with the fact that “people like us” –priests, religious sisters, servers, musicians, catechists, MCs – could so tarnish ministries that should be about love and service to God and our neighbour? How do we reassure people that the Church is a safe place in which to be – and to bring up children? Is it easier simply to leave it to others? Or is it an opportunity to teach a profound lesson on the reality of sin and how the Church has ways with which to deal with it – even if it seems not to have been very good at using them in the area of clerical abuse.
It is quite likely that new Catholics, catechumens and candidates would be reluctant to bring up a subject that they know will be embarrassing and distressing to their priests and catechists. Where they do, it is worth reflecting on how to respond – and where they don’t, to find ways of addressing it. It can be helpful to speak honestly of the pain caused to the vast majority of priests and religious who also trusted those who committed these crimes – helping them to consider how they might be feeling, perhaps by thinking about how they would react if someone they respected or admired was found to have done similar things. Talk about how “ordinary” Catholics can feel betrayed – particularly when the crimes were committed in their own parish or nearby – and how their feelings about family baptisms, first Communions and other celebrations are tainted. It will take sensitivity to know how much to share of the “family’s” shame, but openness following decades of silence and cover-up can only be helpful in the healing process.
The bishops also ask Catholics to pray, particularly on the Fridays in May. Not one of us can put the clock back and stop the abuse from ever having happened but, as the bishops remind us, we can turn to the Holy Spirit who “guides us to sorrow and repentance, to a firm determination to better ways, and to a renewal of love and generosity towards all in need.”
For many of us, words have failed – what can we say that others haven’t said better? And are there enough words in the universe to express the anger and dismay we might feel? This is why one of the ways of prayer suggested by the bishops is silence before the Blessed Sacrament. Perhaps a time of such prayer could be built into a meeting. Set the scene with candles, flowers and incense – but explain that it is the Presence of our Risen Lord that is the most important thing. Choose a couple of psalms (for example, No 50: Have mercy on me God in your kindness, or 129: Out of the Depths) and pray them antiphonally, allowing pauses for the words to hang – and then at the end to fade into the silence. Select short phrases from Scripture to “drop” into the silence – or gentle music that speaks of sorrow. Alternatively, resources for group and personal prayers are being prepared. You can find some of them, and links to others, here.
Ritual and symbol can also help when words fail. You could reflect on the darkness surrounding the abuse – of how it will have wounded and darkened the lives of those most directly affected – how it was used to conceal the crimes – and how a shadow has fallen upon many in the Church. Remind the group of the Triduum … of Holy Thursday and the watching in darkness – of Good Friday when, Scripture tells us, a deep darkness covered the earth as the Lord of Life died – of Holy Saturday and the long waiting for the evening – the gathering in the dark – until finally, the moment when the darkness was broken by the light of one candle and the acclamation: Christ our Light! And then the passing of that light from one to another until the church was filled with small lights which finally dispelled the darkness of that night. Our prayer may only be one little light – but it is, as the saying goes, better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
Our Church needs light – to uncover and bring into the light all that has been sinful and damaging to so many people. Our new Catholics and those preparing to become Catholics offer us hope by showing us that, in the face of so much hostile press, they find much that is good, holy and attractive in the Church and want to be part of it. Drawing them into the prayers during May can help them to feel they belong – and be a blessing to those whose faith is being stretched to breaking point.
source of unfailing light,
by the death and resurrection of Christ
you have cast out the darkness of hatred and lies
and poured forth the light of truth and love
upon the human family.
Enable (us) to pass from darkness to light
and, delivered from the prince of darkness,
to live always as children of the light.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
(Prayer from the Second Scrutiny, RCIA #155B,
Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults approved for use in the Dioceses of England and Wales and Scotland, p91)