Over fourteen years of preaching, I don't remember a week during which preparing a homily was so difficult. There have been few times in my life when I have realized the inadequacy of words to address reality. In the light of what we’ve learned over the course of the past month or so, I imagine there are many Catholics right now who are somewhere between disgust and despair. While the abuse and the cover-ups of abuse with regard to Theodore McCarrick and as a result of the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report last Tuesday occurred almost exclusively during the same period of time as those made known by the reporting of the Boston Globe in 2002, the fact that most of what we learned happened awhile ago does not make any of it easier to take.
No sooner than the Church in this country seems to turn the corner on clerical abuse than more horrifying revelations come to light. As upsetting as the abuse is, I think perhaps what many people find more infuriating is the failure of quite a few bishops, who are supposed to shepherd and safeguard their flocks, to remove the wolves. The failure of some bishops to immediately remove abusers from ministry, their failure to notify police, and, most of all, reassigning them, that is, placing them in situations that endangered other young people, is unspeakably maddening. No matter how many times such failures come to light the scab will be pulled from the wound and the bleeding will begin again.
If there’s any good news in all of this it is that since 2002 and the implementation of the Dallas Charter in the wake of the Boston-centered scandal, the Church has put into place a zero-tolerance policy, which means that any member of the clergy against whom there is a credible allegation of abuse, in addition to the matter being turned over to the police, is automatically and immediately suspended from any and all ministry pending the outcome of the investigation. If the credible allegation is found to be true, the deacon or priest is permanently barred from ministry in the Church. In such cases, an effort is usually made to canonically remove the man from the clerical state.
It is also good news that our society is rapidly reaching a point at which victims of harassment and/or abuse feel free to speak out about what happened to them. Nonetheless, it still takes a lot of courage for victims to speak up and speak out. As painful as it is to hear what victims of abuse have to tell us, we should never fear being told the truth. I am very conscious of the fact that I may well be addressing someone who has suffered abuse, either by someone in the Church or in a different setting. If so, I am sorry for what you’ve been put through by no fault of your own.
Far from weakening the Church, telling the truth strengthens the Body of Christ. Indeed, the Church is the Body of Christ. When one “part suffers, all the parts suffer” (1 Cor 12:26). One of the worst mistakes we can make in our present moment is to think the hierarchy is the Church. In fact, the hierarchy, which includes all of us in holy orders, each of us ordained to serve our sisters and brothers, while necessary according to the Church’s divine constitution, makes up a very small portion of the Body of Christ.
At its most fundamental, what it means to be a Christian is to acknowledge Jesus Christ as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) Jesus doesn’t just speak the truth, he is the Truth. Therefore, when he taught “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). he was not referring to an abstract body of doctrines, or even to a moral or ethical code. He was pointing out the importance of knowing him.
Here’s the truth: Jesus is always on the side of victims. Telling the truth strengthens Christ’s Body, the Church because it liberates victims from their private hell of shame and embarrassment. Telling the truth strengthens the Church because it is the way everyone is held accountable, including cardinals and bishops, even the pope. Paraphrasing the Blessed Virgin's Magnificat, which was our Gospel reading for last Wednesday's Solemnity of the Assumption: the truth is powerful enough to scatter the proud in their conceit and to cast down the mighty from their thrones (see Luke 1:46-56). Telling the truth strengthens the Church because it provides abusers and their enablers the opportunity to acknowledge their sins and to repent. Telling the truth strengthens faith, which remains in him who is the Truth. Telling the truth gives us hope for a better future and the courage to do what is necessary to ensure it. This is why, in and of itself, telling the truth is an act of charity.
This is where what I have said so far ties in with our readings. The central theme of our readings is wisdom. Truth is more than accurate information. In addition to dealing in reality as it is and not as one might wish it to be, truth is also a matter of the heart. There is no truth without love and there is no love without truth. Living according to the truth is what it means to be wise. This why in our first reading from the Book of Proverbs Wisdom herself says: “To the one who lacks understanding, she says, Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed! Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding” (Prov 9:4-6).
In our second reading, taken from the Letter to the Ephesians, we are exhorted to live wisely and instructed as to what that means, at least in part. Above all, we are exhorted to be discerning. Being discerning means trying “to understand what is the will of the Lord” (Eph 5:17). The observation that “the days are evil” (Eph 5:15) will remain true until Christ returns in glory. Because to be wise is to live according to the truth and the truth is Jesus Christ, we are to live lives of gratitude to him for what he has done for us. At the center of a life if gratitude is the Eucharist, which means thanksgiving.
It was the Servant of God Dorothy Day who, in a letter to a friend in which she was lamenting the shortcomings of bishops in a very pointed and direct manner, wrote: “It is the saints that keep appearing all through [the Church’s] history who keep things going.” Rather than be discouraged, let’s relentlessly pursue holiness, which means nothing other than loving God and neighbor in the manner of Jesus. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” wrote the inspired author of the Letter to the Hebrews, “let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:1-2).
The food and wine of Wisdom turn out to be Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Today Wisdom sets her table in our midst. She urges us, “Come, eat and drink” and so taste and see Christ’s goodness and experience for yourself what it means to know him, to know the Truth who sets you free.