Among the Catholic Church’s faults—I admit we’ve got a boatload of them—is that we have a problem keeping important things important and unimportant things unimportant. This was Jesus’ constant challenge to church leaders in His time, too. The fact that we haven’t gotten much better at it 2,000 years later brings sadness, disgust, and embarrassment to Catholics who decided they could no longer take it, as well as many who are hanging in with the church for as long as they can.
About five years ago, I was part of an underground group in our diocese that assisted victims of clergy sexual abuse because our bishop at the time did not possess the capacity to empathize with them. I and other subversives listened to horrific stories of incidents that destroyed peoples’ lives, their image of God, and their relationship with the church. You’ve heard the stories as well; though painful to resurface them, the rest of this blog post won’t make sense if I don’t. From bishops raping nuns to priests molesting altar servers to nuns abusing orphans to curial workers misusing power for their own gratification, to chancery officials turning their heads to what they knew, we are all culpable in some way (by association, blind obedience, not speaking up on behalf of victims or even recognizing them as victims). Abuse of innocents fits the category of what is truly important.
Meanwhile, as the church is imploding over important matters like this and the Pope gathers universal leaders this week to address the sexual abuse of minors, others still give credence to unimportant matters. I received a call recently from a church official stating that an anonymous woman complained that a priest hearing confession at my church said the words of absolution wrong. As far as I know, I’ve always said the words of absolution the same—over 100,000 times at least—though when trying to get ready for Mass and staring down long lines, I admittedly fly through them quickly. Since I’m not the only priest who hears confessions here I am to put out an APB to those who help at communal penance services, school confessions, and visiting priests to find the culprit and set him straight. While his call brought out my anger, it was also comical in that, not long before, another priest in a nearby parish told me about a call he got from another chancery official who chastised him because of another anonymous woman who complained that a priest at his parish didn’t say the words of absolution correctly either. Supposedly, the priest said “I will give you my absolution” when he should have said “I will give you the church’s absolution” even though the words of absolution state “I absolve you.” It reminds me of yet another priest who got called by yet another chancery official to pass along yet another anonymous complaint from yet another person because, during the Eucharistic Prayer, he said Christ “died for all” when, in English, he should say “died for many.” This priest also says Mass in Spanish where the correct words are “died for all.” Instead of church leaders calling to offer a word of gratitude for priests who day in and day out, for 30-50 years, are doing our best to bring Christ’s message to others, they call to bust us for something silly that may or may not have happened, based on anonymous tips from self-appointed liturgical police. When I challenged the chancery official about spending his time on these sorts of matters while the church crumbles, in my frustration I asked: “Are you telling me that this is important compared to the horror of ecclesial sexual abuse like putting an adult erect penis into a child while saying ‘receive the body of Christ.’?” He responded, “What I’m saying is that they’re both important.”
And that is the problem. They are NOT both important! And until our church leaders realize that, Catholicism will continue its free-fall. It’s the same kind of thing that Jesus challenged church leaders of His time to understand; but they didn’t. Their unwillingness to grasp the difference, coupled with their obsession with ecclesial prescript and rubric, frustrated and angered Him. For those who have been kicked out of a cathedral for wearing a sleeveless shirt or told they couldn’t sing “Danny Boy” at an Irish funeral Mass or have flowers on the altar for a special occasion, I join in asking “Really? That’s what’s important?”
Please join me in prayer that Pope Francis and synod leaders, through this week’s universal summit, will help the church get back on track. Until we learn to keep important things important and unimportant things unimportant, we should expect more sadness, disgust, and embarrassment.