I must apologize to you all; no doubt some of you must have thought that I had sunk without trace. Partly it was simply the preoccupations of this time of year (Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and now Confirmations and First Communions) and the consequent tiredness, but for me the major problem was a kind of mental paralysis occasioned mostly by the storm surrounding the (nearly unmentionable) issue of child abuse.
For me, this issue has been going on a long time. In early 1998, having (for reasons I won’t bore you with) become suddenly available, I was appointed to Gatwick Airport as Catholic Chaplain. It wasn’t fun; the job itself I regarded as fairly pointless (travellers are dispensed from Sunday obligation, and staff all have their own local parishes), but the major issue was that my predecessor had recently been arrested for systematic child abuse. He was subsequently imprisoned. I had to deal with a lot of the fall-out in those early days when there were no helps of any kind (I hadn’t even been warned in advance of the problem). Most of the discussion of those days tended to circle around Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, and his actions in appointing that priest to that job. In the UK, action was then taken to make sure that this would never occur again. We all had to have checks run on our backgrounds, and the draconian system of child protection rumbled into action, something that (necessarily, alas) has utterly changed the face of our youth ministry. When I was first ordained, the young people in my parish used to run amok in my study, playing games on my computer &c. That has all ended, and we have to find other ways of reaching out to young people, befriending them only in a distant way. That is a grief to me, a constant reminder of the tiny minority of priests who have so damaged the work of the Gospel.
In my current parish, I was again appointed to a very demoralized community; again I found myself in a position where accusations of abuse had been made against my predecessor; this man had been instantly removed and the parish left without a priest for two years. Yet again I felt I had to deal directly with this dreadful problem which was not of my making. In the event it took a further four years for my predecessor to have his name cleared (something which has now happened); his total period of suspension a divinis was six years; six crucifying years in which this gentle and good man was regarded as a monster. When he was at last declared innocent, the newspapers which had trumpeted his removal scarcely thought his vindication worth a mention.
The parish, thanks be to God, has slowly recovered, but as with our Lord’s risen body, the scars are still there. The recent feeding frenzy of the media against the Church has been utterly horrible, and it has horrified and demoralized me. The crimes we are now accused of as a body were not even committed in this country; our house has been fairly well in order (insofar as it can ever be) for years now, and very good safeguards operate in most places. And even at its worst, I am informed, the rate of (mere) accusations (not convictions) against priests and religious stood at less than 0.4%—this is less than half the national average. I am, and my parishioners are, so sick of being made to feel guilty for something we didn’t do, of having our noses rubbed in it again and again. Any attempt to defend ourselves simply led to accusations of lack of compassion for the victims of abuse.
In the dying days of Lent, my bishop was contacted by several gleeful media types, asking whether Catholic Churches were going to be very empty this Easter, or extremely empty. What happened was that more than ever came to the Easter services. In the streets, ordinary people, so far from treating me with disgust, as was expected, have actually gone out of their way to smile, or say ‘good morning’. I suppose it’s a gesture of sympathy, and I am very grateful for it. Unlike some of my colleagues I have continued to wear clerical dress—often my cassock if I am on the way to Mass—and the gesture seems to be appreciated. And, incredibly, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, the man who has been so opposed to so much that we stand for, has described Catholics as ‘the conscience of the nation’. Our own Church has pulled together; in this country we are fairly accustomed to anti-Catholicism (the only acceptable prejudice, it has been said), and so people have felt more inclined, not less, to identify themselves as Catholics. Where sin has abounded, there grace has superabounded.
One thing that has greatly saddened me in all this is the complete lack of support from other Christian communions. We enjoy good ecumenical relations here, but I never heard a word of sympathy, through all the crisis, from any of them, publically or privately. On the national scene, the only words we heard were those off-the-cuff remarks from Rowan Williams about the credibility-free Irish Catholic Church. Finally, at a meeting last week, the chair of our local Ecumenical committee addressed some kind words and said that his prayers had been with us. I appreciated that but it would have been nice to have heard it some weeks ago when we felt so alone. I know very well that all denominations are scared of similar treatment, and don’t want to draw attention to themselves, but those words of Martin Niemoller are no doubt in your minds as well as my own.
First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.
And maybe were our positions reversed, I, too, might have said nothing. But I hope not.
Well, we all know why the schadenfreude, don’t we? For two thousand years, we have been preaching chastity and honesty, and here are some of our own clergy behaving badly. It is really an example of the ad hominem argument: if priests sin, then what they say must be wrong. ‘Look, Catholics and everyone: these priests who tell you how to behave are no better than you; in fact, they’re worse!’
As for having to suffer opprobrium while innocent, well, someone else innocent suffered for the guilty too, didn’t he? ‘If they hate you, remember that they hated me before you. The servant is not greater than his master’. ‘Woe to you when the world thinks well of you!’.
My final remarks concern today’s Divine Office. It is usually my custom to celebrate the Office according to the Extraordinary Form, but for the last few days I have been using the Ordinary Form—the first time in three or four years that I have done so in private recitation. This morning I read that extraordinary Epistle to Diognetus (probably 2nd century) at the Office of Readings, and it was like drawing a cork out of a bottle. It really helped me, and I hope that it might help you if you have felt as I have. And it expresses perfectly the status of a Christian in the world, and why a Church works better when it is not Established.
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.
Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.
Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.
(Nn. 5-6; Funk, 397-401)
I apologize for my rambling, but I felt that I owed you and Christian (‘Mr Patience’) Campbell an explanation.
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