Crisis response must remember the spiritual stakes

Archbishop Aquila

Everyone expected the meeting of bishops this past week to be monumentally important, but no one expected the Vatican to intervene the way it did. Even though I was disappointed that my fellow bishops and I could not vote on accountability measures, the situation underscored the dual spiritual realities that souls are at stake and that we bishops serve with and under the Holy Father.

It transcends human thinking that, despite St. Peter’s weakness, Christ entrusted the care of the Church to him, calling upon St. Peter’s love for him and exhorting him to “feed my sheep.” Indeed, when every bishop is consecrated, he makes a promise to build up the Body of Christ, the Church, and to remain in union with the order of bishops, under the authority of St. Peter the Apostle. Without this divinely-instituted structure, the Church would risk fracturing into individual camps, as we saw with the Protestant Reformation.

Therefore, my brother bishops and I did not move ahead with a vote on the measures before us and heeded the request to wait for the February meeting of bishops’ conference presidents on the abuse crisis. We believe in God’s guidance of the Church through the successor of St. Peter, even if it requires a painful period of waiting.

The meetings began with a day of prayer and fasting by the bishops. The first reading for the day was taken from Daniel 9:3-19. The prayer is powerful and one worth praying with. The words that struck my heart deeply were, “[We] have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God.” Daniel mentions it three times in his prayer as he acknowledges the guilt and rebellion of Israel.

At certain moments, I have felt that we are living in Old Testament times, when the People of Israel would move to listening to the ways of the culture and the world rather than by the Word of God and faithfulness to him. Whenever we fail to listen to the voice of God as revealed in Scriptures and most especially the Gospels, sin, turmoil and confusion ensues. This, too, is seen in the history of the Church.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux’s 1140 sermon “On Conversion,” delivered to clergy at the University of Paris, lamented the sins of some priests including the distressing presence of avarice, ambition, pride, iniquity, luxury, fornication, adultery, incest and homosexual activity. In today’s crisis, these same sins are present and are a failure to listen to the voice of Jesus Christ, having faith in his promises and truth. Today, we are also much more aware of the various personality disorders that are present in some of the clergy. The darkness today is horrific as it involves minors.

The spiritual battle that we are in today is real, a battle between good and evil, Jesus Christ and the devil, the voice of God and the voice of the evil one and of the world. Every bishop, priest, deacon, and lay Catholic must ask, “Whose voice do I listen to? Who forms my heart?” The eyes of our hearts and souls must be fixed on Jesus Christ, desiring the salvation of souls and complete faithfulness to him. Beginning with St. Paul VI to Pope Francis, every pope has called us to deeper intimacy, a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ. Only intimacy with the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, faithfulness to the beatitudes, the graces of the sacraments, and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy will bring healing to our Church and world.

At the bishops’ meeting in Baltimore, my brother bishop, Bishop Strickland asked: ‘How was Archbishop McCarrick allowed to continue in his sinful, predatory behavior if the Church truly believes that homosexual acts are wrong?’ His assertion – which I agree with – is that we have forgotten or not sufficiently believed in sin and its consequences. Just as the saints make a great impact on the life of the Church for the good, so do great sin and evil impact the Church negatively. When we downplay the severity of sin and the need for conversion, our lukewarmness appears to weaken Christ’s salvation.

The Evil One wants to minimize sin because it allows him to entrench himself in our hearts and destroy our souls out of hatred for God, in whose image we are created. He also wants to convince us that sins can be completely “private,” without effecting others. However, although our own sins are personal, they are never private. Personal sins impact the Church and its common good. With the Archbishop McCarrick situation and each case of abuse, every bishop must ask, ‘Am I acknowledging and acting to prevent and heal the damage of the sin committed? Am I keeping in mind that souls are at stake?’

In addition to the practical measures we have been taking, the long-term solution to this crisis is fidelity to the Gospel and belief in the salvation won for us by Christ. We must follow the model Christ laid out for us in reconciling St. Peter to himself. He did not minimize or explain away Peter’s betrayal, instead he called him to repent and love him. Once Peter had reaffirmed his love for Jesus, he was commissioned with feeding and protecting the flock (Cf. Acts 21:15-19).

As we await word from the Holy See after the February meeting, I want to assure you, the faithful of the archdiocese, that we will continue our longstanding efforts to provide a safe environment for children, work with survivors who seek our assistance, and uphold the high standards that we have had in place for the past several years. Many of you have participated in these programs and know them well. You are also aware that we require every employee of the Archdiocese of Denver – including the bishops – to sign and abide by a code of conduct.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, let us lift our hearts in gratitude to the Father for the gift of his son Jesus and the gift of salvation that he offers us. He is the greatest gift that anyone can ever receive! Let us pray in gratitude for the many faithful bishops, priests and deacons who serve the Church. Let us pray for the conversion of the clergy and laity, that all of us may grow in deeper faith, trust and confidence in Jesus and invite others to come to know him. And finally, let us pray that we may listen ever more faithfully to the voice of God, especially as we begin Advent on December 2nd. Let us beg the Lord to open the ears of our hearts and souls to the voice of Jesus and his tender love and mercy for each of us. Thank you to all of you who have offered your heartfelt prayers for our clergy and for the local and universal Church, and may our Lord richly bless you!

Featured image: CNS photo/Bob Roller

COMING UP: Ahead of bishops’ meeting, we need your prayer and fasting

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Since ancient times, people have used the stars to navigate through the expanse of the sea or over unknown terrain.  As the bishops of the United States prepare to address the difficult topic of clergy sex abuse at our annual meeting in two weeks, I invite all Catholics to join us in praying and fasting that our deliberations will be guided by Christ, the light that shines forth in the darkness.

Some of you might know the story of Steven Callahan, a naval architect and sailor who survived 76 days floating across the Atlantic Ocean after his boat was damaged beyond repair in a storm. During his ordeal, he used the stars to determine where he was to navigate toward land, while also using his survival skills to obtain food and water. His story is one of courage, creativity and perseverance in the face of very long odds.

During these difficult times the Church is enduring because of the abuse crisis, my fellow bishops and I, as well as all believers, need similar virtues. Most importantly, we must orient ourselves toward the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. He is our hope, our anchor and sure refuge in the storm. We must pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and fidelity to Christ and his Gospel.

For that reason, we bishops are devoting ourselves to seven days of prayer and fasting between Nov. 5 and 11, in anticipation of our annual fall bishops’ meeting in Baltimore. These two forms of penance allow us to draw closer to Christ, seek conversion and in a small way make reparation for the evil that has been committed.

In the Scriptures, Jesus explained that prayer and fasting were necessary to drive out a deaf and mute spirit that the disciples could not cast out (Mk. 9:29). Similarly, these acts of penance will help provide the spiritual groundwork for the Spirit of Truth to prevail at our meeting.

I have already invited the priests of the archdiocese to join Bishop Rodriguez and I in fasting and praying for the upcoming meeting during these specific days, but I want to also extend the same invitation to all the faithful of the archdiocese.

There are three specific intentions that I ask you to join us in praying for: for the healing and support of all victims and survivors of clergy abuse; for the conversion and just punishment of the perpetrators and concealers of clergy abuse; and for the Holy Spirit to guide all the bishops in responding to the tragedy of clergy sexual abuse in the Church.

Much like a person who is lost at sea and longing for rescue, every Catholic should ask God for the gifts of hope and gratitude to carry us to safe harbor. We should cultivate those virtues by giving thanks for the fact that Jesus remains with us in this trial through the sacraments and by recalling that despite fallible bishops, priests and lay people, the Good News that Jesus died and rose to save us from our sins is still true.

When he celebrated Mass for the Feast of All Souls last week, Pope Francis described the outlook that I pray will be yours and mine. “May we never lose hope,” he said, “always contemplating the horizon, always looking ahead. May God grant us the grace to recognize the lights that accompany us to where he awaits us with so much love.”