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Crisis response must remember the spiritual stakes

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

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila
The Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila is the eighth bishop of Denver and its fifth archbishop. His episcopal motto is, "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2:5).
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