“In her voyage across the ocean of this world, the Church is like a great ship being pounded by the waves of life’s different stresses. Our duty is not to abandon ship but to keep her on her course.” St. Boniface’s words are as relevant today as they were when they were penned more than a millennium ago.
Amid the waves of the current crisis in the Church, Msgr. Peter Quang Nguyen, pastor at All Saints Parish in Denver; Father Ryan O’Neill, Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Denver; and Father Samuel Morehead, pastor at All Souls Parish in Denver, shared words of advice to help the faithful navigate the storm and remain faithful to Christ.
Processing the current crisis
The priests mentioned fundamental aspects in responding faithfully to the current problems in the Church: acknowledging one’s emotions, bringing them to prayer and also praying for the victims.
“The first thing I’d recommend is to acknowledge what you’re feeling, what you’re experiencing on an internal level because that will be the engine that drives our thoughts, our words and our actions,” Father O’Neill said. “It’s a healthy, integrated and mature ability because sometimes that anger comes up when we don’t acknowledge that we feel angry.”
Secondly, Father Morehead encourages the faithful not to “indulge” in those emotions but to bring them to prayer: “There’s a call to us to bring heavy hearts, all the frustration, disappointment and anger, and relate it to Our Lord, begging for the healing that only he can bring.”
Moreover, echoing St. Paul’s words, Msgr. Quang assured that where sin has been present, grace has abounded much more (Rom 5:20), and thus, this crisis is “an opportunity” for the faithful to “be revitalized,” “grow in humility and prayer” and in a “deeper love of God and others.”
Father O’Neill added that while Catholics experience hurt, “we need to keep the victims as a priority” because “it’s healthy to remember at the end of the day that the people who suffered from the abuse are the people we need to pray for the most,” he added.
Following the Lord to Calvary
Among those people affected by the sex-abuse scandal, some are choosing to leave the Church.
“We can rightly condemn those mistakes [committed by clergy] and pray for the conversion of the offenders, but we cannot let their sins form a near occasion of sin for us to walk away from Jesus,” Father Morehead insisted. “[In the Last Supper], Jesus entrusted to bishops and priests in the apostolic succession of his Catholic Church the gift of his body and blood in the Eucharist. Where there is not the Eucharist there is not the Church. So, we need Jesus and for Jesus we need the Church.”
Msgr. Quang also warned the faithful against the plan of the devil to drive them away from Christ and his Church.
“We don’t want to fall into the big trap of the devil, who plants doubt and negative feelings in the people of God against all priests and bishops, even if they are holy and faithful,” he said. “People are hurt, and the devil will want us to fight against one another, but instead [we must stay and] seek healing.”
Father O’Neill reflected on the figures of Judas and Peter in the Gospels, exhorting the faithful not to give Satan more victories by leaving the Church.
“Judas was essentially a bishop. He was ordained with the other apostles and betrayed Jesus. And the Gospels say that the devil entered into Judas (Lk 22:3, Jn 13:27),” he said. “There is an action of the devil in Judas’ betrayal, and we see that in the current situation.”
Yet, he added that the act of leaving the Church is also orchestrated by Satan, as seen in Jesus’ words to Peter: “Get behind me Satan” (Mt 16:23).
“It’s really easy to say, ‘That is diabolical,’ because it’s obvious,” Father O’Neill said. “But, where else does Jesus call someone else Satan? It’s when Peter says, ‘Jesus, you’re not going to go to Jerusalem, you’re not going to carry your cross and you’re not going to die: suffering, suffering, suffering. And what does Jesus say to Peter? ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ (Mt 16:23).
“He calls him Satan. In that sense, Jesus is saying it’s [also] diabolical to abandon the Lord in his suffering… A lot of times we think that [the suffering] comes from outside the Church, not from inside it, but the Church has its own Calvary, and that’s where I think the Lord is asking us to follow him right now.”
“I would encourage the people to read this [crisis] in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, when the Lord gave him that mission: ‘Francis, rebuild my Church,’” Msgr. Quang said. “Today, each and every one of us has that same invitation from our Lord… And we can do it by reaching out to the person closest to us.”
Responding to the questions, comments and accusations from peers or family members about the situation is yet another challenge for Catholics. However, Father Morehead sees it as an opportunity to be vulnerable and honest and proclaim a deep love for Christ.
“I think this is a beautiful moment for everyone in the Church to be close to Jesus on the cross in humility. It means being honest with everyone about what’s going on in the life of the Church and honest about our emotions as that affects us,” he said. “I think that that sort of vulnerability will actually be attractive at the end of the day. But also, as we are vulnerable, we have to speak of our vulnerable love for Jesus Christ, as the heart and center of our life.”
According to Father O’Neill, it is also an opportunity for Catholics to condemn what is evil and to reaffirm their belief in the Catholic Church as the Church established by Christ and the apostolic succession blessed by the Holy Spirit.
A helpful tip when these conversations become intense is to keep calm and help the other person acknowledge their feelings, Father O’Neill added, which helps prevent loud arguments.
I would encourage the people to read this [crisis] in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, when the Lord gave him that mission: ‘Francis, rebuild my Church.’ Today, each and every one of us has that same invitation from our Lord… And we can do it by reaching out to the person closest to us.”
To be witnesses to that love of Christ, however, the faithful must seek to forgive even those shepherds who have failed, as Msgr. Quang pointed out.
“We must strive to forgive even those who failed to serve the people, otherwise the feelings of anger and betrayal can lead us to react rather than interact,” he said.
Call to action
Bishops and priests are calling for Christians to do acts of reparation for the sins committed by clergy — acts that are of great significance.
“Christ is pure and holy and perfect, but his Church has been affected and is still affected by the ramifications of the sins of her members,” Father Morehead said.
Christians are thus called to make acts of reparation.
“What is happening in reparation is that we’re actually participating in the reparation of Jesus Christ on the cross,” Father O’Neill explained. “What I can do is that I can receive that act of reparation that Jesus does on the cross and I can add to it as St. Paul says, ‘I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church’ (Col 1:24).
“So, it’s not that I’m making things right on my own. I can do a small sacrifice to deny myself and unite myself to Jesus on the Cross, a little sacrifice in order to participate in his reparation with the Father, that his blood may repair the sins of the world.”
Another aspect of the reparation is that uniting oneself to the suffering of Christ becomes transformative.
“Penance helps us to experience the pain and suffering of Christ on the cross, who can lift us up from this stressful situation, with his love and his words on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing’” (Lk 23:34).
Ultimately, Father Morehead said we need to remember why we’re Catholics and more importantly, who it is we follow.
“[We] are not Catholics for any member of the clergy. We are not Catholic just because of some Church teaching or practice that we like,” Father Morehead concluded. “We are Catholic and Catholic alone because of Jesus Christ and what he did to found this Church 2,000 years ago, and furthermore, how he has promised to remain and work in this Church throughout the ages, even and especially in her trials.
“We are Catholic because of him and his promises, and that is the witness with joy that I encourage our faithful to offer at this time.”