Why remain Catholic (with so much scandal)?

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The text below has been transcribed from a video released by Word on Fire Aug. 30.

I wanted to speak to you again about this terrible crisis we’re passing through in the Church, this crisis of sexual abuse and the countenancing of it by some bishops. I know I spoke to you a couple of days ago. But what’s been striking me recently is the number of people who seem to be calling for the abandonment of the Church: “Because of this crisis, it’s time for us to leave the Church. We’ve simply had enough.”

Now, can I just say this? I totally understand people’s feelings. I share them — the feelings of anger and frustration. I get it. I get it. But can I also suggest, I think this is precisely the wrong strategy at this moment in the Church’s life. Leaving is not what we ought to be doing. What we ought to be doing is fighting.

Let me explain that with a little historical reference. One of my great heroes is Abraham Lincoln. And Lincoln of course operated politically at one of the most convulsive times in our national history, when slavery was threatening the very foundations of American democracy. Lincoln knew from the beginning of his career that the nation, as he put it, couldn’t survive half-slave and half-free. But he saw more profoundly too that slavery as an institution was repugnant to the very principles of American democracy.

Now, we can hear that in the Gettysburg Address. And in a way it’s sad that that’s become so cliché, that we all memorize it in high school. But let’s go back to those words: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Notice he’s articulating the principles that define American democracy: freedom and equality.

Then he says, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” He knew what was at stake in the war was American democracy itself. He knew that slavery was a kind of cancer that would undermine American ideals.

Now, I suppose at the time an option would have been simply to give up on the American experiment. “I’m leaving the country. I’ve had it. This thing is a disaster. I’m giving up.” But Lincoln wouldn’t take that option. In fact, he led the country down the other path toward fighting — fighting for the ideals of American democracy.

I think something similar is at stake right now. The Catholic Church, its great principles and ideals; the Catholic Church, grounded in Jesus Christ, the love of God made manifest in him in his dying and his rising; the Catholic Church, in all of its power and beauty and perfection, is indeed threatened by this terrible scourge of sexual abuse. It is indeed a blight upon the Church. It is appropriate that people feel anger, frustration.

I suppose the option is on the table: leave. “I’ve had it. The thing is just too corrupt. I’m out of here.” But see, I want to suggest everybody, that is not what is called for. Rather, what’s called for is the Lincoln option: fighting for the Church that we believe in so powerfully; seeing this blight, naming it clearly, unambiguously, but then fighting to set things right. It’s not the moment for cutting and running. It’s the moment for getting into the fight.

And you say, “Well, okay, Bishop, I get it. But how do I fight?” Look: You fight through your own righteous anger. You fight by writing a letter to your bishop, a letter to the pope. You fight by your very presence at Mass. You fight by keeping people’s feet to the fire. You fight by organizing your fellow Catholics. Fight any way you can. But you fight because you believe in the Church; you love the Church; and you realize that despite this terrible blight, it’s worth fighting for.

I totally understand people’s feelings. I share them — the feelings of anger and frustration. I get it. I get it. But can I also suggest, I think this is precisely the wrong strategy at this moment in the Church’s life. Leaving is not what we ought to be doing. What we ought to be doing is fighting.”

Keep in mind everybody, we are not Catholics because of the moral excellence of our leaders. God help us if we were. We want our leaders — indeed, we expect our leaders — to be morally excellent. But we are not Catholics because of that moral excellence. We’re Catholics because of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. We’re Catholics because of the Trinitarian love of God. We’re Catholics because of the Mystical Body of Christ. We’re Catholics because of the sacraments. We’re Catholics especially because of the Eucharist. We’re Catholics because of the Blessed Mother. We’re Catholics because of the saints. Even as leaders in the Church fail morally, the Catholic Church remains the Mystical Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ. And she’s worth fighting for.

Keep this in mind too everybody: Every baptized person is priest, prophet and king. A couple of days ago I talked about the kingly office. Can I talk now about the prophetic office? When Israel got off the rails — read the Old Testament, it happened on a regular basis: This community was meant to reflect the will of God into the world, Israel the chosen people of God, but frequently its leaders failed, frequently its people fell into sin, frequently it fell away from the Torah and the temple — what did God do? He called forth prophets: people like Jeremiah, people like Isaiah, people like Amos and Ezekiel, people like Zechariah. And they raised their voices — sometimes, yes, in very angry protest — about these corruptions within Israel.

You’re a prophet. Every one of you listening to me right now who is baptized into Jesus Christ is a prophet. Raise your voice! Prophets didn’t cut and run when Israel was in trouble; the prophets spoke out. That’s all of our responsibility, all of us who bear the prophetic charism.

Perhaps a last thought here. I said it a couple of days ago, I’ll say it again. Whom are we fighting for? We’re not fighting primarily to save our institutions. See, I’m with my old mentor Cardinal George of happy memory. In the last talk he ever gave to all the priests of Chicago, he said, “Remember, at the beginning of the Church, there were no parishes. There were no schools, hospitals, institutions. There were evangelists,” he reminded us. “There were proclaimers of the word.” But the point was the Church does not depend ultimately on institutions. We’re not fighting primarily for that aspect of the Church’s life. We are fighting for the victims of these terrible crimes. We’re fighting for people who were sexually assaulted, sexually abused. If we cut and run precisely at this challenging time, who will be the prophetic voice on behalf of these victims?

So that’s my little cri de coeur, everybody — my cry from the heart. I get it. I get the frustration people feel. I share it. But this is not the moment to abandon the Church. This is the moment to fight for the Church.

COMING UP: Machebeuf basketball star traded success playing hoops for a solitary life of prayer

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Shelly Pennefather led the Bishop Machebeuf High School girls’ basketball team to victory in every game she played in. It was not surprising to her friends and classmates that she would go on to play college ball for Villanova and then play professionally in Japan. It was not even surprising that she would have a religious vocation.

What was surprising was the order she chose. In 1991, Shelly Pennefather drove to Alexandria, Va., where she entered the Monastery of the Poor Clares. She would become a cloistered nun, living a radical life that included going barefoot out of penance and poverty and praying all of the hours of the Divine Office, even at 12:30 a.m.

This also meant she would not see her family except for twice a year from behind a transparent screen. She would not hug them until 25 years after her profession.

“I was shocked that she chose a cloistered order,” said Annie Mcbournie, graduate of Machebeuf in 1984 and a friend of Pennefather’s. “I was not at all shocked that she chose a vocation.”

Her story was recently featured on ESPN, who recounted how Pennefather gave up being the highest-paid women’s basketball player in the world in 1991 to live a life in service to the Lord as a Poor Clare.

Pennefather took the name Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. This past June, Sister Rose Marie celebrated her 25th anniversary of her solemn profession: the long-awaited moment to greet her family from outside the screen, not to happen again for another 25 years.

Villanova teammates, friends, Machebeuf classmates, and family were all in attendance. She hugged her 78-year-old mom for what will probably be the last time.

Mcbournie was not able to make it but will visit Sister Rose Marie this fall. Since she’s kept up with her via letters, she is permitted to visit the monastery.

Pennefather attended Bishop Machebeuf High School in Denver from 1980 to 1983 before transferring for her senior year due to her dad’s military job. She left Machebeuf with a 70-0 record.

“Her entire high school career, she never lost a basketball game,” Mcbournie said.

Mcbournie was a cheerleader and friend of Sister Rose Marie in high school, but a deeper friendship began 10 years after graduation. Sister Rose Marie’s brother Dick called Mcbournie before World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 since Mcbournie was still in the area.

Sister Rose Marie had just joined the Poor Clares and Dick and McBournie met up and spoke about the mourning process the family was going through, McBournie said. Dick mentioned to her that they could write Sister Rose Marie as many letters as they wanted, and one day a year, on the Feast of the Epiphany, she could write back.

Shelly Pennefather, pictured here in this photo from the Archdiocese of Denver archives, always exuded a deep spiritual life, her former Bishop Machebeuf classmates said. (Photo by James Baca)

“From that year on, I have been writing her every year,” McBournie said. She gives Sister Rose Marie updates on life, pictures from their high school reunions, and prayer requests.

“I have witnessed her journey through these letters,” McBournie said.

When Sister Rose Marie’s dad passed away shortly after entering, she was not able to leave the monastery to go to the funeral. McBournie saw how difficult these sacrifices were for her, especially in the early years of her vocation. But the letters show Sister Rose Marie’s joy.

“The last 5 to 10 years, I could just see her say, ‘I’m so blessed to be able to do this’,” McBournie said. “She’s so joyful.”

A fellow Machebeuf classmate asked McBournie for Sister Rose Marie’s address in order to have a little fun. He sent her a $20 bill with a note saying he thought she could use a smoke and a bottle of wine.

Sister Rose Marie did not miss a beat and in her yearly letter, she responded, “I bought incense, and I drank from the chalice,” McBournie recounted.

Shelly Pennefather (#15) had a 70-0 record playing basketball for Bishop Machebeuf in the 1980s, and went on to play for Villanova and then professionally in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Villanova Athletics)

But this letter sparked a friendship. This classmate has continued to write letters and even attended the 25-anniversary jubilee.

“Her letters are still hilarious, still very sarcastic,” McBournie said.

She remembers Sister Rose Marie being reserved and quiet in high school, focused more on school and basketball than anything else. Her father was in the military and the family was very disciplined, but they had a good sense of humor and quick wit, McBournie said.
“Her spirituality permeated her existence from the time she was young,” McBournie said.

David Dominguez was a few years ahead of Sister Rose Marie at Machebeuf but remembers her discipline and her talent. He called himself her cheerleader.’

“If it was really tight, we would start yelling, ‘Shelly, Shelly!’” Dominguez said. “It was one of my favorite cheers.”

Dominguez exercised at the Air Force base gym where Sister Rose Marie would train and play basketball with her dad and brother.

“I knew she had incredible skills,” Dominguez said. “It was kind of magical to watch.”

Sister Rose Marie recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of her profession of vows with the Poor Clares. She was able to hug her friends and family for the first time in 25 years. ESPN was there to cover the occasion. (Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Bonacci)

Dominguez also knew she was different.

“She was living for a different purpose than everyone else,” he said.

Sister Rose Marie’s devotion and personality remain the same, though she has traded in her jersey for a habit.
Although Sister Rose Marie can only write one letter a year, and can seldom have visitors, her friendship and influence reach far beyond the monastery walls.

Mcbournie said that their yearly letters have brought them even closer than they were in high school.

“I look forward to her letter every year,” Mcbournie said.