This sex abuse scandal is, perhaps, the first time our listeners in the pews truly understand the pervasiveness of sin. … The preacher speaks of its toll on our hearts, while …reminding us that grace is more powerful.
Preachers have a vital role in helping to heal the pain caused by the sexual abuse scandal, especially the pain from the pew. I was speaking at a parish, where a gentleman approached me and said, “Father, when are they going to get it?” “Who?” I said. He continued, “The Church, the Bishops. Now, it’s Ireland. They keep this whole abuse thing alive by their stalling. I am tired of defending my Church when they seem not to care.” Then he added, “My sister and her husband told me they’re leaving the Church. They’ve had enough.” Then, we got to the crux of his pain. “This makes me sick to hear. Does anybody care how we, in the pews, feel? We have to hear this stuff every day. I just want this abuse thing to go away.”
Hearing his distress, I looked at him and said, “Hang in there. Help is coming!” And I meant it. I told him that I teach preaching at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and my students, future priests, will soon be coming into the pulpits to help heal the deep-seated, lingering wounds of this great pain. Although spoken as a spontaneous response to his pain, I meant every word. I believe that the remedy for the “pain in the pews” lies in the pulpit of every Catholic church in America.
Preachers of today and tomorrow hold the compassionate cure of voicing words to soothe the sting that still remains. They can help put to rest “pew pain,” the persistent ache many Catholics suffer every day from the lingering effects of these pervasive sins of their priests.
Hit hard by one of the largest scandals in the Church’s history, individuals defend their Church, as they mourn the loss of good priests, who were yanked from their rectories in the dead of night. Yet, these Catholic faithful still stand by confused, while wondering why Chancery officials ignored, or covered over, these accusations.
There are those who feel the pain of friends, who are victims, bearing quietly their own personal scars. Yet, even as victims, they still hold tightly to their deep love for their Church. These faithful people in the pews need help, and they need it now!
This is why I remind my young student preachers that, even though they surely did not cause this scandal, they can help ease its pain. How? By paying attention to what and how they proclaim the Good News on Sundays.
This past summer, my provincial stood before our annual Oblate Convocation, explaining in detail the cost of this scandal for each and every Oblate. He was frank, but also hopeful. Then, he asked: “What can we do together to help in healing the wounds left by these scandals?” He knew that we could not offer financial recompense, but he suggested instead that we give our gifts—one gift being good preaching. It is a gift every priest and deacon can share in abundance.
Preaching on this difficult and sensitive topic does not mean that a preacher occasionally mentions the abuse scandal. On his part, he has to make a concentrated and committed effort to address these issues. The stakes are too high to treat this scandal in any other manner.
When preachers commit themselves to hearing and seeing the smoldering frustration of those in the pews, they will become aware of their parishioners’ ever-present disappointment. It is then, and only then, they will make the dedicated effort to help heal the pain. I offer the following suggestions on how preachers may offer comfort to their listeners:
Be Pastoral in Message: This sex abuse scandal is, perhaps, the first time our listeners in the pews truly understand the pervasiveness of sin. Now, they understand how an instance of sexual abuse in Boston or San Francisco affects everyone everywhere! No one can hide from the effects of this sin. Its sting finds its way into our hearts, our homes, our liturgies, and our parish communities, no matter where we live. The sin has taught us the long-range effects of all sin. It is a vivid reminder of how the Body of Christ works. “If one part of the body hurts, we hurt all over.” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Every Catholic from the East Coast to the West Coast feels the same pain, embarrassment, and disillusionment. Once grasping these significant aspects, the preacher touches these feelings, addressing sin’s power. The preacher speaks of its toll on our hearts, while he looks for ways to remind us that grace is more powerful. The gift of grace is bottomless in abundance, limitless in wealth. It can even vanquish the effects of this monumental blight, making us “new” again.
The preacher reminds everyone that Jesus is still our savior. He died to take away all sin, even this timeless one. Although we may feel caught in a wilderness of shame and embarrassment, Jesus will defeat these new demons, as he met and rebuffed those in the desert long ago. Jesus will safely lead us forth. “Then the devil left Jesus, and angels came to help him” (Matthew 4:11).
The hopeful message here is that God never abandoned Jesus, nor will God abandon us, nor his Church. Didn’t St. Augustine once write that God made us for himself, and “we are restless until we rest in him”? When preachers diffuse the confusion and the doubt, steadily replacing it with these fundamental beliefs, the people in the pews can make their way along a new path toward healing.
Be Pastoral In Attitude: In the wake of this lengthy scandal, the faithful struggle with the sense of loss. Most profoundly, Catholics mourn the loss of trust in their shepherds, priests and pastors, role models, and even heroes, who let them down. They mourn the loss of a former time when their Church held a prestigious position, resting visibly on high moral ground, untarnished by hypocrisy and insensitivity. No matter what others thought of Catholics, the Church stood as a “light upon a lampstand.” The Catholic Church was stable, its hierarchy trustworthy. This loss alone leaves an irritating wound in their hearts for the “pearl of great price” appears to have lost its worth.
Preachers, who know their listeners, grasp this sense of loss, and can incorporate its many fragments into their homilies. They can touch the grief and the desolate feelings, helping to lead the congregation to closure. Like the dying and rising of Jesus Christ, we, too, are walking through this sad “ending” of a time, now past, into a “new beginning.” We are dying, but we will rise again. Preachers may want to name the demons causing this turmoil, but it is their words, and hopeful attitude, which will transform this loss into that newness that flows from Christ’s Resurrection.
Be Pastoral in Tone: The preacher is a pilgrim traveling the same journey as those to whom he preaches. His special charism is to be “pilgrim-interpreter” of the Word for this present moment in time. In this way, he preaches “contextual” homilies, i.e., homilies connecting a particular assembly to their specific time. By interpreting the feelings of alienation and distancing which are arising from the assembly, he can easily relate and articulate these feelings in his homilies.
He knows how Catholics everywhere bear its humiliation, simply by their association to it. He, too, feels the stares, the finger-pointing, and the judging. He senses how this sexual abuse scandal looms larger than any individual sinner. It is as if we are all “Hester Prynne” from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book, The Scarlet Letter, wearing that infamous “A” upon our person, just for being Catholic.
And like Hester, the guilt never goes away. We just wait in its shadows for the next accusation to bring us all back into the piercing light of judgment. Preachers can address these feelings of marginalization, while emphasizing the importance of clinging to hope. They preach a hope that reminds us again that God will never abandon us.
Fr. Gregory Boyle in his book, Tattoos on the Heart, describes these feelings of disgrace: “Out of the wreck of our disfigured, misshapen selves, so darkened by shame and disgrace, indeed, the Lord comes to us disguised as ourselves. And we don’t grow into this—we just learn to pay better attention … and God dissolves the toxicity of shame, and fills us with tender mercy.”
Likewise, God will walk us through this modern maze of hurts. With his caring tone, the preacher speaks of God’s compassion, soothing the wounds of his beloved ones. He speaks of Emmanuel, God with us, staying close by, until all is made whole once again. With these words, his tone conveys to the faithful in the pews that God is working in-tandem with his preachers, offering all much needed support and love.
Ultimately, it is up to each of us to help heal our Church from this hurtful wound. We cannot wait for someone else to do it. We cannot remove the pain, but we can lessen its sting. We cannot erase the past, but we can make a brighter tomorrow.
Preachers have the advantage in letting the faithful know we hear their pain, so that together, we can find the light that will dissolve the darkness. Francis de Sales said, “You can catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a barrelful of vinegar.” The road to healing for our faithful followers is to give them the soothing honey of the Good News of Jesus Christ—the “honey” that reminds everyone we can still have “life to the fullest.” For despite this bitter crisis, Jesus Christ—“yesterday, today and tomorrow”—is still for us “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
The more swiftly preachers immerse their Sunday homilies in this message, the more quickly the hearers will sense his care for them, moving them from the tombs of their grief into the brightness of the light of resurrection.