Reflections on the Crisis in the Church

Every weekday morning, I pray the rosary in my car on the way to work. It’s not the most ideal time to do it; I’m often distracted by traffic events and inclement weather, but I suppose it’s better than not praying it at all.

On Tuesdays and Fridays I pray the Sorrowful Mysteries—the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging at the Pillar, the Crowning with Thorns, the Carrying of the Cross, and the Crucifixion. I confess that these are not my favorite mysteries, but I pray them dutifully because I know that without the cross there is no resurrection.

On this particular Tuesday morning, the Lord put something on my heart with respect to the current crisis within the Catholic Church, the next and latest pathetic round of findings of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy. It was a Tuesday, a day of Sorrowful Mystery, still etched into my mind.

Candidly, it makes me sick to my stomach to even write such a statement. How can anyone use the power of their sacred role as priest to abuse our young? It is so appalling to me that it almost makes me want to trade in my Roman collar for the ties that I used to wear before I was a deacon. I, too, am part of the clergy of the Church that Christ formed, and today I am ashamed to say so.

So what was this thing which the Lord put on my heart this morning? During the fourth mystery, that of Jesus carrying his cross, I came to realize that today—and far too many other times in the past 2,000 years—the cross that Jesus carries is in fact his church. We are the burden that weighs him down and causes him to agonize in pain. We are the thing that he unjustly carries along to his crucifixion.

When I saw this reality, it caused me great pain. How can we have fallen so far? How can so many priests and bishops so miserably fail in the vows that they took to the Lord upon their ordination? And how can I hold my head high at the altar at Mass when I know that people everywhere are shaking their heads and justifiably thinking horrible thoughts about the clergy of the Catholic Church?

In April of 1985, a priest in India was riding his motorcycle when he was struck head-on by a drunk driver. He died on the scene, but was later revived and brought back to life. He tells a story that upon his death he met his guardian angel, who took him to see Hell and Purgatory before he would meet the Lord in Heaven. When he was in Hell, he was able to see people whom he knew while on Earth.

“They had seemed very holy on Earth, but it was hypocrisy,” he said. And he went on to say that among the lost souls he saw in Hell were priests and bishops who were not faithful to their calling as shepherds.

Like many of you, I am angry about what has happened yet again within our Church. I am angry, saddened, and frustrated beyond words. So allow me to speak my mind for a moment to express some of that emotion.

When a man takes the vows of a priest, or much more so a bishop, he is held to a higher standard. He must live his life in such a way that, while he remains a sinner like all of us, he must never let himself succumb to the most heinous of crimes. If he does, he condemns more than himself; he condemns the Church that Christ formed. He brings shame upon more than just himself; he brings shame upon his brother priests and bishops. He opens up more than just himself for criticism and hatred; he opens up all of the people of our great Church for criticism and hatred.

I will be the first to defend the many great men who serve as priests and bishops in our church. So many wonderful men have given their lives in service of the Lord and his people, and they do more good for our world than we will ever know. They will be welcomed into Heaven one day by Jesus with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

But to those few who choose another path, there must be a response. There must be action and not just words, most especially not just theological or pastoral words that sympathize with the predators. They need to be held accountable by the Church and defrocked, though she sometimes fails to find the courage to do so. They need to be held accountable by the civil courts and jailed, and I hope that they will be. And they need to be held accountable by God and pay for their sins, and I’m sure that someday they will. It is not mine to judge, but I stand by the words of my Savior, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

But then, the Lord in his great mercy showed me something else to consider. The cross that he carried, though an instrument of torture and death, ultimately became a symbol of joy and life. Many of us wear crosses about our necks to show our love of Jesus and our love of neighbor. Every Christian Church displays a cross to reveal their identity as disciples of him who overcame death and rose for our salvation. The cross has been transformed from an image of death to one of life.

And how did this happen? Through the sinful actions of the men who killed Jesus? No, of course not. It was only by the salvific power of our Lord and Savior overcoming sin and death that the cross became the symbol that it is today.

So too the Church. She maintains her dignity and grace only because of the salvific power of Jesus Christ, and not because of—but perhaps in spite of—the small minority of gravely sinful men who sadly occupy positions of authority and leadership within her ranks. And it is there, in the power of Jesus, that we can find hope.

The holy institution of the Church (with a capital “C”) is forever true and sacred; it is an extension of the Lord himself and the things which represent all that is good and right. From the Church comes the sacraments, the Eucharist, the Mass, and so many other things which are holy and good by their nature.

The secular institution of the church (with a lower case “c”), despite its intention to do good, is forever stained by sin and failure; an imperfect institution which seems to struggle to prevent itself from falling into sin. From the church comes many, many good people who struggle to be holy in life, but also a small minority of very bad people who give in to the struggle and to their own perverse inclinations to do things which we know are forbidden. Forbidden not just by Church law, but by civil law, and even the natural law which is written on our hearts.

How do we reconcile our love for the Church which Jesus Christ formed with our anger for some of its members who so gravely sin? We look to the cross. It is there that we find inspiration. By his resurrection, the Lord purified the cross and turned it from an instrument of death to a symbol of life. It is our faith, our hope, and our firm belief that by his resurrection the Lord will also purify his church and make it once again a beacon of hope for eternal life.

There simply are no words which could ever adequately apologize to those who have been victimized, or to their families and friends. Nothing could ever be said or done to make it right again. Our dear Pope has done what he can, and many great priests and bishops are doing the same. I appreciate their efforts, but they know as well as I that there are no words to suffice.

In closing, I offer this reflection. All of the clergy in the Catholic Church are required to say at least morning and evening prayer every day as part of the Liturgy of the Hours. We begin morning prayer with this: “Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise.” It is a prayer asking God to start us off on the right foot so that we can be better ministers. And we begin evening prayer with this: “God, come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me.” It is almost as though by the end of the day we have no choice but to admit that we probably didn’t do as good of a job as we could have done and now we need help, and we need it soon.

To the good clerics of the Church who pray these prayers with an honest intent to do God’s will and live a holy life, this is a beautiful set of prayers. After all, none of us can live up to the perfect holiness of God, and we need his help. But to the sad few clerics who so gravely sin against the Lord by abusing his children, this prayer rings hollow. It would have been better for them “to have a great millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” These words are harsh. But they are not mine. I only put faith in them.

To all of my brother clerics, may we find the strength, courage, and love in our hearts to be more holy men who are better aligned with the will of our Savior. And to all of the laity, I beg you to strive to do the same, but also to never waver for a moment in holding us accountable to this challenge. We have proven far too many times now that left unchecked we will fail.

Michael Houghton About Michael Houghton

Deacon Mike Houghton was ordained a deacon in October of 2012. For the past six years he has served as deacon at St. John Vianney in Shelby Township, Michigan, a parish in the Archdiocese of Detroit. Deacon Mike has worked for the past 34 years for General Motors and is currently part of the Global Manufacturing Strategy and Planning Group. In addition to his diaconal studies at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Deacon Mike has a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from Wayne State University, a Master’s Degree in Industrial Engineering from Purdue University, and an MBA from Oakland University. His homilies are published weekly on his Facebook page, facebook.com/deaconmikehoughton.

Comments

  1. Michael Horsnall says:

    I’m a deacon too, and a prison chaplain. I also have a day job! Like you the recent revelations have caused me to think twice about wearing clerical garb whereas previously I was quite happy to do so. I’m not too sure however about your neat classification of the Church as holy and the church as not…I will have to study up a bit on that one.
    It could be argued that it is Christ within us carrying that cross which is made out of the church, bearing the shame of it being partly to enter into his suffering.

  2. Here here. One more crucial thing: turn off the damned (conduit for the memes of Satan) TVs. Soft porn is everywhere—clergy should not be watching Super Bowl halftime hussies or Victoria’s Secret commercials or Dancing barely clad with the Stars. They have been captured and kept as chattel by the culture.

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