Some years ago a saintly aunt of mine passed away at the venerable age of ninety-seven. She was truly a holy and devout soul who not only went to daily mass but also kept a welcoming home and always a cheery smile though she had been widowed for many years. Her funeral was a glorious, and I mean glorious, celebration of a life well lived and the victory of our Christian faith.
The reason I mention her here is that one of her sons gave a wonderful panegyric at the funeral mass, and he recalled how an acquaintance had asked her how she could possibly remain a faithful Catholic after all the terrible clerical child abuse revelations and especially after the Church had compounded the evil by trying to protect its image rather than minister to the victims. Her reply was succinct and – I believe – inspired by the Holy Spirit:
“God did nothing wrong”.
In her reply she didn’t try to excuse the Church nor indeed to minimise the awful life-wounds inflicted on innocent and vulnerable children by those who abused a sacred trust. Rather she ‘reset’ the accusation implied by the questioner. Surely the intent of the question was: why on earth, as a reasonable and moral person, had she not given up on the Church? Her wisdom indicated that no matter how sinful and wretched the Church can be – as let’s face it, the long history of the Church includes many shocking and murderous incidents as well as long periods of scandalous behaviour by its leaders and centuries of resistance to the voices of renewal and repentance – it is still the Church, and as such, of God.
I hesitate to try and expound on her simple but profound wisdom. To me, her attitude, born of long years of prayer and selfless devotion, is a rebuff to all those who have scorned the Church and used its evident failings to disabuse themselves from any commitment. They may well have justified their position by pointing to a Church that has spectacularly soiled its moral authority and especially damaged the integrity of its priesthood – but – as Jesus Himself said: “the gates of the underworld will never prevail against it”. That statement by Jesus is both a clear indication that the Church is never ‘finished’ but also a frank avowal of His enduring love and support for what is His spiritual body on earth.
No matter how besmirched the Church may become, and that has been excessive in recent years, it is still His Church, and beloved of God.
My brilliant and revered theology lecturer, Fr Eric Doyle OFM, used an image from the gospels which for him was a metaphor for the Church: the woman taken in adultery (John 8: 3 – 11).
In this gospel incident, which the Jewish authorities were using to trap and incriminate Jesus, it is clear that the woman’s sin was not in doubt. Feminists may well ask where was the man in all this – well, that probably says more about a very patriarchal and male dominated society and befits a separate discussion. Anyway, in the story the poor woman is cast down before Jesus – guilty as charged. The crowd wanted to see if Jesus would condemn her and thus ruin His reputation for mercy, or to see if He would let her go and thereby disobey the Mosaic Law and compromise His legitimacy as a prophet. The trap was set for Him and the woman was their pawn. Jesus of course ‘reset’ the accusation and famously declared: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. And the crowd slunk away.
The point of this story for Eric was that the sinful woman is an image of the Church. She stands condemned by the ‘world’, and with some justice for all her many sins, but Jesus will never write her off, and at the end of time will say in love: “Where are your accusers? Neither will I condemn you.”
If you are a Catholic, practising or not, then you, and I, are the Church! Instead of condemning or abandoning it we need to take responsibility for renewing and healing the Church, both locally and globally. Let’s make the effort to discern what the Holy Spirit is asking of us?
Pope Francis is calling a synod in 2023 and he wants to hear from ordinary Catholics on their feelings for the Church, warts and all. Perhaps something we should take seriously and get involved in?
in the merciful love of Jesus,