It is always wonderful to get away for a few days to seek rest and renewal. However, a few days into my vacation, a news report put a big damper on my time away. There was the release of a Grand Jury report from the State of Pennsylvania covering sexual abuse cases within the dioceses of the state. This report and subsequent news bytes brought about a mixture of emotions. Many of the same emotions I’m sure some of you are experiencing at this time. There was sadness, anger, denial, pain, hurt, and betrayal. The report did not surface any new allegations of sexual abuse in the Church, but it did highlight the horrific acts committed by far too many priests and the attempted cover up of bishops of the Church from decades before. We learned just how unjust some leaders in the Church were to victims of sexual abuse and how perpetrators were moved and allowed to act in disgusting ways thus stripping people, especially children, of their dignity and spirit. Words of apology and new promises of change can only go so far. As a Church we must take concrete steps and it begins with the healing for all victims of abuse and appropriately dealing with all those within the Church including Bishops and Priests who harm directly or indirectly the people of God most especially our vulnerable children.
It can be far too easy in times of pain and anger to lump everyone into the same category. Bishops have been getting a bad rap lately even though some are very deserving of the criticism and public outcry. As much as we want to blame, we have to be careful not to lump everyone into the same category. Just like when one teacher, doctor, police officer or politician does wrong and/or immoral things, we cannot put all teachers, doctors, police officers or politicians into the same group. Again, I know it can be a knee jerk reaction to do so, yet we must remember it is unfair to look at all including the innocent with the same disdain as the offenders.
Before we allow complete disdain to dwell in our own hearts and be so quick to point fingers, may we all take a moment to question when we personally or as a community or society have in the face of abuse, harassment, and bullying of others remained silent. When we have not believed those who cried out to us, when we thought it was not any of our business to speak up or when we turned our back on those in need because we preferred to save face for the good of our own families and/or institutions.
Each time we attempt to make sense out of evil it is not possible. This attempt will only leave us with more anger and frustration. Both evil and sin are just plain destructive. Evil and sin look to destroy and divide. In the face of pain we are challenged to move away from the question of ‘why,’ to the ‘what’ and the ‘how,’ what now and how is God inviting me to respond? This is always the invitation for disciples of Christ, how is God calling you to respond right here right now?
In light of the Gospel reading from chapter 6 of the Gospel of John we must heed the words of Jesus where we hear, “remain in me (6:56).” Jesus provides us a means to remain in His holy presence with the gift of the Eucharist. Even though we might not fully understand the greatness of this gift, Jesus did not shy away from his emphasis that the way to remain in Him and He in us was through receiving his Body and Blood. To this day it is very difficult for Non-Catholics and even Catholics to comprehend this transformative gift. We can easily get stuck like the people in the time of Jesus and respond, “how can this be?”
Our Lord Jesus truly knew there would be difficult days ahead when evil and the power of sin would try to separate us from His holy presence. Jesus is the remedy for He gives his very self as food for the journey and strength for the trials. Remain in me! When we remain in the Lord and follow in his ways we can participate in transformative encounters. In the same way when we do not remain in Jesus’ holy presence and stray away from our walk with Him, we can bring harm and damage to ourselves and to others.
St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians also reminds us, “therefore do not continue in ignorance, but try to understand the will of the Lord…be filled with the Holy Spirit (5:18). The power of the Holy Spirit is given to us to endure and follow in the ways of God. In the face of such pain and disappointment I choose to live in the power of the Holy Spirit. I am filled with the Holy Spirit when I reflect that 50 members of our community are experiencing a parish renewal retreat this weekend where all are being renewed in their Catholic faith. I am filled with the Holy Spirit when I visit with 15 married couples at the neighboring retreat center, El Carmelo, fighting for their marriages at a Retrouvaille Retreat. Instead of waving a white flag and completely giving up on their marriage and family, they are seeking tools with the accompaniment of the Church to assist them to persevere. I am filled with the Holy Spirit when I experienced the beautiful Sacrament of Holy Matrimony of our Youth Minister and his beautiful bride. To see so many young people from our parish celebrating the sacredness of marriage was a sight to behold. I am filled with the Holy Spirit when I know that young men in our parish are discerning a vocation to Priesthood despite the challenges that are before them. There are so many reasons to allow the Holy Spirit to encourage, inspire and fill us with joy at the transformative ways the Holy Spirit is at work in the Church.
There will always be work to do and we must never waver in our commitment of filling lives with hope. We must invite our God to transform his Church and it begins from within. When we are overwhelmed with calls from family members and friends to leave the Church, let us remember Jesus’s words, remain in me. There will always be trials and scandals that will try to remove us from the gifts that God has given us in his Holy Catholic Church. Your faith must be in God alone. The Church is made up of saints and sinners. Do not allow the sins and evils of the world and even of those in the Church to turn you to despair. Turn rather to the power of the Holy Spirit to renew and strengthen you to endure. For those of us who endure, there is the promise of everlasting life. Do not give up on God or God’s Church! I am always reminded what a parishioner at my first parish told me. He said, “Father, I know the power of the Holy Spirit is with the Catholic Church.” I in turn responded, “how can you be so sure?” “Well” he said, “no other human institution could go through this amount of mismanagement and still be around today!” How true this is. The Catholic Church still stands today not because of its members, but due to the promise of Jesus and Jesus always keeps His promises!
“And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18)
Fr. Erik Esparza is Associate Director of Priest Personnel in the Diocese of San Bernardino.