Over the next few weeks, Fr Martin Sirju will be presenting a 4-part pastoral reflection on how he sees the Church today. Starting with the shadows he will end with signs of renewal and hope.
“For even though the fig does not blossom, nor fruit grow on the vine.” (Hab 3:17)
“To see things as the Lord does, to be where the Lord wants us to be, to experience a conversion of heart in his presence. To do so, prayer and penance will help. I invite the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lord’s command. This can awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says ‘never again’ to every form of abuse.”
These words were written to the People of God by Pope Francis in August 2018 in response to numerous scandals of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. Curiously, the Pope says “never again” to “every form of abuse”, implying there was abuse beyond those involved in criminal sexual behaviour.
The Pope has also called for a return to the First Friday devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in order to purify and sanctify the Church, with a special emphasis on prayer and fasting.
At the moment, we are at a sad juncture in the history of the Church. Many see this in terms of an external threat—the Church being attacked by the devil or evil forces—and there is certainly truth here, but we often fail to realise that the threat is also from within.
At times in its history the Church has been its own worse enemy. Now is not a time for pride. It is a time for humiliation, purification and renewal. It is not a time to boast of our success but to weep over our failures. I will not repeat the sordid details regarding clergy sexual abuse; these have been aired in the media repeatedly since 2008.
Suffice it to say, people were angered by the double standards: there was the priest being hard on the laity in the confessional, especially regarding sexual sins while he was secretly committing his own. And worse ones.
In years gone by people returned from the confessional more burdened than before, as the priest failed to realise the complexities of family life when bringing up several children.
Therefore in 2016 Pope Francis called for merciful confessors to heal the wounds of the past. The movement for that healing did not begin with the Pope nor the bishops; it came from the laity.
The bishops found themselves wanting; their moral authority at its lowest. It was left to the laity to be the Church’s moral conscience during the abuse crisis and to put the ark of Peter back on the right course.
Another sin of the Church over the century was the abuse of authority. Authority in the Church was often one that instilled fear: priests living in fear of bishops, religious living in fear of superiors, seminarians living in fear of rectors, people living in fear of priests.
This abuse of authority destroyed many lives and humiliated people. Because seminarians were flowing by the thousands, superiors of various kinds could reject many candidates and they did, for the slightest infraction. Now in the West, vocations are down to a trickle. It was just part of the times we often say; we cannot judge history long past with today’s lens. True, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t repent over the wreckage.
The most disturbing one for me is violence. Before the conversion of Constantine, Roman soldiers were not allowed to be Christians. When the Church took on the trappings of an imperial court in the fourth century things gradually changed.
Slowly but surely, we became more and more violent as was seen in the crusades, the Albigensian slaughter in southern France, the thirty-year war in Europe, two world wars, and our complicity in colonialism. It is true that through colonial/religious expansion the Church planted the cross, but it also planted a trail of violence, bloodshed and racism.
It is felt by many scholars that the anti-Semitic stance of the Church towards the Jews through the centuries also contributed to the Holocaust. During Western slavery the body parts of slaves were hung in the markets as a deterrent against disobedience and rebellion.
Let’s not forget the colonial powers were all Christian. It is said of those times one cannot separate the religious context from economic and political contributors but that does not make the scandal of violence any less haunting for a religion that proclaims its Lord as the Prince of Peace.
It is often said that Christianity got rid of pagan practices when it evangelised foreign lands, in particular, the practice of human sacrifice as existed among the Thugees of India or the Aztec of Mexico. But what they banned they practiced.
As part of colonial expansion, Christians offered human sacrifices for centuries too, their exploits bathed in blood. They literally waded through inches of it and their naked violence as a way of spreading the gospel and enhancing commerce must never be repeated. That is why we more than anyone else can tell Fundamentalist Islam they are on the wrong track. We tried it. In the long run it doesn’t work.
Now is not a time for arrogance clothed in piety but humility. We are being purified of past sins. A humble pope is calling for a humble Church, no longer bathed in the abuse of the past but in the love and mercy of a new present.