Call for conversion


In his Letter to the People of God, 20 August last year, Pope Francis wrote to all Catholics about the crises within the Church and of the deep wounds and pain caused to victims of sexual abuse. Pope Francis calls on us to bring about change, a ‘conversion’ within the Church, and to do so in solidarity with one another. ‘Every one of the baptized should feel involved in the ecclesiastical and social change that we so greatly need. This change calls for a personal and communal conversion that makes us see things as the Lord does.’

Is the Holy Spirit calling the Church to deep and fundamental change?

Joe Grayland

The reality of sexual abuse within the Church should cause us all to stop and wonder at its causes. It should make us question the structures and attitudes that have created this situation. Is the way we are ‘doing religion’ part of the problem? To stick one’s head in the sand and hope this will all pass by is the refuge of the weak and the lazy. To face the issues, invite debate and to look with the eyes of scriptural faithfulness is far more challenging.

Is the Holy Spirit showing us the result of putting the system of religion before the person; of putting the institution before the Gospel; and of forgetting the mystery of the incarnation and the suffering of Christ so that all might be free?

Without doubt there are many causes that are psychological, sociological, theological and anthropological.

  • Psychologically: the psychology of the individual abuser and the institutional psychology of the church leaders.
  • Sociologically: the social structures of religious orders, diocesan clergy and the impact of celibatised clergy; the concept of the church as a perfect society; the notion of the family as the domestic church and its real subjugation in the life of the church to the non-married clerical church.
  • Theologically: the theologies of sin, repentance, sacraments, ordination, forgiveness and redemption that drive our understanding of sin, crime, penance, ministry, forgiveness, heaven and hell, damnation and eternity.
  • Anthropologically: our moral and sexual theologies and their inability to address contemporary understandings of the human sexuality and reproduction; the place of women and married people in the organisational framework of the Church.

Is the Holy Spirit through this entire situation, which I can only sketch here, calling the Church to deep and fundamental change? Or, is this depth of change beyond us as individuals and as a community of believers? Change is not easy and the romanticism and nostalgia for a religiosity of comfort and security is still wanted by many of us.

Faith change comes in many forms and it forces us to leave our secure concepts of God, religion and faith and enter upon a journey where the Spirit will lead us to God’s understanding of God’s self. In this process we must leave the comfortable, childhood concepts behind and struggle with the new, adult forms of faith and belief.

“We must leave the comfortable, childhood concepts behind and struggle with the new, adult forms of faith and belief.”

From the Hebrew biblical tradition, we have learnt that self-criticism is necessary to keep religion from becoming coming arrogant and self-assured. If we can learn anything from the Jewish People, it is that in the worst times God is still with us. Today we add the voices of those innocent brothers and sisters who were killed at their prayers in their mosque in Christchurch. Can we pray after this event, can they? The son of one of the dead says, ‘yes’ because his father is in paradise and his father died at his prayers.

Following the Second World War and the complicity of Christianity in the extermination of Judaism, Christian theologians asked the question: ‘How can we continue to believe and pray after Auschwitz?’ to which the Hebrew Nation replied: ‘You can continue to believe and to pray after Auschwitz only because we prayed and believed in Auschwitz!’

So, we too can pray in this experience of scandal because the victims of abuse have prayed throughout it – they are themselves the redemptive prayer. We are theologically indebted to them, not as survivors, but as victims. But first we must recognise our own complicity; where we have allowed structures of abusive clericalism and power to perpetuate in our Church and when we have lacked the courage to build the Church of the People of God.

“The value of this sacred wounding to the Church is only redemptive to the extent that we first honour the stories of the victims and their suffering.”

The value of this sacred wounding to the Church is only redemptive to the extent that we first honour the stories of the victims and their suffering. Where we fail to do this our religious language and practice will never change, because the deep human suffering of our baptismal sisters and brothers will never be able to redeem us, and we will not know a fragility of spirit that allows God’s redemptive grace to penetrate and change us. Consequently, our words and gestures of apology will remain hollow and empty.

In the reality of suffering God is present, active and transforming, but God cannot convert a heart closed to the cry of the suffering, and the poor. If the biblical tradition teaches us anything about God’s presence in human history, it is that from the meaninglessness of human violence God can and does bring forth redemption and healing, when we co-operate with Creative Grace.

One of the issues we need to face is restitution to the victims of sin-crimes. Forgiveness takes time and cannot be rushed. There must also be public acts of sorrow and rituals of shame for the perpetrators, followed by rituals of forgiveness from the victims. Private rites of sorrow and forgiveness do not express the deep, public need for healing. In Australia, the bishops and congregational leaders would be better advised to gather before the houses of parliament, get down on their knee and beg the forgiveness of the people and the nation who have suffered the sin-crimes perpetrated through the Church, then they would need to do the same before the Catholic community who are also victims. In this they would signal that real change is possible and that the spirit of repentance is active amongst them.

Fr Joe Grayland is a theologian (studied in Germany – Dr Theol.) and is parish priest at Our Lady of Lourdes, Palmerston North, St Mary’s, Foxton, and St Joseph’s, Shannon.

Published in WelCom March 2019

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