The Gift of Apology
I think about Church reform so often that I need to be reminded of the significance of my healing ministry. I admit that during my formation I foolishly did not realize how important—and prevalent—this work would be in my work as a priest. I was far more focused on preparing to say Mass, providing sacraments, working for justice—basically, the ministerial work I had observed over the years in my male counterparts (well, except for the concentration on ordination justice!). But after a mere 7 months of priesthood, I am starting to realize just how much people need healing from—and amends for—the hurt they have experienced at the hands of the institutional Church. I need the grace to keep this insight at the forefront of my heart and mind when I am in my priestly role.
Recently a woman came to Contemplative Mass for the first time. I cannot remember how she found out about me—perhaps it was through the New Yorker article that was published last June. After Mass, she followed me into the sacristy to help me clean up a bit. While I was putting things away, she shared that she was sexually abused by a priest. She told me about the callous response she received from the priest when she demanded an apology, and about the similar treatment from his religious order. In short, they refused to apologize. You may think that by now I have become anaesthetized to such stories, but this is not the case: each and every time I am still aghast. Aghast! In fact, I hope I always remain scandalized when I hear such things. I never want to be so desensitized that I can no longer feel another person’s pain.
After she finished telling me about her experience, she said, “Now that you are an ordained priest of the Roman Catholic Church, would you like to apologize to me?” Earlier at Mass, I homilized about what are termed the Indian boarding schools, the atrocities that occurred there, and the role of the Church in these crimes. I implored the bishops and those of us that remain that we are the ones now called to make amends for the evils that others have done, and that this is difficult and arduous and humbling this is, it is also a gift straight from the heart of God.
I couldn’t fully tell if she was being sincere or teasing. Either way, within the question was earnest desire and I took it quite seriously. There in the tiny sacristy, under the yellow light, I knelt on the hard linoleum floor, I took her hands into my hands, and I gazed into her eyes. After a long moment of becoming present to her, I started to cry. From the deepest part of myself, I apologized. I told her that on behalf of the entire Church I was so deeply sorry for all that she had and continues to experience, that it never should have happened, that I pray that she would finally be totally free from the harm the Church has done to her body and spirit. Tears silently spilled down her cheeks. I squeezed her hands.
The institutional Church may excommunicate me and claim my sacramental work is invalid—that I am invalid—but saying something as if it is true does not actually make it true. The Body of Christ relates to me as a Roman Catholic priest, and God works powerfully through my commitment to serve. Doctrine and punishment cannot prevent the power of the Holy Spirit from touching us--she will always wind her way around any blockade to do the work of God.
It is up to us to cooperate.
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