Monday, November 2, 2009

10-25-2009: 30th Ordinary Time (B)

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 31:7-9/Psalm 126/Hebrews 5:1-6/Mark 10:46-52
Pope Benedict has designated this the Year of the Priest and this weekend as its focus. The Holy Father asks us pray that our priests strive for spiritual perfection. I’m very grateful to the Holy Father that he was kind enough to include the word “strive” in his request, implying that we priests are not quite there yet (some of us aren’t even sure if we’re going in the right direction).

The past half decade has witnessed what will no doubt be recorded in later history as a very low point in the history of the Catholic priesthood. The sex scandals involving priests and minors have rocked the church in the West in substantial ways. From the psychological damage suffered by victims to the rather cowardly behavior of bishops toward their priests to the financial damage whose end is, as of yet, nowhere in sight and which will cause not a few dioceses in the United States to ultimately go bankrupt. Being a priest I am, admittedly, biased in my evaluation of how the scandals are reported when compared to similar scandals in other parts of the culture. A recent article – not page one of any major publication – reported on how certain members of the orthodox Jewish community were taking the issue of sex abuse of minors to the civil authorities against the wishes of their religious leaders. The estimated number of incidents is astounding yet the “cover-up” by both religious and elected officials (especially in Brooklyn) has produced little or no public outcry or expression of outrage, serving as a gauge on how obviously prejudiced that reporting and public reaction has been. Likewise the much greater number of sex abuse cases in the public school system is a convincing argument that the problem isn’t limited to religious affiliation or marital status. Most of those accused teachers, because of their strong union, remain on salary. Accused priests, on the other hand, are immediately removed from ministry and, in some cases, quickly laicized: all accomplished without even the semblance of due process (this is admitted by many bishops – off the record, of course).

An elderly priest of our diocese recently died. The priest had been accused of inappropriate behavior with a minor decades ago. Nothing was ever proven. As per diocesan custom, an internal memo was sent to pastors announcing the priest’s death and his funeral arrangements. Conspicuously lacking in the memo was the usual reference to the man as a priest - diocesan policy, we were told. Perhaps an insignificant incident within the larger picture but indicative, nonetheless, of a desire to distance ourselves from any guilt by association. The man may or may not have been guilty. Refusing to acknowledge that he was a priest – especially to those who obviously knew him – speaks more about the power of shame than any appeal to justice.

In the Letter to the Hebrews we are told that the priest is able to deal patiently with the erring, for he himself is beset by weakness. We may not all be beset by the same weakness; but we are all beset by some weakness. When that weakness spills over into the arena of crime and punishment, scandal becomes of paramount importance to the institution. And scandal is a very dangerous thing - because it is a two-edged sword. One edge highlights the weakness, the sin, and perhaps the crime that caused the scandal; the other edge - our reaction to it - and the very great temptation to disavow the sin by forsaking the sinner. The threat of scandal will always be with us because weakness will always remain an essential element of the priesthood – thank God.

Catholic piety has long reverenced the crucifix as the premier symbol of our faith. Yet, if we were really honest, we might admit that the crucifix is the essence of scandal. The representation of the agony of the crucifixion has been the subject of recent renditions: Pope John Paul II’s crosiered-crucifix, for example, or Mel Gibson’s vivid attempt to authentically portray the violence of the crucifixion in his Passion of the Christ. But, for all attempts at authenticity, the most authentic - and most humiliating - detail of the crucifixion is seldom if ever portrayed: Jesus’ nudity on that cross. Jesus’ nakedness is itself emblematic of the humiliation that was at the heart of his death. No one – no one – who looked upon the cross on that first Good Friday could possibly have imagined God was on Jesus’ side. On the contrary, his crucifixion revealed the naked truth: shame was at the heart of Jesus’ death.

We Catholics, perhaps absent-mindedly, display the crucifix with pride, forgetful of the deep shame which it embodies. Scandals are by definition shame-filled; but it is the shameful scandal, the naked externalization of weakness - more than any pious platitude or spiritual perfection – that enigmatically has the power to convert hearts and minds to the mystery of God in surprising and revolutionary ways.

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