by Rev. Nicholas L. Gregoris
At this past Wednesday's audience in St. Peter's Square (October 14), Pope Francis gave impromptu remarks, apologizing in a very vague way for scandals that have taken place in the Church, especially in the Vatican and Rome. Precisely because he did not refer to any particular situations and persons involved, we are only left to speculate as to which scandals he may have had in mind.
Some speculation has focused on the recent "Coming Out Party" of a gay Polish monsignor, who worked at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and taught at the Pontifical Gregorian University, now living with his gay lover in Barcelona, Spain. Another speculation revolves around the recent resignation of the Mayor of Rome, who is openly gay and favors gay marriage while, at the time, claiming to be a good Catholic (as Pope Francis himself put it in an interview). However, listening to the Pope's brief "apologia" immediately brings to mind a much wider topic, namely, that of the sexual abuse of minors.
As part of Pope Francis' on-going reform of the Church, he established a commission to deal specifically with this matter; this commission is headed by the Archbishop of Boston, Sean Patrick Cardinal O'Malley, OFM, Cap. Both Cardinal O'Malley and Pope Francis have worked tirelessly to address this issue -- and not in any perfunctory way -- because they know and share the deep-seated hurt of the victims and their families and fervently desire to bring Christ's healing grace to their concrete situations. For some in the Church and society, however, no amount of effort to do the right thing will ever be considered sufficient. There are always going to be individuals, groups and organizations who decry "ad nauseam" the inadequacies of the Church's response to the sexual abuse crisis.
Nevertheless, following the lead of Pope Francis (and before him, Pope Benedict) and Cardinal O'Malley, the Church has made much progress in this regard and is intent on making even greater strides in the future, so that we can joyfully and courageously go about our principal work of being faithful disciples of Christ, who bring His saving message to a fallen world.
We also know that sexual abuse of minors is not a problem limited to the Catholic Church. As a matter of fact, there have been higher rates of victims of child sexual abuse among clergy of other religions and Christian denominations (where the clergy tend to be married with children), as well as among public school teachers and other helping professions that bring adults into regular, close, physical contact with children.
Of all global institutions which have had to confront the delicate and complex problem of the sexual abuse of minors (and we know that the Catholic Church in Ireland and in the United States were among the most high profile offenders in this regard), it must be stated for the sake of justice and charity that the Catholic Church has dealt the most effectively with these scandals. The Catholic Church has set out on a course of strict reform of her laws, discipline, structures, human and priestly formation to ensure that a safe environment is created to protect all of God's children, especially in our schools and parishes.
At the same time, the Church must also take into account that she has erred in allowing falsely accused priests to be left to hang out to dry as scapegoats for an often hostile secular society that seeks at every turn to undermine the Church's identity and mission in the contemporary society. Even worse is the refusal of bishops to return to active ministry priests who have been exonerated. And how can we forget the hundreds of priests whose canonical cases have been lying in limbo for over a decade!
For these scandals, the Church also needs to apologize, but even more to the point, work to ensure that this sort of scandal never happens again because priests are not mere expendable functionaries but "other Christs," acting in the Name and Person of Christ, doing for us what not even the angels can do, by forgiving our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and nourishing us with the Eucharistic Body and Blood of the Lord. Significantly, St. Francis of Assisi once observed that if he happened to meet an angel and a drunken priest at the same time, he would first greet the priest because it is through His sacred ministry that God in Christ becomes truly present in our midst, on our altars.
In this context, we might do well to reflect on the insights of St. Gregory of Nazianzen, a fifth-century Father and Doctor of the Church, whose "Oratio," is cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1589). Our Cappadoccian Father muses: "[Who then is the priest? He is] the defender of truth, who stands with angels, gives glory with archangels, causes sacrifices to rise to the altar on high, shares Christ's priesthood, refashions creation, restores it in God's image, recreates it for the world on high and, even greater is divinized and divinizes."