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Speaking Plainly

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Is 35:4-7a
Response: Ps 146:7, 8-9, 9-10
Second Reading: Jas 2:1-5
Gospel: Mk 7:31-37
Our journey of faith is a never-ending one… one of constantly coming to know The Father through Jesus. It parallels the journey of the first disciples,  revealed throughout the Scriptures in very blunt terms. Theirs was a rocky journey – in fact, it was a series of journeys, all of which had paths that twisted and turned; there were hills and valleys, joys and sorrows.  Sometimes, there were magnificent victories; at other times, there were terrible failures and tragic betrayals.  But all of these experiences were interwoven into the story of their journey of faith. Their story is our story.  It is the story of the community that we call “Church.”

This has not been a very good summer season in the story of our Church.  Those of you who visit my website regularly know that I am not one to "jump on the bandwagon" - nor is this is the first time that I have written about the issue of abuse in the Church.

Since July, we have seen the ugly face of abuse take shape once again. The revelations around the abuse by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report have proven to be only the beginning. They forced a letter from Pope Francis to the People of God, acknowledging - once again - the "sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience" perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons over a period of years. Most recently, an 11-page letter was issued, written by former Papal Nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, claiming that Francis ignored allegations of sexual abuse, and ending with a call for his resignation.  (Viganò is the person who arranged the meeting with Pope Francis and Kim Davis, during the 2015 papal visit to the US, without consulting the Pope, and who, as a result, was removed from his position.) His letter has provoked yet another rift in the life of the Church; one that makes a lot of noise and rattles a lot of sabres, but offers no real solution to the underlying issue of abuse.

Many of our nation's bishops have written and promulgated their own letters or videos, expressing their profound shame and sorrow that such abuse has continued to exist within the church and that it has occurred at the hands of those to whom the safety and spiritual welfare of the people of God have been entrusted. 

Still, none of the however-well-meaning statements from church authorities has provided concrete, useful, outside-the-box solutions for Catholics who are grappling with the depth and breadth of clergy criminal behavior.

This is not the first time that we have listened to our bishops as they express sorrow and sadness and support for the victims of clerical abuse.  The issue of abuse was brought before the U.S. Bishops in 1984 by Father Tom Doyle and was largely kept under wraps until an exposé by the Boston Globe's "Spotlight" team, which eventually prompted the ousting of Cardinal Law and the now-famous Dallas Charter's "zero tolerance" policy of 2002.  This, in turn, led to systems and procedures which were put into place to handle suspected cases of child abuse by clergy, religious and lay church employees.

For the most part, most of our dioceses are now committed to making these systems part of the permanent infrastructure of local churches. Yet there is still no global policy in the Catholic Church on sexual harassment of adults, and no standard procedure for reporting sexual wrongdoing by one's local bishop. And to make matters worse, the American bishops have consistently fought any attempt to do away with the statute of limitations for crimes of sexual abuse.

As many have pointed out, making such progress has taken decades of advocacy and reporting to create enough public pressure to move the church hierarchy to act. "[It] took years of hard work by investigative journalists, lawyers, attorneys general and victims' advocates. Only when pressure was brought from those constituencies together did change happen."  And yet despite all of this, abuse continues.  This is not just something that has occurred in the past.

It is no longer enough for us - or our bishops - to simply feel terrible about the situation and to express sorrow and do penance.  The church, the people of God, has been let down too often. We struggle to trust the institutional church and we are past the time when we should easily forgive our leadership.

The cure of the deaf-mute in today's Gospel passage is apropos, and points to a deeper reality - it points to the mystery of Jesus as a person - and the gradual way in which people came to faith, and how the impact of their encounters with him enabled them to share this faith with others. He touched a man’s ears and mouth and immediately his ears were opened, and he spoke plainly.

Too often, we confuse the message and mystery of Jesus with the institutional church.  It is time to end this confusion.  As the people of God, we have the right, by our baptism, to demand that our leadership open their ears to our questions and to demand that they speak plainly – once and for all, without excuse and without side-step. We need to hold our bishops accountable for their failures and the sinful way they have abused the power given to them.  Not one has admitted what they knew or when they knew it - or to even hint at the idea that the hierarchical, clerical structure is inherently flawed and obsolete.  

The problem is not McCarrick, or the bishops of Chile, or Francis, or Benedict, or John Paul II, or whoever’s in the hot seat at the current moment. It’s what the whole system from top to bottom has produced.

The healing of the deaf-mute is a lesson that our bishops all need to remember when the weather worsens and when the winds whip up – which will happen – because they cover their ears and their mouths to the truth.  

But this is a lesson that we all need to remember as well.

The message of Jesus is not an easy one to hear - especially during the times in which we live.  One of the most difficult facets of Christianity is that it continually invites us to re-imagine how the whole process of “church” works. There can be no compromise when it comes to the message of Christ. If we only buy into it half-heartedly, we will ultimately lose it. If we fail to open our ears and if we fail to speak plainly, we will betray the entire message.

The Gospel message has never needed to be proclaimed more urgently.

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