Tumultuous. That’s the word that comes to mind when I ponder the unfolding crisis in the Catholic Church. Like many of you, I’ve been reading about the scandals, the cover-ups, the accusations and the sharp divisions among the hierarchy.
None of this turmoil should surprise us, really. In its 2,000-year history, the Church has weathered many a crisis, and yet Christ’s promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church are as true today as they were when He uttered them to St. Peter so long ago.
What I’m hearing from others — and frankly feeling myself — is anger and sadness that this nightmare we thought had been taken care of has actually continued to fester at the highest levels of the Church.
As a lifelong Catholic, I was raised with the unspoken understanding that you didn’t ever question a priest’s or a prelate’s intentions or integrity. Those days are over. And really, that’s a good thing. Our faith has never been in men who, like the rest of us, are human. Our faith is in Jesus Christ who conquered sin and death and who promised never to abandon us.
In the midst of all this upheaval, we must give thanks. Thanks that dark deeds are being exposed to the light, thanks that victims are coming forward to tell their stories, thanks that priests are recounting what they experienced in a formation poisoned by sin.
At the same time, we should focus on the fact that we’ve been blessed in our time and through the centuries with heroic priests, bishops and popes, men who call us to holiness by their preaching and their lives, men who refuse to be silent about sin and who point us to repentance and conversion of heart.
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St. Damien of Molokai was one such priest. In 1873, while serving in Hawai’i, he volunteered to serve an ostracized colony of lepers where an atmosphere of immorality, drunkenness and lawlessness prevailed. At the time, it was erroneously believed that leprosy (now known as Hansen’s Disease) was highly contagious. Fr. Damien was warned not to touch anyone, yet, as depicted quite movingly in the biographical movie “Molokai: The Story of Father Damien,” he embraced and cared for the poor and suffering, tending to their maggot-infested wounds, hearing their confessions, praying over them and leading them to Christ.
“I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” Those were his words. “The Eucharist,” he said, “is the Bread that gives strength … He gives Himself every day so that our hearts as burning coals may set afire the hearts of the faithful.”
After 11 years serving the lepers of Molokai, Fr. Damien contracted the disease himself but refused to leave the colony for treatment. His personal holiness, his willingness to suffer in union with Christ, his fierce courage to spread the Gospel — that is what we need from our clergy today. That is the greatness priests — and frankly all baptized Christians — are called to. We are the heirs of courageous martyrs and saints who risked everything to follow Jesus, who did not conform to a sinful world but were transformed by God. The widespread, genuine conversion of heart that is needed in our time will not take place through adherence to political correctness and the refusal to name and expose evil. It will only happen when each of us truly repents, submits completely to Christ and follows Him humbly along the narrow way.
“Let your light shine before men.” How beautifully St. Damien followed the words of Jesus, spreading the light of salvation and still inspiring us today with his generous spirit. May each of us embrace that call in these dark days, striving for holiness, proclaiming the Gospel and serving the poor and the least among us. Let repentance, conversion and healing begin today with you and with me. Through the intercession of St. Damien, may the Lord purify our Church and embolden us to be true followers of Christ.