“Courage and concreteness” are what Pope Francis summoned some 190 Church leaders to, gathered from around the world, as he opened the four-day meeting (Feb. 21-24) on “The Protection of Minors in the Church” at the Vatican’s New Synod Hall. During his introduction, he distributed guidelines, 21 “Reflection Points,” formulated by various episcopal conferences and commissions — a point of departure only — as he called for creativity, under the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. 

What happened during, or will come out of, this meeting can hardly measure up to the enormity of the evil we must confront. As I have said consistently and continue to maintain, this is a profoundly spiritual crisis. We are facing Evil — the LIE itself — not just an attack on the Church, but an attack on all humanity in the most vicious and brutal way imaginable: the exploitation and destruction of innocent human lives. 

In his Feb. 25 address at the Sunday Eucharistic celebration, Pope Francis minces no words. “The brutality of this worldwide phenomenon,” he says, “becomes all the more grave and scandalous in the Church, for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility. Consecrated persons, chosen by God to guide souls to salvation, let themselves be dominated by their human frailty or sickness and thus become tools of Satan. In abuse, we see the hand of the evil that does not spare even the innocence of children.”

The Church’s prime mission is to proclaim Jesus Christ, the one and only Savior of the World. This remains the Truth that will set us free of this “domination” or slavery to sin, so luridly manifested in the vile predations of spiritual parents who have abused their own children. We commit ourselves firmly to root out this evil from the womb of the Church. As Pope Francis says, “Here again I would state clearly: if in the Church there should emerge even a single case of abuse — which already in itself represents an atrocity — that case will be faced with the utmost seriousness.” In other words, “zero tolerance.”

In appealing to all authorities and individuals worldwide for “an all-out battle against the abuse of minors both sexually and in other areas,” Pope Francis lists eight areas of concentration for concrete strategies going forward: the protection of children, impeccable seriousness, genuine purification, formation, strengthening and reviewing guidelines of episcopal conferences, accompaniment of those who have been abused, the digital world (notably pornography) and sexual tourism. 

Many of these strategies involve collaboration with public officials and agencies, but there are some that each and every one of us can do immediately and quite effectively, especially purification and accompaniment.

As Mother Teresa often observed, our task as disciples is to be perfectly human, which means being faithful to God, to Jesus Christ as the center of our lives. To be faithful does not mean to be perfect — if we try to be on our own we will fail — but to turn everything over to Him, every day, at every moment. It starts with believing we are called to holiness and can become holy — purified — only by accepting Him as our Lord and Savior. All false gods must be dethroned and discarded. But we do not have to do this alone.

The Emmaus story reminds us how Jesus “shows up” when two or three are gathered in his name. It is the story of accompaniment, spiritual friendship or “friendship in the Lord.” Victims and survivors of sexual abuse need and desire nothing more than to be heard, believed, respected and, most of all, walked with in patient love. Isn’t this really what all of us want in a friend — just to stay with us as we seek the Lord together?

I happened to be in Rome last week, for a pre-arranged trip to visit with our two seminarians studying at the North American College and to visit the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints on a possible canonization. One night, while at a restaurant not far from the Vatican, I was approached in the middle of my meal by a man I had never met, who asked if I was Bishop Scharfenberger. His manner was friendly and gentle, and he introduced himself as a “renegade priest” — as it turns out from a diocese in Pennsylvania — who himself had been a victim of sexual abuse.

Apparently, he was in Rome to pray and bear witness to the plight of survivors. He spoke words of appreciation that startled and humbled me. He took leave as we promised to pray for one another. As I went downstairs after dinner — I had been seated on the upper floor — I caught sight of him again on my left, with the group he was dining with, no doubt as he must have noticed me when I entered the restaurant earlier.

He introduced his companions as all survivors, and we exchanged words of encouragement and mutual gratitude. Reminding me again of his self-described “renegade” status, I could only think to say — to paraphrase American revivalist Jonathan Edwards — that aren’t we all sinners in the hands of a loving  (not angry) God. 

This was a totally graced encounter, an “accompaniment” that I want to continue for the rest of my life, especially with survivors and others who have been wounded, broken even on their journey of faith toward the Lord. For I believe Jesus is always coming to us and offering to lead us forward, no matter how many times and in how many ways life’s experience has beat us down.

All of us can do this. Each of us is called by Jesus, to go “two by two” (or more) into the world, and to tell the Good News of what he is doing in our lives. It does not take a degree in theology to do this. We can friend — not just in cyberspace but in a more personal, face-to-face way — our neighbor who, more than likely, has a story to tell, just like each and every one of us does. Forming such spiritual friendships will do much more, concretely and immediately, than all the actions — laws, programs and protocols — in the world. I see nothing more “active” than having the courage and patience to BE a friend. This is exactly how God meets us. If it’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for me. Friendship can change hearts and build trust. One by one. One person at a time. 

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