A recurrent Gospel narrative is how Jesus meets each of us exactly where we are. No matter where we are on our spiritual journey, he wants to be part of our lives. It doesn’t deter him if we are moving toward or away from him, or if we are on or have gone astray from the path of virtue and holiness. Maybe we are just wandering or caught in the quicksand of moral equivalence. Maybe we feel exiled from our parish, our Diocese or even the whole Church. Or abandoned by family or friends. Wherever we are, Jesus is going out of his way to help lift our burdens and tend to our suffering.  

Jesus tells us many stories to help us discover and believe this is true. Parables of lost sheep and prodigal sons. Accounts of people trapped in the vicious circle of toxic relationships, like the woman at the well.  People marginalized for bearing social stigmata, like leprosy, paralysis and various addictions. All these narratives reveal the heart of the One who came to find and save all sinners. Jesus is not fazed by the pathology or the structures that enslave those he seeks. He keeps trying to care for us. 

Not everyone in trouble finds it easy to accept Christ’s personal invitation to take his healing hand (“come follow me”), his hand with its glorified wounds. It can be hard for wounded people to believe in him and hard to trust any invitation we as disciples offer others, as we follow Jesus to seek as he does, to help and heal as he does, to be as wounded healers as he is. Often enough, we simply must live as he lives and wait for when the wounded and marginalized dare to trust again.  

These days, we face added challenges in earning the trust of those in need. We, who strive to be the healing presence of Christ on earth, are a Church who is herself recovering from betrayals and abuse. Some of these wounds are self-inflicted or, more exactly, inflicted by gravely sinful members among us. So many Catholics are finding it hard to worship in peace. So many are giving the best of themselves to sustain families and to help others, but they also feel lost or defeated. The Church may not seem like the most hospitable or trustworthy place for victims of any kind of abuse, rejection, neglect or alienation. Our mission may seem hobbled. It is, I know, a very hard time to be a Catholic.   

Catholics who have had no conscious connection to creating this crisis tell me of the hurt of being associated with the Church today, as she is rejected for the sins of systemic abuse and institutional cover-up. This is one way the wounds of abuse and denial have reached into all lives in the Church. This is a grief we all share. Yet, although our hearts are broken, we should not lose heart, for the Lord’s presence and promises are true.   

I’m reminded of something a survivor of clergy abuse said to me, “Sometimes the crosses we bear are ours, like illness or the effect of our sins. But sometimes we just have to carry the weight of sins against us.” Survivors of abuse are the first to bear the burden of the grave sins of abuse in the Church. So are many families. Now, with growing awareness of what so many of them have suffered in silence, all Catholics feel that weight of betrayal and evil doing. It is now survivors who are returning to tell us something about recovering from abuse. In their love for our Catholic faith, they remind us to stay united to Christ, the Light of the world, in the darkness of today.  

This is true for all of us in our darkest times as it is true now for our Church community: the Lord is with us. No matter how rejected or misrepresented we are, no matter how broken our hearts of faith may be, if we set our eyes on the Lord, we see the path forward. We see how his missionary command never changes.  

The heart of Jesus is set on the lost and marginalized. This includes survivors and families who have been marginalized by our own Church at a different time. Especially as we gather in prayer and sacrament, we must welcome the exiles and alienated. And, I believe, as we welcome survivors of abuse that happened within the Church, we will also be extending a hand of welcome to survivors of many other kinds of abuse. We can become a healing people for a traumatized world. 

Recall how St. Paul was once a ferocious persecutor of the nascent Church. After his conversion, he was still feared and rejected by many. He remained well aware of and did not deny his own failings, and perhaps also was pained by those who could not find a way to trust him despite his change. Yet, these realities did not restrain him from proclaiming the truth when urging the Corinthians, for example, to accept and stick with Jesus as their prime relationship and only Savior. Was this memory of his own failures a factor in that “thorn in the flesh” of which he wrote with palpable anguish? It surely humbled him, but it did not keep him from responding to God’s call in his life.

We, too, live with our own “thorn in the flesh” — the institutional memory of abusers and denial about abuse. This is a cross of sins for which very few Catholics are guilty but which all Catholics still bear. It cannot deter us from our mission to be a field hospital for sinners and a safe haven for all wounded souls. 

St. Paul soldiered on in following the Lord’s missionary command despite the searing memory of his own grave sins. St. Paul set his eyes on the Lord and did not swerve from his calling. He knew truth was not affected because of human failures, or his sinfulness. He trusted the Lord’s promises about redemptive suffering and hope for new life.   

Even as we continuously reform our institutions to drive abusers from power, influence or position, the memories and scars remain. We live in the shadow of these terrible facts. We are carrying, together, this cross of others’ sin, too. Does that mean we should step back from discipleship? Not at all. As heavy as our hearts may be, St. Paul is prophetic in answering any hesitations we may have.   

The institutional reform, after which the Church has sought in recent years with increasing diligence, includes the promotion of safer environments, increased transparency and accountability, and the pursuit of justice in such measures as removal from ministry of those who have committed the unspeakable crimes. Yet, policy changes can ring hollow if we do not also commit ourselves over and over to the dignity of every human being, especially in caring for those most wounded by the trauma of abuse. 

We must never forget that our Church, the Body of Christ, is the Sacrament of encounter with God. The sacraments nourish us in the work we are called to do. His invitation to the broken and weary, within our parishes and outside our parishes, is continuous. We are his message every day, in what we do and what we fail to do. We need him to follow his call. If we do falter, the weight of the crosses others bear will be heavy and without relief. Their wounds may not experience caring, mercy and healing. So, we must find a way, together, to declare boldly the need for our savior, not despite what has happened in our Church but because it has happened in our own Church and in the world around us. 

As I wrote in last week’s column, I am, as I am sure my brother bishops are, thankful to have been blessed by the presence and testimony of those many faith-filled survivors at the Spirit Fire conference on May 1 at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Many of the survivors who attended are active in Church ministries of survivor support on many levels, laypersons and clergy alike.

What I am confident we all are learning is that there is a real way to move forward. We can become transformed into a humbler, purer and wiser community of faith, a holier people, walking together, focused on Jesus, strong together, with the Lord of all mercy, who loves each and every one of so much that he would have suffered and died for each of us, even if we were the only person in the world. May we be willing, like him, to lay down our lives for one another! 

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