April 27, 2023 at 7:00 a.m.

Sacred space

Everyone who has been hurt by the Church needs to be heard, accompanied and, dare I say, welcomed with open heart and mind.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

By Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

The elusive word inclusive! Everyone wants to feel included, offered a welcome to a place they would like to be, where life is friendly, caring and kind. The basis of inclusion is a feeling of belonging. Or maybe more than a feeling. Almost a birthright. Like what home is supposed to mean and be.

Home, I have heard it said, is where when you knock on the door, they have to let you in. Not just buzz you into a vestibule but invite you to stay awhile, to have a meal and even find a comfortable place to rest, if not a room to call your own (“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?” Jn 14:2). Familiarity does not exclude privacy, the clear awareness of boundaries. At times, in fact, it demands it. A space within a home that will not be invaded, where the door is a sign of welcome, but also an assurance of protection. Before entering, there is a gentle knock and an answer is hoped for, awaited on both sides. (“Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, (then) I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.” Jn 3:20).

Not the most elaborate description of home maybe, but certainly a basic one. Oh, and it must be repeated, a place where you can be safe. Home is, if nothing else, a haven. You may not find the appointments and furnishings 100 percent to your taste or be able to have everything “just so,” but you can count on one thing: you will be okay there, and certainly never be harmed.

No wonder it is so difficult for survivors of any kind of abuse, especially sexual abuse by clergy or others in church circles, to be or feel at home in a church place, let alone included. Many would have hoped and expected that a church would be home, a haven — a cognate which is clearly connected to the word “heaven.” But how can anyone return to and enter confidently into a place that exists solely for the purpose of guiding people to heaven and yet has led them instead into a hell! How could they take it seriously, if it has conspired to destroy their innocence, telling them lies and harming them emotionally, spiritually and even physically?

These questions every survivor or friend of a survivor is entitled to ask. In fact, they must be asked by the Church itself, putting survivors front and center of the healing mission, along with a readiness to hear the experience and story of anyone who has been wounded simply for wanting to be included in the family that exists for no other purpose than to lead them to hope and healing, to the source of Eternal Life itself, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. These questions that cannot be ignored, or ever assumed to be fully answered, or the Church itself has little claim to its own identity, its sole purpose for being in this world.

As the spiritual leader — father, if you will — of our little corner of the Church in the Diocese of Albany, our spiritual home, this is also why, as a most fundamental step, I must apologize deeply without ceasing and affirm how sorry I am to anyone and everyone who has in any way suffered at the hands or actions of one claiming to be part of our family, especially an ordained or consecrated member, priest, religious or church representative. Everyone who has been hurt needs to be heard, accompanied and, dare I say, welcomed with open heart and mind, whether this is something even thinkable at all in the present. The door must always remain open, if only just a little, to let a crack of light shine through. And for good reason. 

Jesus is the Light of the world. Everyone’s personal Savior, if they wish to accept his invitation. He came to call sinners, as all of us are, and to save us from the sin — and sinners — that threaten to deprive us of hope and rob us of peace. He entrusted this mission to his disciples, beginning with the sacramental rebirth of Baptism, the deliverance from death in all its forms. This is his parting message, the Great Commission, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit …” (Mt 28:19).

Anything that impedes, stalls or blocks that mission, whether from outside or within the Church must be resisted, repelled and expelled. These are strong and blunt words, but evil is real and must be identified as much as any disease or poison that invades an organism. That is why those who abuse need to be named, confronted and held to account, in whatever way necessary to end the abuse, satisfy the norms of justice and help restore the wounds and brokenness.

The prime wound is in the relationship itself, the harm done to the heart and soul of the survivor.  “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?” (Lk 11:11-12). The sad and searing fact is that every survivor has experienced the poison of this treachery and deceit: a trusted figure who became a horribly disfigured phantom. No reasonable understanding of inclusion can tolerate a specter such as that. Somehow the poison, the toxic patterns, must be expelled, even as the scars may persist throughout a lifetime.

The first step is to identify them, and then to free and heal both the victim and the household in which it happened. This is why our safe environment protocols continue so vigorously so that no one can be subjected to suffering such trauma again. The Church that is to be a home must be both seen and believed to be a haven that leads to heaven. It must be holy and pure and a place where sin and impurity can be identified, absolved and driven away.

The work of vigilance, justice and purification goes on. So does the accompaniment of all survivors, which includes trauma-informed awareness in all our ministries. It affects the way we must preach and catechize, conscious always of the presence of those among us who may suffer in silence, without awareness of or unable to access the remedies that are indeed available. I encourage anyone who may fear that it is too late, that the ship has sailed without you, not to hesitate to contact Noelle Marie, our assistance coordinator, or seek support from our Hope and Healing ministries (www.rcda.org/hopeandhealing). Please do not continue to bear this awful burden alone! Jesus said, “I will be with you always, even until the end of the world” (Mt 28:20). The reason we are here as disciples of Jesus, far from perfect, sinners and wounded healers ourselves, is to make his promise a reality in the lives of all who seek and knock. And because we trust in him who said, “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Mt 11:28-30). May God bless you always!

 @AlbBishopEd


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