Matt C. Abbott
April 8, 2010
Bishop: Catholic Church among 'safest places' for children
By Matt C. Abbott

The following is the text of the homily given on Easter Sunday 2010 by Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry at St. John Cantius Parish. Many thanks to Bishop Perry for providing me with the text of his homily.

Thank you for joining us these days to ponder the mysteries that define us in Christ!

Easter is the reason behind the Christian life. As St. Paul so bluntly wrote: "If Christ has not been raised your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then, those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped we are, of all people, most to be pitied" (1Cor 15, 17-19).

But, we do believe that Jesus was crucified, and died and was buried and was raised from the dead leaving his tomb empty. He appeared to a group of followers who were so transformed that they began a movement that has endured till now, that shapes the very meaning of our lives. And the message is this: Jesus is alive. Death is overcome. Reconciliation with God has been accomplished; therefore we should seek reconciliation with one another.

Hundreds of theologians, thousands of preachers and catechists will try to articulate this Easter proclamation during the fifty days assigned to the season. Their goal is to move Christians so they will feel compelled to live differently, more fervently, courageously and vitally as Easter people.

We know that if Easter faith does not get beyond the books, the words, the hymns, the ritual actions and symbols to penetrate the daily experience of our lives to transform us personally as it did those first disciples Easter will come and go without impact, its mysteries still hidden and its potential untapped.

Could mere words ever convey the full implications of an event like the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth? The Gospel accounts are literary masterpieces of subtlety and layered connections, theological lenses on an event in history, a moment framed by scriptural fulfillment but beyond all frames of human understanding. The Resurrection was and is always an existential breakthrough into wonder, gratitude and joy in midst of the mess of this world. Something happened, something mysterious, a theophany that cannot be fully comprehended without faith.

The important thing is that we can't think of resurrection as a past event. It is an ongoing life-giving encounter with a living person, Jesus of Nazareth, whom we shall all meet up with one day.

By your death and resurrection you have set us free. You are the Savior of the world," the acclamation we profess after the consecration of bread and wine, in the Mass.

The letters of St. Paul lay the ground work for how one might articulate Easter faith. Jesus is the first fruits of the new creation, St. Paul describes (1Cor 15, 20), our older brother going before us into glory, the source of reconciliation, restoration freely given. Grace now supersedes the law (Rom 6, 14). The special invitation rooted in the ancient covenant with the Jews is now universally open, not just to Jews, but open to everyone who believes regardless their race, or background, or culture.

The Gospels record an event that simply cannot be described in ordinary terms. To "see" the risen Jesus requires faith, a perception deeper than physical sight that grasped the event in light of what was foretold in the Law and the Prophets. The full revelation was like an immense stained glass window that had always been there but whose impact was obscured until the brilliant light of Easter's son broke open the skies.

"Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" the stranger asks his dejected companions on the road to Emmaus Easter Sunday evening as he explains the scriptures to them (Lk 24, 26). His true identity remains hidden until at table he performs the familiar gesture of taking, blessing, breaking and sharing bread. Their ears are burning, their minds are alert, and in that moment they know him. He disappears and they run to tell their friends, "We have seen the risen Lord!"

Other scriptural accounts try to capture the mystery of the risen Jesus' glorified body; he somehow has a spiritual and corporeal existence at the same time. He passes through closed doors, appears and disappears, yet he is real, visible and tangible. He invites the disciples to touch him. He eats fish (Lk 24, 36) in front of them. He is neither a resuscitated corpse nor a ghost. This is the same body that was crucified days before (Jn 20, 19). See the marks of the nails in his hands and feet, the gash in his side. "It is I, do not be afraid," he says. But, he is also beyond them, beyond time and place, the Christ, a divine presence opening the way to restored intimacy with God. His divine life is freely shared. A new creation is breathed into them. Slavery to sin is broken.

As John's gospel indicates, we are at no disadvantage because we didn't live at that time in Jerusalem or Galilee to see him in the risen flesh. The disciples had to work through their confusions just as we do. The story of the doubting Thomas next week encourages us to ask for an intimate meeting with the Lord in order to deepen our faith. It is not enough to restate the theology behind resurrection. We need to experience Easter faith in order to grow in it and affirm our own lives in the gospel story.

At the same time, Easter is not a party day for believers. Easter arises out of pain and degradation, demoralization, frustration and even death. Easter is no fairy-tale. It helps to see the Easter mysteries out of the ground of our sorrows and anxieties, the things for which we fear, hope and pray. We pray this festival day as we always do knowing how unsatisfied we are, wanting to make our world better. After another year of longing we come yearning for peace and tranquility, where no politicians are speaking, no armies are shooting at one another. We wish for days where there is no talk radio or 24-hour news to tell us to grab our guns because the enemy is at our door. We pray to be in that place where all is calm. We pray for the necessary provisions we need to raise our families, to clothe, feed and educate our children. We are haunted by news of earthquakes and storms, fires and various tragedies that interrupt the lives of others too close to home.

In a mixed up world we know, like that rich young man who asked Jesus what he could do to get to heaven, that we cannot easily let go of our guns, our prisons, our anger, because these things have become our riches, even though they make us less safe and less free. We cling to these false riches because we are afraid to risk letting go.

We know it is better to love everyone, but it is safer to love people who look or speak or worship like us. We know it is better to embrace one another as brothers and sisters but we believe it is safer to arm ourselves to the teeth. Believing that's how the world is, like the rich young man, even in the midst of hearing the good news we let our faces dissolve into gloom in face of a different idea Jesus offers.

If we examine the life of Jesus we see incarnate in Him the life we are so often afraid to lead. In His life and teachings there exists the recipe for obtaining the good life that we so long for yet believe is out of our reach.

We fear that the things we secretly fear might happen to us if we stand up for his Gospel. We fear that if we truly take all this seriously we may lose friends. Jesus lost friends, and for a while even some of his closest friends doubted him. Jesus went from being hailed a king to being reviled as a criminal in a matter of days. We fear that if we stand up for those deemed different because of birthplace or color or creed we may lose what we've earned and worked for. Jesus was arrested, beaten beyond recognition and crucified so that the things that hold us in fear's grip might fade and we find hope and consolation in the message of his kingdom. Because He remains obedient to the ideals of the kingdom, Jesus becomes the one who at the sound of his very name "every head shall bow and every knee shall bend."

No doubt, this year's Holy Week may appear to have shifted more in the direction of Good Friday rather than Easter Sunday. Lots of people are weighing in with their comments about the Church and its failings.

Society reacts to the Church with a certain ambivalence. On the one hand the Church is excoriated for its moral stance on a number of issues and reviled for being out-of-touch with modern ideas and freedoms. On the other, the church is excoriated when instances surface among its members of moral turpitude. Catholics and non-Catholics alike, even if they are hardly religiously observant, sense the Church bearing down on their lives. That in itself provokes either resentment or welcome. This influence certainly exposes Catholicism to ready critique.

People expect the church to be immune from the filth of the world, to use the pope's term here. And would that that were the case. But, we are a human community, and given that our highest ideals represent superlative achievement in any life, not everyone can reach what we preach and require for leadership and rank-and-file. We've known this for 2000 years. For this reason, the Church has never been unnerved by sinners in her midst. We do what we can to change them for the honor of God!

In every crate of apples you will find a couple bruised ones; even a couple rotten ones. But that does not mean the whole crate is bad. We are a Church of sinners and saints and this mix the outside world does not understand.

Then too, our fault as Church is perhaps that we did not imagine that certain of our clergy could and would defy the Church in what it stands for by behavior that is despicable. Ours is a trusting institution. We trust that every one wishes to do as we do and do as Jesus would do. But more vigilance is clearly needed.

With every citation of wrong-doing brought to light, it would appear progress has not been made with vigilance in the area of child and youth protection, when in fact, much progress has been made. True enough, in this day and age, institutions of all types are faced before the scrutiny of the multi-motive press and media to keep them honest. Some of the press and media are our friends, but not all. Curiously, the press and media are not that interested in what the Church is doing in this area:

Over the last 25 years, vigorous action has taken place within the Church to avoid harm to children:

  • Potential seminarians receive extensive psycho-sexual evaluation prior to admission.

  • Virtually all seminaries concentrate their efforts on the safe environment for ministry.

  • There have been very few cases of recent sexual abuse of children by clergy during the last decade or more. But, there seems to be a journalistic fascination with cases from the past and missteps trying to work through those cases.

  • Catholic dioceses across the country have taken extraordinary steps to ensure the safety of children and vulnerable adults. Just about every diocese that has a web-page advertises on its front page contact information and numbers to be accessed when anything appears suspicious in the ranks of leadership whether by clergy or laity.

  • Every Church employee who teaches, coaches, or directs children and youth go through criminal background checks and must undergo training sessions in safe environment and appropriate adult-to-child behavior.

  • Similarly, school children and teens undergo age-appropriate education to recognize adult gestures, good and bad.

  • Annual audits of every Catholic diocese in the country take place by outside examiners versed in criminal justice that monitor these mandated background checks, safe-environment training for church workers and any reported instances of misconduct and the resolution of pending cases. These reports are made public each year.

As a result of the last eight years of an official Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, we can say, confidently, that there is no clergyman functioning in the Church in the United States today who has a credible accusation of this nature documented in his background.

And it does not stop there. Every diocese is constantly re-looking at its child and youth safety policies and renewing the membership on its review boards made up of lay experts in fields of child care and protection advising the bishops to make sure these policies are doing the job we want done. Child protection measures will have to be constantly updated.

Other institutions bear this problem. It is essentially a societal problem that has touched every institution of society including the privacy of the family. Considering efforts made to heal the wounds caused by clergy misconduct, the Catholic Church is probably one of the safest places for children at this point in history.

Crimes of this nature should not take place in the Church. And, unfortunately, we have been slow to recognize a thorough approach to this anomaly within the halls of religion moving, as we have, from prayer and penance as a response way back, to sending people to therapy as a possible corrective and now to information that seems to indicate the incurable situation for many who are genuine perpetrators hence the tendency of the public today to rest on merely the criminal aspects of the anomaly.

An enormous change in approach helped, namely, these policies have as their chief aim above all else and before all others, the protection of children and youth.

You may have seen an opinion column Good Friday (April 2) in The Wall Street Journal, by Peggy Noonan, that offers an insightful comment on things. She says:

    '...There are three great groups of victims in this story. The first and most obvious, the children who were abused, who trusted, were preyed upon and bear the burden through life. The second group is the good priests and good nuns, the great leaders of the church in the day to day, who save the poor, teach the immigrant and literally save lives. They have been stigmatized when they deserve to be lionized. And the third group is the Catholics in the pews the heroic Catholics of America and now Europe, the hardy souls who in spite of what has been done to their church are still there, still making parish life possible, who hold high the flag, their faith unshaken. No one thanks those Catholics, sees their heroism, respects their patience and fidelity...with their prayers they keep the world going, and the old church too.'

Resurrection is the power of God over all the forces that diminish and destroy life. Greed diminishes us as surely as illness. Selfishness and crime is every big as destructive as despair. Resurrection is also the power of God to fulfill all the possibilities of life. We can be raised daily from self-centeredness to sacrificial service, from guilt and grief to forgiveness and hope, from the pains and scars of life to resurrected healing in Christ. As Christians we are being raised daily from death to life.

May the power of Jesus risen be your strength to bring peace and God's love and mercy to all who need these. Ours are troublesome times which fill the hearts of people with anxiousness. Jesus consoled his apostles who were hiding in fear after his crucifixion, with his appearance and his words: "Peace be with you! Why are you troubled? Why do questions arise in your hearts. Look at my hands and my feet; it is really I."

It's our prayer, friends, that you may have the consolation and assurances that come with Easter faith.

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication, Media and Theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He has been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR and WLS-TV in Chicago, and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.

(Note: I welcome thoughtful feedback from readers. If you want our correspondence to remain confidential, please specify as such in your initial email to me... (more)

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