I believe that love is a requirement for disappointment.
I love the Catholic Church. I’ve shared this story many times, but during the summer following my high school graduation, at a Steubenville Youth Conference, I fell in love with Jesus, the Church, and the sacraments of my faith.
When you fall in love with someone, one of the first things you want to do is learn everything you can about them, so I studied Theology for my undergraduate degree and have never stopped learning about the Catholic faith. Another result of falling in love is commitment. My entire adult life has been one decision after another to serve the Church that I love—the people and the institution—as a lay minister, catechist, and future pastoral counselor. I’ve tried to say yes to wherever the Lord has called me.
I learned over these years that a result of loving the Church can be disappointment.
This included working for over seven years for toxic and harmful clerics. My own experiences in the Church have given me ears to hear—to actually hear—other people’s stories about how they have been harmed by the Church. I’ve heard stories from lay ministers working for other pastors, stories from former seminarians, stories from folks accompanying clerical sexual abuse survivors. I’ve read reports of priests in my diocese hooking up with 16-year-olds. I’ve read the unfolding coverage about the Franciscan University of Steubenville—the place where I first encountered Jesus—covering up absolutely hideous sexual abuse. In just the past year I’ve read about so much hurt, so much harm, so much cover up, and so much victim-blaming from bishops, dioceses, Catholic colleges, and religious orders across the country.
In the past, I would go to Mass three times a week. In the last eight months, however, I have little desire to attend Mass at all and struggle to go just on Sundays. I do go. Somehow the Holy Spirit has kept giving me the strength to go. But it’s not easy.
I know that the harm I’ve experienced in the Church pales in comparison to the abuse others have experienced at the hands of priests, not to mention Church leaders who allowed it to happen and turned a blind eye to their pain. Too many of the individuals with power in the Church have refused to hold their brother clerics accountable.
I don’t know why Christ allows so much filth and corruption in the Church. I don’t know why he hasn’t flipped tables and driven out those who harm the vulnerable. I don’t know how to reconcile the real evil in the Church with the holiness that God has revealed about His Body.
The Church’s pastors are broken and sinful, her leaders are broken and sinful, her people are broken and sinful, and her structures are broken and sinful. And on some days it’s difficult not to believe that the whole thing isn’t rotten to the core.
Christianity is an incarnational, sacramental faith. God’s grace is given in material signs and symbols. But physical matter can be corrupted. Bread can get moldy and wine can be poisoned. Yet getting rid of everything that has the potential to spoil the Eucharist means discarding the material signs and undermining the entire sacrament.
You can’t separate the physical and spiritual realities that are mysteriously presented to us as Eucharist. Likewise, you can’t abstract a spiritual “real church” from the flesh and blood baptized people who are the Church, even if those people are liars, enablers, and narcissists. To do this would be to tear up the wheat along with the weeds.
Even though I believe that this is true, it doesn’t really give me much comfort. If I was offered a Eucharistic host that was covered with mold, the fact that it’s really the Body of Christ wouldn’t make me want to eat it. And right now, my heart is pretty heavy with how much mold I see growing in the Church.
I know that I’m not alone. Many people have been harmed by the brokenness, sinfulness, and injustice in the Church. Many people have been deeply scandalized by report after report of abuse and corruption. I know I’m not the only person asking these questions:
How do I trust the Church?
How do I take the moral authority of any cleric seriously?
How do I believe in a God who lets this happen in his Church?
How do I exist in a Church that lets this happen?
How do I not just shake the dust from my feet and move on?
And if I stay, what is my role in the Church now?
These are questions that require space and time, questions without easy answers.
I don’t know how to do anything except continue to try and be faithful to what the Lord proposes to me every day. At this moment, even as my disappointment in priests and bishops has escalated beyond what I ever imagined, my love for the Lord hasn’t diminished. And, in a real way, neither has my love for the Church.
Vatican II taught that the Church is the community of the baptized, not just the clergy. The generosity and support I have received from my community over the past few months has been overwhelming. As much as the power structures of the Church have failed, so much greater have been the concrete acts of love from my neighbors. As much as my disappointment in the institutions and hierarchy has grown, even more has God filled me with gratitude for the flesh-and-blood people in my small town and in my diocese.
I don’t know if I could ever work full-time for a parish again. Probably not. I don’t think I could ever put my family’s primary income in the hands of unaccountable clerics when there are no structures to protect me. But I’m not saying this from a place of despair. Throughout all of this, the Lord has provided me with hope. God is already calling me to new ministries, new ways to serve his people and, hopefully, help heal and renew the Church.
The Catechism says:
“Only by taking the ‘way of penance and renewal,’ the ‘narrow way of the cross,’ can the People of God extend Christ’s reign. For ‘just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and oppression, so the Church is called to follow the same path if she is to communicate the fruits of salvation to men’” (CCC 853).
We, baptized Christians, are the People of God. We who have been harmed by priests and bishops, are just as much the Catholic Church as those who hurt us. And we—you and I—can be a Church that accepts people’s woundedness, believes their experiences, isn’t threatened by questions without easy answers, and isn’t afraid of stories that make us uncomfortable. If the Lord is leading us, we can take risks, we can be vulnerable, we can burden the consciences of those in power with the truth of our stories, we can follow the way of the cross, and we can help renew Christ’s Church.
Earlier this week, in the Gospel reading for All Saints Day, we heard Jesus promise that the poor and the meek; those who hunger for righteousness; and those who are insulted, slandered, or persecuted for the sake of justice—are blessed. This doesn’t simply mean being blessed in a distant afterlife, but blessed now. In God’s Kingdom, the poor and vulnerable will be raised up, the mighty will be cast down, and everything hidden in the darkness will be brought out into the light.
Love, I’ve come to understand, also means hope. And I do have hope that Jesus is bringing about that Kingdom, even when all I see is injustice and abuse.
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Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.