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Canice Connors, OFM Conv.
Presidential Address



My Sisters, my Brothers, on this seventh evening within the eighth month of 2002' continuous graphic, public portrayal of abusive priest criminals, sometimes aided and abetted by Episcopal malfeasance, scripted with gut wrenching victim narratives and extended analyses of a desiccated, collapsing clerical culture, I want to ask this friendly question: are we having fun yet

Have you gotten the beat of Bishop Wilton Gregory's shock rhetoric or the rock of Scott Appleby and Margaret O'Brien Steinfeld's scathing denunciations of Church leadership? Have your framed a copy of the Charter or taken bets on the odds of the Norms winning the Vatican Recognitio? Have you gyrated with the public chant "It's about time, but you didn't go far enough." Have you slipped in a sardonic smile as you read evaluations like Eugene Kennedy's of the Dallas script as a reprise of Bridge Over the River Kwai? Have you been able to find zero tolerance in your concordance? Have you at least been tempted to say, "I told you so" as angry parishioners denounced the swift removal of pastors who have for years been trusted, effective moral leaders? And, now we, passing Philadelphians, hunker down in the shadow state of a media wanting to parse our actions and words into a fresh mincing of the Bishops document of early June. Are we having fun yet? Like it or not, we are part of it all. There is no escaping a role in this dramatis personae.

But, I'm off on an Allen Iverson fast break without a glance at our game plan. We are not assembled to score quick points for or against the Bishops or to seek the endorsement of any constituency. We are assembled for the fifth time to address the long range, essential questions and concerns of MISSION. In 1998, honoring the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights we appropriately pondered the issues of human rights and mission. In 1999, we took up the issues of innovation and mission focusing on the role of those who move towards the margins in ministry. In 2000, we held court on the issue of mission in the context of the young both within our congregations and in the world around us. And last year, the questions of multiculturalism and mission. And now, we have specified the lively, living tension between community and mission. This tension has sometimes been dissolved by regressing into the ego satisfying comforts of a therapeutic community circle or by ingesting the narcotic of boundless apostolic action. Either or both regressions symbolize and realize the long-range decline of consecrated life. As John Paul reminds us:

The Church entrusts to communities of Consecrated Life the particular task of spreading the spirituality of communion, first of all in their internal life and then in the ecclesial community and even beyond its boundaries, by opening up or continuing a dialogue in charity, especially where today's world is torn apart by ethnic hatred or senseless violence. Placed as they are within the world's different societies societies frequently marked by conflicting passions and interests, seeking unity but uncertain about the ways to attain it communities of Consecrated Life, where persons of different ages, languages and cultures meet as brothers and sisters, are signs that dialogue is always possible and that communion can bring differences into harmony. (Vita Consecrata, Paragraph 51)

This Assembly is properly a forum for discernment on religious life as well as a forum for decisions on all matters relevant to the purpose of the Conference as our Statutes tell us. Should we collectively, as I unwisely began this talk, concede our focal attention to the subscript of immediate pressures created by the sex abuse crisis then our leadership perspective will be dangerously myopic.

Every one of us has a decision to make at the beginning of this Assembly will I or will I not be attentive to each of the presentations with an openness that may impact our discussions and determinations to act individually and collectively in shaping the quality and direction of religious life in our American culture. The choice of this style of attention and participation differs radically from the state of consciousness that I sometimes bring to the worthy forums of continuing education. In the latter case, I aspire for an increase of knowledge that will inform the quality of my personal prayer and public ministry. In the former, what is at stake is my behavior as a leader of a religious community. In this forum, our shared quest through attentive listening and focused dialogue is to forge a realizable vision that will define the content of and process for a conversion to religious life of effective communion. Leaders gather to consolidate awareness into intelligent schemes of action. Can we do so knowing full and well that other leaders have tried and fallen short? In these unpropitious times do we really have any choice but to try again and again?

I believe that such efforts, however frail and flawed, will by indirection create a context for wise consideration of what does confront us in this problemed post Dallas world of religious life. I believe the quality of attention we invest during the community/mission discussions will yield immediate dividends in our "business" sessions. We will bring a shared value context as a backdrop for our exchanges on the unavoidable practical issues.

I am going to take a detour from motivational rhetoric and insert two recent small-scale experiences. The first occurred after a vesper service honoring the deceased of our five US Conventual Provinces. The setting was the Chapel of Mt. St. Francis, Indiana and the participants were the aggregate councils of these Provinces. Like so many of you, we were befuddled about how and what to say to our friars after Dallas. Yielding to our shared charism of seraphic confusion, we decided to simply sit in silence after our communal prayer and allow each friar to stand and proclaim whatever he believed ought to be included in our fraternal letter. In the course of an hour, a letter emerged from the graced spontaneity of highly integrated commentary.

The second experience occurred between July 14th and 18th at a Benedictine priory outside of Portland, where I was leading a retreat for priests in the SA recovery movement. While only some had abused minors, all were involved in a fellowship that demands and supports gut honesty about sexual abstinence and integrity. One priest had and was continuing to resist this unwavering honesty; he was a thoroughbred on the racetrack of evasion. Throughout the retreat, the group supported him in and through an accountability circle that was both compassionate and challenging. By the end of the retreat, he was out of his downward spiral.

These two minor key experiences confirm what is so commonly true as to be overlooked in scholarly discussion. Normally our five Provinces are united solely through the conviction that we should remain separate; yet on that evening, called to speak to our brothers out of the silence of prayer, we became one voice in a poetry of fraternal concern.

Not many folks would describe a gathering of self-identified sexaholic priests in a Spartan setting as a place of revelation. Yet it was Tabor in Oregon, God Fathered and heaven new; saving power is simply awesome. Both experiences were mothered in and through fraternal communion that is, of course, the mission of the Trinity eternally at work in and through relationships.

We have all known such holy moments when the limitations of this here and this now have been transcended in what we later called a conversion, a totally inexplicable move out of darkness; the luminosity of self appropriation; the subtle secret of the saved sinner. Outside of a faith community such moments are fragile, perhaps even dangerous memories which evade awareness in the tensions of this in-between place; the already and not fully yet. My need, and who in this room will not shout amen, is for the communion station of genuine religious community where healing memories are conserved in ritual and continuously kept available through imaginative opportunities for fresh revelations of reconciling grace. We have all tasted of such goodness in the Lord; this merger of community and mission; the perichoresis of giving and receiving; of being loved and giving love. This is our vision for consecrated life in Technicolor. How do we experience the glories of such hopeful hues when the horizons of our current experiences are the stark chiaroscuros of guilt, shame and anger?

We sit here this evening as much conditioned by the experiences of the past six months, yea fifteen years, as were our Bishops in Dallas. The imperializing question then and yet is DO WE GET IT? It being the collective grasp of our adjudicated failure to emotionally and intellectually identify with the sufferings imposed by the crimes of sexual abuse of minors by some of our own. The litmus test for getting IT is the surrender of any wiggle room in discourse or script for a reasoned analysis of the abusive situation; either you get it or you didn't get it; nothing in between. The corrective strategy: do whatever it takes to pass this litmus test, to stay the decline of our moral credibility. The tactical maneuver in the service of this worthy strategic end necessitates the objectification of the "priest abuser" past, present and future. The Holy Father declared that there is no room in the priesthood for child abusers. Catholic leaders thus launched a thorough search, identify and expel mission. This totalization of all abusers, ironically camouflaged in a concern for protecting children, creates a legitimized target population for venomous language and violent action.

As a guilty participant in the labor intensive, time deprived efforts of Dallas, I can testify that there was not a single name attached to an "abuser"; only passing, hard bargained consideration was given to the possibility that one-time and reformed abusers might constitute a category for separate review. This category of exception found its way into the draft document, the stalking horse of media evaluation, as a lightning rod that ultimately made the Bishops appear even tougher when they voted it out of the final document. No half measures were to be tolerated in the public climate of the Dallas Dispensation.

The Sex Abuse Committee, and afterwards four Cardinals, sat through extended and pain-ridden narratives of victim suffering. The predictable outcome was a group paralyzed in remorse and shame. No patience for the narrative of recovery and reconciliation. The abuser past, present and future was present only as an object; and thus evaporated the realities of repentance, conversion and reconciliation. Thereby, all victims were reified. There were no witnesses called to narrate the journey through recognition, anger, recovery and the final shalom of reconciliation. And no recognition given Bishops who did not participate in "cover-ups", who met with victims, removed abusive priests, saw to their just treatment and engaged in pastoral practices of healing and reconciliation.

In paying this purchase price for their moral credibility, the Bishops in effect could be perceived to have become one with the voices of the media, unreconciled victims and a partially informed Catholic public in scapegoating the abusers. Will the document move us toward authentic resolution of the crisis? Already, there is evidence of a paradoxical outcome in the form of parishioner rage following the removal of past offending pastors who in fact are currently effective and trusted pastoral leaders.

Yes, there are past, present and God forbid future abusive priests who have and may continue to resist recognition of their crimes who are hard of heart and who have spiraled into more complicated patterns of moral decline. Some among these present an ongoing threat to the well being of children and society is obliged to exercise effective protective measures to assure the safety of children. This is a sad state of soul; having eyes they do not see.

In equal measure the soul of a recovered abuser must be recognized. The outcomes of conversion while marvelous and mysterious in their achievement can be verified. And this is not some self-serving wiggle room tactic or collusion in denial. Don't we believe that anyone can through graced intervention reflect on the confessed past, interpret it correctly for what it was and is and then, effect a change that upon continuing reflection and interpretation yields a new self; the forgiven and restored sinner? This is not a wistful abstraction the Church has been and will continue to be a gathering in awe and gratitude for these miracles of grace.

This acknowledged place of crisis in which we find ourselves is a terrible place a place of shame and suffering. We all want to redeem the times but at what price? It is a dreadful place because there is no facile way to shift this horizon (this concrete synthesis of conscious living) without reflection on past performance that will yield the pathway of change. Yes, through fear of losing the priceless gift of public respect (often counterfeited in tokens of clerical privilege), we tolerated and purchased silence and colluded in secrecy about what we did not want to acknowledge as the crimes of our brothers. In so doing, we now know that we exacerbated the pain of abuse; we in effect re-abused the victim. We have reflected and must continue to reflect on these disgraceful, sinful behaviors. We have and must continue to improve not only the formulation of strict policies, but also an independent monitoring of their applications.

In a more subtle way, remorse has deterred genuine participation in dialogues with victims. In maintaining an embarrassed silence, motivated by shame, we have not been full participants in dialogues focused on the shalom of reconciliation. In these difficult dialogues, exchanges need to be monitored for any minimizing of the abuser's responsibility and any dramatic maximizing of the impact of the abuse on the victim. To take a passive or uncritical posture in absorbing the rightful rage of the victims without steadfastly maintaining the boundaries of one's own identity and convictions is to extend the cycle and devastation of abuse.

And now for three concluding comments that schematize my 25 years of dancing on the hot coals of this crisis; perhaps they bear some relevance to the primary purpose of our Assembly.

1. Like it or not we are conditioned by a surge of apocalyptic categories and symbols. Declaring war against a variety of evils, such as terrorism, drugs and child abuse sometimes creates questionable imperatives. Zero tolerance is a war slogan, a mobilization of absolutes, the creation of an objective order from which there is no escape. The violence of this warfare does not consist so much in injuring or annihilating persons as in interrupting their continuity, stabilizing them in roles in which they no longer recognize themselves, making them betray not only commitments but their own substance, making them carry out actions that will destroy every possibility of authentic self. If we, for whatever noble and even moral purposes, totalize all abusers (and by implication all victims), do we not sell the eschatology of hope for the sake of passing, popular approval; for verification of full demonstration in righteous warfare? Any shalom strategy calls for long-term investments, not pay offs, in pastoral programs that will attend to both victim and abuser guided by principles of justice and reconciliation. The future must be liberated not only from the memory of these evil actions but from the redundancy of their influence.

2. We are vowed to live a consecrated life violations of this three fold consecration made in common requires determined communal questioning; not only concerning the pedigree of the individual abuser, but about the scatosis of the community. How did it ever happen in our midst? Were we really surprised? Or did we see and not say? What will be our programs of collaborative prevention? Can our attention and attendance maintain their current zenith when the media turns its investigative eye towards other evil doings? Can we get beyond rationalizing celibacy and scripting formulas for healthy sexuality? Genuine reforms will be born through steadfast archeology and teleology. We frequently bemoan the transfer of our treasuries to treatment centers. But are they not unplanned investments in archeological investigations? No other social institution has ever systematically asked how does the gift of human sexuality, divinely intended to generate and enrich life, become an instrument of violence? We know more now than before about the subterranean territory of human consciousness where sexual energy is either welcomed or subverted from the enterprise of responsibility. If ever the dictum of publish or perish made sense it is about these discoveries. Surely we know that it is not about orientation it is about integration. And, we have a cloud of witnesses that sexual integration is well served by Lady Poverty and single eyed Obedience.

3. Dwelling in the mansions of respect and adulation certainly trumps living in the house of ill repute. I abhor our current residence; it is dark, fetid and oppressive. To borrow from Hopkins' dark Dublin lexicon bitter thou would have me taste, my taste is me. Our houses of prayer must resonate with the laments of Jeremiah. Things won't change for the wishing and the wanting. What is called for is a sacramental action a baptism, a proper naming of what we are going through and through and through. I find resonance once again in the lines of Hopkins', Wreck of the Deutschland, the epic tale of God's strange manner of sharing our dread it begins thusly: "Thou mastering me God, giver of breath and bread, world's strand, sway of the sea, thou has bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh and what with dread almost undid thy doing. And doest thou touch me afresh over again I feel thy finger and find thee." From this uncommon faith perspective Gerard interprets the fate of a storm wrecked voyage journalized in the London TIMES. In the waning hours of December 8th, the TIMES reporter, from the safety of a protected shore, describes a tall nun at the mast of the sinking ship shouting into the storm. Hopkins grants her this prayer Christ to her, she calls the cross to her, she christens her wild worst BEST. In this our storm, how do we call our Christ and welcome the grace to name this wild worst - BEST? Without this baptism, can we be saved from the shallows of self-pity and the complaints of moral fatigue? And, how do we invite this saving Lord into our contemplative prayer? The Carmelite Jessica Powers recommends imaging God's garments. "He is clothed in robes of His mercy, voluminous garments not of velvet or silk and affable to the touch, but of fabric strong for a frantic hand to clutch, and I hold it fast with the fingers of my will. Here is my cry of faith, my deep avowal to divinity that I am dust. Here is the loud profession of my trust. I need not go abroad to the hills of speech or the hinterlands of music for a crier to walk in my soul where all is still. I have this potent prayer through good or will. Here in the dark I clutch the garments of God."

On this seventh evening of the eighth month of 2002, I join you in confidently fingering and clutching these voluminous robes of mercy.

SHALOM

Canice Connors, OFM Conv.