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Posted May 7, 2005

Cries of Lament

From the book: Faith That Dares To Speak -- already cited on our website

As a former seminary rector and vicar for clergy and religious, I am often asked how I think today’s priests are coping in light of the abuse scandal, their diminished status in the eyes of many, and their own disappointment, sometimes bitter, with the stalled reforms of Vatican II. Polarized, demoralized, fearful, resentful, they are. But they are also hardworking, persevering, faithful, and, in growing numbers, courageous.

The evening before I sat down to write these paragraphs, I met for dinner with four priests. . . .I glanced around the table and looked into the eyes of men who had served long and well. Any observer would have seen in their eyes intelligence, a sense of humor, and fidelity. Unmistakingly, though, there were hints of resignation, fatigue, and discouragement. Not surprisingly, we discussed the church’s leadership crisis and the priesthood’s crisis. Our conversation made it clear we were men without illusions. Each of us knew the clerical system and how it worked. Just beneath the surface of our reflections, I sensed a common thread of lament. We were men who were grieving and the issues on the table were the same issues being addressed in the private conversations of priests from coast to coast — the future of the church, the emerging role of the laity, the dearth of episcopal leadership, and the changing face of ministry.

As the evening wore on, the substance and tone of our conversation confirmed my earlier impression that priests are grieving. To be sure, some are grieving the imagined halcyon days of Bing Crosby playing Fr. Chuck O’Malley in Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary when the status and authority of the priest was unquestioned. Most, I believe, are grieving the aborted promise and vision of the council. They are grieving the terrible wounds that were again and again compounded by bishops and other church officials who feared scandal and the loss of the clergy’s reputation that, in turn, threatened their own credibility and power. They are grieving the complete breakdown of honest dialogue between bishops and priests. Almost all grieve the current ministerial crisis — especially the growing, forced fasting from Eucharist caused by the shortage of priests and the future of the priesthood. They share in the grief and anguish of women who feel they remain second class members of the church. Many grieve the loneliness inherent in celibacy and the hierarchy’s unwillingness even to discuss the issue of mandatory celibacy. Others grieve the children they never fathered and the wife they never married. Their grief, to be sure, is mixed with the deep joy they find in presiding at Eucharist, in preaching, in ministering to their congregations. At least for the present, lament has the upper hand.

The grieving of priests, however, pales when we turn to the victims of clergy sexual abuse. Their cry of lament, and the cry of their parents, siblings, and friends bind them to the biblical Rachel and all who weep for the wronged children of the world. “In Ramah is heard the sound of moaning,/ of bitter weeping!/ Rachel mourns her children,” . . .(Jer 31:15)(. The months that followed the eruption of the John Geoghan scandal in early January 2002 have been dubbed by various writers as the long Lent. And it isn’t over yet. Until the light rays of resurrection finally break through this long, collective dark night, the whole U.S. church, I believe, longs for a public ritual of lament for the thousands of children and teenagers abused by clergy, church personnel, coaches, scout leaders, teachers, and parents. The cries of anguish from Ramah to Boston, form Lafayette to Minneapolis, from Los Angeles to New York now partially smothered by the passage of time will continue to be raised until the Catholic imagination fashions some kind of liturgy of lament to heal and soothe the present pain.

In the meantime, the faithful daring to speak will do so from exile and from their deep pain. They want to “come home” to a church that has for too long treated them as less than full, adult members with gifts to be employed for the mission of the church. They link the abundance of wasted talent with the anguish of starving people who observe wasted food that could feed the multitudes. Like exiles throughout history, the faithful dwell in a strange place, geographically at home, but estranged from church authorities that fail to listen, fail to understand. Around kitchen tables rather than by the side of the rivers of Babylon, they tell their stories of faith to their children and grandchildren fearing even in the telling the loss of faith for the generations to come. Some have made peace with their estrangement, with their exile in place, and have given up all hope for a renewed church. They exist without community or sacraments, without hope sustained by the preaching of the gospel, and soon fail to understand their souls’ true hunger. They get on with their lives as best they can. From time to time, they suspect they have never been missed.

Other exiles in place struggle as all exiles do simply to survive. They clearly are tired of surviving as Catholics and desire now to flourish and to see their children flourish. They have learned the lessons of exile: mature faith, patient endurance, sustaining memory. The hurt and anger of the prolonged estrangement of exile can be heard in the passion and pathos of their voices. But so, too, can their faith, their tenacity, their hope rooted in memory. Underneath the hurt and anger, moreover, they remain disciples, God’s holy people.