I attended a mass this morning. Yes, Catholic mass.
On purpose. Not despite her current scandals but because of them.
I attended during a week when every news source decried the sexual abuse of children by priests and covered up by hierarchs—when the face of the Catholic church burned with shame.
The apostle Paul wrote that when one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers. James encouraged us to grieve with those who grieve. As a member of the one body of Jesus Christ, the church universal, I’m not given the option of seeing the sin and wickedness, the suffering or the grief of the Roman Catholic church as if we are not co-members of one family. To willfully turn away from bleeding brothers and sisters is itself a grievous sin of abandonment. Their scandal is my scandal because at stake is the Word of God who we proclaim.
So I went to mass.
A certain Fr. Calhoun was serving—a kindly 79-year-old priest. I wondered briefly if or how he might address the clergy scandals, but immediately, our songs, prayers and Scripture readings drew my eyes and heart up to the One greater, more ancient and more beautiful than the mess of his church.
We stood for the Gospel reading—the words of Christ, the Word of God—whose poignant message challenged the priesthood and its traditions. Thus says the Lord,
Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions… You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions.
Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall in the pit... Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.
My mind was drawn back to earth, to the church, to our scandals and the anguish of the faithful—to the offense against the little ones and to the world that associates Christianity with hypocrisy and its clergy with the systemic sexual abuse of children and attending cover-ups.
I wondered how the priest could evade making the connection himself.
He didn’t. He waded directly into the sewer.
He spoke of how, today, the great evils of the world are perpetrated within the church itself. With humility and disgrace (his words), he spoke plainly of the terrible wickedness found within the house of God. He compared the clergy’s horrific sins to Judas’ betrayal of Christ for 30 pieces of silver. He named the scandalizing corruption and hypocrisy that have caused unspeakable anguish to so many. He spoke about the need for a cleansing reformation (again, his words) and called us to stand up for the Word of God—Christ and his gospel—that our part is to pray and do penance for the church.
I found this last call interesting. First, he did not tell us to stand up for the church. Perhaps the church is so malignant that it’s indefensible. We stand up for the Word of God—i.e., for Christ and for the gospel—even and now especially through bold self-critique and collective grieving of our sins.
Second, I noted his suggestion that members of the Body pray and do penance for the church. Penance: often misunderstood as acts of self-punishment for sin—like the self-flagellation of ascetic extremists (as Luther was prior to his revelation of grace). Such a vision of penance seems anti-gospel, as if the death of Christ is insufficient to cover every sin. Where is grace? Where about forgiveness? Aren’t penance and grace mutually opposed?
Not really. Penance is best understood as acts of repentance, not unlike the Recovery movement’s “living amends.”At its most basic, to “do penance” is to move beyond self-loathing regret, self-justifying excuses or endlessly apologizing for our misdeeds. Penance properly understood is the grace to live differently. In fact, the lack of transforming grace is often a sign of deficient authentic repentance. Repentance is a grace-gift that empowers a real about-face, both our hearts and our lives through surrender to the indwelling life of Christ.
For example, in the case of domestic violence, we look for repentance that moves beyond repeatedly saying “I’m sorry” toward an end to the beatings and actively loving one’s family. That’s penance.
After the service, I interviewed the priest, thanking him for directly addressing the scandal and caring for the flock in his care. I asked him how it is we can do penance for the church. He made penance sound like something one can do on behalf of others. Paraphrasing his answer, he said that penance can take many forms. Penance is as creative as the Holy Spirit, including any acts of goodness that we can imagine Christ generating through us.
Such acts are for the church because they are done as the church—that is, because we are the church, we identify with her sins and repent with her and for her, whether or not we personally participated in those sins. It also means seeing how we are complicit, even in the dark closets of one’s heart.
This “identificational repentance” was modeled by both Jeremiah and Daniel when they prayed on behalf of their people, “We have sinned,” and again when Christ, though sinless himself, received John’s baptism of repentance for us all. Again, repentance includes living the grace-filled life of Christ-in-us. And for the church, it means living and being and doing what we want the church to be, live and do, because we are the church. This is the true penance of grace—walking in step with and in surrender to the Spirit.
I mentioned “seeing how we are complicit”—how we’ve participated in the sins of the church. It’s not just that we have sinned—I have sinned. The defensive instincts of the flesh say, “Well, I’ve never committed those heinous sins.” Beware. Moral outrage is often a form of confession of deeply repressed impulses… a signal of the “evil thoughts” that Christ knows and sees in the deepest recesses of our hearts. In the Gospel reading, he includes among them, “murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” Denying my capacity to “go there” only makes them more likely to emerge from my heart into my actions.
Among the church’s current overt iniquities, Christ names false testimony and slander, also rampant among church leaders who use others’ vulnerability for their own rancid power plays. Are we guilty of the same? Do we double down on adultery and sexual immorality by employing others’ shame to our credit, as if we were the righteous ones living above it all? In fact, who points the finger and turns the knife more recklessly than we the church, as if it were to our advantage. It is not. Joining the sneering mob is the ministry of the accuser and the first step to a personal fall (that we’re sure we’d never commit).
So, there I sat in mass with the remnant, grieving for the tattered state of the body of Christ. Others, perhaps also heeding Jesus’ words—“Leave them”—were long gone. Sometimes a Christian group develops such a corrupt culture that leaving is the least harmful option. Ex-Catholics can appeal to those two words as Christ’s mandate for them.
But there remains a shrinking, battered band that still identifies with the body of Christ—with her sin, shame and sorrow—as we also identify with her Savior, who “is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Heb. 2:11). And for the little flock with whom I attended the mass, a special gift remains: Christ and his universal body identify with them.
As I sat among the few-dozen penitents, I experienced two inspiring epiphanies. First, when the priest held up the Eucharistic chalice and declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” we truly did. Not despite our sins as the church, but precisely for these sins, the Lamb appears every time his name is lifted up and his saving work is proclaimed. Indeed, I beheld the Lamb slain, taking away our sin, bearing away the humiliating shame we could no longer bear.
Then also, there was a moment in the liturgy where some of the saints were named with whom we commune—the Virgin, apostles and martyrs. In that little room, I sensed the greatness of the universal body and the presence of glorified believers being disclosed as ever with us, together beholding that same Lamb, fortifying our fragile faith, telling us we are not alone.
Hebrew 12 says that we have come to Mount Zion, to myriads upon myriads of angels, to the spirits of righteous men and women made perfect, and to Christ himself. Suddenly our tiny company was swelled with the glorious ones, the cloud of witnesses who, like Christ, are not embarrassed by our presence in their fellowship. Even in their perfected state, they chose solidarity with us rather than quarantine from us. They are the church, just as we are the church, communing with local believers who instantiate the body of Christ in time and space, together beholding the Lamb.
At last, I asked for and received a blessing from Fr. Calhoun.
And now, sharing this reflection is my tiny act of penance for the church.