Commentary

Who do say you say that I am? I am Catholic

Originally Appeared in : 9921-10/10/19

In today’s Gospel, Mark offers a familiar and powerful narrative for our meditation. Jesus and his disciples have been working hard, and there is a lot of buzz around the Judean countryside. So in a moment of respite, Jesus asks his followers: Who do people say that I am? They repeat what people are saying: Elijah, one of the prophets, or even John the Baptist. But then Jesus asks them directly: Who do you say I am? And once again it is the burly Peter who steps forward with profound faith: You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior, the fulfillment of the covenant of our Father.

 

And in ordinary times, this simple exchange offers us a deep foundation for our spiritual journeys—meditating on who Jesus really is. But these are not ordinary times: The media attention of recent months forces us to offer that question in reflection upon ourselves: Who do people say we are? And for many of us, at this particular time in the march of history, we might have difficulty answering with a strong and clear voice: “We are Catholics.

 

The almost daily unveiling of the scandals of horrific abuse and criminal cover ups within the institution of the Church are causing us to hang our heads—or at least shake our heads—in sadness, despondency, and outright anger. And with this acknowledgment, I would offer two perspectives on where we go from here.

 

Historically, many of us probably respond to the latest scandal with a tear and “oh no, not again.” Because the recent revelations—whether in our own diocese, Pennsylvania or in Germany, lead us to wonder: “Is there no end in sight?” Long memories can recall the first shock in 1985 of a single priest in Baton Rouge who was convicted on 11 counts of child molestation. And we were in disbelief. But then, in what seemed like a non-stop cycle, more revelations of clerical abuse surfaced: Lafayette, Cincinnati, Louisville, Los Angeles, Boston, Denver and on and on.

 

In this sad history, we need to remind ourselves of one particular date: In 2002 the U.S. Bishops meeting in Dallas issued a charter in which all dioceses pledged to adopt awareness programs for any adult who works with children. And our diocese, like many others, implemented VIRTUS training, which requires adults—clergy or lay, salaried or volunteer—to attend session to learn about proper—and improper—conduct while around children. And further, the program emphasizes that we should all be alert to the “red-flags” of impropriety, and be willing to report it. We are challenged to stay alert.

 

Some say this falls short. Yes, but to paraphrase the recent editorials in America magazine: None of this can erase the devastation of past crimes, and the horrific harm of those abuses. Yet the Dallas charter of 2002 is a sign of change, and for those of us who work around children, we see and feel the impact of these programs of awareness.

 

We need a brief reminder that the recent scandals are not reports of current crimes: These are decades old cases of abuse, and the failure of Church authorities to deal with these harms. And failure it is—horrible acts of arrogance coupled with a crippling fear has brought irreparable harm to our Church.

 

For a lot of us, the anger is not guilt by association. We are struggling with shame by association. And so we need to address the spiritual reality of where we are in our particular journeys of the soul. Who do people say we are? What is this entity called the Catholic Church?

 

We need to recall the brilliant insights of a young Jesuit college professor. Father Avery Dulles began a celebrated teaching career in 1970. He was quickly recognized for his extraordinary lectures, and became one of the great voices of Catholic thought. Throughout his career he lectured at many great universities. He published over 700 articles and 22 books, and no less a follower than Pope John Paul II rewarded his work by conveying on him the title of cardinal in 2001—a rare feat considering that Father Dulles was not a bishop.

 

In 1974, Father Dulles wrote what has become a foundation standard in theological studies: Models Of The Church. And his understanding of the term “the Church” is so relevant, and needed, today. Father Dulles recognized that while we naturally tend to look at “the Church” as an institution of organization, with a hierarchy of order and authority, that is not the sole model of Church. And all we have to do is reflect on the early centuries to understand.

 

Indeed, the institutional Church is just one of six models.

 

The Church should also be understood as

  1. Disciples—people who love Christ and want to learn more about him and want to follow him. Or we look at the Church as
  2. Heralds—individuals who loudly proclaim the good news of the gospel message. We can also see the Church as
  3. Servants—humble people who work for peace and justice for all walks of life. And we savor the Church as
  4. Sacraments—sources of redeeming grace and guiding light for all who believe. But in this current atmosphere, the most compelling model is that of the Church as a
  5. Community of Believers—the people of God; the Body of Christ—what is understood as the mystery of our faith. And so perhaps this current crises demands that we renew our understanding of the foundations of our beliefs.

 

What Do We Catholics Believe?

 

First, we believe in a loving and powerful Triune God: creator, redeemer, guiding spirit.

 

Then, we recognize the all-loving gift of our savior in Jesus Christ, who calls all humans to eternal life. We also rejoice in the holiness of people, especially the saints among us: Saint Mary, most holy; Saint Peter, the rock; Saint Paul, the voice, and all of the modern saints who intercede on our behalf with our loving God.

 

We also recognize the power and the grace of the sacraments: We go forth and teach, baptizing. We are contrite and repent for “who sins you shall forgive…” We rejoice in our celebration of the Eucharist: “this is my body; this is my blood. Do this in memory of me.”

 

This is my faith. This is my Church. This is what it means to be Catholic. We rejoice in the grace and comfort of that faith in our lives. And yes, we are distraught and angered over the stupid failures of some of our leaders—and horrified at the treatment of our children. But we are resolute in our faith. As the prophet Isaiah shouts: “The Lord is my help; therefore, I am not disgraced.”

 

My faith survives. So, who do you say that I am?

 

I am Catholic—through the power and the love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Deacon Robert Larcher: From a homily delivered Sept. 16 at Sacred Heart Church, Savannah.

 

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