Faith Matters

Fr Edward O'Donnell: In need of God's mercy, the Catholic Church must take action on abuse

The Vatican summit on clerical abuse and bishop accountability closed on Sunday with little in the way of concrete action being proposed. Fr Edward O'Donnell reflects on the conference and how faith can be sustained in the midst of scandals of such gross evil

Pope Francis celebrates Mass at the Vatican on Sunday at the conclusion of his summit of Catholic leaders aimed at preventing clerical sexual abuse. The Mass was celebrated in the Sala Regia, one of the grand, frescoed reception rooms of the Apostolic Palace. Picture by Giuseppe Lami/Pool Photo via AP

A four-day meeting attended by the Church's senior Bishops and Religious Superiors concluded in the Vatican on Sunday.

It was convened by Pope Francis in the wake of continued worldwide reports of the sexual abuse of children by clergy and Religious, and the cover up by those in authority.

This meeting is the latest step by Church authorities on a journey that has and will continue to be painful; painfully slow, and painful in its revelations - and inconceivably painful for the victims.

The gross evil of the abuse of the vulnerable destroys lives and cries out for justice and reparation; it is utterly criminal and demands exposure and justice; it is horrendously sinful and appeals for repentance and justice.

To those who cause the vulnerable to stumble Jesus, untypically, uses stern words.

"Anyone who is the downfall of one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round his neck," he said, in words recorded in Matthew 18:6.

Pope Francis, in his opening address to those taking part in the meeting, said: "The Holy People of God are watching us and wait for more than simple condemnations, they expect concrete and effective measures."

We pray that we hear those concrete and effective measures soon, and that they are implemented quickly.

The extent of these scandals raises serious questions.

I do not know about you, but I find myself, on the revelation of yet another scandal, sick to the pit of my stomach and utterly ashamed, and asking too: "My God, what is happening in your Church?"

The 'double lives' of certain Church leaders has raised for many the question, "How do I stay in a Church with sinful leaders?"

Some, I know, have lost faith in the Church and have walked away. Who could blame them?

I find myself, on the revelation of yet another scandal, sick to the pit of my stomach and utterly ashamed, and asking, 'My God, what is happening in your Church?' 

However, let me tell you what, in spite of everything, sustains my faith.

Two things: my knowledge of the history of the Church; and my trust in Jesus Christ, our Lord.

The history of the Church is one of grace and sinfulness; of saints and sinners; of the beautiful and the vulgar.

It is so for each generation of Christians for, as Jesus predicted, the Church is, "like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad" (Matthew 13:48).

God's abundant grace, the heroic lives of the saints, the beauty of Christian art and literature, keep me steadfast and firm in faith.

However, more important than the lessons of history are the words of Jesus.

When Jesus speaks in the Gospel, he is not speaking impersonally, nor is he addressing a faceless crowd.

He speaks personally to each of us - to you and to me.

My personal relationship with Jesus comes before all else and I trust in his word to me.

Therefore, regardless of the storms that may rock the Church, and the failures, even the sinful and criminal failures of some of its leaders, it is with confidence that I listen to Jesus as he assures me that, "the gates of hell will not prevail against" the Church (Matthew 16:18).

It is not on the authority of the Church that I accept Jesus, but on the authority of Jesus that I accept and love the Church.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."

It is true that the ideal Jesus Christ places before us is difficult - we have heard his words of the Gospel: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly... treat others as you would like them to treat you... be compassionate... do not judge... do not condemn... grant pardon..."

What a difficult ideal to attain. And yet we cannot claim to be a Christian unless you and I pursue that ideal - to love and respect others as God loves and respects them.

St Paul, in his letters, sets before us the resurrection as the central inspiration of our faith and the fire of our Christian ideal.

He explains that we are now in the image of Adam, the man made from the dust of the earth, but someday we shall be in the image of the heavenly man, Jesus Christ.

It is because ours is a glorious destiny that St Paul exhorted: "Do not model yourselves on the behaviour of the world around you, but let your behaviour change... know what is good, what it is that God wants, what is the perfect thing to do.

"Do not let your love be a pretence, but sincerely prefer good to evil. Love each other... and have a profound respect for each other."

On the last evening of the meeting in Rome, Pope Francis led almost 200 Cardinals, Bishops and other Church leaders in a solemn Penitential Service.

Collectively they confessed: "We confess that bishops priests, deacons and Religious in the Church have done violence to children and youth... that we have shielded the guilty... that we have not acknowledged the suffering of many victims... that we bishops did not live up to our responsibilities."

"Lord Jesus Christ," they prayed, "we ask for your mercy on us sinners."

Lord, have mercy on your Church; have mercy on us all.

  • Fr Edward O’Donnell is parish priest of St Brigid’s in Belfast.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass at the Vatican on Sunday at the conclusion of his summit of Catholic leaders aimed at preventing clerical sexual abuse. The Mass was celebrated in the Sala Regia, one of the grand, frescoed reception rooms of the Apostolic Palace. Picture by Giuseppe Lami/Pool Photo via AP

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