In an impromptu, and very beautiful homily, Pope Benedict XVI last week brought up the issue of penance:
Penance is grace; it is a grace that we recognize our sin, it is a grace that we know we need renewal, change, a transformation of our being. Penance, being able to do penance, is the gift of grace. And I must say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word penance, it has seemed too harsh to us. Now, under the attacks of the world that speak to us of our sins, we see that being able to do penance is grace. And we see that it is necessary to do penance, that is, to recognize what is wrong in our life, open ourselves to forgiveness, prepare ourselves for forgiveness, allow ourselves to be transformed.
Benedict had a good deal more to say in his excellent homily, which should be read in its entirety, but let’s look at what has developed from this.
Deacon Greg Kandra shares an email he received from a fellow deacon, Deacon Charles Rohrbacher of Alaska:
One repeated criticism of them has been that even in their apologies, [the bishops] have resembled corporate executives rather than pastors. In a real sense, they have not yet responded, either as a body or as individual bishops in a Catholic enough way. All the more remarkable because of our rich tradition of public penance and outward signs of repentance and contrition, but unfortunately, to date, very few of our bishops have entered the public practice of our Catholic penitential tradition.
The Holy Father in the past couple of days has called us as a Church to penance, which is good and appropriate up to a point (because we are all part of the Body of Christ) but misdirected, I think, because the faithful were not responsible for the decisions that caused so much harm to victims and scandal. It is the bishops themselves who need to seek God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of those who were harmed because of their failure to protect the most vulnerable members of their flock from abusive priests and to implore God’s mercy on behalf those clerics who molested children and young people (most of whom are unrepentant and evade all responsibility for their crimes).
So here is my question for you. What if our bishops chose to do public penance? What if they lay prostrate or knelt in front of their cathedrals as penitents before each Mass on the weekend closest to the feast of St.Peter and Paul or on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus or some other appropriate day or days? Or, even better, on the first Friday of every month for the next year starting with the feast of the Sacred Heart or Sts.Peter and Paul? And what if we, as their deacons, as an order in the Church, in all humility, not only called on our bishops to do public penance, but offered to join them in it?
As deacons we invite God’s holy people to pray for mercy in the Penitential Rite. As deacons we call God’s priestly people to pray for the needs of the Church and world at every Mass. As deacons on Good Friday, it is our part to invite our bishop and priests and all the faithful to kneel in prayer.
Just as I think it is our part to call our bishops to do public penance, I think it is also our part to join them in penance as well. Clearly, our place is with our bishops: we stand at the side of our bishop during every celebration of the liturgy and the sacraments, ready to assist them. We lie next to them every Good Friday as we prostrate our selves before the mystery of the Lord’s death on the cross. And I think that if we, as deacons, are willing to stand (or kneel or prostrate ourselves) at the side of our bishops, they might say yes to doing public penance.
Deacon Rohrbacher may be on to something, here. The visual impact of priests, bishops, deacons and seminarians all lying prostrate, begging forgiveness and doing penance could be very powerful.
Victims of sexual abuse are people who have been reduced to mere “things;” who have been made to feel like their being, their personhood, their God-created spirits are as inconsequential as dirt. They blame themselves for their molestation, and feel “dirty.” Many work up the courage to tell their stories only to have their truths denied, or hidden, or denounced as “lies” and “mean-ness.” When that happens, it is like being molested once more. It leaves one feeling utterly crushed, like glass that has been not only shattered, but then ground into powder, by the heel of a shoe.
I write from experience. When you are sexually abused, the world cracks and falls apart. Confronting your abuser, and being “heard” is when healing may finally begin, and pages can finally be turned.
I think it would make a deep and resonant answer to the victims, if they could see see their clerics -not on their knees, weeping and beating the breast, which is too much like theatre- but flat on the ground, at dirt-level and vulnerable – which is precisely the place where a victim resides.
The act of prostrating oneself before the community, before the church, may not seem like much to some, but it will say to the victims: you have been heard. You have told the truth. You have been sinned against, and we beg your forgiveness. We are decreased; you are increased. We are lowered; you are raised.
What I know of people who have survived sexual abuse is this: they rarely want to see the whole-sale destruction of the abuser. What they want is to know that the agonizing interior screams that they have lived with have been heard and understood. They want to know that others will never have to suffer as they have.
This idea of Deacon Rohrbacher’s can be a powerful affirmation that the victims need, but a concern could arise that an ongoing, weekly demonstration of penance can either become rote or theatrical. It would not be a helpful or useful thing to see a priest or bishop prostrate themselves in the “we’ve done this before, let’s get it over with” manner that sometimes infuses the Holy Mass.
Instead, perhaps what we should be looking for is something world-wide and simultaneous. These abuses have occurred throughout the church, throughout the world. In that light, perhaps the church needs to perform a “Great Prostration” throughout the world; a moment where the pope, the cardinals, the bishops, all priests, all deacons, all religious (male and female) and those members of the laity who wish to, all gather at their churches and prostrate themselves, as one body, in acknowledgment of sin, and in reparation.
This would be an enormous act of humiliation, and the vast participation would underscore both the enormity of the sin, and the scope of the repentance.
Deacon Rohrbacher expresses concern that the penance belongs only to the clergy, that Pope Benedict’s apparent call for a “collective” penance is misplaced. Others have expressed a similar concern, and they are not wrong. But they are perhaps being too constricted in their thinking.
We are one body. We are called to do penance for our own sins, of course, but we are also encouraged to offer up penances for others who either cannot or will not do it for themselves. This is a notion we have gotten away from in recent decades, but the simple (and theologically sound) idea of “offering up” small deprivations and mortifications for our own sins “and the sins of others” was not always so problematic. Doing such penance unifies and foments peace, for it reminds us that we are all broken, faulty and sinful, and that all sin -from venial to grave- harms the Body of Christ, and humanity.
And of course, we have the example of Jesus Christ, himself -the all good, and wholly innocent- who suffered and suffers for the sins of others. Jesus Christ, stumbling with his heavy cross, knew face-down, dirt-breathing prostration, done on behalf of the sins of others.
As a lay person, I would participate in this prostration, with my pope, my bishops and priests and all the rest. I would participate as a means of communicating to the victims that I have heard them and that I am united to them, angry for them and ashamed on their behalf, and also to express to the whole world that I too am a sinner, in need of mercy. I would prostrate myself as to express unity with the clergy and religious, that they are no more outside of redemption than the rest of us, that they are valued and their healing is as necessary to the Body of Christ as is the healing of the victims.
My participation would also demonstrate my intention to remain within this injured body, contributing to both its weakness and its strengths, because I know my redeemer lives, and that we all shall rise again.
Time is a construct. We know that all things are happening, at every moment. The crucifixion of Christ is happening today, as is his resurrection. The parting of the Red Sea is happening at this moment. Also happening at this moment are a billion sins against the vulnerable. The church needs to insert a cleansing and reparative “moment” into this vast collection of ever-unfolding and eternal events.
The Great Prostration could be that moment.
Arising from the dirt, the entire Body of Christ can finally begin to heal.
The fullness of healing, of course, can only come when the victims finally feel capable of saying “I forgive you…” That moment -which cannot be compelled and does not mean forgetting- is the moment when a victim takes his life back. When a victim says, “I forgive you,” she confers her own power over the entire situation, and controls it. It is transformative; it brings a victim into his or her Royal Priesthood.
Forgiveness, I have learned, is essential to healing; without it one is held in a stagnant pool of misery. Forgiving is how you reclaim yourself and move on. Until you can forgive, the incident -whatever it is- owns you.
This will not answer for everyone. Those seeking material or tangible redress will still want that. Practicalities will still have to be answered, and for some, this moment would be dismissed as mere “theatrics.” But at least there will be a calling out of “olly-olly oxen free” and the great hiding will end, and all will be gathered together, in the light. An environment for forgiveness will have been established.
In his impromptu sermon, Benedict said:
Christ, the archegos, saves us by giving us the light, giving us the truth, giving us the love of God . . . The suffering of penance, of purification, of transformation, this suffering is grace, because it is renewal, it is the work of Divine Mercy . . . metanoia is the arrival of the grace that transforms us.
The Great Prostration could be a moment of metanoia, or at least a place to start. We know that all things work to the glory of God, whose mind is not our mind, and whose ways are not our ways. It might be a perfect and powerful way to close The Year of the Priest.
All of this may well be leading to moment of grace for many people. A public penance may not endear the church to those who already hate her -and undoubtedly there will be cries of “not enough” (and a prostration, alone, cannot be)- but this could be a starting point for those who are estranged. And it may even provide the grace-filled moment that encourages others, wholly disconnected from any church, to reflect on their own lives, their broken relationships, the harm they have known or have sown.
Perhaps this is an idea worth praying over.
The effect of sin ripples out of our control, touching others in ways we cannot imagine. The effect of grace does the same. Perhaps the whole world is in dire need of a moment of grace.
Count him in too!
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The Work of Penance
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Publisher of the NY Times (or Editors, anyway) reject letter from law professor describing their actions.