At the Great Vigil of Easter this year, I teared up during the Litany of the Saints. Standing in the choir loft, I could see the entire parish, many of whom are dear friends, as we all pleaded with our heavenly companions to pray for us. At this time of immense crisis in our beloved Church, never has this plea for heavenly help felt more powerful and necessary.
Some of my non-Catholic friends think we Catholics pray to the saints. We don’t. During the Litany of the Saints, we ask the saints in heaven to pray for us. The Litany of the Saints begins by invoking the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We also ask more than 50 saints, by name, to pray for us. Of course, these men and women are not the only saints. The Catholic Church has confirmed the existence of thousands of saints, men and women who have died and now are in union with God in heaven. Millions of other saints inhabit heaven, people whose lives were less notable. Faithful friends and family who have gone before us are also part of this great Communion of Saints. In great humility, we beg this cosmic communion to pray for us. We are a hurting Church. We need their prayers.
Throughout my life, in years and Masses past, I have merely endured this Litany of the Saints, which lasts for four or five minutes. To me, it was a monotonous listing of out-of-date names. Saints to me, I am sad to say, had no more meaning than two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. Now, I understand that these flawed, vulnerable, and brave men and women are still alive, in the “cloud of witnesses.” They are part of the Communion of Saints that exists here on earth, among the faithful souls on their way to heaven, and in heaven with those now united with God.
Thanks to my careful reading since Christmas, including the magnificent book My Life with The Saints, which sparked Webster’s own conversion, I now feel familiar with many of those names. These saints are my friends. The early church, Father James Martin, SJ, writes, focused more on the “companionship model, those who have gone ahead of us and are now cheering us on, brothers and sisters in the community of faith.” Here are the parishioners at Our Lady of Mercy, chanting the litany at their Great Vigil of Easter last year.
This year in my New Jersey parish as the cantors sang each name at the Great Vigil, I could imagine the person, in all his or her quirky and holy individuality, behind the name. We Catholics need this Communion of Saints as never before. The credibility of our Church leaders is being questioned, and for good reason. I welcome this questioning. I share the disgust at the sexual abuse of children and subsequent cover-ups. Only 1 percent of the Roman Catholic Church are priests and bishops, and a tiny proportion of them are the abusers and their enablers. The Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs all of us to make right choices in accordance with reason and the divine law. This means we faithful must speak out for the good of the Church when the Church is in crisis. She is now.
The church scandals hit my family directly. We discovered years later, that a pedophilic priest served at the parish of my childhood, as did another priest who went on to move disturbed men from parish to parish. Reflecting on this now, my parents are deeply grateful that my brother never served as an altar boy or spent a moment alone with a priest or anyone on staff. Decades ago, one troubling incident my brother found out about from friends prompted my mom to call our pastor. He shrugged off the probability boys were being sexually abused by one of his subordinates. “We were so trusting,” my mom says. ” I should have called the police.”
As a result of this history, I was resistant to the idea of my own sons becoming altar servers, not because of the wonderful parish priest at our current parish, but because of that childhood experience that haunted, angered, and terrified me when my parents and the news media reported it years later. And I embrace rules that now prevent priests from spending tine alone with any parishioner—just as teachers are instructed not to spend time alone with one student. These rules both protect parishioners from sexual or other abuse and protect priests from the possibility of false allegations.
Trust, once broken, can be impossible to repair. Scores of Catholics of my generation and acquaintance have left the Church because of these scandals, either because they were abused as young boys or because they were repelled by learning of the abuse. But the truth remains that the overwhelming majority of Catholic priests are wonderful, trustworthy men, who are as pained and disheartened and disgusted as the laity about child sexual abuse and the subsequent denials and cover-ups by bishops.
And the truth is that in its Bible-based traditions and sacramental life, the Catholic Church holds the fullness of faith. Bad people never will destroy the Church’s truth. Consider what Doctor of the Church St. Thomas of Aquinas said nearly seven centuries ago about priests, who daily bring us a foretaste of heaven through the Eucharist. “The priest consecrates the sacraments not by his own power, but as the minister of Christ, in whose person he consecrates this sacrament. But from the fact of being wicked he does not cease to be Christ’s minister because our Lord has good and wicked ministers or servants.” And so, in this crisis, we Catholics in the pews need to speak out from the depths of our consciences about the sins of the Church leaders. And as part of the Communion of Saints, we need to ask even more fervently for the prayers of those who have gone before us, marked with the signs of our indestructible faith.