Father Reginald* was a young Franciscan priest in a long brown cassock, with sandals on his feet and three knots on his belt to represent the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Father Reginald was also very tall and spare with buzzed hair and a short brown beard. He didn’t look much like the real Saint Francis is supposed to have looked, but he looked quite a bit like the standard kitschy representations of Saint Francis on prayer cards. I was sitting in his office on the modest, vow-of-poverty-appropriate sofa, clutching a small icon of Christ blessing the children in my jacket pocket, my eyes welling up with tears, and Father Reginald was bawling me out.
“You should never tell anyone that you suffer from flashbacks,” he said. “Not your friends, not a priest, not anyone. Not to ask for prayers. Emotional suffering is NOT the same as physical suffering. No one should know that except your therapist and, I guess, maybe your husband.” Before he allowed me to leave his office, he insisted on saying a prayer asking the Most High and Glorious God to fill me with perfect charity.
In the following weeks, Father Reginald did everything in his power to separate me from my only friends in the community, passive aggressively forbidding me to meet them in certain places or talk about what he’d said with anyone. I begged him to stop, but that made matters worse. And then I made the mistake of telling people what he was doing to me. After that, at five separate Masses in a row, he managed to accidentally refuse me Communion– no celiac chalice for my allergy, giving the only low-gluten Host to an altar server, a different reason every time. To this day, I can’t look at a kitschy prayer card of Saint Francis or a priest in that cassock with the three-knot belt without cringing. And I would rather die than repeat that prayer about perfect charity.
I’ve seen a meme circulating on Facebook lately; perhaps you’ve seen it as well. “Church hurt: if being hurt by church causes you to lose faith in God, your faith was in people not in God.” I presume “Church Hurt” is standard jargon in some circles, but I’ve never heard of it before. I can’t say where this meme originated, but it has to be spoken out against whenever it’s shared. Because that meme is nothing but a cruel, victim-blaming lie.
People learn about God from Creation and, most of the time, from other people. This is not a bug; it’s a feature. Christ Himself commanded the disciples to preach the Gospel to others. He could have appeared to each person individually, but He chose to send spokespeople instead. Yes, sometimes God intervenes miraculously. Sometimes an unbeliever is struck blind by a vision of Christ and converted on the spot. Usually, though, we learn about Christ from Christians. My friend who was nonreligious but was abused for years by her boyfriend’s Catholic family did not become a Christian; instead, she became very opposed to organized religion for a very long time. This was not because of a lack of faith on her part. It was because she did what humans do– she learned about Christ from Christians. And based upon what Christians told her through their actions, Christ appeared to be a fraud. My other friend, who was bullied mercilessly in Catholic schools until she was withdrawn in the sixth grade, also learned that the Christ they worshiped was a fraud. I’ve met two people recently who left their faith because of how the people in their church responded to their mental health struggles– how could a God that had no help or love for His children suffering that terrible cross be anything but a fraud? And I have other friends who witnessed the hypocrisy of Catholics in Traditionalist and homeschooling circles and are still very angry at the Church.
Very well, one might say, but can’t they just learn about Christ from other, more honest Christians? If you’ve been taught the teaching of Christianity and found it to be true, can’t you cling to firm faith in the face of unfaithful Christians?
Yes, theoretically, you could. But to say that everyone can do that automatically is to completely misunderstand how humans react to abuse. When someone is hurt, their whole being– their mind, their brain, their instincts– cling to that hurt. That’s not holding a grudge, it’s survival. It’s the natural way to avoid being hurt a second time. A woman who was sexually assaulted on a soft saggy mattress may have an aversion to sleeping on soft saggy mattresses afterwards– even if she knows rationally that she is safe, she will not feel safe. This is not because she’s insane, but because her memory is doing what it’s supposed to do. People instinctively store memories of extreme hurt or danger, and when given similar data they respond in panic and terror to avoid being hurt. I know logically that Saint Francis and the Franciscan orders do not hate people who have been victims of abuse– considering how Saint Francis was treated by his father, it would be ludicrous for me to think that. But of course, I cringe away from Franciscan priests and would never go to one for help if I was abused again. That’s because my body and mind are working to protect me from ever running into another Father Reginald. My friend who was molested in the confessional by a Legionaries of Christ priest still fears Confession, and only goes to liturgies in the Byzantine rite parish because the Latin rite is so triggering to her. This isn’t because there’s something wrong with my friend. It’s because she suffered horrific abuse in a confessional, and her body and mind are working to prevent that abuse from happening again. It is possible to train the mind and body to let go of trauma reactions, but this is an extremely painful and time consuming process. And it has nothing, nothing in the world, to do with faith in God. Except in the case of a certified miracle, Faith in God will not remove a bear trap from your ankle, it won’t remove a bullet from your brain and it won’t remove a trauma reaction either. Lack of faith does not cause trauma and faith alone will not directly heal it.
Christ– Christ, the impossibly merciful One who readily forgave the men who tortured Him to death, Christ the Meek and Humble of Heart, Christ the Shepherd who laid down His whole life for us errant sheep– this same Christ had nothing kind to say to those who drive people away from the Church. Whatever will become of them, we know on the authority of Christ that drowning at the bottom of the sea would be better. I know of nothing He said to condemn those who run away because of abuse. I pray that the Good Shepherd will find them and remove the bear trap of trauma from their hearts, and I pray that I will never be guilty of placing that trap for anyone. I pray for mercy for any time I have, accidentally or through my sins, represented Christ as a fraud. And to those who have left the Church: I know it wasn’t because you lacked faith. I respect your spiritual journey and I empathize with your suffering. May we all be healed. And may we one day find our way to perfect Charity.
*Father’s name and certain characteristics have been changed because he’s not the point.
(Image via the National Gallery of Art)