Time's up on dark days

Posted by MeganFinnegan at 5/25/2009 11:01 PM EDT

This is not a good time to be an Irish Catholic. A few weeks ago, warring factions barely restrained themselves from fighting to the death in the name of Our Lady, and forced President Obama to speak about abortion rights during a college commencement ceremony. People were outraged, people were arrested, and all eyes were turned to a symbolic act that did not do one damn thing to advance the debate on abortion rights and laws in this country. Father Tim writes an excellent editorial on the subject, which you should read here. It is by far the most compassionate and thoughtful response to the subject I have ever heard from a member of the clergy. Since I am 24 and have been a generally active Catholic my entire life, I don’t know if that fact is comforting or disturbing.

Even worse, the Ryan Report brought to light scandal and abuse of Dickensian proportions within Irish Catholic institutions that went on for decades. The best part: the deal that the Irish government struck with the Church to not reveal the names of individual abusers. Great move.

It seems that the more we uncover about the inner workings of Church institutions, the more disgusted we all are. Catholics react more strongly than any other group, because these findings and actions are betrayals from within. They force us to set ourselves apart from the group to which we are supposed to belong unconditionally. “Yes, I’m Catholic, but I do NOT support the physical, psychological and sexual abuse of children. Just to clarify.” Other Christian religions can point at us and say, That’s why the hierarchy doesn’t work. Too many shepherds, driving away the few sheep foolish enough to follow them. Jesus is the only shepherd you need.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Kathleen Kennedy’s book, which asked “prominent Americans” to talk about their experiences in relation to the Church and how it might and should change. Many Catholic scholars criticized the very premise of the book, on the basis that it is not up to lay people, and certainly not up to people like Dan Akroyd, to prescribe changes for the Church. This is God’s job, but taking into account it’s been a millennia or two since He appeared in human form, the responsibility falls, not surprisingly, to the hierarchy of the Church. Convenient, no?

So the Church, presented with one catastrophic unveiling after another, resorts to the same fallback position it always does – say a prayer and acknowledge the mystery of God’s ways and the presence of evil in our world. This approach is strikingly devoid of action aimed at prevention. Not only must we endure this passive response, but we’re told that we – the Body of Christ, His church – are not the agents of change we so arrogantly presume ourselves to be. We must rest on our wilting laurels and wait for God to speak to one of the Chosen Ones.

No, this is not the best time to be Irish and Catholic. But darkness presents the opportunity for light to make a big impact. During these bleak times, we can display our shame and take steps away from the Church, or we can embrace our shame and march right up to the big heavy doors, swing them wide open and say, This is not okay. This is not how His church should be run.

Now is the time to remember the reasons that the Catholic faith can be, has been, so strong. There is no greater sense of connectedness than to walk into a church anywhere in the world and feel that you are instantaneously a part of a community. Language and cultural barriers do not change a Mass. When I was in Paris during my time studying abroad, I convinced my fellow travelers to attend the International Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral, conducted in French, English, Spanish and German. I didn’t get much of the sermon (although I knew it was about fish), but I received Communion from the priest, and I was not a tourist but a family member. It is this sense that draws me back to the Church whenever I feel lost.

As Tim Pat Coogan points out quite well, denial is toxic, in families as well as institutions. Denial is a classic characteristic of the functioning middle-class American Catholic family, but that doesn’t mean it’s working. Denial will not help us bring our Church to a better understanding with the rest of the world.

In this column, I have voiced criticism of the Church and of Catholicism – not unfairly, I contend – and I hope to continue this practice, with respect and with the intent to invite others to contemplate as well as follow. I would also like to use this space, however, to highlight the good things that Catholics are doing in the world. I’ll be seeking out Catholics in my community with stories to share, and I invite any readers to share their stories as well. It is important that we do not ignore the wounds that the Ryan Report has unwrapped; they must be explored and ripped open, and it will be painful. But the wounds need to be treated, not just covered. In order to do that, we will need to focus on the reasons that it will always be a good time to be Catholic – Irish or otherwise.

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