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Broken Windows: A Response to the Sexual Abuse Scandal

A Small Lantern in a Storm

My heart has been broken.  My mother, the Church, feels as if she’s being ripped apart.  Anger, shame, confusion, disgust, sadness. It’s overwhelming.  And what makes it worse is we keep on being slammed in the face.  Over and over and over again.  I feel like I was just reeling from the last series of these scandals.  Is this really the new norm for our church? It’s so painful to consider.

This past Sunday at Mass, I was given a beautiful insight.  Not an answer to all the hurt, not by far, but something like a small lantern in a storm: a little light to guide me amid all of this darkness.  I offer it to you, sisters, hoping it might bring some courage as we work to remain a people of hope.

Catechesis of Distraction

I have a childlike wonder for beautiful churches.  Vaulted ceilings; enormous stained glass windows; painted dominions, virtues, and powers set aflight across the altar panel.  I was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, and nothing could quite initiate a craving for beauty quite like the Cathedral of St. Paul.  My husband refers to that catedral as “Catholic Disneyland,” or rather, what Disney would build if tasked with a house of God.  I’ve never found a church that satisfies my hunger like the Cathedral of St. Paul (although I’ve never travelled to Europe, so I still have much to see).

My vocation, wife to an incredible husband who named the Navy his profession, stole me away from that stunning testament to the grandeur of God.  To be honest, not all of the parishes we’ve encountered have been exemplars of beauty (and that’s putting it nicely).  I hate to “parish shop,” but with an attention span as short as mine, I prefer to find myself gazing up at the spiritual art gilding the rafters, rather than critiquing a strange design of the sanctuary space.  (As a bit of a disclaimer, this is all personal preference, and as my husband likes to remind me, it’s the Mass that’s important, not the trimmings).

In all of our moves (I’ve moved four times in a year and a half), I’ve been exposed me to a series of parishes I refer to lovingly as my “coastal churches.”  The Navy puts you right on the coast (obviously), and I have a fondness for the little churches you find right on the beach, or close to it.  They’re little havens for tourists, and nine times out of ten you’ll find a little “St. Mary Star of the Sea” (or some variation), standing sentry like a lighthouse on the water.

Toppled Steeples, Fallen Walls

You wouldn’t expect it, seeing one of these innocent and precious little churches for the first time, but I’ve found that invariably each of these parishes carries an incredible story.  Each and every coastal church that I’ve encountered carries with it a hurricane story.  Tales of flooding, toppled steeples, fallen walls.

Tales of broken windows.

I’ve seen so many historical pictures of how these churches used to look, with beautiful, bold, reverent stained glass windows.  I’ve heard stories of such windows which would gleam, covering the congregation in technicolor during the 9am mass.  Windows special ordered from Tiffany’s, whose greens were emeralds.  Can you imagine, emeralds in the stained glass?

And then it was Hugo.  Camille. Katrina. Harvey.  The waters surged. The winds blew.  Homes were abandoned. Churches were left behind in search of higher ground. And the windows shattered.

I think of our beautiful Church.  That is to say, I think of the beautiful Body of Christ.  I think of the food pantries with which I’ve served.  I think of the college ministry which changed my life and set my heart on fire for the faith.  I think of schools I’ve worked for which are striving to form children’s minds and souls. I think of a boisterous, laughing mother of seven who still found time to serve youth ministry.  I think of a little old widower who volunteered his every hour to his parish. I think of a lector who could barely walk, who struggled to the lecturn to proclaim the Word of God, who gave his every step and his voice to God.  I think of a hardworking young adult professional who gave his two hours of free time a week to train altar servers.  I think of priests and seminarians that I’ve had the blessing to call some of my dearest friends.  I think of sisters who have called me out when my head was up my…well, not where it should of been.

I think of our beautiful Body of Christ, fitted together like a magnificent stained glass window, shining it’s colored light upon the world.  And I think of the hurricanes that have come through, the scandals that have shattered it.

How to Rebuild?

Now, what’s most interesting for me about these coastal churches is how they’ve decided to rebuild after hurricanes.  I’ve seen so many example. One parish did not rebuild, and now stands in ruins. One parish we attended replaced once glorious windows with a simple, less expensive (but less beautiful) design.  One parish raised money and replaced the windows exactly as they were, with an unclear answer as to what they would do if another hurricane struck. One parish simply covered their windows with plaster, leaving an ugly off-white as the first jarring sight.

One parish, however, amazed me.  They were completely wiped out. Not just the windows, the whole church.  The built a strong frame of concrete, able to withstand the force of a hurricane.  And within this strong frame they placed beautiful, inspiring and spiritually-uplifting stained glass windows.  They designed it such that, when (not if) a hurricane came through, they could remove the windows, stowing them in safety until the hurricane had passed.  Once the storm had passed, they could return the windows to their proper place.

Our Time to Rebuild

Sisters, hurricanes in our church are, unfortunately, not an “if.”  It breaks my heart to say so. The Body of Christ both shines with the divinity of our savior, but also bleeds with the vulnerability of our human nature.  We have suffered the effects of this particular hurricane that has gone on for too long.  Every heart is broken, every window is shattered.

The destruction is all about us, and what will we do?  Will we abandon our Church, refuse to rebuild, and like the church left in ruins?  Will we build in fear, leaving us with something only half as good, like the church with the simple windows?  Will we build only what we knew before, and leave ourselves open to the same vulnerabilities, like the church that simply replaced the old windows?  Will we repair, but in doing so shut out the light, like the church whose windows are covered in plaster?

Or will we rebuild something stronger, something safer, but still beautiful?  Will we build something which responds to the reality of sin and human weakness?  And at the same time, will we build something that is still beautiful, which still proclaims the reality of the Good News to the world, and still works to serve all peoples?

I know which path I will strive towards.  I know it will require effort, vigilance, humility, and courage.  I pray to the Holy Spirit that He might guide and sanctify me in this task.  Will you join me, sister?

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Alessandra Catechism Communion Confirmation Faith Formation Mass Offering your suffering Prayer Purgatory Sacred Scripture Spiritual Growth

Redemptive Suffering: The Ultimate Act of Love

As we walked back into my homeroom classroom and my seventh graders marched in the door to their seats, they knew my mood had changed.  Erasing everything from the board I wrote in capital letters:

S-A-C-R-I-F-I-C-E

Then I turned around and waited as everyone took their seats quickly and quietly.  With a perfectly-serious-teacher-face I asked, “Can someone read this word, please?”  Marisol raised her hand first, as usual, and when called on she said, “sacrifice.”  “Perfect!” I said, “now could someone please give me the definition of this word, please?”  A bunch of hands shot up in the air, I called on three or four and the definitions were spot on.    Some said, “the state or experience where one suffers,”  others gave some version of “suffering pain.”  “So most if not all of you know the definition of this word, very good.”  (I cracked a half smile.)  “So when you think of this word, who is the first person that comes to mind?”  Thankfully, most hands shot into the air and I gave a nod which they knew meant “go ahead give me the answer” and in unison, all the children ages thirteen and fourteen who, by the way, were preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation that same year, shouted “Jesus Christ!”  “That is right,” I confirmed, but proceeded with, “so why is it so hard for young ladies and gentlemen to kneel for a holy hour in honor of our Lord and Savior at Adoration?  Why is it that you can’t make it through without complaining, or whining, or slouching?  What is it that He has to do more for you, besides giving up His life and giving you Salvation, so that you can offer Him some sort of sacrifice?”

::silence::  

Some students looked down to the floor in shame.  They realized that the question that their eight-month-then-pregnant homeroom teacher was asking was a valid one.  I let the room go silent for some time.  Then I asked the children to take out their journals and write this word at the top.  They were to write as many words that came to mind when they thought of this word.  The bell rang before we could discuss this any further which was fine, I prayed the Holy Ghost would plant a seed in their young hearts.

The next day was Mass, a Friday, when the Consecration came all of the children in my homeroom class knelt almost on cue, it really looked rehearsed.  They remained on their knees until Communion time, some went up, others didn’t which wasn’t common.  “Good, I thought, they are examining their conscience from the event the day prior.”  When they returned to their pews, they all knelt again and remained there until the Blessed Sacrament was back in the Tabernacle and Father sat down.  All remained focused in prayer, with eyes closed and hands folded, even the ones that didn’t receive.  When we got back to class, they all sat waiting for our mini lesson to resume.  I wrote on the board in big letters:

“REDEMPTIVE  SUFFERING”
and in smaller print
“thank you”

This happened seven years ago.  It was the only time I ever spoke to my beloved students about this – after all, I was their Language Arts teacher, not their religion teacher – but it was a Catholic School, so I took the liberty to talk with them about something that maybe hadn’t been shared or spoken about in religion class or at home.  This past week, my home was in the path of the “frankenstorm” Sandy and we suffered a power outage from Monday around 8:30pm.  Being a native of Florida, we were prepared for this Category One storm as if it was a Category Five.  Candles went on immediately and each child received a small flash light in hand.  Initially, my thoughts went to “Dear Lord, bring our power back as soon as possible” but as the night went on and the storm passed our home making the trees, windows, and roof creak in all sorts of ways I’d never thought possible, I was given time to think about this further.  As I laid in the dark, children all around me in sleeping bags in our bedroom.  Our five kids feel asleep right away, they were sound asleep, had no worries, my husband and I had made them feel very safe despite the situation.  This didn’t mean we weren’t worried ourselves, as we had to come up with creative and resourceful ways of how would we flush toilets, take showers, eat food, you know the basics needed with children age fourteen, seven, six, four, and two.

We were able to endure three nights without power; sporadically I gave updates on my cell phone on Facebook or through instant message with family and close friends.  “I’m praying you get power soon,” they said.  We spent two nights without heat; it was about 40 outside, maybe a little colder, I wasn’t sure.  The first night of the cold was the moment when this classroom scene came to mind and I realized what a wonderful opportunity these next couple of nights would bring for our souls.  I had two choices, complain, and cry or endure it with a smile and some prayers.  Okay, I didn’t really smile, but I did offer my coldness for those poor souls in Purgatory, for my friends whom are enduring real suffering, and for those families in New York and New Jersey who were left with nothing but the clothes on their backs and lost loved ones.  So with flashlight in hand, I grabbed my Bible and flipped it open, a smile did come to my face when I read Job 2:10, “… if we have received good things at the hand of God, why should we not receive evil?”

Suffering and sacrifice seem like such foreign words to us these days.  Everything is instant and easy.  Suffering or sacrificing to many religions is seen as a sign of fortitude or strength.  In Christianity, like the children in my homeroom shouted back in 2006, Christ was the ultimate example of Redemptive Suffering.  We are ALL called to be saints, we are all to share in the holy priesthood of Christ, our spotless victim, and together we make up the mystical body of Christ.  We are called to be non-ministerial priests which in essence means to offer ourselves up for something or someone constantly, after all, that is why God created us.  Our works, joys, pains, sufferings, praise, gratitude, and work should be offered over to God in all we do and say, especially in those hardest of times.  When we do this, we take part in the Divine Nature of Christ, we share the fruits of Calvary.

“In all things we suffer tribulation: but are not distressed. We are straitened: but are not destitute. We suffer persecution: but are not forsaken. We are cast down: but we perish not. Always bearing about in our body the mortification of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodies. For we who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake: that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So then death worketh in us: but life in you.”
~ II Corinthians 4:8-12 

If Christ suffered in His human nature, why should we be spared?  The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson offers us a vivid image of Christ’s suffering even to the point of sweating blood in the Garden.  Our imitating Him strengthens the body of Christ, the Holy Church.  Paul tells us this in I Corinthians 12:26, “And if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it: or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.”  By these actions of redemptive suffering, we are coordinating with God in very profound and spiritual ways and it will benefit others.  Think about it, when a friend suffers just a little for you, it builds you up.  Parents who suffer for their children, children who suffer the loss of a parent, or those of die a happy death.  When I think of this I also think of the victim souls like those saints who shared in the suffering of Christ through the Stigmata.  When they faced this “cross” they embraced and then used it to “offer it up” for others.

My favorite saint taught me so much about redemptive suffering in her book, Story of a Soul.  Saint Therese said, on page 27:

“I understood that to become a saint one had to suffer much, seek out always the most perfect thing to do, and forget self. I understood, too, that there are many degrees of perfection and each soul was free to respond to the advances of the Our Lord, to do little or much for Him, in a word, to choose among the sacrifices He was asking. Then, as in the days of my childhood, I cried out: ‘My God I choose all!’ I do not want to be a saint by halves. I’m not afraid to suffer for You. I fear only one thing: to keep my own will; so take it, for I choose all that You will!”

I invite you to embrace your crosses and offer them for others.  It brings so much healing for yourself, brings you closer to God, and it is so pleasing to the heart and soul when you hear a friend whom you have suffered for also is healed in some way.  Saint Catherine of Siena summed this up best when she said, “The only cause of my death is my zeal for the Church of God, which devours and consumes me. Accept, O Lord, the sacrifice of my life for the Mystical Body of Thy holy Church.”

Be joyful in your redemptive suffering, my brothers and sisters in Christ because the rewards are priceless!
For further reading on Sacrifice and Martyrdom:

Redemptive Suffering, John Paul II and the Meaning of Suffering by Father John Hardon, S.J.

The Eucharist, Mary, and Redemptive Suffering by Shane Kapler on Catholic Exchange.

To Love and To Suffer, the Science of Saints on Religious Vocations.com