The sisters and I are finished with eating our dinner, but remain seated at the table. I am sharing from a vulnerable place, telling a story about my struggles, growth and the challenge of being a healthy and balanced human. Then, our conversation is interrupted by a strange, loud squawking noise coming from the top of one of the tall pines on the nearby lakeshore. Together, we jump up from the table, a mix of curiosity and concern moving us outward.
The youngest and the quickest, I am the first to make my way to the end of the dock and turn my gaze upward to the treetops. There, I see two giant birds on neighboring branches. One is a mix of brown and white, a hawk; the other black and white with a golden beak, an eagle. The hawk is the one screaming, yelling at the eagle like a human toddler claiming its toy, its territory: “Mine! Mine!”
From my vantage point, the eagle seems to be staring at the other. Perhaps glaring. Possibly stubborn. Definitely quiet and bold. The deafening hawk continues screaming, unfazed by the humans crowding on the shore and staring upward at the spectacle. Eventually, the birds take flight, the eagle first going in one direction and then the hawk in the other. As they go, the only sound heard is… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
In 2002, during the months in which the The Boston Globe released the findings of its investigation into wrong doing on behalf of the Catholic clergy in the Diocese of Boston, I was a high school junior preparing for confirmation. The investigation exposed a widespread pattern of sexual abuse from several Catholic priests, five of them ultimately convicted of criminal charges and another — covered up on behalf of church leaders who knew about or at least suspected the abuse and hid it — for allowing it to continue. The initial investigation garnered national and international attention, and ultimately led to additional investigations in several other dioceses and in other countries like Canada and Ireland.
I remember being heartbroken for the victims and, as someone preparing to be fully initiated into the church, personally humiliated. Many of my classmates, especially those who had been Catholic and who had chosen to leave, sneered at me and asked how I could choose to be part of an institution that supported rapists. I remember sobbing in adoration for the victims, both because of their unfathomable pain and because I felt powerless to help them, powerless to do anything but be a punching bag for the community I loved due to the crimes of men I hated.
My classmates demanded to know how I could continue to support the institution and I realized that to me, the church was not an institution. It was a family. A family I loved. And my family was in trouble. The family homestead was on fire. It turns out that some of my fathers were deadbeat dads … to put it mildly. They weren’t really my fathers at all … they just dressed like they were. They pretended to care for us kids, but instead they violated my brothers and sisters and then set the house on fire. It was burning down around me.
Image courtesy Pixabay
I remember leaving adoration one night at 2 a.m., standing in front of my parish building with all of this on my mind thinking, “The church is on fire. The only response is to run.” But the question was: which way? “Do I run from the flames, or do I run toward them?”
In the time since that night I have become a youth minister, partly because I have seen how deadly serious, how incredibly important the preparation and protection of our young people is. I have become a facilitator of “Virtus: Protecting God’s Children.” It’s a program responsible for training volunteers in the creation, implementation and enforcement of safe standards for children and youth programming. As part of those training sessions, I show a video that includes confessions from child abuse perpetrators and testimonies given by their victims. It is incredibly hard to watch. I have led dozens of such training sessions … enough times that I have the videos nearly memorized. And so I could do other work while those videos play. I could busy myself with emails or calendaring activities. But I don’t. I watch every time. And every time I burn.
I burn with sorrow for their pain. I burn with anger at the injustice. I burn with conviction that I will do everything I can to build a world of safety and security for my kids, both for the son and daughter who live under my roof and for my little brothers and sisters who live with me in the shared house of our faith.
Image courtesy Pixabay
I’m not sure why I watch. Perhaps it’s to remind myself of how important this all is. Perhaps it’s a form of self-inflicted penance – not for any crimes I have committed, but on behalf of the wider church and the ways it’s failed. Perhaps it’s that the sheer power of the testimony that calls out for continual witness. But it’s always hard, and I find myself praying, “Holy Spirit, fill me with your fire, so I can stand in these flames of tragedy, until every last one is put out.”
The men who have betrayed the church by victimizing those who trusted them, either in outright abuse or by protecting abusers, are not the church. As Father John Lankeit said in working through his own thoughts on the subject, they are to priests what Judas was to the apostles or the devil himself to the angels … at the moment of their crime they amputated and scarred the body of Christ. They scarred my family. But I love my family, and I’m not going to abandon them – especially in times of trial. They mean everything to me. They introduced me to the Lord, to the Gospel; they have given me a peace that surpasses all understanding, a joy beyond all telling. I will not allow criminals to take from my children the chance to find that same joy and grace, the chance for them to know the church that I have known – the community of quiet saints who don’t make headlines but who serve the poor and live lives of mercy and work every day for justice. I have seen religious sisters save the lives of abandoned orphans, I have watched a priest give food and medicine to a homeless man dying of neglect, and I have seen a thousand small acts of heroism by normal people who are sincerely trying to live and love like Christ. I have seen what the church can and should be. I will not concede my family to monsters, or my house to the flames they set.
I don’t write these words to defend myself or to assure you that I am part of the solution. I write these words only to say what I am absolutely convinced of: the Church of Christ is worth too much to let its betrayers define it. I cannot step away and let that happen. I would rather burn.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
Imagine you were violently attacked and dropped off a balcony into a dark alley, and somehow you survived. Your body is broken, bloody, mangled; you are twisted and contorted into a mess upon cracked asphalt. Your arms and legs are shattered. The most private parts of you have been violated. All of your muscles ache as if they are being stabbed with a thousand spears.
You are gasping for life, for help. You feel all alone. You are helpless. You see no way out.
This broken body is yours. It is everyone’s who is a member of the Roman Catholic Church. The horribly broken, disfigured, wounded, twisted and mangled Church. The Church is the Body of Christ and we are the Church; we are the broken Body of Christ.
This body, the broken and disfigured and hurting body, is the Church that I have dedicated my life to as a Franciscan Sister. This is the body I love. I would not be me without my participation in this body: at this point, I can’t imagine my life in any other form.
And, when all the wounds are festering, infected — when it is apparent that this body is disfigured and ugly — it is only appropriate for each of us to struggle. To lament. To feel violently angry. To weep. To demand change.
The wounds of the body of Christ — the Church that I love dearly — have been exposed over and over in my lifetime. They first appeared when I was a college student and falling in love with the body, when I was being fed and experiencing a sense of belonging in its arms. And now, again, within the past week, when the results of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigation into sexual abuse and cover-ups became public, it has become visible to the masses how truly sick and broken this body is. It can be an ungodly sight, too awful to look at that. So ugly that a temptation nudges me to turn away, to decide that I can’t be part of it, that I want nothing to do with it, that it simply hurts way too much to be near the brokenness, the festering wounds.
But I can’t divorce myself from the body to which I belong. And, I know that the body cannot heal or become strong again without tiny little me being a part of it, either.
I am disgusted. The corrupt state of my body is due to the failure of those who are meant to be representatives of its head. Made sleazy by power and sickened by an evil that twists the sacred and holy — sexuality, service, sacramentality — into demons of torture and doubt, these men have damaged the body that helps me know meaning and belonging.
And for other members of the body, their pain is greater than anything I could know. They have been made powerless by those in power, they have been tortured by those who were supposed to be instruments of healing and peace. No attempt to make things right by any other member of the body will ever be an adequate response to their pain. Their voice of courage is a gift of hope to the rest of us. My chest aches with the sorrow of loss as separation is inevitable.
The body is likely to remain permanently disfigured. I don’t know how I could ever defend its goodness and beauty to the little ones again — to the members who have been hurt the worst; to those who have lost their faith and trust that the body is made for healing, not harm. They have every reason to argue with me if I try to teach them that the body is good and holy. I wonder if the body will ever be strong again, but I can’t stop thinking about how the body is made whole only through its weakness. The agony of paradox is disorienting and frustrating right now.
Except, somehow, below all the pain and misery is a feeling that is deeper and stronger than any other: I still love this body. I do believe in its goodness, its holiness. I know that many —most — of its members are willing to love to the point of self-sacrifice, they are willing to lay down their lives for their friends and enemies. Joy and love radiate from the face. A mercy flows from the wounds. Compassion runs through its still beating heart. Its lips are uttering constant prayers for forgiveness, for help, for reconciliation and peace.
Eventually, grace can uplift the body and help it from the concrete. But it will take a lot of work and repentance, a lot of restructuring and consideration of what caused the body to get to such bad shape. It will take a rescue from the Holy Spirit and all the angels and saints, before it goes off for a stint in reconstructive surgery and rehab. No matter how the recovery process goes the scars will be ugly; the body will forever wear the history.
Those days are a long way off, I am afraid. For now, we pause to admit the truth. We are broken and disfigured. We need help and healing. Much must change. But for now, the body is broken. The body is weak. The body is a mess of struggle. And it’s awful.
If you see child sexual abuse, have a reasonable suspicion of sexual abuse or your child has been sexually abused, call 911 or your local police immediately.
If you suspect abuse, call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child or visit the Child Help Hotline. Trained crisis operators staff the lines 24/7 to answer your questions. If necessary, they will show you how to report in your local area.
My priesthood? What priesthood do I have? It doesn’t make any sense. Yes, I am a Catholic sister who is deeply committed to Christ and the Church. Jesus is my center. But I have no desire to be a priest.
The words came as I was preparing for a 30-day silent, directed retreat. This is part of your priesthood. I put the phrase away and concentrated on the details of the retreat: a journal, a Bible, and good snow boots for walking in the winter woods of January. And then I began the rhythm of the retreat. Prayer, prayer and more prayer. Slowly, as I walked with Jesus from before his birth through his childhood, through the waters of baptism and his friendships and healings, his own friendship with me began to deepen. Praying through the crucifixion was different this time. It was to be witness with a close friend. I mourned with the women at the tomb. I sat vigil in the emptiness of death. And then the sun rose again. Jesus rose. My surprise and wonder were fresh and new. My love had returned. He had conquered death and the whole world was changed.
I sat with the disciples in the upper room. We were waiting. We were praying. My prayer time with the disciples blurred with the shared silence with my fellow retreatants. Gathered around the fire in the evening in total silence, a deep reverence grew, one which I had never known. We were from all walks of life and we were truly just being ourselves. I opened my Bible to the assigned reading, John 20:19-23, and my body stirred as I read these words:
“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. [Jesus] said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
In that moment I knew that we are all sent. We all have a priesthood to share the mission and love of Jesus in the world wherever we are. All life is holy. And Jesus is the center of so many people’s lives: whether they are married, single, ordained or religious. We are sent.
The Church refers to this as the universal call to holiness. Especially since the documents of Vatican II, we speak of all the baptized being called to be priest, prophet and king. We all participate in the one priesthood of Christ.
I pray with those, especially women and married men, who feel a call to ordination within the Catholic Church. I pray for their wounds and for their healing. I hope not to diminish their journey. At the same time, I know in my bones of the holiness of each unique call, the consecration of life itself by our God who calls us and loves into being every day.
Sister Sarah Hennessey, FSPA is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, singing and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapeltour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.
It was early 2013 and I was fresh from three months of formation with Franciscan Mission Service. I had just arrived in Bolivia, South America, to live and serve for at least the next two years as a Franciscan lay missioner.
I had spent the autumn months of 2012 in daily classes learning about Franciscan spirituality and the life of St. Francis of Assisi. In those sessions, I learned about Francis’ example of living as “minority,” a spiritual posture in a “downward direction” always drawing closer to those on the margins.
I learned how Francis’ example of living as “minority” challenged his followers to live “without power over others.” They were taught to resist positions of power and instead encouraged to be “subject to all.”
He was directly challenging folks with the privileges of wealth and social status to reject their power over others and instead grow in humility and service.
As a white woman from an upper middle class family recently graduated from a large Catholic university, the challenge to live as “minority” seemed to deeply contradict the many privileges that were such integral parts of my identity: white, wealthy, over-educated and formed for years as a leader among my peers.
Yet my spiritual journey was already moving in that downward direction towards accompaniment of those most marginalized in our communities. And the example of humility in the life of St. Francis of Assisi deeply resonated with the spiritual growth I most desired.
In those first few months of transition, I had the opportunity to hear a North American friar speak about his 40-plus years of life as a Franciscan. And I will never forget the main message from his talk that day.
He said, “What is essential as a Franciscan is that every day you look at our reality from the perspective of the poor.”
I had to let that message sink in and each time I revisited it I was invited to let it go deeper, called again and again to ongoing conversion. It is a message that has since become central to my spiritual journey.
I had also recently finished reading Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Dance of the Dissident Daughter” and was immersed in reflections on my own spiritual journey as a woman as well as the experiences of the women in my life — particularly the diverse experiences of marginalization so common to women across the world.
And the Church was at the forefront of my mind. I was grieving the many ways that I have witnessed women marginalized in the Catholic Church. I thought of the women who were staying in abusive relationships for fear of judgment in the face of divorce, the women sexually assaulted and/or abused who were isolated by the silence of their faith communities, the women abandoned out of the shame of an unplanned pregnancy, and the countless stories of women that constantly go unheard and overshadowed by the privileged voices of their male peers.
Whenever I gathered with other women, I was touched by the experiences of marginalization that seemed to define each of our journeys. And I was particularly enraged by the disproportionate suffering that I was witnessing among the migrant campesina women I was just recently forming relationships with in that first year in Bolivia — so different from my experience as a white women from North America.
In the midst of these reflections I began to paint what I now call “You Stood With Me,” a watercolor piece that I did not know at the time would eventually turn into a series of paintings reflecting on marginalization, solidarity and love in action.
Five years since I was in formation with Franciscan Mission Service (for which I served as a blogger), I am still living in Bolivia and the marginalization of women I witness in the United States, South America and throughout the world still devastates. And I believe that the Church’s complicity in that marginalization is a crisis worth our attention.
In following the example of St. Francis of Assisi, I believe that we too are called everyday to look at our reality from the perspective of those most marginalized among us.
Today — the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi — we are reminded of his example of humility and solidarity and I believe that we are called to examine our own call to conversion, learning to look at our reality from the perspective of those most marginalized among us.
But what does that look like in action?
In my experience, it has meant first and foremost learning to listen. When I choose to listen first instead of speaking I resist the temptation to express power over others, instead drawing closer to the lived experiences and expressed needs of those facing the suffering firsthand.
When we choose to humbly listen to those who are suffering we are invited towards empathy instead of judgment, accountability in place of denial, and community and connection over fear and marginalization.
When we choose to join with those on the margins, none of us are alone. And in the face of ongoing marginalization, we are empowered to stand together.
Annemarie (who also served as a blogger for Franciscan Mission Service) grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.
In the midst of a war, I found my home in the Catholic church.
I was a college student, majoring in history. Studying history meant, among other things, studying war and the destruction and injustices that wars had repeatedly caused. The more I studied this side of history, the more passionate I became about social movements and peaceful alternatives. The truth of history convinced me that war, militarism and violence were all immoral.
For us Christians, our life is a life full of paradoxes. Heaven is now and not yet. Jesus is with us always and is coming again.
During Advent, we celebrate paradoxes while remembering that we are people of light and darkness. Suffering and joy are both part of the fullness of the human experience.
The Nativity story also speaks of thick darkness and joyful anticipation. Quietly, Mary and Joseph move toward Bethlehem. Very pregnant and traveling through an occupied and violent land, the journey is risky and uncomfortable. Even so, they believe in the goodness soon to come through the birth of their son Jesus. Peace surrounds as well as an inescapable awareness about the darkness of oppression.
Together, Mary and Joseph have chosen to trust in God’s mysterious plan. Going about things according to God’s way doesn’t mean that all hardship comes to an end. Quite the contrary. As the Gospels testify, discipleship usually leads one right into trouble, darkness and persecution.
It is the same with us: as disciples who chose to trust in God’s ways over our own. We journey with those who struggle and seem powerless. We don’t avoid suffering, we head right into it. We know that the power of God’s light, peace and joy can strengthen us no matter how heavy and hard the darkness of the human experience may be. We move to the ugly, polluted margins of society because we believe that is where we will encounter God.
Yes: during these Advent days we are called to be vibrant lights of hope in a dark and troubled world. Through our acts of solidarity, we embrace the darkness so to shine brightly and gleam out hope, joy and celebration.
As Shane Claiborne writes, “Celebration is at the very core of our kingdom, and hopefully that celebration will make its way into the darkest corners of our world– the ghettos and refugee camps, and the palaces and prisons. May the whispers of hope reach the ears of hope–hungry people in the shadows of our world.”