Toward the fire

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.

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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.

franciscan-sisters-flames

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

Steven-Cottam-babySteven 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.

Being part of a Church broken by sex abuse and lies

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.

Photo by Ricky Turner on Unsplash
RESOURCES FOR READERS ON CATHOLIC SEX ABUSE

Pope Francis’ Letter to The People of God about the sex abuse crisis. August 20, 2018

Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report

LCWR Statement on Sexual Abuse by Clergy

Statement of Catholic Theologians, Educators, Parishioners, and Lay Leaders on Clergy Sexual Abuse In the United States

U.S. Church’s Response to Sex Abuse Shows Progress, but Questions Remain (A Timeline of the Catholic Church’s Response to Abuse Allegations Dating Back Several Decades) Catholic News Service. August 17, 2018.

“Prayer for Angry Catholics” by James Martin, S. J. America. June 6, 2012.

“For Catholics, Gradual Reform is No Longer an Option” By Kathleen Sprows Cummings, NY Times, August 17, 2018

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests 

Take Action: Stop Child Sexual Abuse

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.

Child pornography is a federal crime. If you see or suspect images that may be child pornography, report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children CyberTip Line.

Groaning and gratitude

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Unsplash/Zhang-Kaiyv

I am wide-awake in a dark hospital room. I survived a gruesome hiking accident that left me bloody and alone in the bottom of a ravine, but I’ve been told that I’ll have reconstructive jaw surgery the next day. My family and Franciscan sisters have gone home to sleep for the rest of the night. I am alone, except for the woman snoring behind the nearby curtain and the nurses who seem to materialize at my bedside to check my vitals.

Pain is pressing on my body. When I landed at the bottom of the cliff, my face shattered from eyebrows to chin. My hand and arm were crushed under my forehead, because I’d reflexively raised them to protect my skull as I slipped. Now my limbs are screaming reminders of what happened. I am bruised and bloody. I feel as if all the pieces of my bones would float away and disintegrate if it weren’t for the swollen flesh holding me together.

I want to scream, to groan about how my life has suddenly flipped on its side. I can’t sleep. I can’t relax. I don’t know how I’m going to make it through this dark, lonely night.

But somehow, my mind and heart turn from agony to appreciation; it’s the only choice I seem to have. I begin to pray: Thank you, God, for saving my life. Thank you for the excellent medical care. Thank for each person who has helped me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

This is the beginning of my latest column for “National Catholic Reporter’s” Global Sisters Report.” Read more of “Groaning and gratitude” here.

Tending to our wells

I spent part of last night cleaning and peeling a recently harvested pile of wormy rutabagas with another sister. We probably ended up having to compost at least half of what had been pulled up from the soil, because some sort of creatures had created little homes in the vegetables. The waste was certainly disappointing and unfortunate but mostly it all felt very natural — like a healthy part of giving seeds to the earth, tending the soil and then pulling forth food many months later.

Afterwards I noticed that my hands smelled earthy, much like the crispy leaves and the chilly autumn dampness that has arrived in the air.

With such sights and smells in my consciousness, I began to think about all the death and decay surrounding us in the midst of this autumn season. And, the natural ebb and flow of life, of struggle.

It is inevitable, isn’t it? Being human means we have downs, we suffer, we feel anguish. We deal with the weight of despair. No matter how much we try to avoid the cross, reality teaches us that the muck of change is inevitable. Under the weight, our moods and attitudes can falter; we can get stuck in lament. How, then, are we to remain available to lovingly, joyfully serve others? How can we continue to act with kindness when wallowing in despair seems like all we are capable of?

A few months ago, I read this blog post by Sarah Bessey about finding time, energy and inspiration to write. Since then I have been thinking about tip #5 on the list: “Fill the Well.” As she wrote it: What brings you alive? What clears your mind? What fills your soul? Do those things instead of the other things. Take time to figure it out – your list will be different than mine. Write down a few things that you can turn towards to fill the well. You can’t write from an empty well and so whenever you can, fill your well.

Credit: www.freeimages.com

Here’s what I am learning: we must not only fill our wells to serve and witness, we must tend to our wells. Each of us has a God-given, wide-open space; the vessel that contains the life-giving water, the container that holds the elements for our strength. We must know this part of ourselves and know what is really needed so that our wells maintain their shape and abilities. How is your well constructed? Is it chipping and weak in a certain space? How deep is it? What elements of Spirit flow through this space inside of you? How does your well nourish you and provide hope?

What sort of songs must you sing to tend to this sacred space in you? Which Scripture passages will fill you with the strength you need to persevere, to continue serving?

No matter how death and decay may threaten to endanger us, let us remember that God is with us, eager to tend to our wells and fill us with great grace and strength. After all, God has conquered death and is ready every minute to make all things new! Amen.

God is our refuge and our strength,
an ever-present help in distress.
Thus we do not fear, though earth be shaken
and mountains quake to the depths of the sea,
Though its waters rage and foam
and mountains totter at its surging.
Psalm 46:2-4

We’re standing on holy ground

We arrive at the memorial already soaked. The rain has been pouring down for about an hour, making our one little umbrella woefully insufficient for our entire group. We huddle in the cab, unwilling to take that first step out into the dark, wet city.

We are five Catholic sisters from different corners of the United States, bonded by our vocation and by our participation in Giving Voice. Earlier in the day we had scrawled our names on a large piece of paper hanging on the wall at the bi-annual national Giving Voice conference in a suburb of New York City. We had spent the past three days praying together about healing divisions and building bridges. On this, our one free night of the conference, groups had self-organized into different activities; with bright markers we had written our names under the phrase “Go into NYC.” Before we met up to take the train into the city, different hopes had been named: someone wanted to eat pizza, another was interested in seeing Times Square. I said I wanted to visit the National September 11 Memorial. As for our route and itinerary, we agreed that we’d figure out our adventure as we went along.

We felt a lot of giddiness and excitement during the earlier events of the night — finding our way out of…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

(Photo Credit: GlobalSistersReport.org / CNS / Andrew Kelly, Reuters)

Messy Christian music playlist

Every ordinary day, I am reminded that I am weak and desperately need God.

When I forget the birthday of someone dear to me, when I lose my keys, when irritation and anger bubble up in my heart–each experience of imperfection can block my trust in God.

I am tempted to think I am worthless and ought to stop trying. In times like these, this song speaks to me.

I want to avoid admitting my brokenness. I would rather freeze and stop turning to God. Yet, I know that only God can provide the freedom and hope I need. Here is a tune to inspire faith and freewill.

I know I am a sinner. I can be cruel and selfish. Ugly thoughts and actions clog up the loving in my life. I feel dirty and worthless. Here is a song for trials like these.

Sometimes my faith doesn’t feel deep. I get it in my heart that God has the ability to work great miracles, to free me from troubles in the most dramatic of ways. Yet, my head doubts that will happen. This song helps keep hope alive.

I am constantly on a journey of conversion and transformation, as God brings me through these challenges. This tune helps me remember that God is with me in my lows and the awesome highs of life.

In the end, God’s embrace is the greatest place of peace I know. I am so restless, and God is the only source of rest and strength.

Thanks be to God for the comfort we all can know, for the music that will help us make our way through the beautiful mess of the human experience.

Amen!

 

Finding the balance

 

Photo credit: http://www.freeimages.com

Carrying my laundry basket across the lawn, I feel a sudden sting.

I was feeling peaceful and content as I did my chores. I was enjoying this quiet Saturday — I thought. But then, as surely as if an insect just bit me, a wave of emotion interrupts my peace and I am caught off guard, startled to attention.

Miles away, a friend in a nursing home is being treated for chronic pain. In a few days, a dear sister and housemate is scheduled for surgery, a double-mastectomy to treat the cancer discovered only last month. On that same day, a relative will endure yet another round of medical tests to determine why she has been rapidly losing weight. In my prayer journal I have listed over a dozen situations of suffering loved ones.

In the sting of sadness, my consciousness has cracked. I feel overwhelmed, helpless, and worried. Faced once again with the challenge and invitation to give it all to God, I find myself groaning internally. I am almost tempted to believe that…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Being a companion through the mystery of suffering

I’ve never had any training in hospital chaplaincy, and I know little about medicine. Like many people, I feel awkward and uncomfortable around suffering. I prefer what I know how to manage, like the classroom where I teach. But when an acquaintance’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, was in a serious bike accident, I didn’t hesitate before agreeing to go and sit with her and her family.

My response to Elizabeth’s need wasn’t measured or thought-out. Rather, it seemed to gush from a natural space in my heart. I found that I could not…

 

[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for U.S. Catholic. Continue reading here.]

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Good Friday: The crosses we create

Today, this high holy day, at liturgies worldwide, we will know no sacrifice at the banquet table.

Communion will be different, stirring up spiritual hungers to remind us of the pain of our loss, the awfulness of the absence of Christ. On this solemn day, an unusual ritual will file us forward; all of us are all called to reverence the cross.

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For me, reverencing the cross is really a ritual of bizarre paradox. All at once, we grieve the death of our beloved Jesus and give thanks for the freedom his death has permitted us. We meditate on his wounds, the lashes, the whip cracks and the cries of anguish and celebrate his non-violent love so freely expressed. And, we kneel in awe and wonder and cry with an awareness that our sin caused his pain.

 

Ultimately, in the midst of paradox, this is the day for us to acknowledge our sins, simple and complex, which have created crosses for others. We ignored an opportunity to learn about an overwhelming social issue and enter into solidarity when we turned off the bad news. We became part of the crowd that yelled, “CRUCIFY.”

We refused to speak out against—or to even realize—the ways that we accept and allow racist systems to continue, economically and politically. We burdened others with heavy beams.

We wrongly decided to put our recyclable waste in the bin headed straight for the landfill. We cut wounds right into God’s creation.

We let selfishness consume us and ignored our coworkers in need of God’s mercy. We handed them a crown of thorns.

We didn’t learn to love our hurting, peaceful, Muslim neighbors and reacted to the news of another terrorist attack with cruel assumptions and accusations. We decided we didn’t want to love our enemies. We pounded them with nails of violence and judgment.

We gave into materialism and wasted our wealth on superficial pleasure, cheating on our fasting. A spear of greed pierced our side.

 

We are part of the picture of Jesus crucified. Rightfully, our hearts are sad and dark on this day.

Let us unite with Jesus on the cross, for his drops of blood reveal our sinful ways.

 Yet it was our pain that he bore,

our sufferings he endured.

We thought of him as stricken,

struck down by God and afflicted,

But he was pierced for our sins,

crushed for our iniquity.

He bore the punishment that makes us whole,

by his wounds we were healed.

Isaiah 53:4-5

 

Our God who Suffers

A few weeks ago, one of my cousins committed suicide.

It was a shock to all of us who knew and loved him. His death still remains sad and painful for many of us. Personally, the experience of suffering with my family taught me much about the power of God’s love.

In a new way I now understand: no matter how hard or heavy an experience of suffering, God is stronger than the pain. God who is Love and Light is not overcome by any darkness.

The light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness has not overcome it.

– John 1:5

This past weekend at mass, I was reminded of the lessons I learned about love and light through my cousin’s death. I remembered how my family amazed me by the ways we united and showed up and showed love to one another in all the ways we knew how.

Yesterday’s scripture readings speak about this part of our Christian faith. Jesus reaches out to those who suffer and Jesus suffers with us when we suffer.

God became a person as Jesus. He entered into a particular time and place in history which was full of intense suffering. Then, Jesus who was fully God even suffered during his life and in his death. As yesterday’s scripture said, God amazingly heals the brokenhearted. Jesus tended to the sick and the suffering, including people of all types in the healing.

This is our story. We are Gospel people. People who suffer and enter into the suffering of others. We live the Gospel by exposing ourselves to the suffering of others and allowing their pain to be part of our story.

In fact, the Gospel Truth is that “the birth of Love …came to guide us and lure us toward beauty and hope and justice. It didn’t overcome [suffering] with it’s own sense of fear.” (I recently listened to a podcast that said this.) In this Truth there’s another important dynamic. Our story of suffering is God’s story of suffering.

Our culture is clogged with noise that can distract us away from the ways that our Gospel living ought to compel us to be uncomfortable and enter into suffering. Instead of avoiding suffering like advertisements tell us to, those of us who are Gospel people try to move toward it.

How do we move toward suffering? Through action and prayer. We happily hang out with people who are homeless and see what they can teach us about Truth. We advocate for the closing of unjust prisons and for reform to laws that cause more harm than good. Or as I find myself doing a lot lately, we pray with and care for those who weep because they have known sudden death. All this Gospel activity is mercy-making in the mess.

Surrounded by it and challenged by it, we are reminded of important truths of this Gospel of Love. Suffering is a mystery that can’t be avoided. Our Christian life is tough and challenging on purpose. The Paschal mystery insists that Easter Sundays must be followed by Good Fridays.

When we suffer, God also suffers. Somehow, by suffering we can come to know God.

At my cousin’s funeral, the hugs from my relatives were all a little longer and harder than they normally are. Our shoulders were all a little damp as we cried together. For me, these physical expressions of Love were a bit of light in the darkness. Simple human acts help me experience the closeness of our amazing, suffering God. God who is a light stronger than any darkness or pain. Alleluia! Amen!

"moon over water" Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“moon over water” Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA