Sometimes Catholics today feel a lot like Indiana Jones in the picture above, cheeky as the picture is to use. Catholics feel as if they are hanging by one hand over darkness, watched over by our Eucharistic Lord. Faith endures many darknesses, and it is no insult to the Church or to Christ to endure them.
I have spent a long time wrestling with the priestly scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church over the past decade (really, the past several decades). Many sneer, using the scandal as a further excuse for bitterness and hatred. Many reel defensively, blind to the deep wounds to the Church’s members (lay and priest alike). As for me, I can think only, “What do I do?”
This is not an essay about what should change. Plenty has been written about that, and I have no interest in making claims in that fight. This is not an essay about blame. Plenty has been written about that, too. This is a little essay is about what a faithful Catholic might concretely do for the sake of the Church. Really, I only want to make one point out of the many that could be made. One point, perhaps forgotten in the just work for reform, awareness, and healing. That point is penance. The importance of penance.
Though I am an ordinary layperson, there is yet a powerful way that I am linked with the fate of the rest of the Church. Not simply connected to those who have been wounded, but even connected to those who have done the wounding. If we are to take the unity of the Church seriously, then all its various sinews are in some way bound to us at our very depths. There is that oft-quoted line from 1 Cor 12:26:
If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
There is Baptism, which made us members of one Body. And there is the Eucharist, which draws us together in secret ways and causes us in grace to share in the one life of Christ as if it were our own. There are no more intimate bonds than these. Knowing these things, I am aware that what has happened in the Church must in all good conscience be a concern of mine. Not out of sympathy alone, or duty alone, or outrage alone. Or even loyalty alone. No, out of the simple fact that I am a member of the one Body and that I have a share in the life the Spirit gives to it, and in what my fellow members do as part of it.
There have been outcries against Benedict XVI, as if this were all his fault. As if we needed a single scapegoat to make us feel better for a wound that festered deep with gangrene and neglect. If one moves past the newspapers, the screaming rage, to read what the man himself has written, one will find only sorrow and an iron will to root out what has caused the sin. A man bent on penitence, who is aware that he bears the sins of his priests and his people in some mysterious fashion because he is their pope. My favorite is a story that spread through the news from several survivors. They met privately with Benedict – no cameras, no press. And he wept with them.
So, surely, I am called to something of the same.
Small sacrifices, at least as I am called right now. Something where I in some small way permit myself to suffer alongside the Church as one of her many members. I think of this sometimes as I wait in line, or when I wake up in the morning. Are these things I can offer? Is this a simple way where my insignificant suffering can become a source of grace and hope for the Church?
The great secret of penance is that it is not, and has never been, for the sake of the individual sinner alone. The great secret of fasting, of “offering up,” of sacrifice is that it is never walled off from the rest of the world. It mends us, and this is its primary purpose. But it also helps to mend every member of the Church – secretly, in ways we cannot anticipate. After all, what we offer to God comes back to us a hundredfold. He is never outdone in generosity. So what we give to Christ is offered back again to us as grace, overflowing to the rest of the Church. Like St. Thérèse’s image of the little cup that is filled over to its brim.
Some systematic account of how penance functions in this way will need to be given. I hope to give it someday. For now, I note only the beginning. That penance is never only for ourselves. And that every penance I perform is for the sake of the whole Church, which now endures its crisis – held together only by the Spirit, who overfills us with grace in Christ.