A Catholic pastor talks about horror and shame, and prays that Church can ‘start time up again’

Following is the sermon delivered by the pastor of St. Gregory’s Parish, Rev. Jack Ahern, to his congregation at Masses last Saturday and Sunday:

“Seamus Heaney was one of the great Irish poets of our time. The Nobel laureate’s work reflected the profound spiritual connection between God’s creation and the Irish soul. A few years ago, Heaney was asked to contribute to a book on the spiritual lives of major figures in the arts and sciences. He responded with a two-page [answer] from his home in Dublin. He began by thanking the writer for her gracious invitation, and then apologized.

Spirituality was the one part of his life, he replied, about which he felt he was “woefully inarticulate.” On the second page he included a short poem, writing, “Here, perhaps you can use it in some small fashion in your book.” He titled it “A Found Poem,” and part of it was his memory of attending Mass in his village church:

“Like everybody else, I bowed my head
during the consecration of the bread and wine,
lifted my eyes to the raised host and raised chalice,
believed (whatever it means) that a change occurred.
I went to the altar rails and received the mystery
on my tongue, returned to my place, shut my eyes fast, made
an act of thanksgiving, opened my eyes and felt
time starting up again.” *

For Heaney, the act of taking bread and wine as Jesus did is “time starting up again.” When we come to this table and do each Sunday what Jesus did the night before he died, we remember his life of selfless compassion and generous service and remind ourselves that the love of God can re-create our world, a world that is broken in so many places and scarred on so many hearts.

The last month or so as we have heard and read stories concerning Cardinal McCarrick’s long history of abuse and infidelity; possible instances of sexual harassment and intimidation at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton; and last week’s horrific and damning grand jury report on sexual abuse by clergy in Pennsylvania and its cover-up by bishops. Most of us are shaken to the core.

These all too many acts of abuse (and one is too many) were betrayals of trust that robbed victims and survivors of their dignity and faith. Those who have suffered must be our priority. The welfare, well-being, and healing of survivors of abuse is more important than any concern for the Church’s reputation or financial stability.

In addition to those who abused and those in leadership within the Church who permitted the abuse to occur and to continue must be held accountable for these criminal and morally reprehensible acts.

Cardinal Sean in a letter written to us a few days ago that is available at the doors of the church fears the Church has little time left to repair its badly damaged reputation. “The clock is ticking for all of us in Church leadership; Catholics have lost patience with us and civil society has lost confidence in us.

And my sense is that if we have any hope of moving forward as a Church in addressing this crisis, “substantial involvement of laity” from law enforcement, psychology, and other disciplines will be essential to this process. We need the laity’s prayer, energy, resolve, perspective, expertise, judgment – and the pressure that comes from having been burned more than once.

As we deal with this horror and shame, we walk away saying the Church is broken in so many places and scarred on so many hearts. But, like Cardinal Sean, I am not without hope that the Church can turn itself around by embracing spiritual conversion and demanding legal transparency and pastoral accountability for all who carry out the mission of the Church.

In the sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord, Seamus Heaney reminds us, God enables us to “start time up again” by becoming what we receive here – “bread blessed and broken in love for one another as Christ was broken for us, sharing together the cup of every life’s joys and sorrows in which God is constantly present.”

May God continue to be with us on this difficult journey.

* Published in “The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People,” by Cathleen Falsani.