There are times when we need to clean things up and allow a renewal to sweep through our lives. Think of the concept of ‘spring cleaning’: Over the winter, things get dirty and soiled. The snows and the clean-up afterwards leave film and dirt all over, even inside our houses. We have brought in all kinds of dirt and grime. Some of this cannot be seen, but we notice that things lose their luster and shine. We also leave things around and soon we have piles around us of things that need either to be discarded or put away in the order in which we had them. So we work, cleaning and polishing, putting things away, getting rid of things we do not need, simplifying and create new order in our lives. On that beautiful spring day, we open wide the windows and let the cool fresh air in to breeze through our homes that now begin to actually smell clean!
We do this too on a moral and spiritual basis during Lent (the word comes from the German word “lenz’ which means spring!), when we clean and reorder and simplify our lives in the Lord. We do this on a periodic basis, whether the purification is Lenten or of some other kind, because we tend to backslide and there is a continual need for conversion. This tendency to go backwards is, I’m sure, a consequence of Original Sin. It is there, however, and calls us often to purify our intentions and our thoughts and actions on a periodic or occasional basis.
Such periods of purification are also necessary for the Church. Just as the individual Christian can be said to be “Simul Justus et Peccator” that is “at the same time just and sinful”, so can the community share in that double reality. To deny either side is to distort the reality. If we say we are truly just and righteous, we forget our weakness and our waywardness. If we say we are merely sinners, we lose all hope that God can justify and heal us. The truth is that we are in process. Sometimes, though, the sin becomes terribly heinous, and the purification both painful and necessary. I think that is what the Church is going through in this sexual abuse crisis. We need to be humbled and realize our false sense of priorities and the terrible harm this has caused to the most vulnerable and innocent. We must allow the wrath of God to sweep through the Church to correct and purify what has become evil and distorted. But this must be done with both hope and love, not despair and hatred.
The abuse of children is one of, if not the, most egregious sins, and an offense directly against God who created them and gave them the gift of innocence and trust. That this is trust is broken is serious enough, but that it is broken by a priest or religious who are called upon to make themselves the image of Christ to the Church is especially evil. Why would God not be angry and wrathful against such a destruction of the ones who need the most protection? But God never punishes just to punish. He does it to correct, to hold accountable, to convert. His anger toward the ones who do these acts is also meant to get them to see what they have done, to weep for what they have unleashed and the hurt they have caused, to beg forgiveness and to do penance in reparation. He also wants to purify the Church and the Priesthood and Religious Life of this stain on the honor of the Christian People. God is love, even for the victimizers; a dreadful love, but love nonetheless.
The mercy of God must extend to the victim and the victimizer. For the victim, grace is a process of healing and comforting. For those responsible for this evil, it is the grace of repentance and reparation. This is further complicated in the victimizers by the fact that many of them were also victims of abuse.
That the Church made many grievous mistakes in handling this process of justice and healing is a hard fact that we must all accept so as to begin the arduous journey of redemption. However, through the grace of true ecclesial conversion, we are able to admit the wrong and to find means to reestablish the divine order of the Church. This requires vast amounts of humility, repentance, discernment and courage on the part of the Church, which at the same time must not lose compassion for those still suffering from these acts.