When my family in Massachusetts first told me the news of priests in Boston being accused of pedophilia, I listened with half an ear, quickly filing it away as yet another piece of gossip to discredit the Catholic Church. Yet as the volume of accusations intensified, I knew I could not ignore it. Living the monastic life means that I was spared the media saturation on the issue. We get the daily paper and subscribe to a few news journals both secular and Catholic, so let’s say that I am informed. But while the media might give me the facts, my response has little to do with them. Yes, as many have noted, the scandal was occasioned by appalling acts of sin. But for me the scandal prompted reflection not so much on the reality of sin as on the deeper reality of God’s unbounded forgiveness.
It is commonly thought that a call to the monastic life requires that one be especially holy, already a “saint.” In fact, the truth is just the opposite. One of the first searing, even excruciating truths I learned in the monastery is how deeply sinful I am. But that, I also learned, is only half the story. In facing and acknowledging my sinfulness, I embrace, or rather, am embraced by, the gift of the incarnate love of God. This self-knowledge is essential to monastic life. Only when it is accepted can I hold all people in the deepest center of my prayer. It is from this truth that the cloistered nun lives her vocation as a spouse of the crucified Christ.
We refer to this past year’s revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests as “the scandals.” What if our society was so corrupt that no one saw these actions as scandalous? They would still be wrong. Why? Infidelity to one’s vows is sinful; infidelity to the grace and character of sacred ordination to the priesthood is sinful; sexual abuse in whatever form is sinful. Leading another person into a sinful action is wrong and also sinful. Let’s face it, the bottom line is that “the scandals” are about the failure of priests to live up to their vocation and to face the consequences of their actions, first for themselves—because everyone is personally responsible to strive for holiness—and second, for those they have injured. Whether anyone is “scandalized” is secondary.
The monk or nun is said to be at the axis mundi , the axis of the world. St. Thérèse of Lisieux would expand this and say that her vocation is “to be love in the heart of the Church.” At solemn profession, I placed my hands in those of my prioress, professing to live my vows usque ad mortem, until death. By this simple gesture I no longer belong to myself but am consecrated for the specific mission of being a woman of prayer and intercession for the Church. The long consecratory prayer of the Roman Rite of Religious Profession states, “May the countenance of Christ Your Son shine forth in her, Father, so that all who see her will know that he is present in Your Church.” I become not just one who prays; I am a prayer before the face of God for all people, but especially for the Church. This is why I believe that my contemplative vocation provides a unique perspective on the current crisis.
I belong to the Order of Preachers, popularly known as “the Dominicans.” Our founder, St. Dominic de Guzmán (1170-1221), was a man of extraordinary gifts of grace, of holiness, and most of all of compassion for sinners. We are told that he would spend his days preaching the gospel and his nights in prayer. Filled with a love that he could not contain, he would cry out in the dark nights, “O God, what will become of sinners!” To the friars he would say: “If you cannot weep for your sins because you have none, then weep for the sins of others.”
The mission of the Order of Preachers is to preach for the salvation of souls. St. Dominic knew that for the mission to bear fruit, it must be rooted in, and overflow from, contemplation. So, from the beginning, St. Dominic associated contemplative monasteries of women with the preaching mission of the Order. These monasteries would be places where the primary purpose would be to search for the face of God, sharing in the redemptive work of Christ in prayer and penance.
People often ask us, “Aren’t you scandalized by what our priests are doing?” It comes as quite a shock when we respond, “No, but we are deeply saddened by what is taking place.” We are heirs of the “Cry of Dominic,” and his compassionate love for sinners becomes our own. Sadness sounds like a rather lame response to such great sin, but it is instead the response of one who shares in what the Church is: the Mystical Body of Christ.
We haven’t heard much (if anything) of this aspect of the current crisis. There is much finger pointing directed at “the Church,” meaning “the hierarchy.” However, the hierarchy is not “the Church.” The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. Every baptized member is organically a part of this mystery of which Christ is the Head. This is nothing new; St Paul insisted on it: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). In order to get beyond this crisis, the inner division, the distrust, and the wrangling for power, we must rediscover this great gift of God to us. St. Augustine sums it up in a daring statement: “And there shall be one Christ loving himself—for when the members love one another, the body loves itself.”
There is likewise a long patristic tradition, nourished by Scripture, of expressing this unique relationship by the image of Bridegroom and Bride. Christ is the Bridegroom; the Church is the one Bride of Christ. “He who has the bride is the bridegroom,” John the Baptist told his disciples: “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full” (John 3:29).
While this nuptial dimension belongs to the entire Church by reason of our baptism, the cloistered nun is consecrated to be an icon of this reality. In this particular way of being of and for the Church, cloistered nuns share in the redemptive work of Christ on the Cross. It is precisely because of the vocation to be a living sign of the nuptial relationship of Christ with the Church that I believe we know in a mystical way the sufferings every person in the Church experiences in this time of crisis. In a way known only by God, we carry in our prayer the burden of the priests who have sinned, and the men and women who have suffered from their actions.
By the gift of ordination, bishops and priests are called to be images of Christ, to act in persona Christi . They are obligated by their vocation to love and cherish the Church in the very same way Christ the Bridegroom loves and cherishes the Church. Priesthood essentially and ontologically changes an ordinary, sinful man into another Christ. The very fact of his ordination sets a priest apart, not for his own glorification but as an image of the love of Christ for his people. In the past, as a reaction to clericalism, we have sometimes expected our priests to be “one of the guys,” and perhaps this is where we have erred. As the father of one of the sisters in my community likes to say, “The more a priest is like me, the less I need him.” Many today are afraid to trust our priests. Insisting that priests develop a “professional” attitude or maintain “boundaries” fails to acknowledge the specific relationship of a priest to his people. We must allow our priests to rediscover again the special nature of their calling. We must encourage our priests to nurture their love of Christ and find in this love their call to be our shepherds.
When family members solicit my reactions to the crisis, I am often called to task for seeming to be more concerned for our priests rather than for those whom they have injured. In fact, the victims also find a place in my prayers for the grace of healing and the freedom of forgiveness. If I seem driven to be an instrument of prayer and penance for our priests—all priests, whether guilty, accused, or discouraged—it is because, first, I believe that this particular emphasis of my prayer is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Second, it is exactly this frightening burden a man assumes when he is ordained to the priesthood that calls forth from the contemplative nun the obligation of her prayer.
If we are to grow beyond this crisis and learn from our mistakes, then it seems to me that all members of the Church need to discover again this relationship of love that can flourish only in trust and commitment. We must allow God to woo us back to fidelity, much in the same way as the prophet Hosea woos back his bride: “And I will lead her back into the desert and speak to her heart” (Hosea 2:14). Many in the Church would liken this past year and a half to a time in the desert. As in any human marriage, there must be trust, or the relationship is bound to fail. Unlike a human marriage, we have the promise and guarantee that Christ will never abandon the Church. It will not be easy, but the healing of the wounds of distrust can begin if our lives are centered on Jesus.
Holiness, the desire to know and love God as He loves us, is the answer, as is an acknowledgment that each and every one of us in the Church bears the responsibility of supporting and challenging one another toward holiness. How often have we demanded of our priests that they be hyperactive administrators, social workers, or church managers? Do we pray and sacrifice for our priests? Do we encourage our priests to be men of prayer, men whose lives are focused on the Eucharist, men who are signs and shepherds of our own call to holiness?
The Church was born from a scandal—the scandal of the Cross: “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians, 1:20). In the scandal of the Cross we can find meaning in today’s scandal, which has rocked the very foundation of the faith of some of our people, and has also affected the way the Catholic Church functions in our country. We can allow this crisis to be a stumbling block and go away in disgust or we can allow it to be the beginning of a new springtime for the Church in America. After the Crucifixion of Jesus on Calvary there was the Resurrection. Personally, I see this Long Lent as a seed-ground of hope. Too many tears have watered it. The spring will come.
Sr. Mary Catharine is a cloistered Dominican nun of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary, Summit, New Jersey. She has been a member of the community for twelve years.