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[Editor’s Note: The following is an adaptation of a homily delivered on Divine Mercy Sunday, 11 April 2010 at St. Alphonsus Church in Chicago. ]

A preacher is often faced with the burdensome task of confronting the discrepancy between the texts from Scripture assigned for the day and the headlines that have been blaring during the past week. For example, how does one reconcile the news of God’s love with the news of the earthquake in Haiti?

Something like the same dilemma faces me today, when I must preach on this verse from today’s first reading, where we just heard: “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. They used to meet in Solomon’s Portico. No one dared join them, even though they were esteemed by the people” (Acts 5: 12-13).

Such a situation hardly obtains today, where the successors of the apostles are neither feared nor esteemed. I presume you have all heard the news or read the headlines about the revelations of sexual abuse of minors by priests which have recently come to light in Ireland, Germany, and elsewhere, and which are so reminiscent of the revelations of similar crimes committed by American priests that came to light in the Long Lent of 2002.

Given how devastating must be the effect of these crimes on the victims, I cannot help but be struck”as has been the world”by the collusion of bishops in covering up these crimes, lest they cause “scandal to the Church.” Even now, explicit confessions of guilt in that sin have been remarkably muted. At least, those expressions of remorse come tinged with both embarrassment and defensiveness. All too rarely does one hear the ringing tones of, for example, Buti Tlhagale, the Archbishop of Johannesburg, South Africa, who had this to say during his homily at the Chrism Mass last week on April 6, 2010:

In our times we have betrayed the very Gospel we preach. The Good News we claim to announce sounds so hollow, so devoid of any meaning when matched with our much publicized negative moral behavior. Many who looked up to priests as their model feel betrayed, ashamed and disappointed. They feel that some priests have “slipped away from the footprints of the Apostles.” Trust has been compromised. The halo has been tilted, if not broken. What happens in Ireland or in Germany or America affects us all. It simply means that the misbehavior of priests in Africa has not been exposed to the same glare of the media as in other parts of the world. We must therefore take responsibility for the hurt, the scandals, the pain and the suffering caused by ourselves who claim to be models of good behavior. The image of the Catholic Church is virtually in ruins because of the bad behavior of its priests, wolves wearing sheep’s skin, preying on unsuspecting victims, inflicting irreparable harm, and continuing to do so with impunity. We are slowly but surely bent on destroying the church of God by undermining and tearing apart the faith of lay believers. . . .

The upshot of this sorry state of affairs is that we weaken the authoritative voice of the church. As church leaders, we become incapable of criticizing the corrupt and immoral behavior of the members of our respective communities. We become hesitant to criticize the greed and malpractices of our civic authorities. We are paralyzed and automatically become reluctant to guide young people in the many moral dilemmas they face.

Under such circumstances, when allegations after allegations are made, when scandal after scandal is brought forth, as clergy, we probably feel much closer to Judas Iscariot and his thirty pieces of silver. “Alas for that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed” (Mk. 14.21). Or perhaps like Simon Peter, we are deeply buried in denial; we curse and swear when we hear the words: “You are one of them.” We answer: “I do not know the man you speak of.” Each time we toss our vows in the air, each time we break our fidelity, we betray Christ himself.

I have long felt that we Catholics will know that this crisis has finally been put behind us, at least in the United States, when the bishops, in one of their collective annual meetings, passes a resolution actually thanking those newspapers who revealed the slime and filth lurking inside the presbyterate of too many dioceses and the attempted cover-ups by too many chanceries. Please understand: I am not naïve about the secular media. But if the Hebrew prophets could see the hand of God at work in the attacks on ancient Israel from the Assyrian empire, then Catholics ought to be able to espy the workings of divine providence when the media bring to light crimes that should have been made public from the beginning.

I am of course referring to the revelations of the Long Lent of 2002. Recent reports by the U.S. media rehearsing those same and other American stories of the distant past in the wake of truly new revelations in Ireland and Germany, all in an effort to try to bring Pope Benedict down, are a different matter. But to explain this second wave of reports for what it is”fundamentally an anti-Catholic campaign”requires that we first recognize some fundamental rules for discerning spirits.

I am a Jesuit trained in rules for discerning spirits first formulated by our founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, which he set down in print in his influential Spiritual Exercises . Two of them are of particular relevance: one, which touches on the sin of the hierarchical Church; and the second, on the attacks on the Church that come from without her precincts. Here is how the first one reads:

Our enemy may be compared in his manner of acting to a false lover. He seeks to remain hidden and does not want to be discovered. If such a lover speaks with evil intention to the daughter of a good father, or to the wife of a good husband, and seeks to seduce them, he wants his words and solicitations kept secret. He is greatly displeased if his evil suggestions and depraved intentions are revealed by the daughter to her father, or by the wife to her husband. Then he readily sees he will not succeed in what he has begun. In the same way, when the enemy of our human nature tempts a just soul with his wiles and seductions he earnestly desires that they be received secretly and be kept secret. But if one manifests them to a confessor, or to some other spiritual person who understands his deceits and malicious designs, the evil one is very much vexed. For he knows that he cannot succeed in his evil undertaking, once his evident deceits have been revealed.

Here stand exposed all the attempts to hush up heinous crimes under the pretext that one was preventing “scandal,” when in fact one was, however unawares and unintentionally, colluding in the very secrecy that made these crimes go undetected and unpunished for so long.

For that sin, the Church is now paying a heavy price, and deservedly so. But the revelations of these crimes, both of commission and of collusion, have also unleashed, particularly lately, another campaign of vilification against the Church against which you, as lay Catholics, must now be made aware. And for discerning the spirit behind that campaign, I offer these further observations from the Spiritual Exercises :

The conduct of our enemy may also be compared to the tactics of a leader intent upon seizing and plundering a position he desires. A commander and leader of an army will encamp, explore the fortifications and defenses of the stronghold, and attack at the weakest point. In the same way, the enemy of our human nature investigates from every side all our virtues, theological, cardinal, and moral. Where he finds the defenses of eternal salvation weakest and most deficient, there he attacks and tries to take us by storm.

To be overly schematic about this, for the most part the revelations that came to light in 2002 were salutary. So too, mostly, are those that have recently come to light in the past few weeks about the crimes that took place, however long ago, in Ireland and Germany, precisely because they are only now coming to light. But at this juncture, at least in the United States, one cannot help but notice that the stories coming out now about US crimes deal exclusively with events that took place even back as far as the 1950s. And there’s a reason for that. For not only must the Church face the crimes and sins that have taken place inside her folds. But precisely because they came to light under the glare of a secular press often hostile to the very mission of the Church, she must now face a whole new arsenal of weapons being aimed at her very existence. And where she is weakest, there will she be attacked the strongest.

One of John Henry Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons was called “The Moral Consequences of Single Sins,” in which he preached on a verse from the Old Testament: “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23), and on which he had this to say:

Day and night follow each other not more surely than punishment comes upon sin. Whether the sin is great or little, momentary or habitual, willful or through infirmity, its own peculiar punishment seems, according to the law of nature, to follow”as far as our experience of that law carries us”sooner or later, lighter or heavier, as the case may be.

That law is now being visited upon the Church as a whole, but our prayer must be that the operation of this divinely instituted law lead not to her weakening but to her strengthening, and precisely because it leads to her purification.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

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