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Rev. James Martin, S.J. Headshot

The Church's Easter: What Needs to Die in the Catholic Church so That it May Live

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This year the religious symbolism of Easter could not be more resonant for the Catholic Church. Each day from Good Friday to Easter Sunday offers the Church a profound spiritual message as it confronts the horrific effects of the crimes of clerical sexual abuse, which have convulsed the church, first in the United States, and now in Europe.

Start with Good Friday, the day that commemorates the death of Jesus of Nazareth. On that day, Jesus willingly surrendered himself to his fate, which would lead to his brief trial, his grueling torture, his arduous walk to Calvary and his ultimate crucifixion. The Catholic Church, too, is undergoing a kind of crucifixion.

But not in the way that you might think. And not in the way that you might think of "the church."

Because I'm not talking about the hierarchy here; nor am I talking about the recent critiques of the Church in the public square. I'm talking about something else, something more fundamental: the "People of God," to use a striking image from the Second Vatican Council, which transformed Catholics thinking about the church. Despite the common parlance, "the church" is not simply the hierarchy -- the bishops, archbishops, cardinals and popes -- but the men, women and children in the pews, particularly those who are poor or suffering in any way.

Thus the primary and greatest suffering in the Catholic Church in past decades has been among the victims of the crimes of sexual abuse, which destroys lives and entire families. It is a scourging for them, as surely as Jesus was scourged at the pillar. These are the victims; these are the crucified ones; these are the Christ-figures in our midst.

Moreover, like the nails pounded into Christ's hands and feet, and the lance that pierced his side, the wounds of sexual abuse permanently scar the victims. When Christ presents himself to the disciples following the Resurrection, he bears on his body the wounds of his torture; they remain. (This is how St. Thomas, "Doubting Thomas" is able to recognize Jesus after the resurrection.) The victims of abuse and their families will always carry those wounds.
So the church itself suffers: that is, the People of God suffer. For abuse victims, Good Friday has lasted many years, sometimes decades.

The day between Good Friday and Easter, called Holy Saturday, is a time of waiting. Two thousand years ago, on the first Holy Saturday, the disciples were crushed by their terrible loss, close to utter despair and fearful of the terrible future. Cowering behind closed doors, they felt robbed of hope. Many Catholics understand those feelings. Living in a church that has seen its current credibility seriously weakened, its authority lessened in the public mind and, worst of all, seen the most vulnerable under its care abused, the Church seem to be in the same position as the first disciples. Many of us wait in fear: What will happen next? What will we do? How can we go on?

However -- the story of the passion, death and resurrection reminds us that Jesus surrendered his life for something--something new, which was fully revealed only on the morning of Easter Sunday. This profound image of death and resurrection, which lies at the absolute heart of Christian spirituality, may help the Catholic Church meditate on what it must do to be reborn.
But means that something has to die.

What needs to die is a clerical culture that long fostered power, privilege and secrecy. What needs to die is an attitude that had placed concern for a priest's reputation above that of a child's welfare. What needs to die is mindset in which investigations of dissident theologians and American Catholic sisters were more swiftly prosecuted than investigations of abusive priests. What needs to die is, in a word, a certain pride. All of this needs to be surrendered.

And it needs to be surrendered even if we don't know what will come of that surrendering. Did Jesus know for certain that he would be raised from the dead? "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" he cried from the cross in his agonizing last hours. Perhaps Jesus knew only that he was invited to give himself totally to his Father, abandoning his earthly project, offering up his body and surrendering his life. His dying was an act of complete trust.

For conversion is not simply a surrendering of what you can afford to give up. It means giving up things that are so much a part of you that you couldn't imagine yourself without them.
The story of Jesus does not end on Good Friday. This is what those who believe that the Catholic Church is already dead, already a bankrupt project, already devoid of any meaningful future, may not be able to see. What spiritual writers call "dying to self," painful as it is, always leads to something new. And surprising. Jesus's willingness to die--and turn himself over to a future that perhaps not even he could not imagine--led to everlasting life on Easter Sunday.
If we can let those old patterns die, the Catholic Church can be reborn. It can be a church more willing to confess its sins, more willing to seek forgiveness, more willing to do penance. Simple, humble, poor -- like Jesus.

This is not to say that God intended abuse for the "benefit" of the church, any more than God intends any other kind of suffering. That is a monstrous idea of God, and one that I reject.
And many readers will think that the idea of new life coming from a hopeless situation, in the wake of terrible crimes, is either misguided, ignorant, laughable, ridiculous or plain wrong. But the image of dying and rebirth is at the heart of the Christian message: It is the final meaning of Easter.

This Easter more than ever, the passion, death and resurrection of Christ invites the Catholic Church to ponder what must die--so that it may live anew.

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