The Church, we believe, is the Body of Christ. As such it should always reflect the message of Christ and imitate how he lived. But the Church is made up of humans who invariably at one time or another fail to do what they should. When the Church fails through its members - both clerical and lay - to be what it should be, it leaves many questioning their continued involvement with church. Yet we need God's grace and love which can be brought to us through the ministry of his Church.
This realization of the failures of the Church was brought home to me very well in an article by my bishop, Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of the Diocese of Albany, New York. This article appeared in the latest edition of the diocesan weekly newspaper The Evangelist. In this article, Bishop Hubbard speaks about the varied ways in which the Church can fail its people. I would like to just add a few comments of my own to what is a most provocative and instructional article. The failings of the Church listed were:
Sexual Abuse by Clergy
We know that our American Church has gone through a very difficult period in this past decade as we witnessed countless occasions in which clergy - priests and deacons - have been accused of sexual abuse particularly of minors. While the American Church is not alone in suffering these moral lapses, the fact that this abuse has occurred has left a stain on our Church. It demanded a response by the leaders of the Church which was brought about by the now famous Charter for the Protection of Children adopted by the American bishops. At times the bishops themselves did not fully appreciate the extent or the seriousness of this problem as they continued to reassign priests who had been abusing our young people. Some were led to believe that these lapses could be remedied by counseling which did not prove to be the case. As a result of the Charter, large numbers of priests and deacons have been removed from active ministry. This certainly has alleviated the problem to some extent but many have left the Church or have removed themselves from it to some degree because of this problem. The positive thing that must be remembered is that the majority of our priests and deacons are true to their vows and have not fallen prey to this moral failing. Those men should be supported with our prayers and be reassured that they have our support. We need also to pray for the victims of this tragedy and for the perpetrators that they will find forgiveness and become reconciled with God and others.
Closing of Churches
There are a number of reasons why the Church has found it necessary to merge parishes and close some churches. These include a reduction in the number of priests to serve the needs of the faithful as well as the fact that a large number of people have left the Church or have fallen away from the regular practice of their faith. In the United States studies have shown that ten percent of all Americans are Catholics who no longer practice their faith - approximately 18 million people in our country. With less priests to serve and less people attending it has become difficult to maintain many of the church buildings which were a part of our lives. Closing of these churches has brought pain and heartbreak to many who grew up in a particular parish, were baptized and received their sacraments there and now find they must worship in a different church building. For some, it is like losing a member of the family but as we do when we lose a loved one, we find the courage and strength to move on. Hopefully those who find new homes for worship will be able to find anew the welcome and the invitation to holiness the Church offers. Just a few days ago, I had the privilege of serving as Master of Ceremonies at the dedication of a newly renovated church in one of our cities. This new building is the result of the closing and merger of six parish communities into one. The pastor, who delivered the homily, held up a banner that he had created which said: Mission Accomplished! On the other side of the banner it said: We've Only Just Begun! This was a wonderful reminder of how a new beginning was taking place in the newly renovated worship space. The Church must move on and the Church is, after all, its people and not its buildings.
Anemic Parish Life
With the merging and closing of some parish facilities it may become difficult for people to become acclimated in a new surrounding. This is why it is so important that every parish community be a welcoming community. Whether one is a long-time parishioner or a newcomer, everyone must feel welcome when they enter the church to celebrate the Eucharist. Among priests and deacons there can arise a situation we call clericalism. It occurs when we clergy think we are above others or require certain perks because of our ordained status. But clericalism of a different sort can arise among the laity as well. This occurs when certain groups within a parish begin to see themselves as the principal "movers and shakers" of the community to the exclusion of others. When new people arrive in a parish, are they welcomed and invited to become active participants or are we just glad to see some empty seats filled and some additional money in the collection basket? The Church is where we are nourished spiritually; it must be, therefore, a place where everyone is welcomed and where everyone can take an active part in parish life.
Have you ever felt alienated by the actions of a priest, deacon or other church minister? Some people carry the bruises they have received from the insensitivity of these ministers and some have even walked away from the practice of their faith because of it. There are times, of course, when the ministers of the Church must adhere to policies and regulations concerning worship and sacramental issues. And there are times when some of the requests received to bend these norms are unreasonable. But even then the minister in question must make every effort to be sensitive to the need for these requests and explain as clearly as possible what can be done. Pastoral sensitivity must always be the goal.
Poor Preaching and Liturgies
People come to our Catholic Church to be nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. But they also hunger to hear the word of God and hear it broken open with clarity and with evidence of sound preparation. When those who preach in our Church resort to "canned" homilies or show evidence of poor preparation (waiting until the day before to begin thinking about the homily) the people are disenfranchised. They deserve a well prepared and delivered homily that will speak to where they are and what the Gospel means in their lives. They deserve liturgies that are executed well and not in a haphazard fashion. They also deserve good liturgical music. As a liturgical musician, I know that it is sometimes hard to find qualified musicians who are familiar with our liturgy and can provide a good musical program. Sometimes I think good musicians are as hard to come by as finding priests who can fulfill our spiritual needs. Parishes need to support their musical program because it is a vital part of our liturgy.
Fortunately, many churches are coming of age when it comes to technology. They are using the Internet; they are creating parish blogs; and they use the latest software to assist in ministerial scheduling and other facets of church life. If your parish does not have a website, offer your services (if you are well versed in the use of computers) to create one. It can be a wonderful source of information for your parish and for other parishes and communities as well.
The Feeling of Exploitation
Many people are feeling unaccepted or exploited in today's Church climate. These may include the separated or divorced, the gay or lesbian person, or women in general. It is up to our Church and its leaders to remedy these feelings of exploitation by welcoming and involving these people in our faith communities. All of us are God's children and deserve a place at the table. May we make every effort as disciples of Jesus, who reached out to all, to be that person of welcome to all who come to our doors.
Once again, I applaud Bishop Hubbard for his insights. I have added nothing of great consequence to this list of failings of the Church but just a few of my own thoughts. Our Church is made up of saints and sinners and Jesus came to save us all. May we accept his wonderful gift of salvation. Let me close, as Bishop Hubbard did in his article, by quoting the words of Father Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.:
We must rejoice in the very existence of people with all their fumbling attempts to live and love, whether they are married, divorced or single; whether they are straight or gay; whether their lives are in accord with the Church or not. The Church should be a community in which people discover God delights in them.
To this I say: Amen!