on that letter

I reread the pope’s letter this morning. There is so much swirling around it, and I simply can’t let it go. On the same day that my comments on Facebook were reprinted in a newspaper article in New Jersey, I received a private message from a friend about how my comments saddened her (understandable) along with a quote she wanted to share from someone else on the necessary immediacy of mercy and forgiveness. Another friend shared this article on what laicizing priests as punishment says about the church’s view of laypeople.

This morning I woke up with all of these things heavy on my heart and mind: the victims, the perpetrators, the innocent priests and bishops, the lay faithful—all of us stuck in a mess.

I decided to reread the letter, to see if it improves on second reading, to see if I missed something the first time around. It didn’t help. In fact, on rereading, it falls even flatter than it did on first reading. Francis’s tone is one of trying to comfort, but he comes across as someone who is just now figuring out that abuse has lifelong implications for the victims. In the paragraph in which he writes of being “conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults,” I thought: “You’re the pope. You shouldn’t be ‘conscious’ of these things. You should be actively engaging in figuring it out, not passively commenting on the fact that other people are doing it.” I know: He can’t do it all personally, but with a problem of this magnitude, affecting not just the American church but the universal one as well, I’d like to think a little more than papal consciousness was involved.

And then we’re there again, the part that ruffled my feathers and raised the ire of many: the call to “a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting” for all the faithful. For some people, I know this hits home and seems like the right thing to do, a way to participate in healing the great wound of abuse in our church. And I applaud them for that and support them in their decision to accept the pope’s invitation.

I, however, am not there.

Pope Francis begins his letter with a quote from 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” It’s the verses that come at the beginning of that chapter, though, that have been coming to my mind these days:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. (1 Cor 12:4-11)

I don’t know what gift of the Spirit is mine to offer these days, and it seems prideful to even suggest I have one to offer. Maybe my words or my anger. Those too can be gifts. I think people’s ability to fast during this time is a gift—even if it’s one I don’t quite understand and don’t feel capable of doing. If there is one certainty I have in the midst of this it’s that the Spirit is moving and present. She’s nudging hearts and awakening sleepy souls. The Spirit is often referred to as a wind, a breath, but she is also a tongue of fire, and I have no doubt she’s lighting this church on fire only to raise something stronger, more brilliant, from the ashes. I have to believe that.

We the faithful are hearing the news of abuse—again—and are trying to figure out what role we have, what gifts of the Spirit we’ve been given. In 2002, when the first big wave of abuse allegations came out of Boston, it set off a chain reaction of uncovering abuse throughout the church worldwide. This time around, it feels different. It’s been sixteen years since then, and this church of ours, this world of ours, has seen a lot. We are not where we were then. Had Francis’s letter come out in 2002, I’d have said it was remarkable in a good way; now, though, it’s remarkably insufficient. And maybe that’s why I’m so infuriated by the pope’s call for all the faithful to fast and pray. I know for sure it’s why I have a problem with the call to immediate mercy and forgiveness. The abuse crisis is something we’ve been living with for sixteen years (not to mention victims living with it for a hell of a lot longer) and still the church, the hierarchy, the men who did it and covered it up—they can’t say an unqualified “I’m sorry.” I have a big problem with that, and when the pope asks me to fast in penance for a sin that is not mine, though it is part of my community, I can’t do it.

I get that there is a desperate need for forgiveness and mercy, and, yes, being angry, depending on how it is utilized, has the potential to do nothing but let the anger fester in my own self. But if we shift this whole situation to a sacramental perspective, things change. We believe in a God who is all forgiving, all loving, all merciful. And yet, reconciliation is a sacrament. God doesn’t wait for our confession to forgive us, but we still confess because it helps us right our relationship with God, with the church, with the world, with our neighbor, with ourselves. It’s the way we acknowledge that we’ve done wrong and need to do right. I’ve long had issues with how reconciliation is practiced today: I think it’s all to easy to go to confession and feel you’ve done what’s necessary for healing while ignoring the need to actually apologize to those who have been wounded by your actions. It’s also too easy to think that forgiveness lies with the priest when it is God who absolves through the priest. I also believe God can absolve sins through more people than ordained men.

But I still think the sacrament of reconciliation has something important for us to remember these days. It requires the sinner to confess, to be sorry, to work toward a conversion of heart. Pope Francis has asked us to perform penance when we are not the ones in need of confessing and conversion on this issue. We are all sinners, but the conversation right now isn’t about what sins we’ve all committed; it’s about certain sins that have been committed by certain people. Francis has engaged in a bit of “whataboutism” here. And while God may have forgiven these men for their actions, I just can’t yet. I can pray for them, and I pray for my heart to be softened, but I keep returning to the fact that they did this to children, they covered it up, and some of them have not acknowledged the wrongness of their actions.

Until they do, we as a church cannot fully heal. Until the allegations are fully investigated, the victims are given justice, the perpetrators are locked up, the innocent are exonerated, and there is true contrition from those who have perpetrated these crimes—until then, no act of penance on my part for this sin that belongs to power-hungry and unapologetic men will be effective.