To stay or walk away…

Edward R. Murrow said, “There’s nothing more important in life than friendship.”  Friendship demands attentiveness, caring, sacrifice and intimacy.  Consciously or subconsciously, friendship mandates change as personal universes somehow begin to inersect and then align and sometimes collide.  There is an effort to it, time given it and an appreciation of its value.  And sometimes, things go terribly wrong:  betrayals, mistrust, brokenness, misunderstandings and failure to thrive.

Walking away is a viable option then; in fact, that is absolutely the right thing to do. Stepping away can protect, nurture, preserve and heal.  It is about recognizing what is unhealthy, detrimental to personal growth, and diminshing to what is good.   Other times, what matters is choosing to  change self and relationship to recapture, renegotiate and rebuild wth purpose and promise.   That requires a profound faith that it will be well worth the effort.

The history of the Roman Catholic Church is pockmarked with scandals and tragic misuse and manipulation of power, money, and the faithful.  Every scandal from the early ones related to marriages and polytheism to the largest schism in the Protestant Reformation has generated cries of hypocrisy and won the wrath of generations.  History teachers delight in recounting the abuses and cynically ridiculing the institution.  But maybe that pattern of abuse and reform merits some attention.  The reforms are not as appealing to the jaded, but they exist folowing every scandal.

First, while it may not be highly visible to some observers, the Church caters not to the perfect but to the flawed human beings born into a historical context and set of circumstances beyond individual control.  Structures and systems shape and guide behavioral norms in every generation and culture, and the Church itself recognizes that. The goals of loving one another, of becoming better people, exist in acknowledgment of those realities.  How to live as a flawed and broken being is the real question.  Fot the wider Church, how to live as flawed and broken human beings in community is the larger question.

With that in mind, the pattern of scandal and reform that has plagued the Church’s existence becomes less monolithic and more personally relatable.  Every exposure of an issue, a hypocrisy, a real problem, is somehow addressed.  Raging against the machine may won awareness, but it is those who work towards the changes that open  pathway for the next generation. It is far more intriguing to explore the liaisons of a pope or the sexual acts of the clergy or the abuse of children.  Those evils, personal and institutional, are a function of flawed human beings, mental illnesses, and psychological and emotional limitations.  They are undeniable and point to sociological structures as well.

Investigating, or having the courage to begin to look at the reform itself,  demands an understanding of all those factors.  Having an appreciation for the fact that none of it has gone unnoticed, that the Church has in fact begun to catalogue the errors and mishandled responses and reactions, requires a curiosity beyond the news reports and sound bytes. What has left such deep scars and so many wounded has caused a reform movement that has not yet won a name.

Virtus Training is a part of that reform: it challenges the traditional heirarchial structure with an emphasis on personal responsibility for a community.  It aims at creating an environment where everyone can feel comfortable and safe and where real communication among adults can take place.  It is about adults hoding one another accountable for language and interaction, and it moves the Church from the role of arbiter of such charges to receiver.  New structures with highly educated and competent counsellors in place allow for a new process that defies the old problem-solving by transfering the perpetrator.  In a social world of fluidity and mobility, the Church has managed to design a whole new way of addressing issues and educating people.  The change has begun; like the scandals of the past, headlines will still go to the sinfulness.  But somewhere, out there, serious reform and change is taking place. And once again, the individual will be able to choose which path to follow: walking away or staying to be part of this reform.


Sin Changes Things

“Sin changes things.”  It was a simple statement from the pastor, from the pulpit, on an ordinary summer Sunday.  And a profound truth rests just below the surface of the words. “Sin” is a conscious choice, a free decision, and always an option.  But like the stone’s ripple through the water, there is an effect, a  response, a reaction.  All human interaction with one another and with the environment reflects this.   Even the scandals and abuses within the church evidence it.  But perhaps the opposite is equally true:  Doing the right thing changes things.

There are ripple effects to every act of goodness, demonstration of kindness, that exists.  It could be that baby who wins the hearts of bystanders on a grocery line or the student who steps aside for an elederly staff member.  It might be offering a seat on a bus or engaging in conversation.  It might be something bigger:  assisting someone with tuition or becoming a primary care giver for a relative.  There is a certian joy to the moment, to the complicity of goodness, and to the flashes of mutual understanding of kindness.  There are smiles and that all-too-elusive sense of gratitude and appreciation.

The ripple effects of sin are equally tangible.  The smallest theft, the angry cursing words, the lies that are told to cover up actions or intent….all that has an impact on a day, and a life.  There are the greater sins, too, the ones categorized as crimes and seen as heinous by all society.  Those sins of word, of heart, of action, catapault into even more difficut scenarios.  Oddly, the individual rests at the controls in each instance.  And choosing the right thing becomes more complicated, options clouded by the past and obscured by gratification and momentum.  It leaves the odd aftertaste of wondering what if….

To live in a world defined by hope and promise is to be working on becoming a better person, realizing personal weaknesses and deficits and literally choosing to work with those.  It also means forgiving others for those weaknesses and deficits and still choosing to move forward.  It is neither naiveté nor ignorance to forgive; it is with full knowledge and clear purpose that it finds meaning.  And therein lies the dual challenge of really living.  It seems to happen naturally for children, but becomes mysteriously elusive for adults grappling with the complications and ethics of lived experiences, the accumulation of learned reality.

The contemporary environment offer incredible challenges on every front.  History will dance with the genuine characters who populate the political and social stages.  But far beneath that level of digital record will be the lives of the ordinary people, the ones who choose each day to try to make a positive difference.  FaceBook and digital media will track it, but doing the right thing rarely characterizes the  dominant narrative.  And still, it truly matters.

Because every tossed stone makes a ripple.  And the power of choice is there….resting within and awaiting implementation.

Reform and Change

It is that rarest of summer weather combinations:  a full breeze, clear skies and low-to-no humidity.  But it is also one of those rare spaces in life where new realizations crack open.  On Thursday night, I sat in a parish hall meeting room for Virtus Training, the program required to volunteer or work in organizatons or facilities in the Diocese of Bridgeport.  Over 20 people had signed up, and chairs for the walk-ins were added.   As a veteran of many public education safe school trainings, I had a cynical skepticism about what this program could offer.

What I experienced was unique: there was an initial focus on victims and survivors, and a tender compassion for the suffering the abuse of children creates.  There, too, was a reality check:  images and voices of perpetrators.  And there was the broader context of what abuse does to a family and a parish.  The films were powerful, spoke for themselves; the discussion afterwards was brief, clearly focused, and there was a profound understanding of the responsibility each person possesses in choosing to believe and to participate in a Catholic community.

It was matter-of-fact, not sanctimonious or righteous.  The facilitator gave clear examples of how the program and its policies are being practiced and pursued with an emphasis on the idea that we are all individuals.  Ordination is no longer protection, and the church exists in the broader context of secular law.  To protect the vulnerable,  legal means are utilized.  Most importantly, the presenters displayed confidence in these efforts to protect others and housed that in the sense that we are all part of a community that merits meaningful communication among adults regarding all forms of interaction and behaviors.

The element of faith was not wanting: survivors clearly addressed the complexity of that issue.  I juxtaposed that with the frustrated anger of a Washington Post writer who had contacted me in regard to the sexual abuse issue within the church.  Several dioceses had    released lists of abusers with dates and data; his persepctive was about the hypocrisy and failure of the Catholic Church, his own alienation, and his view that faith is literally incomprehensible.  My perspective was different, inconsistent with the information he gathered.  While he courteously acknowledged it, he did not include it or go further with suggestions I made.   I honestly wished he could have seen and heard what happened that night.

Like the harvesting of wheat, the life of the Church expands and contracts over time.  What endures through the trials is the reality of faith.  I learned  that the Catholic Church is actively dealing with the horrors and tragedies exposed over the last decades.  Reform is beginning, as it always has in the times of crisis.  Reform brings further change, and there will undoubtedly be pitfalls and waverings, problems and new attempts at solutions.    The reality is that there are people, young and old, actively willing to take that journey and become part of the solution.  Not everyone is walking away.

All in All

Bites of conversation suggested Millennials see religion as a form of brainwashing, a nod to the collective efforts to create individuals who can think freely and honestly and create a world of mutual respect that elevates democracy, enables innovation and expands possibilities for improving the world.  The truth of that is present in the ways that religion and its tenets are scrutinized, how its history is examined and its cruelties exposed; students have questioned, investigated, evaluated and decided.

Forgotten was the distinction between faith and institution,  the possibility that ethics and choices can be guided by something greater than what is simply legal.  The idea that a collective culture of belief can exist and be shared without inequity, cruelty or purposeful subjugation or deprivation has been lost.  And most of all, the sense of empowerment of the individual has dominated an understanding of the whole.  The irony of all is that, for those who cling to faith, Christ is present in all.

“…Christ is all and in all.”  Colossians 3:11

Faith is that persistent sense that there is something more, something greater than self and something that somehow connects each of us to the others, something that transcends differences and invites each of us to be better than we were before.  Faith is not dismissive of culture or tradition; it is not self-righteous or unjust.  Faith opens human understanding to the dynamics of humanity itself and the overwhelming demands of human interaction.  Most importantly, faith admits human frailty and failure, discards the concept of perfection.  Perfection can be ascribed to that Other, to that Portal that carries the richness of human hope and ideals throughout the life journey.

Catholicism has a long history of housing all the elements of humanity:  there was corruption, fraud, battles for power and abuse of power.  There was also, woven together like wheat among weeds, goodness, leadership, kindness and joy.   For all the ignorance and cruelty, there were heros and ordinary men and women who knew the strength of goodness and the grace of becoming.  That is the element of fidelity to faith and clinging to the reality of Christ all and in all.  It defies the ugliness of religious practice, its extortions of  humanity.  It celebrates the best of who humans are and can be while knowing the dangers and hurts caused by human failures or rigidity in interpretations of religion.

The pervasive presence of Christ does not diminish other persons or traditions.  Instead, that presence offers the comfort and calm that is beyond anxieties and fears.  It does not supersede scientific insight or the rhythm of hope that pulsates through humanity.  It definitely challenges behaviors and choices that are diminishing to others or that are motivated by greed, selfishness or malicious intent.  Most importantly, the presence of Christ intimates that support is there in the moments of trial that life inevitably presents.

There is a hearbreaking truth that each human being lives in his or her time.  That enables us to label the errors of the past, tp re-align the chances for the future.  Our time has called for more honesty and strength and consistency from all religious insitutions and from the practice of religion.  The rejection of relgious institutions, though, does not necessarily mean that faith cannot be. The flames of faith may be embers at this moment, but options and choices are what can fan that into fire for a new generation.