This past week, the scandal rocking the Church in France won headlines and horrified responses. Casual conversations wrapped around the decline of religious influence in general and the corresponding rise of secularism. The failures of the church justify the loss and target the stiffness of a hierarchy and the brokenness of its ministers. Wounds for the survivors of the scandal reopen and angry litigation seeks retribution, recovery. And yet, the wider social context and the evolving perceptions of human interaction and communication merit consideration. Maybe more important is the idea that the Church hierarchy is a collection of flawed human beings, struggling with becoming and seeking something, some purpose or meaning or protection or truths. None of that excludes the social responsibility of the hierarchy for its mistakes; all of it points to the idea that perfection cannot belong to humans, that growth and learning about becoming better people is a lifelong journey, and, as a Catholic, having a relationship with God is not necessariy the same thing as having a relationship with the Church itself.
The hierarchy, the Church, is a mediator, maybe best described as a facilitator of the personal relationship between an individual and that sense of the sacred, of God. The quality, depth and breadth of that connection does not belong to the Church but to the individual. True, the Chruch provides a myriad of tools towards that end, but it is up to the person to enter into that mystery and to embark on that journey. Scripture reverberates with the stories of those who accepted the responsibility and those who withdrew and returned, who were confused and committed. Over and over, the Gospels emphasize the idea of choice over conformity or compliance. Over and over, there is encouragement and descriptions of the messy nature of human life. The woman at the well, for instance, or Peter in the Garden, or the Good Samaritan story. Choice is what brought the disciples to the Upper Room to share the Passover. Choice is what sent Mary Magdalene to the empty tomb. Choice is even what lead to the birth of Jesus.
Sometimes, in the light of the choice, it is easy to condemn and judge others. Then there is the sonorous tone of Jesus’ voice encouraging one to remove the plank from his or her own eye before leaping to judgment. Choice means finding the haven to converse with the Divine, to release fears and anxieties and to trust that there is something greater than self, something beyond the tiny worlds we live in. Nature beckons the broken and the whole with its promise of nurturing and quiet peace, the mystery of its past and the music of its present. Service absorbs the lives of others: finding the face of Jesus in the eyes of the suffering. There, too, is the sacred presence, the divine spark. Still others find that in silent adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Note that there are few rules: there are many, many options and choices.
The truth that a troubled hierarchy fumbled is that each of us is the Hands and Heart of Christ. Each of us has the capacity, competence and the challenge to make the choice that is right for us. Living within Catholicism and outside the hierarchy offers the beauty of a choice beyond compare: to discover the divine in the midst of the world our lives are wrapped in, to practice goodness with unwavering conviction and to trust that there are moments, rituals, celebrations within parish communities that can enrich, nurture and sustain that choice. The hierarchy struggles, but the troops on the ground know the strength and courage of choice.