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The Year for Priests:
Grief and Anguish, Joy and Hope

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

“The Church will always be suffering … up to the end of the world”, Pope Benedict said during a press interview on his trip to Fátima in May. He observed that “attacks against the pope or the Church do not only come from outside. The suffering of the Church comes from within — from the sins that exist in the Church.

“This too has always been known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way: the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from enemies on the outside, but is born from the sin within the Church. The Church therefore has a profound need to re-learn penance, to accept purification, to learn on one hand forgiveness, but also the need for justice. Forgiveness is not a substitute for justice”.

Pope Benedict’s comments in this interview seemed to summarize the Church’s grim experience of the past few months. Almost daily reports of mishandling and cover-ups by Church authorities of past sexual abuse of vulnerable youngsters by clergy — compounded by the revelation of the gravely immoral double-life of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel Degollado, and the recent removal of two European bishops for sexual abuse — have had a profoundly destructive effect.

It is a scandal in the truest sense of the word. Scandal — from Greek scandalon — means a trap or stumbling block — something that can trip people and cause them to fall. It is deeply ironic that the attempt to cover up scandals has caused even greater scandal — one that undermines the entire mission of the Church. The actual victims of sexual abuse are not the only ones who have been injured by this scandal within the Church. How many others fell? How many have fallen away?

The gulf between the Church’s message of love and truth and the evil and destruction that has been perpetrated from within is unbridgeable. How could anyone who ever stood before people at Mass “in persona Christi” (in the person of Christ) do this? The effect on Catholic believers of these grave ruptures within the Church has been devastating. And it has done, and still does, incalculable damage to the Church’s mission to the world — her mission to bring the love of God and the liberating truth of Christ to the world of today.

The Latin adage corruptio optimi pessima (the corruption of the best is the worst) is acutely appropriate. Likewise the lines from Shakespeare’s sonnet: “For fairest things grow foulest by foul deeds; lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds”.

That the “foul deeds” occurred within the Church profoundly deepens the scandal, and also the anguish of every faithful Catholic — from the Holy Father to the ordinary parishioner. Jesus repeatedly called the Pharisees “hypocrites”, and described them as like “whited sepulchers”, beautiful on the outside, “but within you are full of dead men’s bones, and all uncleanness. So you outwardly appear righteous … but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Matt. 23:27, 28).

What is to be done? What can be done? What must we do? Pope Benedict gives us a place to start.

In a word, we have to re-learn these essentials: conversion, prayer, penance, and the theological virtues [faith, hope and love]. That is how we respond, and we need to be realistic in expecting that evil will always attack, from within and from outside; but the forces of good are also always present, and finally the Lord is stronger than evil. And the Virgin Mary is for us the visible maternal guarantee that the will of God is always the last word in history.

Fittingly, during his visit to Fátima at the close of this Year for Priests, Pope Benedict consecrated the priesthood to the Immaculate Mother Mary, entrusting them to her care. (Translation posted on the Vatican Radio web site:

“May the Church be renewed by priests who are holy”, he prayed, “priests transfigured by the grace of Him who makes all things new”. Pope Benedict’s prayer for priests concludes with these poignant words:

Our Mother for all time, do not tire of
“visiting us”, consoling us, sustaining us.
Come to our aid and deliver us
from every danger that threatens us.
With this act of entrustment and consecration,
we wish to welcome you
more deeply, more radically,
for ever and totally
into our human and priestly lives.
Let your presence cause new blooms to burst forth
in the desert of our loneliness,
let it cause the sun to shine on our darkness,
let it restore calm after the tempest,
so that all mankind shall see the salvation of the Lord,
who has the name and the face of Jesus,
who is reflected in our hearts,
for ever united to yours!

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