It is a sad reality that many Catholics have been hurt by the Church. These hurts run very deep because the Church represents Christ on earth and we expect to receive His unconditional love through His Church. Although this is an unrealistic expectation, as I have frequently observed, nevertheless we should feel completely at ease in our parish home. The parish is a sacred space where we ought to be free from manipulation, deceit and abuse. It is a privileged place of encounter with Christ and whoever interferes with that will have a lot to account for when the time comes.
My own parish is just beginning this journey and it will likely get worse before it gets better. Still reeling from the breaking news, I providentially came across a recommendation for a new book that was exactly what I was looking for, although I didn’t even know I was looking yet. In Hurting in the Church – A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics, Father Thomas Berg brings his own experience of betrayal, along with those of several others, to explore how good people can be hurt by representatives of the Church and how we can move beyond those experiences while coming to terms with the Church itself.
Among the many hurts he considers, he mentions:
- You are a priest who feels emotionally exhausted from continually having to face the criticism, gossip, backbiting, and mean-spiritedness of a group of parishioners who simply do not like you.
- You feel heartbroken because a priest you loved and idealized for years was shown to be living a double-life of sexual and financial misconduct.
- You’ve turned utterly cynical about the Church because of the scandal of clergy sexual abuse.
- You experience same-sex attraction and feel conflicted about the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.
- You are an elderly Catholic widow who never receives a visit from any parishioners, much less from your own parish priests.
- You were sexually abused by a member of the clergy as a child.
There is a wide range of hurts, in scope and in kind, and many good people end up lost as a result. Father Berg uses the personal accounts of several people to illustrate some of the ways in which people have been injured by the Church. We can see that these hurts are acutely felt when the love and trust that we ought to expect from our relationship with the Church has been betrayed.
Unlike most discussions of this subject, Father Berg offers us a way to cope with these injuries in a positive way that can actually renew our affection for the Church and deepen our faith in Christ. It’s not easy; it takes work. And much of that work is on ourselves. Many of us can get stuck on “Why did God allow this to happen to me?” The author quotes Megan, who, as a teenager, was traumatized by a vicious verbal assault in the confessional,
I know exactly what you feel like. But so does Jesus! Think about that! When he is on the cross, he even says it: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” You have to get to that place where you accept that you can’t change the past; you can’t change what happened to you. All you can do is go to that cross and say: “Jesus, heal me. I’m broken. I’m giving you all of this. I don’t know what to feel about it or how to think about it. So, I’m just giving it to you.”
The hurt that we experience in life, whether by the Church or others, actually gives us an opportunity to grow closer to Christ if, as above, we turn to Him for healing. With His grace, we can in time find it possible to forgive those who have betrayed us and to use our experience to strengthen the wounded Mystical Body of Christ.
Hurting in the Church is a book that is easy to read and I just about swallowed it whole in a few hours. I expect to reread it several times as I work through my own feelings, which I’m sure will have ups and downs as this process unfolds. Although it is primarily about being hurt by the Church, there is a lot there for anyone who has experienced betrayal or who feels abandoned by God in their pain. I especially like that Father Berg does not give in to cynicism and just write off the Church. He leads us beyond survival to genuine healing.
Let us continue to pray for all those who have been wounded by the Church.