At a staff meeting here a few months ago, we struggled mightily
to find the right image for the cover of this special issue: “Crisis in the
Church: Our Search for Healing.”
We floated all kinds of trial images around the room. Finally, someone
asked, “How about a broken church being cradled by caring hands?” With a little
help from the Holy Spirit perhaps, we quickly came to a consensus that this
was indeed the image we needed. And artist Julie Lonneman rendered it beautifully.
Reform in the Spirit of St. Francis
The cover illustration reflects well the charism of St. Francis
of Assisi—and our mission as Catholic communicators committed to the Franciscan
The image of the broken church takes us directly back to that day
in the early 13th century when Francis of Assisi, searching desperately to find
his mission in life, stepped into the small, tumbledown chapel of San Damiano,
just below Assisi. Francis slowly approached the crucifix hanging there and
fell to his knees. Gazing at the image of Christ, he heard these challenging
words: “Francis, repair my house which, as you see, is falling completely into
Although Francis took Jesus’ request literally and, stone by stone,
began to restore that church, he soon saw that his deeper mission was rebuilding
the larger Church of Jesus Christ. In Francis’ day, too, the Church of Rome
was seriously damaged by corruption in many forms, including the scandalous
behavior of clerics and bishops.
The reforming style of St. Francis was that of a peacemaker. In
his Rule of 1223, he advises his followers that, in going about the world, “they
do not quarrel or fight with words, or judge others; rather, let them be meek,
peaceful and unassuming, gentle and humble, speaking courteously to everyone....”
In the spirit of St. Francis, we see two attitudes needed in the
Church for bringing about reconciliation and healing.
Respect the Voices of All
The clergy sex-abuse scandal has revealed a faulty tendency in our hierarchical
system, namely, the unequal distribution of respect. Those
higher up the hierarchical ladder often received more respect
and protection than those lower down. Often the reputation
of a priest or bishop was protected at all costs, while
children and laypersons received very little attention.
The greatest scandal during the current crisis was the failure of
Church leaders to put those abused and their families first. This kind of horrific
neglect should never have happened. After all, our biblical faith tells us that
we are all created in the divine image and have equal dignity as God’s children—and
if God has special love for anyone, it is for the poor, the broken and the most
Yet many of us seemed to accept, as God-given and eternal, a certain
pyramid model of authority that grants those on top more protection and secrecy
than those at the bottom.
This was not the mind-set of Jesus. Jesus often called religious
leaders to task for giving scandal and laying oppressive burdens on those in
their charge. Those in leadership were to serve others. Jesus dramatized this
by washing his disciples’ feet.
Then, too, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) came
along and stressed that all members of the Church make up
the “People of God” and all, by virtue of their Baptism,
deserve equal respect. This does not negate, of course,
the need for legitimate leadership structures in the Church.
One positive consequence of the clergy sex-abuse scandal is that the faulty
priorities of the hierarchical system have been unmasked
and exposed from the housetops. And now wholesome changes
in these structures are starting to take place, thanks to
decisions by the U.S. bishops, with the welcome assistance
of a growing number of lay experts and groups.
Move Toward Reconciliation
It is abundantly clear—just from reading this special
issue—that there is a lot of anger, hurt, resentment and
disillusionment keenly felt by many Catholics, not to mention
those who have walked out its doors in disgust. For all
those responsible for this enormous harm, there is an ongoing
need to express frank repentance.
We are also keenly aware of tensions and divisions within the Church—divisions
between victims (and their families) and those who have sexually abused them
or ignored their cries of distress; divisions between laity and clergy, between
priests and bishops.
How can we begin the work of reconciliation? We all know it takes
time to deal with one’s anger, disillusionment and shame, and that we have to
respect each other’s timetable in moving toward healing and forgiveness, if
that is indeed possible.
There is a great need for listening, for respectful dialogue and collaboration
among all these groups, especially between laity and clergy.
If we seek to learn anything from St. Francis, certainly
it would be his gentle spirit of respect, humility, courtesy,
peace and forbearance toward all. Under present circumstances,
a spirit of antagonism is certainly understandable (and
honest confrontation may be the best option at times). But
antagonism alone will never bring us fully to reconciliation
and a true taste of God’s Kingdom.
If St. Francis represents a good model for us, then his
path of truthfulness, love, collaboration, understanding,
pardon and joyful trust in God will bring us more quickly
to the healing and reconciliation our damaged Church so
clearly needs. J.W.
For up-to-date information on the clergy sex-abuse crisis,
visit our online feature "Clergy
Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church."