One joy as a Catholic is the liturgical calendar’s rhythm throughout the year—the way, for example, Ash Wednesday disrupts the daily grind of life. But this is the first Lenten season since the “Summer of Shame.” For many, part of the shock was that Catholics could no longer simply hope or believe that the 2002 Dallas charter had adequately addressed the problem of sex abuse, particularly regarding the accountability of bishops. Those details are well known to readers of this blog, and I have little to add to the avalanche of commentary both here and elsewhere. But even before this dreadful summer, the sex abuse scandal was in the news in April—shortly after Easter—when Pope Francis released a remarkable apology for his previous defense (and appointment) of Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, whose protection of Rev. Fernando Karadima ignored the stories of Karadima’s several victims. The pope’s apology was noteworthy—not just because it was a personal act of confession—but because any public apology from the See of Peter is rare indeed.
Perhaps the most remarkable example of a papal mea culpa occurred in 2000. On the first Sunday after Ash Wednesday, Pope John Paul II publicly apologized for the sins of Catholics who betrayed the Gospel over the past 2000 years—further this act of contrition was not confined to a press release but integrated into a solemn liturgy.
We need such liturgical reminders of the stains on our Church’s history. We need these reminders consistently, because however much the Church is the Body of Christ, its members’ misdeeds create a culture that allows sin to flourish. Certainly, the decades-long cover-up of pedophile priests by the hierarchy demonstrates this.
Catholics, like all human beings, are prone to forget the more troubling parts of our past. When the media hype dies down, we tend to become distracted by other issues. The consistent news concerning the abuse crisis—from the USCCB’s failed meeting in November to the recent Vatican conference—has so far prevented this from happening. But the danger lurks. I do not know how long (if ever) it will take before the magisterium implements systematic reforms to protect children and adults, hold bishops accountable and prevents future abuse. Yet it does not take a great leap of the imagination to foresee that when the public frenzy dies away, the momentum for reform could slow, or even whither.
We need, as an ecclesial community, the blessed rhythm of the liturgical calendar to compel us to examine our collective actions repeatedly. We need, in other words, the disruption of Ash Wednesday. But such disruption should not be confined to the current crisis. Sin within the institutional Church and its members will not disappear even if the sex abuse crisis is adequately addressed. Pope John Paul II’s 2000 apology is a reminder that evil in the name of the Gospel takes on many forms.
True, the issue first and foremost on our minds is the sex abuse crisis, and there, the magisterium bears the brunt of responsibility. But there’s a danger if the laity think that communal sins are an exclusive problem of the ecclesiastical elite for two reasons. First, as my colleague Dan Rober reminded us on this blog, there are other issues, other injustices that we need to remember as a praying and worshipping community. Second, such an attitude, an “us” versus “them” mentality, splinters the Body of Christ between the lay and the ordained.
So, a modest proposal: As a standard part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, each community should pray for all the times that our collective attitudes, actions and structures have failed to manifest the Gospel. Further, we should not be afraid to name our sins, whether it is sex abuse, racism, sexism, economic oppression or the rejection of a person who is unborn, LGBTQ, an immigrant, disabled or on death row, to list just a few possibilities. General prayers of communal repentance often do not awaken the conscience to issues about which one may be blind or recalcitrant.
Obviously, this raises a host of questions: Where in the liturgy should we place such a collective act of contrition? Should it only be during an Ash Wednesday mass or the shorter service for the disposition of the ashes? Perhaps, more basically, who would write this prayer? The parish? The bishop? The bishops’ conferences?
One blog cannot adequately address these issues. But Pope Francis has frequently admonished believers against inward-gazing self-righteousness. Ash Wednesday’s disruption brings a similar warning to our lives: be not too comfortable with yourself. Or, for that matter, with your Church.
Brent Little is an assistant lecturer in the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.