• Sara Larson

I'm Not Sure What To Think About The Mass Of Atonement

I had never attended the Archdiocesan Mass of Atonement before this year. I vaguely remember hearing about the event in past years, but I never felt particularly drawn to attending. Obviously, things are different for me now, so when I heard about this year's Mass, I thought it was important to attend and to invite others to participate as well. After all, this is one small thing that our Archdiocese has consistently done to acknowledge the ongoing wounds of clerical abuse, even in the years when not many Catholics were paying attention.

I have some reflections to share in the second half of this post, but first, here’s the basic information about the Mass:

  • The Mass of Atonement is held at a different parish each year - This time, the service took place at Immaculate Conception Church in Bay View on Monday, April 1.

  • Archbishop Jerome Listecki served as the presider, assisted by Auxiliary Bishops Jeff Haines and James Schuerman, as well as six priests and five deacons of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

  • About 100 people were in attendance, which apparently is an increase from previous years.

  • The Immaculate Conception choir provided lovely, tastefully-chosen music for the service.

  • Prayer cards with a brief reflection and the USCCB’s Prayer for Healing Victims of Abuse were provided in all of the pews.

  • I gladly accepted an invitation to be the lector for this mass, because I love proclaiming the Word of God in any context. I read from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 5, verses 14-20: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (I was happy to assist in this way, but when I mentioned to my son that I would be serving as the lector for the mass, he wondered, “Why did they ask you and not a survivor?” I told him that was a very good question.)

  • The Gospel was drawn from Luke 23:33-34, 39-46, telling the story of the two thieves crucified with Jesus. Archbishop Listecki based his homily on this Gospel, reflecting on the need to address the wounds of clerical abuse through honesty, reconciliation, and an embrace of the cross. You can read the full text of the homily here.

  • Thoughtfully-composed general intercessions included prayers for survivors and their families, for church leaders, for parents and all who work with children, and for those who have left the Church because of this scandal.

The most striking part of the Mass came at the very beginning, when all three bishops lay prostrate in front of the altar as a sign of sorrow and repentance. Before laying on the ground, the Archbishop removed all of the “signs” of his office - his crosier, miter, zucchetto, and bishop’s ring - and placed them at the foot of the altar. As Catholics, we know the power of symbolic gestures, and this is certainly a compelling one.


All in all, it was a very nice mass, planned with good intentions by people who truly want to help. But I still left feeling a little unsure about the whole thing. Here’s why:

I have always loved the Mass. I still do. But things are different for me now - When I go to Mass, I can’t help but think about all of the crimes that were committed in these churches where we kneel and sing and worship God. After spending months reading about clerical sexual abuse, sometimes in graphic detail, horrible images now rush into my mind whenever I enter a church. It’s a sad reality, because, for me, walking into a Catholic church has always felt like coming home.

Today, in spite of everything, the Catholic Church is still my home, but I don't think I will ever be able to see the beauty of the Church without also remembering all that is dark and ugly as well.

If you have some sympathy for my feelings, can you imagine what it must be like for a survivor of clerical abuse? For a woman who was raped by her priest in the parish rectory? For a man who was molested in the sacristy after mass, over and over for many years? For a suffering person who tried to tell someone at the church about their abuse and was doubted and blamed and silenced?

I am truly happy for all those survivors who have still been able to find a home in the Church, but I am also learning to understand those who cannot, whose pain keeps them from walking through church doors again. As I attended the Mass of Atonement, I thought about those people - survivors who walk past a church and have to fight off a panic attack, who see clerical vestments and picture the face of their abuser, who smell incense and are suddenly taken back to the worst day of their life.

So, I'm not sure what to make of the Mass of Atonement. I’m glad it happens, I'm glad I was there, and I hope that some survivors find this Mass helpful and healing. But I also understand that many do not, and as I sat in my pew on Monday night, I prayed for those precious souls as well.


Another note: A reader who has a long history with confronting this issue in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee raised an important point about the painful history of Immaculate Conception Church. In March 2002, a survivor learned that his abuser, Father Frederick Bistricky, was helping out with weekend masses at Immaculate Conception. This survivor was shocked and dismayed, because Bishop Richard Sklba had promised him, back in 1997, that Bistricky was retiring and would not have any access to children. Bistricky was removed from all ministry soon after the issue was raised in 2002, but his case serves as another example of the tragic mishandling of abusive priests by church leaders. This makes Immaculate Conception a particularly painful church for some Milwaukee-area survivors, and this informed reader suggested that an awareness of this history should have led organizers to choose a different church for this service.

When I received this reader's comment, I immediately recognized that she was raising a valid criticism, and I am passing along that concern to the organizers of this Mass. However, as I considered her point, I also wondered, sadly, if there is any church in our Archdiocese without some connection to clergy sexual abuse. To put it another way - Is there any corner of my beloved Church that has not been touched by this darkness?


NB: I do not have a personal connection to clerical sexual abuse, so I recognize that my perspective is limited. I am doing my best to listen and seek understanding, so if you are a survivor or have personal experience with this issue, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts and feelings. If I am getting something wrong, please let me know so that I can do better.


Gentle Jesus, shepherd of peace,

join to your own suffering

the pain of all who have been hurt

in body, mind, and spirit

by those who betrayed the trust placed in them.

Hear the cries of our brothers and sisters

who have been gravely harmed,

and the cries of those who love them.

Soothe their restless hearts with hope,

steady their shaken spirits with faith.

Grant them justice for their cause,

enlightened by your truth.

- Prayer for Healing Victims of Abuse

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