"Our Action Must Begin at the Foot of the Cross" - Archbishop Listecki’s Mass of Atonement Homily
This text is transcribed from my audio recording of Archbishop Jerome Listecki’s homily at the annual Archdiocesan Mass of Atonement which took place on Monday, April 1, 2019 at Immaculate Conception Church in Bay View.
Thank you very much for joining us this evening.
Two thieves were crucified with Jesus Christ. Both stood guilty, for which they were paying the ultimate price. But the two could not have been more different in the way they called out to Jesus. One mocked and demeaned Jesus, taunting him to save himself and them. This bad thief desired the interests of the world. He wanted to avoid punishment which was his responsibility for his actions. He didn't care about the relationship offered him in faith. He just wanted Jesus to magically make it all disappear. The bad thief represents the world which seeks power and the manipulation for self interest and personal gain or pleasure, but avoids personal responsibility. The good thief took responsibility for his action and recognized the innocence of Jesus. In doing so, he embraces Jesus as messiah and begs Jesus to remember him when he comes into the kingdom. The first step towards atonement for sins is a recognition of our responsibility for those actions which have separated us from God.
Now, we began this Mass of Atonement by stripping ourselves of every trapping of office, approaching the altar of sacrifice as sinful creatures before God. This is a sign of our personal and collective responsibility. As archbishop and shepherd of the community of the Church in southeastern Wisconsin, I place the crosier and miter, the zucchetto and the ring, all signs of my office, before the altar - a symbolic action recognizing my own sinfulness as a creature before God and the sinfulness of our entire community. We cannot approach our God through the lens of power. It must be as humble creatures, seeking his love and protection. Like the good thief, we call out in need of God’s intervention and his mercy in order to heal the wounds that have been created by our sins, especially those of clergy sexual abuse. In this Mass for Atonement, we are not only saying that we are sorry for our sins, but we commit ourselves to correct the behavior that permitted sins to occur. We entrust ourselves to the only source that can accomplish a true healing - that is, the love of God.
What is our motivation for seeking to heal the wounds that separate us from the body of Christ? As St. Paul states, it is the love of Christ that impels us as Christians. He indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him, who for their sake died and was raised. It is our task to move forward, to accept our roles as ambassadors of Christ, imploring those in our community to seek the path of reconciliation and assure them that we are different because of God’s mercy.
We begin the journey of reconciliation, not from a position of perfection and power, but as frail human beings in need of God’s abundant mercy, standing before the cross of the sacrifice of Jesus. We come as beggars before the altar of the Lord, to be fed by the love that Jesus demonstrates in his sacrifice. Our action must begin at the foot of the cross. We cannot move forward without the naming of our sins, our responsibility, and reliance on the power of the cross to save. From that cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Pope Francis, who preaches and teaches mercy, stated, “Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father; it becomes a criterion for ascertaining who is his true children. In short, we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us. Pardoning offences becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves. At times how hard it is to seek and to offer forgiveness! And yet pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain sincerity of heart. To let go of anger, wrath, violence, and revenge are necessary conditions to living joyfully. Let us therefore heed the Apostle’s exhortation: ‘Do not let the sun go down on your anger’ (Ephesians 4:26). Above all, let us listen to the words of Jesus who made mercy an ideal of life and a criterion for the credibility of our faith: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy’ (Matthew 5:7)” (Misericodiae Vultus 9).
As a Church, we shamefully and remorsefully acknowledge that there were those clergy and others among us that abused our children, the most vulnerable entrusted to our care; there was also silence, dismissing the cries of those hurting and magnifying their distress; there was ignorance on the part of many and a lack of understanding of the gravity of sin - all of which inflicted wounds on the body of Christ. However, we can’t deny evil. Abuse continues in our society, and we must be prepared to be a catalyst of change, bringing to light those sins and crimes against our children and others.
I have said this before and will continue to state that we are a different Church today because of those who continue to love the Church and courageously share their stories, so that the sins and crimes which damaged the body of Christ could be addressed. We also mourn those who have been abused and have been driven from the Church because of the manner of their abuse. I pray and continue to pray for their healing and return.
There is a need for all of us, therefore, to remain vigilant, to understand the broader implications, not yet embraced by our society, but always, first and foremost, to create an environment where our children are protected and they are spiritually nurtured by our Church, the body of Christ. We pledge to form consciences so that we may not ignore the signs or trivialize reports.
I promised that we would always gather together as a community and offer this Mass of Atonement, not simply to say that we are sorry (we can never apologize enough to those who were wronged), nor merely to seek your collective forgiveness (even though we need to do this as a community), but most importantly, to remember and never forget that it was our sin that damaged the body of Christ, and it is only through embracing the cross that we have any ability to bring about reconciliation and healing.
Holy Spirit, comforter of hearts,
heal your people’s wounds
and transform brokenness into wholeness.
Grant us the courage and wisdom,
humility and grace, to act with justice.
Breathe wisdom into our prayers and labors.
Grant that all harmed by abuse may find peace in justice.
We ask this through Christ, our Lord.