Words For My Bishop
(This post is Part 3 of the series, “What I Wanted To Say.” Please read my previous blog posts starting here for the other parts of this imagined conversation.)
My Dear Brother In Christ,
There is much more I could say about the abuse crisis, but here is the thing I really want you to hear:
I am the Church too. I know you have been chosen by God for a particular role in the Body of Christ. So have I. We need each other, and it’s time you start listening, really listening, to the lay members of the Church.
I have heard many bishops and priests talk about how lay involvement is important to addressing the abuse crisis. All the public statements mention the need for increased collaboration with the laity. By now, it’s part of the standard “script,” and for good reason. In your November 16 letter to the faithful in our Archdiocese, you yourself affirmed this commitment: “To insure we continue to hold ourselves to the highest standards, I want to increase the involvement of lay Catholics in decisions about clergy sexual abuse.”
I am really glad to hear these words from you and from other ordained leaders of the Catholic Church. But sometimes I wonder if you really mean them.
I know that the Church has made progress by including lay experts on review boards and other consultative bodies. Bishops are consulting with law enforcement professionals, psychologists, counselors, and experts in other fields, and I do believe that has made a difference. But even some of those professionals have started saying that their expertise is not being taken seriously, that the recommendations they make are often brushed aside.
One of the things that upset me most in my early research on this topic was reading the statement made on August 28 by the National Review Board. (This is the group of lay people tasked with advising the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on abuse issues - those very “lay experts” we’re supposed to be listening to and trusting.) This statement was where I first learned that the National Review Board has been calling for further reform for years, recommending specific changes to policies and procedures; unfortunately, they have often been ignored. As recently as the USCCB meeting in June 2018, the NRB proposed important revisions to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Many of these revisions were subsequently rejected by the bishops. Even through the language of respectful deference found in the NRB's August statement, you can sense an underlying frustration with the lack of consideration given to their recommendations. When you begin reading interviews with individual NRB members over the years, or talking with people who have worked on these processes on diocesan levels, you often pick up the same thing - a slow-simmering frustration and disappointment at the lack of concrete action in response to their recommendations. So, yes, I am glad bishops are consulting with lay experts - but it sounds like there’s still a lot of room for improvement there.
Here’s the thing - I am not an expert in anything. Yes, I studied theology in college and I worked in parish ministry for years, but that certainly doesn’t mean I have the qualifications you’re looking for in an “expert.” However, I am also a lifelong Catholic, a committed wife and mother, a well-informed person of faith and prayer, and a lay woman who spends a lot of time living with and learning from the other lay members of the Church. By nature of my place in the Body of Christ, I know things that you don’t know and I have a perspective and experience that you do not share. (Of course, the same is true for your place in the Body - I fully recognize that you have gifts, experience, and wisdom to share with me. I really am trying to better understand the perspective and approach of our bishops, because I firmly believe we all need to be better at listening to each other.) I shouldn’t need to say this, but I feel like I do: As a baptized member of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, my voice is important, and I should have a place at the table.
The headline of your September 20 Catholic Herald interview proclaimed in bold letters, “During Crisis, ‘Lead, not Leave.’” Thank you for that encouragement! That is exactly what I am trying to do - to stick with my Church through thick and thin, to cling to Jesus Christ, even when it’s really, really hard. It sounded like you understand that struggle when you commented, “I would say the challenge for (the laity) is to take that anger and frustration, and stay. To lead within the Church, and to lead those who are seeking confidence and trust, and to help me lead the Church in that direction.”
I asked this question at the Listening Session you hosted, but I did not receive an answer, so I want to ask again, on behalf of myself and every single member of the laity who is hurt and frustrated and concerned. If you want me to lead... How? I want to help; I want to serve; I want to lead at a time that the Church is desperately in need of true servant leadership. How can I do that? Where is there room for me, as a lay person, a non-expert who loves the Church, to really make a difference in the healing and renewal of the Body of Christ?
I know there’s no easy answer to that question and that God will call each person in a different way, depending on their vocation, state in life, and individual gifts. Of course, we can all make a difference through fervent prayer, personal holiness, and our commitment to loving and serving the people around us. But this crisis is a widespread problem, and some of us lay people are being called (just as you are) to engage in these issues in a broader way, for the good of the whole Body of Christ.
For a while, I was waiting for someone in authority to tell me what I could do, to invite me to collaborate. Then God made clear to me that I needed to stop waiting and start taking action myself. I’m still discerning exactly what that will look like in my own life, but I have already taken a few steps, and I have plenty more ideas. However, I’m not asking this question just for myself. I am asking for thousands, maybe millions, of lay people all over the country who are feeling frustrated and powerless, but would be ready to lead, if we were empowered and given a real opportunity to do so.
Also, while we’re on the subject, one more thing - I have noticed that a lot of statements about the role of the laity invite us to “help” the bishops, to “advise” or “consult.” I appreciate the sentiment, but I know that my vocation as a lay person goes far beyond just “helping” my ordained leaders. Indeed, this is the consistent magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church. For example, Pope Benedict XVI preached that the laity are “co-responsible” for the mission of the Church: “Co-responsibility demands a change in mindset especially concerning the role of lay people in the Church. They should not be regarded as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy, but, rather, as people who are really ‘co-responsible’ for the Church’s being and acting.” Pope Francis applied that sentiment to the abuse crisis in particular, in his August 20 Letter to the People of God: “It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People.”
We, the lay people, are co-responsible for addressing the crisis of abuse, cover up, and secrecy in the Church. We are co-responsible for the renewal and purification of the Church that we love. We want to exercise that responsibility in union with our bishops. Will you make space for us to work side by side? Will you listen, really listen, to the voice of the laity so that we can heal our Church - together?
We are the Church too, and we’re ready to lead.
To all who are reading this blog, I invite you to pray with me
as you discern how God is calling you to respond:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will,
all I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.
- The Suspice Prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola