Homilies,  Occasional

Diocesan Liturgy of Lament for the crime of sexual abuse in the Church – 12 October 2023

We gather this evening again as we have for the past 7 years to demonstrate our shame at the hurt inflicted in our community of faith by those in positions of leadership and trust. We express our sorrow, and we renew our commitment to foster communities known for their accountability, safety and care.  Just as the project of national Reconciliation which takes its own turn this Saturday is not an occasional matter that once achieved can be put aside and relegated to the archives, so too our Lament for the crime of sexual abuse within our Church.  It is not something expressed and moved on from: it is our way of being Church, at least for our own generation and the several generations to follow us. To be a member of the Church is to live in lament. It is to live without resiling from the prayer, “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do; through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” For the sin of the Body, and its guilt, is borne by all its members, yes, even if we are not personally culpable.  If lament is the mark of our generation of Church, remembrance is critical. Too easy it is to forget, to become occupied with the pressing concerns of every day, to enter a kind of amnesia to the not-so-distant past.  Our forgetfulness needs to be punctuated with remembrance. Therefore, the significance of our annual gathering, and the importance of returning here, year after year.

This year we enter our lament whilst a defining moment in the life of our Church is taking place in Rome: the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops with its theme, “Communion, Participation and Mission: Towards a Synodal Church.” It is exploring, and not without challenge, opportunities for the Church to be inclusive and welcoming whilst remaining faithful to a Mission not its own but received through the mystery of Christ. It seeks to consider those means by which we can walk together in a shared discernment of Mission.  In the framework established by Pope Francis, it is premised on three key words – encounter, listening, discernment.  These are fine words when encounter, listening and discernment are with those similar to ourselves, with those who think as we do, or with those whose own experience mirrors mine. They are not so easy with those who do not think as I do or whose experience is radically other than my own.

A key feature of the foundational pillar of synodality is participation. By this term, Francis means that “the whole community, in the free and rich diversity of its members, is called together to pray, listen, analyze, dialogue, discern, and offer advice on making pastoral decisions which correspond as closely as possible to God’s will. Genuine efforts must be made to ensure the inclusion of those at the margins or who feel excluded.”

These last words become our focus this evening.  There can be no genuine synodality in the Church unless we are prepared to encounter, listen, and discern with those who feel excluded.  And those who have been abused in our Church are amongst those who experience themselves as most excluded.  They feel excluded by the incalculable spiritual damage they carry as a consequence of suffering abuse in the Church which means that the even the very words of God and Church trigger and retraumatise – let alone the physical signs of church and priesthood; they feel excluded by the deep well of confusion and shame from which they constantly draw; they feel excluded by the grossly inadequate responses made to their disclosures and cries for justice; they feel excluded by the suspicion they can experience from other members of the Church, they feel excluded by their understandably intense anger.

There can be no genuine synodality in the Church unless we are prepared to encounter, listen, and discern with those who feel excluded.

For the German theologian Johannes Metz, one can only theologize through a narrative identification with those who have suffered.  it is the “church’s living memory of Jesus . . . embod[ied] in scripture and encountered in concrete experiences of suffering” that remains the pivotal point of reference.[1]  

In our own context it is the voice of those who have suffered abuse within the Church who bear the retelling of the story of Jesus for us. This is blessing that the voice of those who have suffered abuse in the Church can be to us.  That voice is ‘other’ than our Church’s self-image.  It is ‘other’ than our rhetoric about ourselves and our intentions. It is ‘other’ than the face of harmony and well-being.  It thus confronts complacency and delusion; it opens, and not without terror, new possibilities of being as does all authentic conversation with that which is ‘other.’  The ‘otherness’ of the voice of the one who has suffered ‘disrupts’ and ‘transgresses.’ Therein precisely lies its giftedness for us if only we can be humble enough to welcome this.  However, we are not used to listening; we are used to proclaiming.  We are not used to asking questions; we are used to giving the answers.  We are not used to serving another from their terms; we are used to giving on our own terms.  We are not used to asking for forgiveness; we are used to dispensing forgiveness.  A synodal Church envisages a different way of being.

The commitment to a synodal Church means, then, we must move beyond remorse, and yes, beyond even questions of redress and compensation.  What might happen if we were now truly prepared to “sit with” and listen deeply to the pain of stories and to wonder in the midst of such pain, how such trauma acts as the catalyst for theology, and our self-understanding as Church?  How does people’s pain in this instance shape our sense of God, of Christ, of the Church, of redemption?  

It has been one of the most powerful privileges in my own life and ministry to sit with survivors, and in my own role as Vicar General on a number of occasions to offer the Church’s apology on behalf of us all. They have been some of the most vulnerable moments in my journey, listening to the pain, the confusion, the anger.  Not one of them has been the same; each one unique but all with immeasurable suffering. No excuses or justifications to offer; no effective words in reply.  Only a feeble attempt on my part to be present, to encounter the one so hurt in all their truth, to listen. But also to be affected, to be changed.  If we could welcome such ‘disruption’ and ‘transgression,’ as it were, if we could enter the conversation with the ‘otherness’ of the voice of those who have been abused and live the suffering of exclusion, we might find itself blessed as does the desert nomad who welcomes with hospitality the stranger at first perceived as unwelcome but later recognised as angel.  This is the deepest hope I have for a synodal Church. And then the lament may spring forth into hope

[1] Elizabeth K Tillar, “Critical Remembrance and Eschatological Hope in Edward Schillebeeckx’s Theology of Suffering for Others,” Heythrop Journal 44 (2003), 26. 

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