My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
In her guest column in The State Journal-Register on Jan. 25, Elaine Boardman asked, "Why should I return to the Catholic Church?" Her column was in response to the study of drifting and former Catholics being conducted by researchers at Benedictine University.
The results of that study are not yet available, as the survey is still open and available to those who would like to respond at www.ben.edu/catholicsurvey. This will be followed by a second survey of Catholics who regularly attend Mass and their reasons for doing so.
I commissioned this survey because I sincerely want to know why some Catholics have stopped going to church and why others continue to attend regularly. Since Ms. Boardman decided to respond publicly, I would like to answer her question publicly, and I am grateful to The State Journal-Register for printing my response. I am also responding here in Catholic Times at greater length for those who do not read The State Journal-Register and to provide a fuller response to her question.
Elaine, let me say first that I am grateful you took the time to express your views openly and frankly. They are upsetting to read precisely because they are, in large part, accurate (one correction: Father Kevin Sullivan is still a priest, though he is now retired and is no longer engaged in public ministry).
You concluded by saying, "I am your new reality. Deal with me and tell me how to come back to church. Don't just tell me the past is the past, and that you are sorry." I won't offer any excuses and I have always thought that apologizing for someone else's wrongs is rather hollow and meaningless. Instead, I will offer three reasons why you should return to the Catholic Church. Two of these reasons rely on the words of Jesus and remind us that Jesus himself founded both the church and the priesthood. The third reminds us that you are correct: The church cannot take anyone for granted.
First: Christ gave us the church to forgive sins.
The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen once addressed the National Prayer Breakfast at which President Jimmy Carter was in attendance. The archbishop greeted the audience, addressing them as, "Fellow sinners." He turned to President Carter and said, "And that includes you." Everyone present, including the president, roared with laughter. They could laugh because it was a playful reminder of an obvious truth that we sometimes forget: we are all sinners, and that includes popes and presidents, clergy and laity.
When Jesus was challenged for associating with sinners, he responded, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mark 2:17). When the Risen Lord appeared to the apostles, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit upon them, saying, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld" (John 20:23). We should also remember that these same apostles, who in effect were the first pope and bishops, included Judas, their treasurer who stole from the poor box and betrayed Jesus, and Peter, who would deny Jesus.
Second: The church holds the keys to salvation. In founding the church, Jesus said to Peter, the first pope, "I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19). Blessed Isaac of Stella, who was born in England in 1100 and became a Cistercian monk during the time of the monastic reforms carried out by St. Bernard, abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux, France, explained this teaching in these words, "The church is incapable of forgiving any sin without Christ, and Christ is unwilling to forgive any sin without the church."
Now it might seem that we have a contradiction: Christ entrusted the church to sinners and at the same time gave them the power of forgiving sins and administering the sacraments. The sinfulness of the church's ministers is a source of scandal and can be a difficult obstacle to continued participation in the life of the church. This does not mean that we become complacent in the face of sin and scandal. We cannot eliminate sin, but we can deal with it appropriately, take steps to prevent its recurrence, and use the spiritual gifts entrusted to the church to grow in virtue and holiness.
St. Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva who travelled throughout what is now Switzerland to bring Catholics back to the Catholic Church in the 16th century, was once asked to address the situation of the scandal caused by so many of his brother priests. What he said is as important for us today as it was for his listeners then. He said, "Those who commit these types of scandals are guilty of the spiritual equivalent of murder," destroying other people's faith in God by their terrible example. But then he warned his listeners, "But I'm here among you to prevent something far worse for you. While those who give scandal are guilty of the spiritual equivalent of murder, those who take scandal — who allow scandals to destroy their faith — are guilty of spiritual suicide."
Similarly, the great St. Francis of Assisi, who lived in the 1200s, a time of terrible immorality in central Italy among priests as well as laity, was once asked by one of his brother friars who was very sensitive to scandals, "Brother Francis, what would you do if you knew that the priest celebrating Mass had three concubines on the side?" Francis, without hesitating, said slowly, "When it came time for holy Communion, I would go to receive the Sacred Body of my Lord from the priest's anointed hands." The point that Francis was getting at was a tremendous truth of the faith and a tremendous gift of the Lord: no matter how sinful a priest is, provided that he has the intention to do what the church does — at Mass, for example, to change bread and wine into Christ's body and blood, or in confession, no matter how sinful he is personally, to forgive the penitent's sins — Christ himself acts through that minister in the sacraments.
Third: The church needs you.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote about the church as the Body of Christ, saying that "there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I do not need you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I do not need you'" (1 Corinthians 12:21). We as a church are weakened by the loss of members and their participation. If we are to correct the problems facing the church, we need holy and dedicated people who are willing to help. As your bishop, I pledge to do my best to make our Catholic parishes and schools holy and healthy places that carry on the mission entrusted to us by Jesus Christ. In Paul's vision, no one person is the church. That may be the simplest answer to your question: neither one of us can do this work alone. Please talk about these issues with a priest, deacon, nun or lay Catholic leader you know and trust. I pray that these conversations will be fruitful.
May God give us this grace. Amen.