Another Kind of Suffering

We are about to begin Holy Week, the Great Week of the Christian year, and our eyes are already beginning to focus on the Cross and the suffering Jesus will undergo for our sakes. All our own suffering and failure is taken up into that one great redemptive act. That doesn’t mean, however, that what we suffer is somehow less real because it cannot compare with the suffering of Jesus. We can exaggerate, but we can also ‘spiritualize’, not acknowledge how deeply or negatively we experience things. Yesterday I had a negative experience I’ll share with you in the hope that it may help you see that whatever we suffer can be a way in to understanding what we celebrate this coming week. At least, I found it helpful.

I had been invited to take part in a radio programme. The producer had kindly sent an advance list of questions to form a basis for conversation and the interviewer was one I admire. All very promising. I listened to the first two contributors and felt very much in sympathy with them. Then came another, and as she spoke I began to be troubled by what she was saying about something I happen to hold very different views on. When my own turn came, I was distinctly lacklustre. No problem with that (except for my pride!), but then I was taken off-guard by the way in which two further questions were posed: the ordination of women and sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Catholics will know that John Paul II placed discussion of the ordination of women off-limits, and for those of us who are priests or religious, it is a tricky question to handle in the public sphere because the way in which it is presented (as one of equality or power in the Church) is not one that corresponds to our understanding of the sacrament of holy orders. One has to tread carefully to be intelligible to the general public and not overstep the boundaries currently permitted by the Church. I made a hash of it. Then came the killer. Would the presence of women in the priesthood help avoid sexual abuse? There are two things to note here. First, I find the idea of women being priests themselves (or priests being allowed to marry) as a way of preventing men from acting wickedly rather insulting to women. To be fair, I don’t think the interviewer meant that. It just sounded like it to me. Secondly, but just as importantly, few seem to recognize that most Catholics — surely the vast majority — are deeply upset by what we have learned of abuse and cover-ups. It reduces me to tears, and yesterday I found myself welling-up on air at the thought of how those children had been abused and the whole Church had been betrayed.

Quite clearly, the narrative of abuse in the Catholic Church is the only one the media are really interested in. I am beginning to wonder, however, whether it is time to ask the un-askable. Are there others who suffer in addition to those abused, and should we be concerned about them, too? A few years ago I wrote about the effect of abuse compensation claims on the diocese of Boston. So huge were they that the diocese had to close schools and hospitals for the poor, and one convent of religious sisters had the roof over their heads sold to help meet the cost (they were generously re-homed by some Episcopalian sisters). It was all very sad. The abuse was dreadful; the price paid by the Catholics of Boston and the poor was also dreadful. This is another kind of suffering which is not, by and large, acknowledged: the suffering of those who are themselves innocent of abuse but who must pay for the sins of the guilty — in terms of money, services, reputation and the constant drip-drip of poisonous remarks.

Some will argue that that is just tough. The awfulness of what happened means that Catholics must put up with whatever the world chooses to throw at us. The latest scandals attaching to the name of Cardinal Keith O’Brien have led to even more gleeful dirt-chucking. Those who believe that a vow of chastity or a promise of celibacy obliges to continence are appalled and saddened. The abuse of power is rightly seen as completely unacceptable. There is no excuse.

But I think it would be wrong not to acknowledge that the constant negativity does have an effect. To be held responsible for something one had no part in, that one condemns absolutely, isn’t easy. The pain and grief we feel for the wrong done to or by others is not assuaged by knowing that it may draw one closer to Jesus. The only way in which we can make sense of it is by remembering that we are the Body of Christ — wounded, bloodied, it is true, but still intimately united to our Lord and Saviour, who will never fail or forsake us.

As we process with our palms tomorrow, rejoicing in that transient moment of triumph which was a prelude to the everlasting triumph of the Cross, let us give thanks that we have a Saviour who has borne all our sin and shame. In him, we are washed clean, given fresh hope, redeemed.


10 thoughts on “Another Kind of Suffering”

  1. Oh Dear! How sad that you were treated so inconsiderately by the broadcasters. Unfair to ask such questions, which on the surface, were not part of the proposed questioning, and to be mugged by such questions must have been heart stopping.

    People point the finger at the Catholic Church for so much, ignoring the issues which have come to light within the Anglican Church of a similar nature. Many have suffered at the hands of Anglican Clergy or Religious, but, somehow it appears to be treated more leniently, even as a joke.

    You rightly point out how distressing you find all abuse, from wherever it comes, and I think that the media concentrate on abuse by Clergy or Religious, and tend to ignore the abuse carried out every day by family and friends of children and vulnerable adults, and even institutional abuse in Care Homes – somehow they don’t excite the morbid curiosity of the media in the same way.

    Prayers for you as you try to overcome this treatment, laying at the foot of the Cross seems the only way to achieve peace. We know that Christ suffers with us and we need to centre on his victory on the Cross over all sin and suffering and knowing that all will be well.

    • Thank you, Ernie. The radio people were only doing their job. The problem is that this particular narrative is the one that seems to predominate and I think it is more destructive than most people realise or intend.

  2. The lack of understanding and the partiality that you describe ARE distressing, for a number of reasons. And how grateful I am for the reflections that they have given rise to in this posting. I hope you mind mind what follows, though : I didn’t hear the programme, but it sounds to me as if your reactions on air were utterly appropriate . Maybe what you felt was lacklustre was in fact what was needed — being lost for words.

  3. I’m so sorry you were put in such a difficult position& publicly too. It was unfair & inexcusable as a media ploy.
    I do understand though, as a Catholic, that evil must find no quarter in the houses of God,as it denigrates Him,& sullies Him & His church at a time when so many hardly know Him at all. If we are to draw the seekers to us,we must be as warm & welcoming as a light to those lost in a storm, not frighten them away with tales of bogeymen & horror. Now that so many good people have been made to suffer for the sins & misguidedness of others, perhaps the Catholic congregation will have learned how to protect their churches & their clergy from the stealthy tiptoe of evil by being more aware, more vigilant & more caring of the Church in their trust. Let he who is sinless cast aspersions on others; we, the congregations,should look to our own shortcomings in ensuring our vulnerable members and our clergy are protected from the harm latent in people generally.

  4. Thank you for your comments. I would like to make it clear, however, that I have NO GRIPE against the radio people, and I’m sorry if my attempt to put my remarks in context has given that impression.

  5. My sympathies. I have found myself wondering recently (in regard to another issue) at how anger, that may originally be perfectly legitimate, can easily become gratuitous anger, and at how particular narratives that dominate in the media can easily foster such gratuitous anger.

  6. It is indeed wearying, the ‘drip drip of poisonous remarks’, and waiting for the inevitable questions about abuse from non-Catholics when the conversation turns to one’s faith. Once again you have articulated, with grace and elegance, what I have been feeling in my heart.

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