A Victim's Response to Bishop Robert Barron's 'Letter to a Suffering Church'
+JMJ+ Several weeks ago, copies of Bishop Robert Barron's “Letter to a Suffering Church” were made available at our parish. To be perfectly honest, I've been so busy with other projects that I never intended to read it when it was released several months ago (it didn't really cross my mind). However, curiosity got the best of me and I decided to take a copy home. I've spent the last couple weeks reading, reflecting, and praying about this letter, and I'd like to share some of my thoughts with you as a survivor of clerical abuse.
As many of you may already know, I was born into a Catholic home and, to this day, remain dedicated to my faith. This has not always been easy, but there is ingrained in me such a deep love for the Eucharist and such deep appreciation for all the Catholic Faith has to offer, that I can't imagine ever abandoning it. Furthermore, I have discovered the incredible strength gained through my faith as well as the many gifts God had offered to me through it. The reality is, however, that not all victims (or Catholics in general) feel the same way. It was this understanding that peaked my interest in reading Bishop Barron's letter in the first place. I was curious as to how this letter might speak to them.
Here's my honest takeaway: this letter is not perfect, I wasn't really deeply moved, and I didn't think it was “brilliant” but, then again, I don't think many letters or books on this topic could be. I do applaud Bishop Barron for attempting to speak to the pain, suffering, and righteous anger that so many people are facing at this point in time, especially when too many bishops have remained silent on the corruption plaguing the church. At least this bishop is willing to speak about it openly instead of hushing it up as it has been for so long. To be clear, Barron is not the only bishop who has spoken up but he does have an established audience, and I think many Catholics were interested in what he had to say. I've done my best to break down his letter a bit and have attempted to share my thoughts as eloquently as possible.
"Letter to a Suffering Church” did not answer all my questions or address all my doubts and fears, although I didn't really expect that it would. However, I think many victims and Catholics in general might have picked up this letter with that expectation and been sorely disappointed. Overall, I thought Bishop Barron's letter was a “first step,” an “ice-breaker” if you will-an opening to a greater conversation that needs to be had. Personally, I'm at a point where I'm tired of words from Catholic leaders. Actions speak louder than words, and I think many Catholics would agree that, at times, there have been too many words spoken and not enough action taken. That was part of my hesitation about reading this letter in the first place-I'm just sick and tired of words.
Bishop Barron addresses the Church as a whole and I tried to keep that in mind as I read. Almost right off the bat, I was discouraged, annoyed, and (quite frankly) a bit horrified by the fact that he included some details of sexual abuse. I got the sense (and I could be wrong) that the bishop was making an effort to "put it all out there" since so much has been hidden and so many excuses made. While I understand this, I don't think all the details were necessary. I skipped over much of that section but had a difficult time reading on-so did my mom. I've also spoken to other people who had the same reaction. If he's trying to encourage people to stay, he should have considered that some victims and their families might be reading this. I wouldn't be surprised if some readers may have abandoned the letter as soon as they came to that part. At the very least, Bishop Barron could have put a brief "warning" somewhere explaining that these particular pages contain disturbing details. On a side note, due to the sensitive nature of that section alone, I would recommend that this book not be left lying around especially in a place where young children who are advanced readers might read it. Our son, for example, is 9 years old and not ready to learn about these things, but he could innocently pick this book up and read it. For this reason, my husband and I are keeping it in a safe place where the kids do not have access to it.
The first part of “Letter to a Suffering Church” contains a Biblical section in which Barron helps to put things into perspective by pointing out that “we've been here before.” In other words, scandals have gone on before, sexual abuse and the disordered use of sex are talked about even in Biblical times. He goes on to discuss times in church history when there has been corruption and sexual abuse by priests. Initially, I found myself getting frustrated by all this information but, upon reflection, it did help to put some things in perspective. The Church's less than perfect history certainly doesn't excuse or lessen the severity of the current sex abuse scandal, however I was reminded that the devil has always worked to corrupt souls. He did it long, long ago, he's doing it now, and he will continue to do it. Catholics need to remain on guard always and always seek to defend what is holy and true. Also, out of some of the most difficult times in Church history, there have risen some of our greatest saints. Bishop Barron talks about finding fellowship with the saints later on in his letter and this reminded me that we are all called to be saints. There is no better time and no greater opportunity to strive for sainthood than now!
My biggest critique on these first few chapters is that Barron seems to skirt around the issue of homosexual predation. While he briefly mentions it, I don't think he discussed it enough. Personally, I'm tired of the cowardice of individuals who are too afraid to just say it like it is: homosexual predation is a huge issue in the sexual abuse crisis. It may not be the only issue or the only factor, but it sure is a very large factor and it needs to be addressed.
Further on in his letter, Bishop Barron offers his reasons for why Catholics should remain (despite the corruption) as well as suggestions for what we can do about the current situation. Here is where he talks about the saints (as I previously mentioned). Personally, I've always looked to the saints for inspiration and for their intercession, so it's nice to be reminded every so often of how their example of faith can help lead us closer to Christ. They weren't perfect and they suffered; their faith sometimes faltered. Yet, they remained faithful despite their own imperfections and the imperfections of the Church. What makes the saints “saintly” is not that they were perfect, but rather that, despite their imperfections, they sought to surrender themselves to Christ all the while defending the faith even to the point of death. I sometimes stop and ask myself if I love my faith enough to defend and die for it, and I think that's a question we should all ask ourselves from time to time.
Bishop Barron seems to empathize with the “fed up” Catholics-the people who want to leave. He says to them, “the better option is to stay and fight, especially on behalf of the victims.” (p. 82) As a victim, I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Maybe I shouldn't, but whenever I hear of someone who has used the excuse of the sex abuse scandal to leave the Church, I feel a sense of betrayal. There's also a sense of, “I'm a victim and I'm able to stay...but you can't?” The bishop offers many compelling reasons why we should stay and he encourages us to fight. We have so many treasures within the Church, the Eucharist being at the center of it all. This, I believe, is the key argument he makes in this letter and the main reason why remaining in the Church is worth it. No other religion can boast to having the True Presence-the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity-of Jesus Christ. That alone is worth staying and fighting for! Barron encourages Catholics to speak their minds and he says, “Fight by raising your voice in protest; fight by writing a letter of complaint; fight by insisting that protocols be followed; … fight by refusing to be mollified by pathetic excuses.” (p. 101) That all seems like sound advice to me.
Bishop Barron also talks about how good vocations often start with holy families. When families are holy, they produce holier priests. He also says that there needs to be a renewal in the priesthood which seems pretty clear at this point. The bishop challenges Catholics with these words: “The bottom line is this: if we want holier priests, we all have to become holier ourselves. … A better and stronger laity shapes a better and stronger (and less clericalist) priesthood.” (p. 92-93) However, I felt he could have expanded upon this a bit more and discussed some of the issues plaguing the priesthood. A modernist agenda of sorts seems to be plaguing many seminaries as well as (many reports claim) hidden, debauched lifestyles from behind their walls. How many good, holy vocations have been lost because of this? Catholics are seeing a rise in priests who seem to be better political activists than good, holy priests. All too often, I hear of priests (some quite well-known) attempting to change the Church to fit the modern world rather than the other way around. I recently came upon a quote from Pope Pius X who had some harsh words for secularist clergy, "For they should be eaten with fists. In a duel, you don't count or measure the blows, you strike as you can." That being said, there are many holy priests in our Church! We cannot forget that and we need to support and defend those priests.
In closing, there is, Bishop Barron says, a "clear path forward" for Catholics who wish to remain faithful: we need to stay and fight in order to preserve what so many brave and holy men and women before us have fought for and even died to defend and protect. Personally, I know the reasons why I remain Catholic, but there are many people who are struggling to remain in a Church that they feel so betrayed by. This little book may not change their minds, but it will most likely offer them some food for thought and hopefully provide some insight as to why they are Catholic in the first place. As stated earlier, this letter didn't answer all my questions or leave me with a solid idea of where the Church is going from here. However, I thought it was good overall and it seemed clear to me that Bishop Barron loves the Church and is trying to look out for the flock. I applaud him for standing up at all and saying anything when so many priests and bishops are too afraid to do so. Again, I think he could have done a much better job at being more sensitive to the fact that some of his readers might be victims or family members of victims. The detail he went into just wasn't necessary.
I thank Bishop Barron for his efforts in reaching out. This is a difficult time for those who remain faithful and for those who are unsure of what direction to take. One thing is for sure, we do need to pray (and pray some more) and we also need to stand and fight for truth. This is a crucial time for all of us to strive for greater holiness. I leave you with one quote from “Letter to a Suffering Church” that particularly moved me, "In the end, we are not Catholics because our leaders are flawless, but because we find the claims of Catholicism both compelling and beautiful." Our faith and our Church are treasures and I for one have chosen to stay and fight for them.