Hope Renewed: Meeting the Pope
"Let Christ dwell within you, and having placed all your faith and trust in Him, spread this hope around you.” (Pope Benedict XVI)
+JMJ+ Many of you may be aware that my book, a devotional for survivors of sexual abuse, is set to be released by Our Sunday Visitor this coming August. The title is Glimmers of Grace: Moments of Peace and Healing Following Sexual Abuse. This title is near and dear to my heart since it was inspired by my own beloved mother. To this day, my mom reminds me to look for life's “glimmers”- God's gifts for us - no matter what challenges I may be facing.
Choosing to be hopeful is a conscious decision I make everyday upon waking but, even so, some days remaining hopeful is easier than others. Life is certainly not without its challenges. For so long, I felt accustomed to feeling hopeless and I got used to sad, negative feelings. “Hope” seemed like a foreign concept. Choosing hope over despair is hard work. For me, it has required years of prayer, occasional therapy, caring for my emotional, physical, and spiritual needs and also accepting the support of those around me. Years later, I still have a tendency to allow myself to be taken over by demons of despair and anxiety, but upon turning to God, I notice that tendency lifting like a dark cloud lifting away to reveal the sun.
In Psalm 16:8 we read, “I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” Hope in God requires trust – trust in God – and when you have experienced a trauma, trust does not come easy. As sinners, feeling hope can also be difficult when we find ourselves falling over and over again. Allowing demons of doubt to take over can become all too easy. Those demons work to convince us that there is no way out of the vicious cycle of sin, anger, or despair. We may have been told that God's love is endless but truly having the hope and trust that He will aid us on our journey takes some gumption, no to mention a childlike simplicity such as demonstrated by saints such as St. Therese of the Little Flower.
We can't expect to just wake up automatically feeling hopeful especially when we are suffering. I've said this before but healing is a learning process that requires time, patience, perseverance and practice. A musician (for example) does not simply “wing it” for their debut recital. He or she takes the time to practice their instrument until they have perfected it. So it is with our faith and with the virtue of hope. Hope is the part of faith that focuses on the outcome of experiences and the future. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Faith has to do with things that are not seen and hope with things that are not at hand.” Coincidentally, I chose that quote to be the quote that appeared under my high school yearbook photo, and I still marvel at the influence of the Holy Spirit in choosing those particular words. Those words of Aquinas sum up how I have strived to live my life despite the challenges that have come my way. I cannot imagine how I would have possibly carried the crosses of a rape, my brother's death, a trial, cancer, a near death experience due to my heart condition, and so many other crosses without some ray of hope. In times when I felt completely alone, I cannot imagine how I would have gotten through those feelings of isolation without knowing that there was something greater and more powerful than me.
Since 2008, April has been a special month for me. April 17, 2008 was a day on which my life changed. It was the day I was privileged to meet Pope Benedict XVI during his trip to Washington, D.C. Since I get questions about that meeting a lot, I thought I would share a bit about that day and our meeting.
Shortly after my graduation from college, the head of the Victim Support and Outreach Program with the Archdiocese of Boston (her name was Barbara), asked if I could meet with her and a priest serving as a special assistant to Cardinal Sean O'Malley. My husband, Alex, (then my fiance) and I met with them at a local coffee shop and Barbara asked if I would like to attend Pope Benedict XVI's mass during his visit to Washington, D.C. that year. Four other victims of clerical abuse and I would also be given a private audience with the Holy Father. I remember sitting there feeling completely stunned and humbled by this once in a lifetime opportunity but without hesitation I told them I would go. My fiance was invited to attend the mass as well, however he would not be a part of the private meeting.
I was asked not to mention anything about the private meeting to avoid any unnecessary gossip working its way to the media. That was fine with me! By this point, I had had it with the media! The meeting was intended to be private and the Archdiocese wanted us all to feel safe and not worried about news media. Aside from my immediate family, I only told others that I was going to the Holy Father's mass. No one else knew about the private meeting. As it turned out, I didn't have to worry about getting time off from work because I ended up on temporary disability following a concussion due to an incident at work. I was working in a group home for young children and was injured during a restraint. Funny how God works even with the most inconvenient of situations. Despite my aching neck and bad headache, we boarded a flight to Washington. I desperately wished I could take my parents too! They had been my greatest support. However, I recognized that my fiance (set to become my husband in just two months time) was the one who needed to be by my side. As they bid me good-bye, Mom thrust her rosaries into my hands and I kept them on my person during the whole trip.
Washington Nationals Stadium was packed. My heart leaped when I saw the popemobile appear and I could just make out a speck of white from where we sat in the stands. I was in awe knowing that St. Peter's successor was there and I was in even greater awe knowing that I was going to get to speak with him later on. This was about the time that I began to wonder what on earth I was going to say to him. I held onto every word of Pope Benedict's homily. He spoke of the sex abuse scandal in the church. He spoke of hope, forgiveness and love.
“It is in the context of this hope born of God’s love and fidelity that I acknowledge the pain which the Church in America has experienced as a result of the sexual abuse of minors. No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse. It is important that those who have suffered be given loving pastoral attention. Nor can I adequately describe the damage that has occurred within the community of the Church. Great efforts have already been made to deal honestly and fairly with this tragic situation, and to ensure that children – whom our Lord loves so deeply, and who are our greatest treasure – can grow up in a safe environment. These efforts to protect children must continue. Yesterday I spoke with your Bishops about this. Today I encourage each of you to do what you can to foster healing and reconciliation, and to assist those who have been hurt. Also, I ask you to love your priests, and to affirm them in the excellent work that they do. And above all, pray that the Holy Spirit will pour out his gifts upon the Church, the gifts that lead to conversion, forgiveness and growth in holiness.”
I got goosebumps when he spoke of loving and affirming priests and also of forgiveness. I had still not fully forgiven my rapist, Kelvin, and I felt like the Holy Father was speaking directly to me. His closing words particularly struck me,
“Those who have hope must live different lives! By your prayers, by the witness of your faith, by the fruitfulness of your charity, may you point the way towards that vast horizon of hope which God is even now opening up to his Church, and indeed to all humanity: the vision of a world reconciled and renewed in Christ Jesus, our Savior...”
Oh, how I struggled to hold onto hope especially during hard times!
On the ride to the meeting at the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See later that day, I was very quiet and anxious as I held onto the rosaries my Mom had given me and tried to pray for the grace to say something (preferably something really great and profound!) to the Holy Father. My heart was beating fast and my brain was in a fog. I struggled to think straight and couldn't make sense of the thoughts swirling around. Everything felt so surreal and, the more I tried to prepare myself, the less prepared I felt. The grand city buildings whizzed past, but I took no notice of them as I closed my eyes and started trying to pray a Rosary. I couldn't even keep the words straight and finally gave myself over to God as the tears started to well up in my eyes.
“Give me the courage to say what I need to say,” was all I could pray. I wanted to say something profound, something that would speak to the suffering I had endured as well as the suffering of my family and all other survivors of clerical abuse. While I desperately wished that my mom, dad, or Alex could be next to me holding my hand (perhaps offering suggestions), I was somehow made to understand that God, not any other human being, would give me comfort and inspire to say what was needed. I just needed to have faith, trust in God, and remain hopeful. Once we reached our destination, we were led into a chapel where we waited and prayed silently. I turned to the Blessed Mother for the grace to say the “right thing” to the Pope. Even in stillness there was a nervous, silent anticipation.
One really inspiring story I like to share: one of the survivors had not been to Confession in many years but, as we waited, he felt inspired to ask the priest to hear his Confession. That little miracle brought tears to my eyes. I could only imagine how light that man felt after humbling himself enough to be able to relinquish himself from so many years worth of pain and suffering. His decision was a gift for all of us present.
I heard the door behind us open and the Pontiff entered the room. I couldn’t take my eyes off the slight, old, humble-looking man. He had a slight, sweet smile on his face as he walked towards the front of the chapel to kneel and lead us in prayer. I couldn't help but notice that his shoes were red – one of those random little details that has stuck with me for some reason. When the Holy Father arose from prayer, Cardinal O'Malley presented him with a large book containing the names of the (known) survivors of abuse from the Archdiocese of Boston. Over 1,000 victims were named. Pope Benedict was visibly moved by this. His eyes teared up and his face suddenly bore on it the pain and anguish that a parent feels for their child. I had a sudden desire to run up and hug and comfort him.
I believe that book helped to humanize the victims. Whether or not they were present, all victims have names, faces and stories. Not every survivor could be present that day, but they were there with us in a special way. The Pope said a few words to us as a group. He conveyed a message of love and hope to the world and to the Church brought to its knees by the sex-abuse scandal. He apologized for the pain and suffering members of the church had caused. His apology felt strange to me in a way. This man had never caused me any personal harm.
Each of us was called forward one at a time for a few moments alone with him. As my turn approached, my heart beat faster and faster – so fast I thought it might burst out of me. I felt nervous, excited and still at a complete loss for words. When I was finally called forward, the profound “right words” never came. Instead, as I almost ran towards the Holy Father and reached my hands out towards his outstretched hands, I reacted in a way that a child would — with tears, the simplest, most innocent and heartfelt form of expression. My tears spoke not only for my own pain and suffering, but for the pain and suffering of each and every abused individual. They spoke for the suffering endured by the families of the victims and for the suffering of the church left reeling by the evil that had been allowed to invade it.
I willed myself to stop crying but the tears just kept coming. He held my hands with such love and tenderness. In that moment, I felt my heavenly Father's love through the Pontiff. I felt the presence of my Lord more powerfully than ever before. God was with me. He had always been with me. His love was so powerful, more powerful than anything else I had ever felt, more powerful than anything I had experienced. His love was more powerful than the pain, suffering and anguish I had endured. His love was what had gotten me through everything, it was what had given me hope and that love would be with me always. Because of His love, I had my faith, and in my faith I found hope. And because of God's great love for all mankind, I needed to let go and forgive those who had hurt me. Who was I to not offer forgiveness when my Father had forgiven those who hurt Him even has He hung on the cross suffering so much? I knew I would never reach that level of perfection but I needed to do my best. I needed to love. I needed to have faith. I needed to have hope. There was, I realized, so much hope to be found even in the midst of suffering. Jesus had suffered with so much love – more love than I could ever imagine – in order to bring us hope.
The Holy Father spoke kindly to me. “I understand you are getting married soon?” he asked gently. I looked into his blue eyes that were filled with tears. I nodded through my own tears and smiled. “My blessings on your marriage, your family and your future family,” he said. He presented me with a beautiful white box imprinted with the Vatican seal that contained a pair of rosaries. As he squeezed my hands one last time he said, “There is hope. I will be praying for you.”
I left that meeting feeling like I was floating on a cloud of hope. It felt as though nothing could bring me down. Even the fact that one of the survivors had alerted the media to the meeting only gave me a twinge of anger and annoyance instead of filling me with resentment and anger as it probably would have in the past. My concern was for the survivors among our group who most wished to remain anonymous. When two of the male survivors decided to go public and be interviewed by CNN, I was asked if I wanted to go with them. Really, I had no interest in any interviews but I felt a strong, interior urge to go along and so I agreed. I felt the Holy Spirit calling me to share the hope I had been so privileged to receive that day. Suddenly I was surrounded by lights and cameras and was being asked questions by well-known journalists. It was all a bit surreal and quite terrifying. I said what I felt I needed to say and hoped that my testimony would offer hope to whoever was watching (especially other survivors of sexual abuse). Although our meeting had been private, Pope Benedict's message was one that needed to be shared with everyone.
My memories from the meeting with Pope Benedict have remained with me for all these years. I will probably always struggle with my faith from time to time and holding onto hope is something I will probably always have to work at. However, after that day I felt more hope than I had in a very long time. Our meeting also gave me a greater sense of “normalcy” that I had been so desperately craving. I knew I had the love of my family and friends, but to be reassured of God's love provided me with a glimmer of hope that I will forever hold dear to my heart. This glimmer of hope set me on the path to true freedom and forgiveness.
Faith is not always about what we see or feel but, in moments of fear or uncertainty, we can reach into the little treasure box in our hearts and pull out precious memories - those glimmers of God's grace that have helped us to experience hope so clearly and profoundly. I will be forever grateful to the caring, supportive people who made this life changing experience possible and especially to Pope Benedict for the role he has played in my life and in my healing journey.
“Faith, hope and charity go together. Hope is practiced through the virtue of patience, which continues to do good even in the face of apparent failure, and through the virtue of humility, which accepts God's mystery and trusts him even at times of darkness. Faith tells us that God has given his Son for our sakes and gives us the victorious certainty that it is really true: God is love! It thus transforms our impatience and our doubts into the sure hope that God holds the world in his hands and that, as the dramatic imagery of the end of the Book of Revelation points out, in spite of all darkness he ultimately triumphs in glory. Faith, which sees the love of God revealed in the pierced heart of Jesus on the Cross, gives rise to love. Love is the light—and in the end, the only light—that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working. Love is possible, and we are able to practice it because we are created in the image of God. To experience love and in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world. (Pope Benedict XVI, God is Love: Deus Caritas Est)