Friday, January 19, 2018

Physicians of Bodies, Physicians of Souls, and Child Sexual Abuse

I'm not exactly sure how I stumbled upon it, but for the past few days, I've watched coverage of the sentencing hearing of Dr. Larry Nassar, a physician who sexually abused scores of adolescent girls over a thirty year period. For four days, incredibly articulate and courageous young women testified to their horrific experiences of abuse and to the devastation caused by that abuse to themselves, their families, and their lives.

Of course, as a Catholic priest, I cannot hear their stories without relating it to the experiences of those who were abused by priests. These young women spoke about being "powerless," "afraid," and "voiceless." They spoke about how they felt guilty for the abuse that they suffered or how they felt ashamed. They did not want to tell their parents because they did not want to disappoint their parents.  Shockingly, many of these girls were abused by the doctor while their mothers were in the room, oblivious to what was taking place. Many of these women now feel betrayed by Michigan State University, the gymnastics world, and the US Olympic Committee. I was struck by one woman--in her thirties--who no longer receives any medical care because she is terrified of the medical profession.  One doctor--one man--did all of that.

I grew up as a Catholic. I went to Catholic schools my whole life. I was an altar boy, hung around the rectory when I was in high school, went to seminary, and was ordained a priest. The Church is the air that I breathe. That there exists in the Church persons who do bad things doesn't shock me. (Heck, I'm in the Church and I do bad things.) I've been hurt by people in the Church and I've probably hurt some people in the Church. But, I've always been able to shrug it off, move beyond it, chalk it up to sin.  Done.

I mention that because I think that sometimes when I hear about sexual abuse, it is easy to think about it in terms of "all the bad things that happen in the world." But, the testimony of these amazing women during these past few days laid bare--once again--the unique and devastating destruction that sexual abuse causes. Everything about their lives was thrown into chaos. Familial relationships were destroyed, trust was broken, addictions ensued, and anxiety and other mental disorders destroyed years of their lives. 

Each time one of the women mentioned how angry she was at Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics, or the US Olympics, I thought to myself, "and these are just mere human institutions." The abuse that these young women experienced in their youth took place within the context of institutions which they were taught to trust. How much more devastating must that be when that institution is the Church? And when they said how they now feared doctors and medical professionals because of this one man, it made me sad to think that one priest could so damage persons that they live a life away from the most beautiful of God's gifts, the Sacraments.

I was deeply impressed by how many of the young women who spoke over these past few days mentioned their Faith, quoted scripture, or spoke about prayer and their relationship with God. It was profoundly moving. And then, I saw anew how grievous sexual abuse within the Church really is because it attacks even the spiritual refuge of the one abused. It is hideously evil because it attacks and undermines the one place where true healing and peace are to be found. It twists the place of refuge into a place to be feared.

I was really impressed by the women who spoke over these past few days. Many of them said how for years they felt like they had no voice or no power. They felt helpless. It was deeply moving to witness them regain their voice and begin the process of reclaiming their lives. 

I'm just one Catholic priest. I write all of this today just thinking that maybe one person affected by sexual abuse in the Church might someday read this.  Firstly, let me say this: If I have said anything here the wrong, way, I sincerely apologize for that. I don't claim that I know the right things to say or the right way to say them. Secondly, I'm sorry for what happened to you or to your loved ones. I don't really comprehend the full weight of it, and I never will. But I'm really sorry that the place that should have been your greatest refuge became the worst place of terror. That it was, is truly evil. 

And lastly, I pray for you. I pray that your voice is heard. I also pray that if you were driven away from the Sacraments because of the evil perpetrated upon you, that you be given whatever is necessary to return to them. Those gifts--the Sacraments--were given by Christ for you. I think of the woman who spoke about how she no longer receives medical care because she was abused by a doctor and is now terrified to be treated medically.  In an analogous way, it is easy to see how someone abused by a priest (or by someone else in the Church) could be too terrified or too angry to approach the Sacraments. If that's you, I really pray for you. You were robbed. Nobody had any right to steal those healing gifts from you or to instill fear in you about approaching the greatest of God's gifts, the Sacraments. I pray that somehow you are able to find your way back to these gifts and that you reclaim what rightfully belongs to you. 

Again, if I've said anything wrong or in the wrong way, I apologize.  God Bless You.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The iGeneration Catholic: Humility and Hope

Baptism of the Lord
I remember when I was first ordained and would preach about Confession, I'd get those looks that said, "Is this guy for real? Everybody knows that Confession went out with Vatican II."  Thankfully, St. John Paul's influence renewed many places in the Church's life. Wherever parishes and communities welcomed the New Evangelization, a resurgence of Sacramental Confession has always followed. I think one important sign of the spiritual health of a Catholic community is the number and quality of the confessions that are heard. If there are few confessions being heard in a particular parish or community, there's a good chance that the spiritual life of that community is weak.

For the past five years, I've been assigned to work with university students at the Catholic Center at Boston University. These young people--mostly born between 1995 and 2001--are part of what some refer to as the "iGeneration." I'm not particularly skilled at understanding trends, demographic charts, and the like. Some people can look at a chart and immediately know what it means. For me, I need time. I need to experience the people represented by the chart. I need to listen to them, engage with them, and live with them. It's just my way of learning.

After five years of spending almost every day surrounded by Catholic members of the iGeneration, one thing about them definitely stands out to me: their ability to confess with total honesty and sincerity. It really is striking. I've spoken to other priests who have confirmed my experience. So often, people in their 30's and older come to confession and try to make themselves sound good. It might well be because we were not well-catechized on how to confess and how to examine our life. People my age often had no real sense of the seriousness of sin, and thus could not really appreciate the extraordinary grace that was offered in the Sacrament of Penance.  But, what I find among the Catholics of the iGeneration is a profound honesty before the Lord.

As a confessor, I am often struck by the humility and total transparency with which these young men and women confess.  I want to provide some examples--just to give a sense of what I mean. The following examples, however, are not from actual confessions but are rather the "type" of thing that I am talking about.  I'd like to offer these example in comparison to what a priest might typically hear in confession.

A typical confession: "Father, I suppose I don't go to Mass as often as I probably should."  From an iGeneration Catholic, I would more likely hear, "Father, I missed Mass on two Sundays. I told myself that I had so much work to do, but I knew that I was lying to myself. This also showed me that I sometimes put so many other things before God. I don't love Him above everything else. Instead, I love my free time more. And I'm really sorry for that and want to change that."

A typical confession: "Father, I probably could be kinder to people."  From an iGeneration Catholic, I would more likely hear: "Father, sometimes I really use people to get my own way. And, I do it in a way that they don't even know I'm using them. When I do that, I realize that I think that I'm better or more important than other people, and I'm really not. It's a really dishonest way to live, and I don't want to be a dishonest person."

A typical confession might exclude any reference to sexual sins or speak about them in vague generalities.  From an iGeneration Catholic, I would more likely hear: "Father, I struggle with pornography and masturbation. Also, I've disrespected women by purposefully putting ourselves in situations where we could have sinned. In this way, I was not loving them, God, or myself. Even though nothing happened, I was kind of hoping that it would. I was using them, and using people really is horrible."

These made-up examples, I hope, convey what I'm talking about. There is a great openness among young people and a great depth to their self-examination. This, at least, is my experience. Perhaps it has to do with a greater intentionality to living the Faith. In other words, many of them no longer live with any sort of cultural or familial expectation that they will practice the Faith. So, if they are going to live the Catholic Faith, they aren't going to do it in some half-hearted way. They're not living the Catholic Faith as a mere "going through the motions." If they're going to do it, it's because they are serious about it.  I'd say, that this is even true of the young people who might not be as active in living the Faith. There is something refreshingly honest about their confessions.  When an iGeneration Catholic comes to Confession, you get the sense that they are thinking, "Well, I'm not going waste my time doing this unless I am totally honest." 

I suspect that this quality is not something that is limited to active Catholics of the iGeneration. I think this particular generation has a greater freedom in expressing themselves honestly, and that they are, in fact, very open to a relationship with God. For many of them, they've been provided limited or no spiritual formation, but they are not closed to it. Their humility is evident in their honest self-examination . And, humility is fertile ground for the Gospel! They are also very open to the witness of their peers who are active in living the Catholic Faith. I am always deeply moved by students who tell me that the reason they are living the Catholic Faith is because they were moved by the witness of one of their fellow students. iGeneration might not be raised in a culture friendly to Christianity, but they are open, willing to be convinced, and humble.

I often go to a local shrine for Confession. I like being in the line with all of the other sinners. (Well, I like it as long as I'm towards the front of the line). There's something great about all of us being there together.  I am writing this post on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. On this day, Jesus did something pretty awesome.  He went down to the Jordan River and got into line with all of the sinners.  Yes, he was without sin, but he came to be close to us. He is not afraid to get in line with the sinners. It's so awesome, isn't it? Not only did Jesus take on human nature in the Incarnation, so that He could be close to us, but He even humbled Himself to get into line with all of the sinners.  If He who was without sin is willing to humble Himself and to get into line with all who have sinned, then we who are sinners should all the more be willing to humble ourselves and to join the line of repentant sinners.

Scholars will study the iGeneration and it's religious and spiritual opinions. I am only speaking from my very limited experience of five years of college ministry. From that limited experience, however, I hold out a lot of hope. The iGeneration, I think, is not too proud to get into line and admit their imperfections, their emptiness, their sins, and their desire for something more. When they humbly get into that line, Jesus is always standing there with them. And, wherever Jesus is, there is always hope.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Epiphany: Do Not Return to Herod

Oftentimes when I  preach, I catch myself saying things like, "This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible."  I say it a lot, but it's true every time! Similarly, there are a lot of feast days in the Church that I really love or think, "Yeah, this is one of my favorites."  This week, we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and I have to say that it is definitely at the top of my list. I love the Epiphany.  There is just so much that one could preach on for Epiphany! There are so many beautiful points of reflection on the Gospel for Epiphany. There's the star, the Magi, Herod, the gifts, the Holy Family, adoration, allusions to the Lord's future suffering, joy, Faith, searching, being led, obedience . . . !  What a great Feast! This year, I did not preach on the Epiphany, but I still like the chance to talk about it.

One line from the Epiphany Gospel often stands out to me. It is the very last line of the Gospel. "And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way." So often in our individual spiritual and moral lives we find ourselves feeling compelled to return to particular sins or situations.  Similarly, even in the life of the Church, we often find ourselves returning to the same old arguments with the same old adversaries. And, in our engagement of the culture, we find ourselves having the same discussions repeatedly, and constantly arriving at the same old stand-offs. We keep going back to Herod.  In many ways, the world itself feels trapped in a continuous loop of the same tired old debates, repeated continuously.

Epiphany and the Magi, however, invite us to do something totally new. They remind us that we do not have to return to Herod. When we encounter Christ, we find that a new way has opened; a new way of life is made possible. We are not compelled to go back to Herod and fight on his terms. We are free. The Magi encountered the Christ Child and discovered a new freedom. Going back to Herod was a trap! But they could go home by a different way. The encounter with Christ brings novelty and freshness. Into a tired, broken, and fallen world, Christ comes and opens up a new path. In encountering Christ, the Magi discovered a new way of life.

Today, many people experience an overwhelming compulsion to return to Herod. For some, they are dragged continuously back to relive the pain and the hurt of betrayals. No matter how many times they return to these memories, they lose to Herod. Some return to the lies that life is empty, without meaning, without hope. They return to the lie that they are not loved, not valuable, or that they have no future.  They too return to Herod and lose. Others return to the Herod of their addictions to drugs, alcohol, pornography, pleasure etc. They think, "I will just go for a while. This time I will keep it under control." They lose to Herod.  Others know that the life of power and money makes them and their families constantly miserable, but they feel compelled to make power and riches their "temporary" goal until they "have enough."  They return to Herod, and Herod destroys them and their families.  

Others return to the same old debates. They go back to Herod to win an argument about Christianity, about morality, or about God. But, they lose to Herod. They lose because they are playing Herod's game. They are playing on his turf.  They are playing by Herod's rules. Herod expects them to return. 

Instead, Epiphany reveals to us that a new way has opened. Christ frees us to go home by a new path, a path of freedom and joy. We can now circumvent the decrepit and putrid palace of Herod. Epiphany allows a new and radiant light to guide us into a new way of living and a new way of engaging reality. The point of reference is no longer the palaces of power, pleasure, or prestige. The point of reference is Christ. He liberates us from the shackles of a tired world.

If you're reading this, I just want you to know that you do not need to return to Herod. You have encountered Christ and have been set free. Don't see yourself in reference to Herod. Don't think that your life is defined by Herod. Don't be deceived into thinking that you must beat Herod.  No, your life is defined by the One who is found laying in the manger in the arms of His Mother, Mary. A new light has shone on those who have dwelt in the shadow of Herod's palace. And this light has shown that Herod's palace is petty and pitiable.  Want a good New Year's resolution? Know yourself loved by the radiant light that has been born for us. See your life entirely in the light of Christ. And then, remain in the light by going home a different way.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

He Has Brought Us Goodness and Light

All of these photos are from our recent Christmas Party (I didn't realize that my dog Finbar photobombed me in this one)
Do you see what I see?

Today I saw university students worshipping God at Sunday Mass. It's exam week and they're all stressed out and overwhelmed, but there they were at Mass. I love seeing them smiling, greeting one another, praying, listening to God's Word, and receiving the Eucharist.  Do you see what I see? I see several young men and women at Mass each Sunday preparing to become Catholic at Easter.  Do you see what I see? I see students today making sandwiches in our Newman Center kitchen and then delivering them to homeless on the streets of Boston. Do you see what I see? I see a congregation filled with different races and languages who are bound together by their Catholic Faith. Do you see what I see? I see a young man at Mass today for the first time since coming to school. I see scores of students going to
Confession. Do you see what I see? I see students reaching out to others, inviting them to Mass, joyfully welcoming the stranger. Do you see what I see? I see our Catholic Center filled with students, studying together for exams, praying with each other, and living a fraternal life together. I see them meeting for Bible studies, evangelization meetings, and retreat planning meetings. I see them being effective evangelizers. I see them taking ownership of our community and creatively and intelligently serving the mission of the Church. Do you see what I see? I see young people entering the seminary and the religious life, and being encouraged by their peers.

Do you hear what I hear?

I hear the words, "Bless me father for I have sinned," all the time. I hear students inviting others to live the friendship that is the Catholic life. I hear these young men and women sharing their testimonies, how the Lord has touched and transformed their lives. I hear them express gratitude for the ways that the Lord has rescued them from various sins. I hear them affirming one another
and encouraging one another to live the Catholic life. I hear them helping each other to grow in their knowledge and love of Jesus Christ.

Do you know what I know?

I know that these young people were formed firstly by good Catholic families and by good parishes. I know that the reason they come to Mass while they are in college is because they were taught well--by word and by example--never to miss Sunday Mass. I know that they learned how to confess their sins with humility, with total honesty, and with sincerity. I know that they are rare. I know that while many are falling away from the Faith, these young people are growing in the Faith. I know that is because others--perhaps their parents, teachers, parish priests, youth ministers, others--were effective teachers and witnesses. Do you know what I know? I know that these young people are the hope of the Church in the United States. I know that we need good, solid formation in our parishes and in our families. I know that these young people are the fruit of the hard work of others.  I know that when you raise young men and women to live the Catholic life in all of its fullness; teaching them to love the Sacraments, teaching them to live the moral life in its totality, and teaching them how to pray, you give them a treasure beyond all price.

Listen to what I say.

The hard work of parenting, the hard work of parish life, it does pay off. I spend all of my time seeing and listening to young men and women who are extraordinary. They are living the Catholic life, fighting the good fight. They desire to be close to our Lord, to love Him, and to serve Him. They are generous and joyous in sharing the Faith with others. I am very blessed to live and work in the midst of a community of young and faithful Catholics. Listen to what I say: for the sake of young people, make Jesus Christ the center of your families and of your parishes. They need a solid foundation. They need the example of their parents and of their communities. 

The risk of young Catholics being deceived and going down the wrong path is enormous. Studies show that if a young man or woman stops practicing the Faith, the chances are very slim that they will ever return. If you had the chance to see what I see every day, to hear what I hear every day, to know what I've learned from being surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses every day, then you would be moved to rededicate your life to strengthening your own families and your parishes to living out the Catholic life to its fullest.  

When we raise young people in the Catholic Faith, we introduce them to Jesus. In turn, they help us to see, hear, and know Jesus. Please, I've seen it, heard it, and have known it for myself. 

When Jesus is at the center of our life, He brings us goodness and light.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Fr. Timothy Murphy--Living the Newness of Priesthood

A few years ago when I was transferred, I moved into a rectory in Cambridge, MA. At the same time, a newly retired priest also moved into the rectory.  I had known Fr. Tim Murphy since my seminary days, and my fondness for him and my respect for him grew the more I got to know him. When we were neighboring pastors, I would occasionally go to him for confession.  

The rectory in Cambridge has a great porch, and Fr. Murphy would often be found sitting there, pipe in hand, smoking and reading a book. I could sit and talk to Tim for hours. And clearly, Tim enjoyed being listened to! He was a great story teller and had a boyish laugh when he got going. His whole body would shake when he'd laugh. He loved to tell stories about his seminary days, about various "characters" in the Boston presbyterate, and about his travels. A particular favorite was the story of him being held by the police while in Rome.

In Italy, public transportation is kind of on the honor system. You are supposed to buy a ticket and then, when you get on the bus, validate the ticket in this machine.  Tim had forgotten to validate his ticket. Tim loved to tell the story. "Well, these three people get on the bus and the doors close. And then, one of them pulls this hat out from under his jacket and places it on his head. It was a raid. You could tell that he was VERY proud of this uniform hat. They began inspecting tickets. When they got to me, I just kept holding up my hands saying, 'I don't speak Italian.' Then, this know-it-all next to me starts to translate everything.  The last thing I wanted him to do is translate for me.  With that, they took me off the bus, and marched me to the police station where I was held for sneaking on the bus." Tim would say, "The whole way down the street, they kept their hands on their guns like I was a dangerous criminal."

More than his funny stories, what I will most remember about Tim is that he really loved being a priest. When he turned 75, he did not want to stop working. He wanted to keep going. In fact, he kept helping out wherever and whenever he could. And, Tim always wanted to be a better priest. When you spoke with Tim, you felt like he was still discovering what it means to be a priest. Tim was still surprised by Christ. The Gospel was still moving and surprising to him. The priesthood was still an adventure to him. 

This morning, Fr. Timothy J. Murphy, in the words of the Roman Martyrology, "fell asleep in the Lord." As one friend put it, "It's sad for us, but we have to be happy for him." Tim spent his life being surprised by the miracle of Faith and the joy of priesthood. I imagine that such awe before the Mystery was a great preparation for the Glory of Heaven. There, the saints must live in an eternal state of joyful surprise at the goodness of the Lord.

This evening, when I offered Mass at the BU Catholic Center, I prayed that the Lord might raise up for the Church in Boston more vocations to the priesthood. Fr. Tim Murphy lived a long and happy life as a priest. He joyfully preached the Word and administered the Sacraments to the flock. And, it never grew boring or routine for him. Priesthood is a great life. We live perpetually in that moment when Christ said, "Come, follow me." Priesthood is always new.

May the Lord grant to Fr. Timothy Murphy an eternity of youthful and joyful awe.

Monday, October 23, 2017

What Does the Face of Christ Look Like? The BU Catholic Center

Pretty much everything I read on the internet--be it in the news or on social media--about the Catholic Church doesn't leave me feeling particularly joyful, uplifted, or holier. If you want to create social-media followers for yourself, an easy way to do it is to be bitter, cynical, and uncharitable. Problem is, that type of stuff doesn't create followers of Jesus. It creates ideologues.  And, I admit that at times it is difficult to refrain from jumping into the fray.  

This blogpost is just a reminder that following Jesus is actually joyful, and that the Catholic Church is not primarily about the people who get the most press, the most "likes," or the most "comments." 

When we see the Catholic Church, we ought to see the Face of Christ. I'm blessed to spend my time surrounded by the Face of Christ.  Below is a video one of our students put together of the BU Catholic Center Fall Retreat. It is just a bunch of university students praying, hanging out, and goofing off (a lot of goofing off). Some of my readers support the BU Catholic Center, so I thought they might also enjoy seeing how their generosity is allowing the beautiful Face of Christ to be seen.

There's a lot of good things going on in the Church. We just don't see much evidence of it online. So, I hope you enjoy watching some or all of this video.  The Lord is doing great things in and through His Body, the Church. 

Click on the link below. (And by the way, if some people look kind of goofy in some of the photos that is for one of two reasons. Either they were trying to look goofy . . . or they can't help the fact that they are goofy).

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Confessing in an Age of Accusation

"I confess." Although we are accustomed to saying those words at the beginning of every Mass, they are actually rather startling.  I think of all the great detective stories when, clearly outsmarted by the sleuth detective, the suspect is cornered into confessing. "I did it! Yes, yes, it was me!"  Catholicism, on the other hand, teaches one to confess quite easily and willingly. It is an integral part of Catholic life.

Last Saturday evening, I was on retreat with a large group of college students. For a couple of hours, four other priests and I heard confessions. There is something so refreshing about hearing people confessing their own sins and faults. There is a great purity about it. A Catholic enters the confessional not to accuse others, but to accuse himself or herself. At the beginning of Mass, a Catholic doesn't say, "We confess." He says, "I confess." 

"Through my fault." 
Whose fault? 
"Through my fault." 
Are you sure? Maybe it is someone else's fault.  Are you certain that you are to blame?
 "Through my most grievous fault!"

Social media (and the media in general) has become an outlet for accusing others about everything. If somebody gets shot with a gun, then the people to blame are the people who voted for the politician who supported gun rights. If the person was shot by an immigrant who is in the country illegally, then the people to blame are those who voted for a politician who supports the Dream Act. The list goes on and on. We spend a lot of time accusing others about everything!

Even within the Church, social media has become the place of accusation. "He is a heretic!" "She is judgmental!" "They are pharisees!" "They aren't real Catholics!" Catholics--and others--bait one another on social media and then feign shock when the inevitable counter-attack follows.

We live in the Age of Accusation, but not in the Age of Confession. I wonder if we were all more attentive to our own faults by regularly examining our consciences and confessing our sins, if we would be more hesitant to accuse others on social media and in the media in general? Perhaps the current obsession with blaming others is the result of our inability or unwillingness to examine ourselves and accuse ourselves before God?

Is engaging in constant online accusations a sign of spiritual bankruptcy? Are the Twitter wars of accusations an angry substitute for humble prayer before God? Are people more concerned about entertaining their "followers" than they are about following the Lord? The Lord himself warned that we should remove the plank from our own eye before attempting to remove the splinter from our brother's eye. And yet, there are a lot more Catholics on Twitter than there are in the line for Confession. There are significantly more accusations being lobbed against others on social media than there are self-accusations happening in the confessionals of our churches.

The climate in which we live today is all about pointing the finger and saying, "Through his fault, through her fault, through their most grievous fault." The Catholic way is to say, "Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault." This humble admission opens our hearts up to receive God's life changing grace. In humbly and honestly accusing ourselves, we create a space in the world for Christ's grace to heal, forgive, and renew. And the world needs that kind of space more than it needs our accusations.

Accusing others likely only deepens divisions and hardens hearts. On the other hand, accusing ourselves humbly before God heals divisions and changes our own heart. And, our own hearts all need changing.