I had only been in Rome for two hours, and I was lost. I was on my way to the Casa Santa Maria, a residence for American priests in Rome, to meet a friend. The Casa Santa Maria is the original location of the Pontifical North American College, which forms seminarians for the priesthood in dioceses throughout the United States. After using every bit of Italian I knew to get directions from a police officer, I stumbled upon the Casa. By stepping into the courtyard, I was stepping into Seton Hall’s past.
In this place, Michael Corrigan of Newark, along with Elizabeth Ann Seton’s grandson, Robert Seton of New York, was a member of the first class to enter the North American College. Michael Corrigan went on to become the fourth president of Seton Hall, and yes, “Corrigan Hall” was named after him. Seeing his picture, praying and walking in the footsteps of one of the earliest Pirates brought me to reflect upon our generation’s engagement with the Church.
I wonder, what would Michael Corrigan or Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley think of the current crisis of authority and authenticity confronting the Archdiocese of Newark and the Catholic Church in the United States?
To date, it has been 16 months since the Archdiocese of New York judged “credible” an accusation against former Cardinal McCarrick. (1) McCarrick was the former Archbishop of Newark and the Bishop of Metuchen, and through those offices was personally connected to Seton Hall University. McCarrick was dismissed from the clerical state on February 16, 2019, without any possibility of an appeal. (2) This is the most severe punishment the Church can levy against a clergyman.
Nonetheless, the punishment does not undo all the harm. It is hard to find a devout member of our generation who does not know at least one person who has stopped going to Church in response to the McCarrick scandal and/or the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report from the summer of 2018.
Such scandals have left a significant portion of our previously Church-going generation looking for meaning and answers to the questions of being and purpose, at a loss with how to face the spiritual challenges associated with modernity. For those outside of the Catholic Church, or of Christianity in general, the scandals may have reinforced misconceptions about the purpose of the Church, and certainly dealt another blow to the credibility of institutional Christianity in this country.
Clearly this is a crisis that requires a response beyond reacting to headlines. The pending Vatican report on former Cardinal McCarrick could see us yet again in the knee-jerk reflexive mode of responding to the press. Thus, this article is an attempt to start a more substantial conversation, particularly on what roots the life of Faith in Christ. Let us examine this issue in whatever capacity grace may allow, so that removed from the headlines “cooler heads may prevail,” and laity, clergy and all members of our community might approach the issue from a more comprehensive perspective.
“In Persona Christi”- The Significance and Humanity of the Priest
First, I want to open by addressing the strange expectation of society for priests to be perfect, or nearly so. This prevalent misconception seems to originate, in part, from the role that priests play in Mass. Catholics believe that during the Mass Jesus Christ becomes fully present in the sacrament of Communion. The process takes place through the priest’s celebration of the Mass. The priest, by virtue of his ordination, acts “in Persona Christi,” in the person of Christ, in order to bring about the transformation of the bread and wine into the Eucharist and most precious Blood. The concept of priests acting in the person of Christ might contribute to the idea that priests are supposed to be without flaws, or nearly so.
Yet, this perception, with its unattainable expectation that they “never” do wrong, forgets that priests are still human. So, when priests do make mistakes, they come under an unwarranted scrutiny born of a misunderstanding.
At Seton Hall, we have 48 members of the Priest community; that makes more priests on our campus than any other campus in the nation. What this blessing means for our school is that every member of campus has the opportunity to engage with and get to know many different priests not just as faculty, but as individuals. It seems necessary to point out that commitment and support for the priest community is a priority for this university. Written in the very by laws of the school, we have committed to, and are committed to maintaining the active involvement of the priest community on campus.
“The Board of Trustees shall maintain the essential character of the University as a Catholic institution of higher learning, it being the stated intention of the University that the University shall retain in perpetuity its identity as such an institution…The Board of Trustees hereby recognizes the members of the Priest Community of Seton Hall University as having a special role in enhancing and safeguarding the Catholic mission of the University.”(3)
Acknowledge the Sin & the Pain
Second, we need to acknowledge these high-profile sins of members of the Church for what they are: grave violations against the life and dignity of the human person. “Then God said: Let us make- human beings in our image, after our likeness.” (Gen 1:26) Being made in that image and likeness demands a certain respect for the dignity and life of every human person. Some might contend that condemnation after the fact is virtue signaling, and perhaps, it could be viewed as such. However, public and perhaps high-profile acknowledgement and confession of the transgression is a necessary step for forgiveness.
This principle is also reinforced through Catholic Social Teaching, which asserts: “Every person, from the first moment of his life in the womb, has an inviolable dignity, because from all eternity God willed, loved, created, and redeemed that person and destined him for eternal happiness.” (4)
On that note, it cannot be understated that real people with lives and pain were at the center of the crisis. This crisis deeply wounded many members of the Church, and their pain and suffering should in no way be brushed aside. Whoever knew about such actions and did not act, committed the sin of omission. “Open” investigations and civil prosecutions only accomplish so much, as necessary as they might be. The actions left Children of God feeling estranged from His love, and from whatever kind of relationship with God they might have developed. We cannot move forward without acknowledging the gravity of what took place.
Patience and a Path Forward
In the 5th century, St. Augustine made the following relevant analysis for our current crisis: “Bad times, hard times, this is what people keep saying; but let us live well, and times shall be good. We are the times: Such as we are, such are the times.” By saying, “such as we are, such are the times,” St. Augustine helps us recognize that “we” are constitutive elements of the times we are living in. We cannot divorce ourselves from what happened or the times we are living in. Therefore, our response to the crisis shapes, and will shape, the times as much as the crisis itself. Thus, we ought to “live well, and times shall be good.”
Perhaps, another reason for living well is because Christianity has always found itself among struggles. This thought was put succinctly by St. John Henry Newman, considered by some to be the “Modern Augustine,” when he says:
“The whole course of Christianity…is but one series of troubles and disorders. Every century is like every other, and to those who live in it seems worse than all times before it. The Church is ever ailing…Religion seems ever expiring, schisms dominant, the light of truth dim, its adherents scattered. The cause of Christ is ever in its last agony.”
I sympathize with the sentiment, shared by many that we are living in “the worst of times.” Institutional religion is on the decline throughout Western Civilization, and it does not help those individuals who are open to growing in their faith amidst such a decline to see an influential seat of Christ tarnished by scandal. In that scandal, one can take Newman’s words to heart, “The cause of Christ is ever in its last agony.” Yet, the cause of Christ has continued. Therefore, there is room for patience as an approach to our current crisis. The history of Christianity is long, and storied with many scandals, in which the cause of Christ may have been thought to be in its last hour. Nevertheless, the cause endures.
Reforms in the Church, while perhaps slow, do occur through generations of priests within the Church. This gives us a reason for hope. The current generation of seminarians who entered and discerned did so under the burden of the crisis. Therefore, they know what radical commitment to the word of Christ and Gospels means on a profound level.
Also, while it might be something of a foregone conclusion that reforms in the Church seldom happen immediately, some positive developments are taking place. I recognize that the Dallas Charter is not flawless, but there has been a substantial decline in the number of cases. Most abuse happened 40 to 50 years ago, with a substantial decline 20 years ago. (5) Nonetheless, amidst these developments, the Church needs to ensure that she is not becoming a governing body of committees. As Newman said, “Living movements do not come of committees, nor are great ideas worked out through the post.” The Church itself and its institutions need to be rooted in something deeper than decisions from board meetings and conferences.
What Grounds the Christian Faith?
This line of thought brings us back to the original question: what would former President Corrigan or Bishop Bayley think of the crisis? Corrigan and Bayley were bold for their time. In the late 1800s, Catholics in this nation scarcely attended colleges.
Against strong anti-Catholic sentiment in the public square, Bishop Bayley founded Seton Hall. Michael Corrigan studied in Rome during the collapse of the Papal States. Thus, they, perhaps like members of the Church today, found themselves in a world unhinging from its political and social moorings. In a world unhinged from the frame, where did they draw the strength, in the midst of hazards, to go forward?
They would have drawn strength from the origins of their faith: the teachings of Jesus Christ.
During his ministry in Galilee, Jesus tells a large crowd the Parable of the Sower and the Seeds.
“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear.” (MT 13:3-9)
The challenges facing the Church today provide an opportunity for laity and clergy alike to critically examine the following question: where do you fall in the soil? At different stages in our lives, each of us may be in a different place.
The first seeds were immediately eaten up by the birds. How often do we find ourselves holding positions where it is easier to end the pursuit of a new hobby or activity because the work we would need to put into keeping it is too great? We tried it, we enjoyed it, but it lasted for all of one week.
So, too it can be in faith. For example, you may have been raised Christian, Catholic, or Jewish, but you may have never taken ownership of that faith. Upon facing criticism in holding unpopular beliefs, it may have been easier for you to walk away from your faith, or at least certain elements of it, thinking, “there is something there, I just do not want to hold it publicly.”
The second scattering of seeds fell upon rocky ground. The seeds took root quickly, but their quick rise was matched by a quick fall.
The third scattering was rooted but placed in an environment that would stifle its possibility of strong growth. Have you placed yourself in an intellectual or social environment that is hostile to your values or to your religious beliefs? For Catholics involved in the crisis, this might have meant placing yourself in a position where you were rooted in your faith, but did not develop a strong enough relationship with any priests. Then, when you were feeling upset, and rightly so, you did not have an outlet to express your frustration.
Lastly, the last scattering fell upon rich soil. These seeds produced fruit, “thirty, sixty or
a hundred-fold.” Growing and producing fruit like these seeds is the ideal, but as you might recognize from the parable, the sower sows the same seeds. Thus, the question is not what kind of seed are you, but, rather, where do you fall in the soil?
This is the fundamental question from the parable that Corrigan and Bayley would have taken away: what grounds your faith?
If your faith is grounded in the hierarchy, your individual parish, or the popularity of your belief, then your faith will wither like the first, second and third scatterings of seeds. It might not happen right away, but the foundation upon which your faith has been built will not stand. But, if your faith is grounded in something deeper, in the person of Jesus Christ himself, his teachings, his life, and his works, then your faith may grow and produce fruit, “thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold.”
A sower went out to sow, and the question facing this community, the Church, and this society, is where in the midst of these hazards will we go forward? Only the times will tell.
1- “Cardinal Theodore McCarrick Resigns Amid Sexual Abuse Allegations”- Shannon Von Sant-NPR
2- “Theodore McCarrick Dismissed From the Clerical State”- Edward Pentin- National Catholic Register (NCR)
3- Bylaws- Seton Hall University
4- (Youcat -280)
5- Bishop Barron “Letter to a Suffering Church”