Third Sunday of Lent 2022: Bulletin column on Luke 13:1-9, Art, First response from ND conference on sexual abuse

Dear Believers in the Christ,

Today, we proclaim Luke 13:1-9 in the Eucharist. In this passage, we hear the story of the fig tree. Given another chance to grow, the tree is not cut down unless it does not bear fruit. This image opens us to this season of Lent.

We all need another chance to deepen our faith. I admit, the older I get the more I understand that if things stay as they are in our complicated lives, many things will never be resolved. The conclusions of change that we desire while we are alive may never happen. The resolved issues that we so long for may be reconciliation with a parent or a child. We may seek the solution in our time on earth to remedy the slow of climate change or solve the food shortage for third world countries or our neighbors down the street. We may desire the institution to change in the ways we wish it would, all of which may never happen in our brief time on earth. We may wish we could speak out further on behalf of many people, but in the end, not much will change other than the aging of our bodies.

The image of the fig tree is worth our notice and prayer. Of course, every time we read about a tree in the gospels, we ultimately must consider the tree upon which Jesus hung in death. The cross is the physical symbol of change and salvation. So, the owner of the vineyard told the gardener to cut down the tree that did not give life. The gardener spoke out on its behalf for a second chance. Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection became a second chance for salvation for all of us. His tree of death becomes the Tree of Life. This is the Paschal Mystery. This is the place for renewal for all of us. This is the meaning of the Lenten season. 

We also long for a new perspective in life, a place in our hearts where we finally take seriously our spiritual growth and learn to serve God’s people. As I look back in life, I ache for a second chance in so many ways. Most of the chances we all desire will never take place now because the issues are of the past. However, we may be able to wake up today, to see the glory of God’s existence even in the dark place of our lives. A second chance is really a wake-up call in our hearts to live a renewed perspective in life. Perhaps we finally realize we cannot control the outcomes of life which calls us to surrender to God’s will. Or perhaps we need to change our attitudes about our family or open our eyes to the beauty of God’s plan for our community or nation. Perhaps we are called to let our plans go and quit resisting the work of God. No matter the issues of our lives or our faith, God continues to give us another chance to change our hearts. This new perspective can change everything. It may begin to bring us peace and hope in our time on earth. 

The Lenten season is a time of growth and change for us all. If we take our worldly and spiritual lives seriously, we will come to rely on the power of God. We will get out of the way; we will come to understand that God is God, and we are not. After all, the Lenten season is meant to imprint the pattern of Jesus’ death and resurrection on our hearts. We are to become the faith we desire, the path for new life in Christ Jesus. I look forward to Easter once again, knowing in my heart the full measure given to every believer of another chance in the mercy of Jesus Christ. 

God give you peace,

Fr. Ron Raab, CSC, Pastor

Response to ND Conference:

On March 3-5, 2022, I participated in a conference at the University of Notre Dame entitled, Healing, Accountability and Trust: Conversations in Theology, Psychology and Law for the Life of the Church. I was a presenter with two other preachers on the topic entitled, Preaching in and for a Wounded Community. 

The conference was designed by the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Theology with the assistance of several grants. The conference had been postponed for over two years due to the pandemic. Thirty-five speakers in groups of three presented various aspects of the abuse crisis for people in pastoral life, students, professional therapists, trauma specialists, and professors.  

I am not an expert on systems of power, abuse, or trauma. However, I have personal experience as a preacher ministering among God’s beloved, and as an adolescent who experienced a web of grooming and manipulation. Here are some questions people have asked about the conference. In the coming weeks, I will offer a link to the conference on our website so the public may listen to the actual conference. 

Again, these are my words and not the words of the professionals. In this short piece, I make sweeping statements. This is a summary and not exact scientific facts. I say this because I do not want any person to be hurt by my interpretations of the words from the many professionals who spoke at Notre Dame. In my next article, I will talk about some of the ideas I articulated in my presentation. 

Q: Fr. Ron, aren’t the issues of clerical abuse behind us? 

A: Not at all. The Catholic Bishops created a document in 2002 called, The Dallas Charter. The document outlines the beginnings of a safe environment program for schools, parishes, and other areas of ministry. That document is only a start. We need deeper, more intentional work in our church to further clerical responsibility for people who have been harmed. The paperwork of the Dallas document is well-intentioned, but changes in attitudes and personal responsibility still need to be implemented. 

The integration of safe-environment protocols needs to be interpreted and lived in daily ministerial relationships. This is the place where priests and bishops need to stand up for people to provide financial resources, counseling, and therapies for our survivors. We need more transparency, survivor resources, and active support for people who have survived abuse within the church. In many ways, the healing of survivors and restoring trust and accountability for the crisis within the institution has not yet begun.  

Q: Fr. Ron, what is the “trauma” that I hear about? Can’t people just get over the abuse? 

A: The trauma of sexual abuse is ongoing within a person’s life. Trauma is one of the key issues of the conference and it is the focus of our recovery as a church, as well as for the survivors. Trauma is not only the initial moment of abuse, criminal sexual misconduct, or assault, but the ongoing ways in which the person’s body, mind, and spirit carries the traumatic pain. People react in very different ways to the horrors of abuse. Some people internalize the abuse, and it comes out in various diseases, bodily pain, and physiological and psychological dysfunction. Some people battle thoughts of suicide their entire lives. Some people never enter intimate adult relationships. Some people never hold down a job or career. Some people lose housing. Some people remain in such pain that isolates them for their entire lives. 

The work of therapists, counselors, and psychologists is to help people live in society with skills that will help them live with the trauma and not disguise it or ignore the consequences. Managing trauma is lifelong. This is an area where priests, bishops, and religious leaders need to step up to provide adequate training for people and their families. The phrase, “restorative justice,” means taking responsibility for the damages we have created so that people may live a functional life within society. Dioceses need to help with financial resources and long-term therapies for people who have been traumatized by the clergy.  

Q: Fr. Ron, why don’t priests admit these wrongs and take more responsibility for these issues?

A: I wish I knew why clergy do not admit these issues. First, I want to say that these instances of abuse are not just clergy sins against their vows but are also crimes. We cannot hide behind the safety of the church as we face such tragedies. These crimes are difficult to admit. So many bishops still want to shuffle abusers from parish to parish. So many believe that our notion of sin is strong enough to understand abuse. These issues of abuse are criminal. These issues of abuse have changed the very fabric of our church. We simply need to protect our children and help the adults who have been hurt. 

I hear so many priests say, “It’s not my problem. I didn’t do anything.” This is very disturbing to me. The image of the Body of Christ is very helpful here. When one aspect of the body is in pain, the entire body is in pain. We, the Body of Christ, must recognize our hurts and seek healing for the entire People of God. We divert our eyes from abuse very easily. We focus on many other aspects of ministry within the church. However, if we don’t face this with integrity, the very foundations of trust among our people are lost.

—Continued next week—

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