An editorial in America magazine reminds us of the sometimes sinful, but always redemptive, history of the people of the Church.
“As a church we are a pilgrim people making our way together through history. Like Chaucer’s companions on the road to Canterbury, we have a variety of tales to tell and not all are edifying. The latest waves of the crisis of clerical sexual abuse of minors have made Catholics keenly aware that even in high places we are a company of sinners as well as saints, of fallible human beings as well as faithful followers of Jesus—everyone in need of the forgiveness Jesus proclaimed. That forgiveness is one of the religious experiences that binds us to one another along our pilgrim way.
“The rituals of confession and repentance remain among the most identifiable practices of Catholic life. Their centrality to the Catholic imagination has made the reluctance of the hierarchy to acknowledge successive revelations of molestation all the more painful for us all. The church’s identity as a community of forgiven sinners makes particularly credible the demands by victims for public confession and open reconciliation. Even the church’s most bitter critics have been unwitting witnesses to that Christian duty. That same Catholic sensibility made the recent encounter between Pope Benedict and the victims of abuse in Malta both necessary and affecting.
“The church has known dark times: domination by emperors, co-optation by feudal militarism and modern colonialism, gangland struggles by Roman families for control of the papacy, coercion of heretics and wars of religion. Still, we members of the church make pilgrimage together in hope that the church may be the visible expression in history of humanity’s new life in Christ. To us Jesus is the embodiment of fullest humanity and the model of its most appealing morality. Pope Benedict’s planned visit on July 4 to the tomb of St. Celestine V, a hermit who was elected pope and then resigned the papacy, will hold up for view a penitent form of Christian life marked by meekness, prayer and self-sacrifice, close to the pattern of Jesus that Christians strive to imitate.
“One reason Catholics love the church is that it fosters just that sort of holiness. Even as the secular world exposes the hypocrisy of church officials, it acknowledges implicitly that the followers of Christ hold themselves to a “higher law” and try to practice a more demanding love. Some believe that calling is humanly impossible; others, even if they allow the Gospel little direct claim on their own lives, are disappointed upon failing to find holiness where they always presumed it might be found in a moment of need. But Catholics love the church because here we have companions who do strain, in their stumbling ways, to lead their lives by the light of the Sermon on the Mount.”