It’s Holy Week, the most sacred time in the Catholic liturgical calendar. Between Thursday and Saturday, Catholic liturgies will recount the last days of Jesus of Nazareth, including his last supper with his followers, his condemnation to death, his crucifixion and his burial.
There would have been a time in which I would have attended church every day of this week. Holy Week marks the key message of the Catholic Christian faith: that Jesus suffered, died, was buried and on the third day he rose again, breaking the bonds of death and redeeming humanity.
In short, Jesus’ death and resurrection saves us from our sins.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no saint. I make no claim to sinlessness. I could use some of that forgiveness and redemption. But it is hard to take seriously a church that, in its very organisation, seems so sinful.
I know the church hierarchy is made up of human beings, and human beings are not perfect. But these particular human beings make special claims to holiness and grace, and yet they spawn and support an institution that grotesquely violates children.
Jesus said that children are special, that they are holy. The royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse says that there have been nearly 4,500 reported cases of alleged abuse of children in Catholic institutions over the past 35 years. No doubt many more remain unreported.
I know because my fellow Catholics talk to me about these issues. I know because I can look around Catholic parishes and see the declining attendance.
Even enrolments in Catholic schools are falling in Australia. Catholic education officials say they can’t build facilities fast enough to meet demand, so parents are choosing other government schools. It’s an odd logic that argues numbers are falling below capacity because demand is too high.
For what it is worth, I later moved my kids back to the Catholic education system when they reached high school. I wanted them to be grounded in Catholic principles of social justice and to know what it is to live Christian faith within a community of believers. For many Catholic families, Catholic school for their children is their one tangible link left to the Catholic faith.
There is a lot of chatter among practicing Catholics in Australia about what to do about the evidence given at the royal commission. Francis Sullivan, chief executive of the Catholic church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, gave a talk recently:
There is now a deep malaise compounded by a simmering anger within the community about the Church and child sexual abuse … The very fact that the church was on trial rips at the heart of what the church is meant to be. And that speaks to me of a profound loss of direction, integrity, purpose and meaning at the heart of the church. A spiritual wasteland. It is my sense that so many Catholics share that shock. People say the Church now needs to get its house back in order but I say we have to re-build the house.
Sullivan’s address is excellent. It deserves a wide reading. He made five recommendations to how to rebuild the church. Each recommendation is good on its merits, but the reality is that these actions cannot be brought about by the people in the pews. As long as the church in its organisational structure excludes women, parents, married people, and men like Francis Sullivan from true leadership and decision-making, nothing is likely to change.
It pains me to say these things. I mourn the loss of being part of a parish community in which I can celebrate my faith and receive the sacraments. And I know there are good priests in the church, men who feel dismayed and betrayed too. But even more so I grieve for the thousands of children in Australia who have been irreparably harmed, whose lives have been destroyed and whose faith and trust has been so comprehensively violated. I can’t, in good conscience, continue to prop up a church that has been so exposed in its systemic wrong-doing, and yet is still doing so little to make reparations.
So this Holy Week I will look forward to Easter and the redemption it brings. And I will pray that redemption comes, and soon, to the Holy Roman Catholic Church.