NEW YORK — In what has been one of the darkest years in the history of the American Catholic Church, it may sound strange to speak of highlights.
Yet, as the storm clouds of the clerical sexual abuse crisis overshadowed much of 2018, and lingers into 2019, looking back on the past year reveals that while there were moments of shame and showdowns with the government, there were also a few moments in which a beleaguered Church managed to sparkle that are worth recounting, too.
1. “A Summer of Shame”
What began in June — when the archdiocese of New York revealed that then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had been credibly accused of a sexual abuse of a minor — has now erupted into a full-blown crisis.
The following month, further reports would emerge, revealing that McCarrick had serially abused seminarians during his years in Metuchen and Newark, New Jersey. Pope Francis would take the nearly unprecedented action of removing McCarrick from public ministry and accepting his resignation as a member of the College of Cardinals.
When a Pennsylvania grand jury report was released in August — chronicling seven decades of abuse of over 1,000 minors at the hands of more than 300 predator priests, it would prompt over a dozen states to announce they would begin similar undertakings, with federal authorities hinting that a national investigation may soon be announced.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., one of the most powerful members of the U.S. hierarchy, would have his resignation accepted by Francis in October as a continuing part of the fallout from the Pennsylvania report from his time as bishop of Pittsburgh in the late 1980s and 1990s.
In November, the U.S. bishops gathered in Baltimore hoping to pass new standards and protocols for the accountability of bishops accused in sexual abuse or its cover-up. Their plans, however, were put on hold after a last minute intervention from the Vatican requesting that they wait until after a global summit on the topic in February to be held at the Vatican — extending a long summer of shame over sexual abuse, into what is looking to be a bleak winter.
2. An “Encuentro” to Remember
In September, at a time when the entire U.S. Church needed a booster shot in the arm, the V Encuentro, a major summit of Hispanic Catholics, delivered just that when over 3,500 participants descended onto Grapevine, Texas for a four-day long gathering.
At stake was the future of Hispanic Catholics, who will soon be a majority population within the U.S. Church. While over 100 bishops gathered in Texas during a very dark period in the American Church, for many, it was a reminder that the energy and faith present in Texas, could still potentially translate into a very bright future.
3. The Bishops Head to the Border
At the end of June, a delegation of U.S. bishops, led by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, headed to the U.S.-Mexico border for a weekend of prayer and protest of the Trump administration’s policy — which has since been revoked — of separating families as a means of deterrence from crossing the border.
The idea was first proposed by Cardinal Joseph Tobin in mid-June at the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Fort Lauderdale as he lamented “the hardening of the American heart” against refugees and immigrants. He suggested the delegation “as a sign of our pastoral response and protest against what is being done to children.”
More than 2,300 children were separated from their families, and in the aftermath of the policy being rescinded, the Catholic Church’s Migrants and Refugee Services program (MRS) served as the primary agency in helping to reconcile families.
4. The Catholic Imagination Still Captivates
The Vatican received red carpet treatment at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art at the launch of its major exhibition on “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” in May.
The exhibit, which included never before seen garments and vestments from the Sistine Chapel sacristy, highlighted the profound connection between the Catholic faith and fashion, as well as the Church’s legacy to arts and culture.
The opening event, the annual Met Gala (which happens to be the most photographed event of the year), served as a homecoming, of sorts, where celebrities and politicians alike recalled their own Catholic upbringing.
The exhibit, which closed in October, ended up attracting over 1.3 million visitors, making it the most attended exhibit in the institution’s history — and proving that the Catholic imagination still manages to inspire.
5. Congress’ Chaplain-Gate
In a divided Congress, Republican and Democratic Catholic members managed to come together in May to protest Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s decision to fire House Chaplain Father Patrick Conroy.
Conroy had been unanimously approved as House chaplain in May 2011, and it was announced in March that he was resigning his post. While many believed his departure from the post was voluntary, in April, it was revealed that it actually came at Ryan’s request.
According to Conroy, Ryan requested his resignation following a prayer regarding a November Congressional debate over tax reform legislation. Ryan’s office countered that claim, saying that the decision was due to complaints that he did not meet the “pastoral needs” of members of the House.
In the end — after nearly a week of tug-of-war over the future of the chaplaincy — Conroy was reinstated and he and Ryan met for coffee with a pledge to work together to move forward.
The Chaplain-Gate saga provided a rare moment for Catholic congressional leaders to come together, something rarely witnessed in 2018 — and with grim prospects for a repeat in the year ahead.