Hurting in the Church: An honest look at human realities

Hurting in the Church: An honest look at human realities

Hurting in the Church: An honest look at human realities

Father Thomas Berg, author of 'Hurting in the Church : A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics.' (Credit: Father Thomas Berg.)

In his new book ‘Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics,’ Father Thomas Berg says he wants priests to listen to the experiences of hurting Catholics. He says the book is an invitation to a kind of Church-wide self-examination: Where have we failed in charity? Why is our day-to-day, interpersonal living of that Christ-like gift of self, agape-love, so languid at times, so passive, so anemic?

“If the Church has ever succeeded in her mission, it was every time she was able – in the lives of faithful and committed Christians – to embody the self-sacrificing love exemplified by her Divine Spouse,” Father Thomas Berg writes in his new book Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics.

What many know of the Church today, however, “are the times her members have failed in that great task, the times we have failed to correspond to the mandate of our Savior” to love one another “as I have loved you.”

He writes as a former member of the Legionaries of Christ, who, among other things, asks “forgiveness for the ways in which, in my ignorance, I myself contributed to propagating the cult of personality surrounding [Marcial] Maciel [founder of the order], and to perpetuating the web of deceptions in which we were all trapped.

“At the heart of our unholiness and brokenness,” Berg, who serves as professor of moral theology and vice-rector at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York, writes, “we discover our all-too-frequent failures to respond to the world and to each other with radical Christ-like love.”

All of this doesn’t even begin to do the book justice. Berg, who writes about his own failures and the pain he has experienced because of evil in the Church, offers Hurting in the Church as an opportunity to move forward with healing in love as the Mystical Body of Christ. He spoke to Kathryn Jean Lopez about the book, scandal, the priesthood, and more.

Lopez: Why should anyone care about the “hurting” of priests, given the headlines we’ve seen about crimes and evil and cover-up?

Berg: For a simple reason: the vast majority of priests are not, and never will be, perpetrators of sexual abuse. They are our brothers. They came from our families and our parishes.

And given today the much more elaborate screening of candidates to the priesthood, the use of psychological testing and counseling throughout the period of seminary formation, and other significant changes in approach to priestly formation, there is greater hope than ever that future tragedies of this nature can be avoided.

What priests do need in order to persevere as happy, healthy and holy priests is a support network of friends and caring individuals. Notwithstanding the crisis and the bad press, the demands placed on priests these days continue to be as arduous as ever.  

Genuine friendships with Catholic lay men and women, and a close-knit network of individuals who offer the priest real love and support, as well as a means of personal accountability—with this in place, along with spiritual direction and a robust spiritual life, a thriving and successful life of priesthood is possible; when these elements are missing, then dysfunction can enter into the life of the priest.

In writing about priests who surrender to cynicism instead of to Christ, you write “In so doing, a priest settles for so much less than what he is called to be and become.” How can fellow priests and everyone else – maybe families especially – help protect spiritual fathers from falling into cynicism?

I think cynicism is one of the oldest, best and simplest weapons in the devil’s arsenal. Protecting against it begins by unmasking it in our lives, recognizing it, and acknowledging the poison that it injects into our spiritual lives.

I was much taken by the way Archbishop Chaput began chapter one of his recent book Strangers in a Strange Land. He writes: Christians have many good reasons for hope. Optimism is another matter. Optimism assumes that, sooner or later, things will naturally turn out for the better. Hope has no such illusions.

Now, that’s not the voice of cynicism; it’s the voice of Christian realism, it’s the voice of a man thoroughly imbued with the supernatural virtue of hope. And such hope is the antidote to cynicism.

Hope can look into the face of a reality in which, in fact, things might not get better, and know that that’s OK. Christian hope does not, in fact, need things to get better—in the world, or even in the Church.  

Christian hope is mighty; it keeps our eyes fixed on Jesus, on the road ahead, on the prize, on the eternal life to which we are called, on our union with God. Hope is how we flush cynicism out of our spiritual system.

You describe priestly celibacy as “a good struggle.” Is that complicated by the reality of married priests – who were once Anglican – or recent headlines about the pope’s considerations about deacons?

I don’t think so. I’ve never actually given it much thought.  

Actually, I think if we’re living a healthy celibacy, marriage, the presence of an intimate companion in our lives, should always be appealing and attractive. That’s what we have given up for love of Jesus and his Church. These kinds of reminders of that, if anything, should simply be occasions for us to renew our ‘yes’ and to thank God again for the myriad blessings that celibacy has brought into our lives.

To what extent did you write this book for priests? To open their hearts and help them breathe and even heal from some of the onslaught of understandable disappointment and anger and suspicion sometimes aimed at them because of scandal?

Although they were not my exclusive audience, I wrote with the hope that many priests would eventually read the book, and especially listen to the experiences of hurting Catholics that I weave throughout the text.

I hope as well that it could be a stimulus and an encouragement to priests in our different struggles, and in the often unseen crosses we are given to bear.

Lopez: It gets lost in headlines about money and process, but what Cardinal Dolan has done in New York, your archdiocese, to implore that the Church give something more materially to people who were sexually abused by priests, is it a step in the right direction? How can we better communicate it with the love that is intended?

The Cardinal’s move has been broadly acknowledged as a step in the right direction, and it is. By the same token, no one should be under the illusion that any monetary gift to a victim of clergy sexual abuse is going to bring closure to that victim’s struggle. It can help in that direction.

But no one should adopt the attitude that because a system is established to award payouts to victims that we have thereby closed the loop on what the love of God requires of us to do for victims. It is, at best, only one element — a significant element — but only one element of a broader approach to reaching out, accompanying, and helping victims heal.

Why do you love the Church and the priesthood despite the evil and suffering you’ve seen and even suffered from?

Because when all is said and done, I am still in love with Jesus. And to be in love with Jesus is to love his Church.  

The brokenness of the Church in her members has come to break my own heart. And the experience of hurting in the Church has heightened, not diminished, my own sense of compassion and capacity to empathize. I hope I don’t sound like I’m tooting my own horn in saying that. Hardly. ‘Here by the grace of God go I.’

It’s only by God’s mercy that I am still standing today, that I am able to love the human dimension of the Church even in its ugliness at times, that I am able to see beyond that, to the transcendent action of Jesus in and through his priests, in and through so many dedicated lay Catholics, that I am able to sense the vitality of the work of the Holy Spirit in his Church, that I know that his Church is full of saints-in-the-making. It’s all mercy.

Is there a penitential posture all Christians can afford to take, as we know evil and imperfections are realities even among those who struggle for holiness?

Penance, the making of reparation—this would normally be a healthy dimension of any robust, serious life of Christian discipleship. We need to pray with the Church, and for the Church.  

I would hope that we find ourselves praying not infrequently for victims of clergy sexual abuse, for instance. I hope that all of us would have a lively sense of examining what might be missing in our lives—the area of omission, especially in the area of lived charity, should be a regular element of our examination of conscience.

In fact, the latter part of my book constitutes an invitation to just such a kind of Church-wide examination of our lives. Where have we failed in charity? Why is our day-to-day, interpersonal living of that Christ-like gift of self, agape-love, so languid at times, so passive, so anemic?  

A spirit of reparation should lead to action where possible, to deeper concern for the members of the Mystical body, to a more intense commitment to strive to love as Jesus loved.

What are the unlearned lessons of the year of mercy?

Good question. Possibly that we needed a year of mercy so badly—that we haven’t even been in a position to process how much we’ve needed it, what the fruits have been, and the place the “mercy” has in grasping God’s action in the world. I don’t think we can get to the unlearned lessons until we’ve first uncovered the lessons learned — and, speaking for myself, I’m still trying to process it all.

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