The current crisis in our church has left many Catholics feeling emotionally and spiritually drained, and despair or cynicism may sound like very tempting options. But there are some alternatives to packing it up or going full nihilist.
Here’s five tips for spiritually surviving (yet another) Church crisis.
- Find Some Spiritual Shelter
As in all cases of trauma or abuse, the first step is to find a safe place. The same goes for trauma or abuse that is tightly bound up with our spiritual practices. There’s no reason our spiritual practices have to be masochistic. Yes, we might experience dryness or boredom in prayer, but if prayer becomes painful or hurtful, we might consider changing up our routine.
One sign a prayer is fruitful is that it leads to an increase in faith, hope, and love. So if your daily practices such as mass, centering prayer, the rosary, or imaginative contemplation are fueling faith, hope, and love in you, then by all means continue them. But if your chosen practice becomes painful and only aggravate stressful feelings which lead to a decrease in faith, hope and love, you might consider other spiritual options.
For example, last week I just simply could not bring myself to attend my regular parish. Instead, I dropped by the local Jesuit parish, St. Francis Xavier. I’ve had a long and fruitful history with Jesuits, and sometimes I needed to return to their global perspective and rich history to get a better perspective on a situation. Giving yourself permission to try out a different way of loving God (and letting God love you) can be helpful at any time in your prayer life, but can be especially fruitful during transitional or painful times.
- Process your feelings
A wide variety of emotions can accompany revelations of sexual abuse and cover up within the church. For many, anger is the natural response. For others, deep sadness or confusion might be immediately prevalent. Regardless of what you feel, try and find someone you trust to talk to, who won’t judge your anger, fear, or even your positive feelings like hope for reform. If you find yourself overly distressed, you may consider talking to a professional counselor or spiritual director.
For some, anger towards the church or towards God might cause feelings of guilt or shame to arise. That’s understandable. However, if there was ever a time in the history of the church to be angry, it is now. If some money changers in the Temple infuriated Jesus, you can bet the systematic abuse of children and the subsequent cover-up would have him breaking out his whip. Let yourself be angry, pray with that anger, and then find a way to channel it into something that will give hope and prevent this sort of horror from ever happening again.
One more note on anger. Andy Otto at God in All Things has some great discernment advice for figuring out whether your anger is helpful or harmful. Essential reading, especially if you’re feeling stuck.
- Keep Talking to God (or Jesus or Mary or a favorite Saint)
For a day or so after all the revelations, I found myself spiritually repulsed from my usual prayer practices. It was hard to listen to anyone, especially clergy, who were preaching about prayer and forgiveness when I felt so betrayed. So for a couple days I could only say a few Hail Marys, and found that the best prayer was simply writing down all my frustrations and feelings. Eventually all my writings found their way to God in the form of questions or petitions. And I found out, lo and behold, that God was big enough to handle it all.
My one suggestion is this: keep talking to God, or Jesus, or Mary, or a special Saint. For some it might just be a sentence or two whispered on a car ride to work, for others, a twenty minute period of contemplative prayer, a daily rosary or participation in the liturgy. For someone else, a visit to serve the poor or marginal might help remind us of what we, the People of God, are really called to be in the world: not leaders or masters, but servants like Christ.
This is not a one-size-fits-all suggestion. For many who may be survivors of abuse or traumatized in others ways, a total break might be a necessary step towards healing. Or seeking the help of an experienced counselor or spiritual director. In the end God might lead you to another faith community. But keep talking to someone about it, and keep looking for people who might be Christ to you, and to whom you can be Christ in return.
- Remember Our History
Throughout the history of the church, some of our most beloved saints have arisen during the most violent and corrupt periods. For example, during the scandalous 13th and 14th Centuries, Popes were regularly violent, sinful, and power hungry. Yet during this time we saw the emergence of Catherine of Siena, Clare and Francis of Assisi, Dominic, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and a whole host of other nameless saints who saw the clerical corruption around them as invitations to recommit themselves to walking in the footsteps of Jesus. They became the locus of God’s action in the world, and transformed an entire continent and the Church forever with their heroic witness.
- Answer The Call
Every single of one of us, in whatever form of life we find ourselves in, lay or ordained, single or married, young or old (or newly middle age!), has a unique calling from God. For some of us, yes, we are called to reform our systems of accountability and transparency. Some of us are even called to social action to try and seek justice for victims. Those on the Grand Jury in Pennsylvania, for example, were doing God’s work by bringing all of this out into the light.
Others of us are called to be quiet witnesses to God’s goodness, to continue serving the poor and marginalized, to continue being Christ’s presence in the world, and a sign of hope and love for all around us.
This is not an easy time in our history. This is a time for heroes, for saints, for all of us as the People of God to answer the call to go and rebuild God’s Church, now more than ever.
A couple weeks ago I sat in an empty church, head held in my hands. I was filled with sadness and rage, and for the first time in my life, I was considering leaving the church. Too much corruption, too much scandal, too much infighting.
Suddenly an image from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius popped into my head, and I saw Jesus horrifically wounded before me. He was bruised, battered, nearly unconscious. He couldn’t even stand up.
“Don’t leave me” is all he whispered.
And I won’t.