These are dark days for Catholics and our church. The clergy sexual abuse scandals are a source of profound pain and raw anger. Religious leaders entrusted to be exemplars of holiness too often acted like corporate CEOs trying to deny and cover up. Blaming the media or comparing the scrutiny of Pope Benedict XVI to the suffering of Christ before his crucifixion -- as one archbishop recently did -- is a callous response to sinful and criminal behavior. Now is the time for honesty, transparency, and atonement. A Public Relations 101 course for those in Rome wouldn't hurt either, as Washington Post religion reporter Michelle Boorstein recently found in her examination of the church's communications blunders.
The tragedy engulfing the Vatican and dioceses around the world has awakened a renewed understanding that the church is not only made up of bishops and the pope. Faithful men and women who fill the pews, run parish social justice committees, and struggle to lead lives worthy of Christ's example are the backbone of the church. Indeed, the Catholic faith teaches that the church is the "people of God." Those who may feel disillusioned with the hierarchy now take hope from the dedication of their parish priests, nuns, Catholic social justice organizations, and lay religious groups. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof noted last Sunday in a powerful column:
This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty ... This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children ... This is the church of the Maryknoll Sisters in Central America and the Cabrini Sisters in Africa.
More than ever the voices and examples of these Catholics must be heard and seen with greater clarity. They reflect the best of a faith tradition that is most powerful when it's humble and serving. "Preach the Gospel always and when necessary use words," St. Francis of Assisi instructed. Dorothy Day, martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, César Chávez, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta took up that call and stand in a long line of faithful living and dead whose life's work reflects the best of Catholic social justice.
We have reached a Vatican II moment in the life of the church. The Second Vatican Council, called unexpectedly by Pope John XXIII in 1962, threw open the windows of the church to the modern world. Along with groundbreaking statements on Christian-Jewish dialogue and introducing the vernacular in liturgy, Vatican II affirmed the essential role of lay Catholics. The council lasted until 1965 and in many ways the wrenching self-reflection and reforms adopted are still a source of debate and dissension today. But the fresh air that blew through the church during this historic period is needed once again. Next month, Christians will celebrate Pentecost, a time that commemorates the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus' apostles after his death and resurrection. The fire of the Holy Spirit purifies and enlightens. This feast day will have added resonance during this season of sorrow and scandal.
As Catholics here and around the world struggle with anger and disillusionment, we also remember that there are many bishops and church leaders who recognize that we must emerge from this moment as a stronger church dedicated to making sure these horrific acts never occur again. Out of unspeakable tragedy, there is the hope of reconciliation and the promise of renewal.
John Gehring is Director of Communications for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.