These past several years, as we’ve been enduring the most difficult period in American Catholic Church history, I find that my reading of the Scripture has changed rather dramatically.
Looking through the lens of the clergy sex abuse scandal, I find that many biblical passages have opened up in a new way. The first reading for daily Mass recently was from the ninth chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, and, though I had read this selection many times before, I confess that it shone for me in an entirely new light.
Ezekiel speaks of a group of avenging warriors who enter the holy city of Jerusalem from the north, preceded by a figure dressed in a linen garment and carrying a writer’s case. The writer is instructed to mark certain people in the city with the letter “Taw,” the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet, resembling a “t.” Then the warriors sweep through the city killing every man, woman and child not sealed with the Taw. Those who remain alive are designated as a holy remnant around whom God will, in time, rebuild his city. Meanwhile, according to Ezekiel’s vision, the glory of the Lord, which had resided in the temple, rises up into the sky and prepares to leave Jerusalem.
In need of cleansing
Now, the ancient Israelite scholars said that one shouldn’t even approach the famously complex and poetic book of the prophet Ezekiel until reaching the age of 50. So we have to proceed with caution. This vision, like so many in Ezekiel, has the texture of a dream: mysterious, evocative, deeply meaningful and passing strange. And like a dream, IT IS NOT TO BE TAKEN LITERALLY. Sorry for shouting, but literalistic readings of Old Testament texts have proven tragically misleading.
The avengers have come to do their terrible work, precisely because Jerusalem has fallen into corruption. Ezekiel knows that the city, which was meant to be so holy that it would attract all the nations to the worship of the true God, has become a place of violence, stupidity and idolatry. And therefore, it has to be cleansed, even if the cleansing is painful in the extreme.
The Church of Jesus Christ is the new Israel, the new holy city, and its purpose is the same as ancient Jerusalem’s. But what has happened to us? We have fallen rather massively into corruption. Over the course of many decades, some priestsviolated children in the most vile way. And during that same terrible period, some bishopsallowed this outrage to continue, even in some cases aiding and abetting it. The God disclosed in the Bible — a God of justice and love — will never allow such a situation simply to stand. Rather, he cleanses and purifies, yes, even when such a process is painful in the extreme. I believe that this is the proper rubric under which to read the awful period through which the Church is passing. Has God abandoned us? Has he simply up and left his temple? I fully realize that it feels that way. But he has not left us; he is, rather, remaking us, refining us, like gold in the fire.
Repent and reform
And who today correspond to the spared remnant, those marked with the Taw? The Church Fathers were quick to point out that since the “Taw” was shaped like a cross, it designates symbolically all of those marked with the sign of baptism. In Ezekiel’s vision, the holy few remained in order to do the work of rebuilding and resanctifying. The same work is cut out now for all of the baptized. Too many Catholics today have taken what I consider an easy way out: abandoning the Church and simply casting aspersions on her. But this is not the time to leave; it is the time to regroup, rethink, reform and repent.
Take a good hard look at the ninth chapter of the book of the prophet Ezekiel and realize that God’s messenger is speaking to you.
Father Robert Barron, founder of WordOnFire.org, is the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois.