Living the Gospel of Jesus

First things first. The cover of this edition of The Priest is a collage of words all very significant to the life of the Church, and all of interest to priests especially pastors. They are about stewardship and giving. 

Inside this edition are two articles recommended to any priest whose duties include obtaining funds and other gifts necessary for the ongoing ministry of the Church. On Page 20 is an article about why Catholics should contribute to the Church with the means available to them. 

On Page 35 is an article about online giving — the opportunity to contribute monetarily by using a personal computer. 

Here is a very good resource. Our Sunday Visitor’s Offertory Solutions division is ready and able to assist any priest in all details of soliciting gifts. Call this division and ask for a specialist in stewardship. The number is (800) 348-2440. Also check the website http://www.osvoffertory.com/FosterVibrantCommunity.aspx 

Scattered across the United States are small rural communities of Amish, followers of an interpretation of Christianity that for many observers seems severe, but that nonetheless offers lessons for anyone, including Roman Catholics, who seek to live according to the Gospel of Jesus. (To be honest, the strict Amish detachment from the things of this world and focus solely on the hereafter are quite similar to the rules of many Catholic contemplative congregations.) 

Rarely do the Amish make the news, as they simply and quietly live their lives in the confines of their communities. They horrifyingly burst into popular notice in October 2006 when a man armed with a gun invaded an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. He released the male students, but kept the girls hostage. The outrage reached its climax when he shot 10 of the girls, of whom five were killed, before shooting and killing himself. 

The very thought of killing innocent children so wantonly, coupled with the pacifism so preferred by the Amish, brought a special, shocking irony to the event, and it made the headlines on news broadcasts and in the papers for a week. 

The story did not end with the report of the killings. The day was not ended before representatives of the Amish community, so brutally assaulted by the shootings, visited the parents of the assailant to console them. A few days later, when the murderer was buried, members of the same Amish community — including a group of parents of the slain or injured children — came to the funeral, there to pray, and to mourn, with the culprit’s distraught family. 

That is forgiveness. It was hard for people in general to understand, much less accept, the response of those Amish people, especially the parents of victims. The very incredulity so often prompted by the Amish reaction illustrated how starkly different authentic Christianity is from human instincts, with their pull toward revenge and bitterness in the face of being mistreated, of being gravely mistreated. The prayer of the Lord on the cross powerfully comes to mind, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). 

I thought of all this some months ago when news came that American forces had found Osama bin Laden’s hideaway and had killed him. I could reason, despite my firm conviction that capital punishment achieves little if anything, and well may do more harm than good, that bin Laden was a genuine threat to the lives potentially of thousands if not more. 

My sadness on that occasion arose from the fact that his death was so celebrated, not primarily because a possible future threat had been ended, but because so many somehow felt that destroying bin Laden evened the score after the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001. It was hard to watch these festivities without concluding that somehow revenge was in the mix. 

True, we must defend ourselves, and we have a right to defend ourselves, even if it is a matter of life and death. It also is true that revenge, and settling scores, are not the Christian way. The Amish in that awful moment in 2006 in Pennsylvania had it right — absolutely right. They followed the Gospel. 

It always fascinates me that so many Christians who hold the Gospel as supreme in their search for guidance in life at one and the same time support, often doggedly support, the practice in this country of killing persons convicted of certain crimes, admittedly almost always a vicious crime. (It is important when speaking of the death penalty to remember that among all the major developed democracies, the United States alone holds onto to this practice of killing criminals.) 

By the same token, it intrigues me that, with not many exceptions, conservative Catholics support, and defend with some feeling, capital punishment. This Catholic group, by no means small in number, will grumble about others thought to be more independent and liberal in accepting Church teachings, the so called “cafeteria Catholics,” while exactly the same thing occurs by accepting capital punishment without also, if nothing else, the theological cautions stated in this regard by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, by Pope John Paul II, by Pope Benedict XVI, and by a range of orthodox Catholic moral theologians. 

Few, if any, priests would urge retaining capital punishment in our legal system on the grounds that, by killing a convict, scores are evened. It is too nakedly revenge, and revenge is utterly beyond the Gospel. 

Listening to survivors of victims of violent, heinous crimes, however, it seems that revenge is not altogether off the table. With all empathy for persons who had lost a loved one through crime, no execution closes the book or fulfills justice. 

Blessed John Paul II stressed the dignity of life. Within this moral framework, Catholic theology always has maintained that societies, and individuals within societies, acting as private persons, have the moral right to defend themselves. On this premise, capital punishment long was justified. To defend against future assaults, societies had the right to kill prisoners convicted of major crimes. 

Blessed John Paul did not veto this long-standing principle. Rather, he noted, correctly, that killing convicts no longer is the only way to protect a society. Statistically shown, the fact that the death penalty awaits conviction of certain crimes very rarely deters persons from committing such crimes. The crime occurs in the heat of passion, or the perpetrator thinks that he or she will escape arrest or conviction. 

The death penalty’s usefulness in protecting society from future crimes, possibly by the same criminal, or in deterring others from crime, is by no means assured. Given the Christian’s obligation to guard human life, and the Church’s obligation to proclaim the uncompromised value of human life, if nothing else, life deserves the benefit of the doubt. 

We can argue social and legal points, but priests need to change minds in this regard, perhaps their own. “Father, forgive them. . .” is a good maxim from which to begin. 

On another matter, conversations among priests often these days may contain references to brethren in holy orders who somehow have been accused, or even found guilty, of sexually abusing minors. Often, such conversations are awkward, because these priests are outcasts from society, and by reason of the suggested, or admitted, or proven misconduct — and current Church policies — they are outcasts from the priestly circle. 

Human nature being what it is, and the outrage of child sex abuse being what it is, it is not likely that any priestly fellowship will simply ignore, or dismiss, such terrible conduct on the part of a priest. Still, priests involved in such accusations, or found truly to be guilty of such crimes, remain human beings, children of God, for whom the ministry of the Church must be available. This ministry is for them as much as it is for any person who is hurting. 

Ministry to accused or guilty priests can never condone, but neither can it shun. Priests in these circumstances very often tell stories of loneliness and despair, intense shame and regret, that should be the objects of the comforting and reassuring message of forgiveness and forbearance for which the Catholic Church brilliantly is noted. Civil law, and canonical law, quite properly can require restrictions or conditions that can be binding under certain circumstances. 

Arguably, nothing in American Catholic history has so damaged the image of the Church, of bishops, and of priests as has the clergy sex abuse crisis. It is not about window-dressing. It is real. The Church must stand for what is right, such as the innocence of youth and against the sin of exploitation, especially by priests who must be committed to virginity and to true fatherhood of the Church’s youths. 

Serious concerns indeed, from a variety of standpoints, face Church leaders amid all this. So, no priest should veer away from Church policy or common sense. 

This is not the point, however. To reiterate, realizing how explosive this whole matter can be, it is not about condoning, making excuses, or turning a blind eye to the injuries created by sexual abuse of the young. It is about ministry and outreach in ministry for those unhappy priests who are in these situations. 

A retired bishop, now with God, once shared with me his anguish at being unable to bring some measure of peace to the soul of a priest of his diocese whom the bishop had suspended, who had admitted the crime, and who was in prison. 

“My job now,” this good bishop told me, “is to help him save his soul!” Amen. 

To return to the central point, Christians are bound by the Lord’s own example, “Father, forgive them. . . .” Remember those Amish parents in Pennsylvania. May God bless them. TP 

MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.