Canon Law and the Ceremonial of Bishops require that when sacred places have been violated by sinful, scandalous actions, acts of reparation must be performed to restore them. How appropriate, therefore, that after violations of the temple that is the human body through scandals of clerical abuse, some kind of public act of reparation should be performed.
It was for just this that I travelled down to St John’s Cathedral, Portsmouth, at the weekend for a day of prayer and reparation, led by Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth, for sins of abuse. He preached a powerful homily at the principal Sunday Masses, connecting the day of reparation to our Lenten battle against Satan’s temptations. Emphasising that repentance and renewal begin in our own heart, he asked in impassioned tones how the Church could hope for a renewal of mission, outreach and service if her own house was not in order – if we have not repented of the scandal of abuse within the Church and made reparation for it.
This is the second such event which Grief to Grace has supported. They are a concomitant of our work with survivors, because an awareness of the spiritual impact of abuse must inform true healing. Such days allow us all to acknowledge the damage to Christ’s Body and to ask mercy for our collective guilt. Though not responsible for abuse ourselves, we are recognising that the crisis is ultimately grounded in rebellion against God’s holy law, and that all such rebellion has consequences for the whole Body of Christ. When one member suffers, we all suffer, so by our intercession and reparation we are seeking to make up for the sins of the body and asking God to restore it to health. On such days we are also expressing our sense of solidarity with the victims of abuse by acknowledging the gravity of this sin and the particular way it contradicts everything the Church should be.
The day includes Mass, recitation of the rosary, litanies and talks about the effects of abuse. It culminates in a communal act of atonement by all present, led by the bishop, the high priest of the Church in that place. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed and adored on the altar and powerful prayers of repentance recited. Then in silence the bishop prostrates on the sanctuary floor. The priests present do the same, as do some of the congregation.
Prostration is an act of humility, a way of pleading for God’s mercy. It shows that we do not take for granted how infinitely holy and good God is, and that we are aware of the immense love against which we have sinned. It’s also a gesture of supplication and trust. God made us from the dust of the earth; only his Spirit can lift us from there and endow us with new life. On Ash Wednesday we recalled this truth. The prophet Joel urged priests to weep between the vestibule and the altar and ask God to spare his people.
I would like to see such days in every diocese, maybe every parish. The Church has a long way to go to heal abuse survivors and thereby recover a purified, less compromised priesthood which reveals the image of the priest as father and man of blessing. This requires ongoing prayer and reparation. The Church will heal from the abuse crisis to the extent she learns to minister to its victims and stops seeing them as peripheral – just a temporary reproach. Jesus placed children in the disciples’ midst as the model for those in his kingdom. What will he say to those who continue to ignore or minimise the harm done to the same little ones?
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