Jesus had just delivered his teaching on the “the bread of life.” At the conclusion of his instruction he made a shocking announcement. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” As a result, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.
Having watched his disciples walk away Jesus turned to his inner circle, the Twelve, and asked, “Do you also want to leave?” There’s such sadness in his question. I’m always deeply moved when I read this account.
In my heart, I picture Peter looking directly into Jesus’ eyes, his gaze deeply respectful but assertive. “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Was Peter making an act of faith? Watching the disciples turn their backs to Jesus, and one by one retreating into the comfort of their ordinary lives, was Peter’s response meant to support Jesus? Surely, Peter would have recognized the rejection that Jesus felt. Did Peter fully understand Jesus’ teaching at that moment? Did he realize that Jesus was offering the gift of himself when he commanded his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood?
It would be some time before Peter would understand this teaching. He would need to witness Jesus pouring out his life on the cross. He would need to look into the empty tomb. He would need to see the resurrected Jesus offering his body and blood each time the community celebrated the Eucharist. This Gospel passage is especially poignant for me today. A week ago, our Catholic community was shaken by a 900-page Grand Jury report exposing the sexual abuse of children by priests in Pennsylvania. It covered a span of 70 years, and involved 300 priests and more than 1000 victims. The report focused on six dioceses that have a combined Catholic population of approximately 1.7 million: Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburg and Scranton. The report documented not only the cases of sexual abuse, but also the “circle of silence” that bishops had spun around the abusers.
Fr. James Martin, SJ captured the shock and betrayal felt by our community in the Op-Ed column he wrote for the New York Times on August 16th. “Catholic wrath burns hot. Chief among those enraged are victims and their families, many whose lives have been destroyed. Catholics not directly affected by the abuse are furious at both abusive priests and the bishops who covered up their crimes, and many have had their faith in the church severely shaken…The Catholic clergy is furious as well. Like many priests, I have been deluged with emails from Catholics saying, ‘I don’t know how I can stay in the church.’”
Some Catholics will need a long time to come to grips with the magnitude of the Grand Jury report. Merely laicizing the priest abusers and incarcerating them will not be enough to settle the heart of the Catholic community. Our lingering anger needs to be addressed, as does our loss of faith in the institutional Church. Some will wash their hands of the institution, and break their communion with the Church. Some may even build a wall between themselves and God. We Catholics need to settle our hearts, deal with our rage, and disappointment, and disillusionment. There must be healing for the victims, and healing for our community. We must lift the veil of secrecy. We must not fear to speak openly and honestly about what happened. We must allow ourselves to feel, to be angry, to lament and to mourn. Only when we allow our hearts to feel our pain can we hope to begin healing. We must also acknowledge that healing will not come through any one leader in the Church. It will come only through our heart’s center, our lifeline, Jesus himself. Each of us, our leadership included, need to be people who live Christ. The Eucharist we celebrate reminds us of the frailty of the institutional Church, and each of us. We quote Saint Paul when we speak the words of consecration at Mass. It is taken from a lengthy letter he wrote to the Christian community in Corinth that was in turmoil. There were factions in the community, and there were abuses in their celebration of their Eucharistic meal. Before the Eucharist was celebrated they gathered for a meal. However, some people had plenty to eat; others went away hungry. Some even got drunk. Before Paul addressed their behavior he reminded them of what he taught them about the Eucharist. Shockingly, he began with a short introductory phrase. He connected their behavior to that of Judas. “For I received from the Lord what I handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” By inserting the phrase, “on the night he was betrayed,” Paul was warning them that their celebration of their Eucharist could not bring life to their community because, rather than conforming themselves to the person of Jesus, they were betraying him by their behavior towards each other.
Though it sheds light on our sins, the Eucharist is also the source of our healing. Had Judas not killed himself, had he wept as bitterly as Peter wept, the Eucharist would have been his healing. Judas killed himself in despair and selfloathing. Peter owned his sin, so the healing power of the Eucharist transformed him into one of the greatest models of love and steadfastness.
I had a powerful experience on the last day of the Novena to Saint Anne, this past July 26th. I asked everyone to use the grace of the Novena to take up a mission. I began by reminding them that each one of them had friends and family members who felt alienated from, or rejected by, our Catholic Church. I asked them to spread the word that everyone is welcomed here in this Eucharistic community at St. Jean’s – divorced, separated, gay, broken, wounded. I was taken aback when the congregation broke into applause! I asked them not to applaud for me, but for themselves. They were the ones who would have to reach out to their friends, relatives and co-workers. They were the ones who would have to extend the healing hands of Christ to the alienated and rejected. They were the ones who would have to offer the broken and wounded communion with the Eucharistic community.
At this time I encourage each one of you to reaffirm your discipleship. We must be solid in faith if we are to be Christ’s healing hands. We must never despair. The Church as an institution is fragile, and struggles with its sinfulness. However, we must never hide our frailty.
Acknowledgement of the wound is the prerequisite to our healing.
The Church as the body of Christ offers healing and supportive communion in the Eucharist it celebrates. Though reeling with shock and rage, we must be all the more committed to the Eucharistic gathering. Now is not the time to walk away. Now is the time to reaffirm our faith in the heart of the Church, Jesus, our Lord and master, our head, our Eucharist.