One of the more powerful moments of the four-day summit on abuse that ended Sunday was a penitential liturgy held Feb. 23. About 190 bishops, cardinals and leaders of religious congregations took part in the liturgy, asking for God’s mercy in response to a series of confessions centered on their failures.
“We confess that bishops, priests, deacons, and religious in the Church have done violence to children and youth … that we have shielded the guilty … that we have not acknowledged the suffering of many victims … that we bishops did not live up to our responsibilities.”
While their confessions are a hopeful step in and of themselves, it’s significant that the leaders offered them in the presence of an abuse victim.
The man, who wasn’t identified, spoke to the penitents in Spanish for several minutes about what abuse did to his life. And then, apparently without explanation, he began to play the violin.
It’s hard to imagine how he felt. But a story by Catholic News Service tells us what he had to say.
He explained to his listeners, “what you carry within you is like a ghost that others cannot see. They will never see you nor completely know you.”
The memory of the abuse is always there, he said, “There is no dream without the memory of what happened. No day without memories, no day without flashbacks.
“I try to concentrate on my divine right to be alive. I can and should be here,” he said with emotion. “This gives me value. Now it is over and I can continue forward, I have to go forward.”
From there, he left the podium, picked up his violin and began to play a six-minute piece that was both mournful and meditative.
Watching the video, available on the Vatican’s website, one wonders what the penitents were thinking and feeling. One hopes they were moved to contrition.
The homilist at the liturgy compared the penitents to the prodigal son, which was part of the liturgy of the word.
“We readily forget to apply this Scripture to ourselves,” said Archbishop Philip Naameh from the Diocese of Tamale in Ghana. “Just like the prodigal son in the Gospel, we have also demanded our inheritance, got it, and now we are busy squandering it.”
By failing to protect victims, he said, church leaders “squandered the trust placed in us.”
He noted that in the Gospel, forgiveness begins with the prodigal son’s willingness to “be very humble, to perform very simple tasks and not to demand any privileges.”
With that in mind, he said, bishops need to recognize their mistakes, confess their sins, openly speak about them and accept the consequences.”
The summit has been criticized for not producing concrete reforms, but Vatican officials have assured the public new laws are forthcoming.
As we await those reforms, the summit lays a good foundation for moving forward. It raised awareness of the problem at a global level. And it established the importance of contrition, most especially the need for acts of contrition.
As we enter into Lent next week, may we offer ourselves for renewal and justice in the church here locally and around the world.