Homily for Service of Lament

I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but many people today are uncomfortable with grief.  We deny it, suppress it, and avoid it, especially in public.  You even see this sometimes in the way funerals are approached.  Instead of a funeral or a Mass of Christian burial, there is instead what’s called a “celebration of life.”  Implicitly, the message is, “no mourning,” “no grief,” “no sorrow or tears.”

No doubt, the motivations for this are well-intentioned.  But, I worry that there is something important, something very critical to being human, that is being denied by the avoidance of grief and sorrow.  Earlier times knew this better than we.

We need to grieve individually and with others.  To do so is human and holy.  It is honest.  We heard in our Gospel today that “Jesus wept.”  Jesus grieved for his dear friend, Lazarus.  He wept out of love and sorrow with all the others who were weeping and grieving.

When I visited the Holy Land, I learned of an old Middle Eastern custom which endures to this day, in which the tears of those who mourned were caught and saved in a small vial—so valuable were mournful tears seen.

Importantly, grief is a significant part of healing.

This Service of Lament comes after a year of healing services in different parts of our diocese.  The Church of Kansas City-St. Joseph has been deeply wounded by the sins of her members, and those wounds have been most deeply experienced by the victims and survivors of child sexual abuse.  And, in some way and in different degrees, every member of the Church has been affected by this.  Today, we lament, we openly grieve these wounds together.

How fitting that a few moments ago we had a reading from the Book of Lamentations.  The raw, sobering words of this Old Testament Book take on new relevance for us.  They were written in the sixth century before Christ, when the Temple had been destroyed and the people of Jerusalem had been marched off into exile in Babylon.  Sometimes attributed to the Prophet Jeremiah, the Book of Lamentations takes a hard look at the suffering that has occurred and does so with grief, sorrow, confession of sins, and repentance.

It’s also a book that diagnoses the causes of suffering and sin, and most especially, the sins, infidelities, and betrayals of their religious leaders.

The havoc and humiliation were seen as a just punishment from God for having betrayed a sacred trust.  God promised that they would be blessed if they were faithful to the covenant, but would endure wrath if they were not.

Sound familiar?  Suffering and sin and betrayal, havoc and humiliation . . . for betraying a sacred trust.  Here we are centuries later, repeating their history, diagnosing the causes of suffering and sin.

I am here to confess, apologize and repent for the sins of those who held a sacred trust in the Church and betrayed that trust.

I am here to express repentance for the priests and bishops, and anyone in the service of the Church, whose actions or inactions harmed the lives of children entrusted to their care.

The first betrayal began with the innocent, vulnerable children who were sexually abused by priests, deacons or other members of the Church.  Children, parents and communities were betrayed by those entrusted with their care.  As sinful and terrible as this was and is, it is the response of the Church that provides a most dire cause for confession.  We at times failed to act; to respond with urgency and integrity.  We betrayed your trust.

I offer you my deep sorrow and profound regret for what the Catholic people have endured.  I ask forgiveness from the victims and survivors, from their families, and from the innocent faithful of the diocese who also have felt the weight and shame of this scandal.  I ask forgiveness from our faithful and innocent priests who have been betrayed.

The Book of Lamentations concludes by looking to the future and trying to find hope.  God still sits enthroned forever; he is still Lord of history and the Father of mercies.  In spite of the great trauma and the bleakness of the situation, God’s door of mercy remains open, and this is the source of Israel’s hope.

It took a long time for Israel to see how God would heal them and even bring them home—all they had at the beginning was hope that God was merciful and would not leave them—and that’s really all they needed.

And, that’s really all we have too.

I am not always sure what to do.  I am not always aware of what will help a victim or a survivor of sexual abuse to heal.  I don’t have all the answers and I’m not sure any of us do. But, I am certain of one thing: God knows, and God heals.

I want to say clearly that I am committed, and our local Church will be committed, to trying to be an instrument of healing for those who are hurting.

I consider protecting our vulnerable not merely a priority or goal on a list, but a core value.  And although I don’t have all the answers, I have a strong vision of what I want to see:

I want to see a Diocese that acknowledges its’ wounds and the wounded.  We will have a visible, permanent reminder……a special place where we honor the stories of the past.  I will form a remembrance committee of victims, survivors and their families to help me fulfill this vision.  In the time I’ve been here I’ve already heard first-hand the stories of victims and survivors who have shared their painful stories with me.  I promise to continue listening.

I want to see a Diocese that prays together in support of children.  I’m declaring an annual DIOCESAN Day of Prayer for the Protection of Children during Child Abuse Prevention Month calendared each year on April 26, beginning in 2017.

I want to see a Diocese that is at the forefront with our policies which shape our church environments and govern our behavior.  For this, I am creating a multi-discipline team tasked with review of current policies and charged with implementing best practices.

I want to see a Diocese that is better equipped to provide a pastoral response to those who have been harmed.  Training will be developed on how to help victims and survivors who entrust us with their story.  For those seeking spiritual care, we will develop a program with people specially trained to serve as spiritual directors and ministers of accompaniment.

There are no quick fixes or magic formulas, but I hope we can create spaces and opportunities for grace to enter.  I recognize many of you have been waiting a long time.  Please be patient as we embark upon this journey together.  And know, I’m committed to continuing to identify the best ways to support healing throughout the diocese.

In some ways, the Gospel account of Jesus raising Lazarus will be our model.

The first thing we will be about is turning to Jesus; trusting that he is the only one that can address the wounds, the darkness, the hopelessness that can come from child sexual abuse.  Only Jesus has the power to bring someone back to life!

Martha and Mary begged Jesus to give their brother new life.  That is what we are going to do as a community of faith: beg Jesus to give new life back to our brothers and sisters.

Jesus wept out of love for Lazarus, and he weeps personally for you, by name, who have been so deeply wounded.

Jesus went to the tomb where his friend lay dead; Jesus seeks each of you out too, wherever you are.

Before Lazarus could be released from the tomb, the large stone had to be rolled away.  Many of you are experiencing such a “stone” blocking you and your ability to move on with life, to be free and happy again.  It sometimes takes many people to roll away a large heavy stone; it is not something we can do by ourselves.  We need counselors, friends, family, clergy, and spiritual directors.  Sometimes our stone looks overwhelming, impossible to move, but it isn’t.

When the stone is removed, Jesus then calls to Lazarus to “come out.”  Jesus does the same to anyone who has been “entombed”.  He calls you by name, seeks you out, meets you where you are, calls you to come out into a new life.

Notice what comes next.  A decision has to be made.  Do I respond to the call of my name and come out of the tomb with its darkness into the bright light of day; or remain in the dark of the tomb?  It’s a bit counterintuitive, but sometimes we can get so used to our situation, where we have been for so long, that it is scary to leave that place and step out into the light of something new.

When Lazarus came forth from the tomb, his hands and feet were still bound.  Jesus told the onlookers to untie him and set him free.  What are the things that bind victims and survivors?  How can we help untie people?

The last part of this episode might be called: “Re-entering the land of the living.”  Like Lazarus, one that emerges from a tomb, who is unbound and enters the light, begins not only to live again, but lives a new kind of life that was different than before.

It is here that we see the greatest power of God at work!  God turns the wound, the hurt, the victimization on its head.  It’s transformed and even becomes the place from where a new power is at work in one’s life—God’s love and mercy.  I am not alone anymore, living on my own.  God is with me, in me, above me, and I am in Him!

But, there’s a catch for this to happen.  No one can be healed without coming to the point of forgiving.  Without forgiveness, we remain forever entombed, isolated often in bitterness and anger and cynicism.

Earlier, I expressed my apology for the sins of those who represented the Church and betrayed that sacred trust.  To you, victims and survivors, but also to you the faithful, I must also be so bold as to ask for your forgiveness; not so much for my benefit, but for yours!

As so many victims of atrocities and injustices have borne witness, “forgiveness is a gift for yourself.”  Most times, the person forgiven never even knows it; they may even be dead and gone.  We forgive because it heals us.  But it isn’t easy, it takes courage and it takes grace.  Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting either.  We can’t forget. We won’t forget.  We can’t forget.  We will never forget.

We grieve; and we will continue to grieve and lament the terrible wreckage our sins have caused.  Like ancient Israel, it will take much time, and a long journey, punishment, and even an exile to atone for the sins that have been committed.

But, as Pope Francis has said so well and so clearly: “There is no situation that God cannot change.”

The essence of Christianity is mercy; it is the only hope our world and the Church has.  “[God’s] mercy endures forever” the psalm says.  (cf. Ps 136)

When Jesus rose from the dead, having been betrayed and abused and put to death, and he appeared to the disciples on the evening of that day, he showed them his hands and his side—his wounds.  And, when Thomas, the doubter, was present the next time Jesus appeared, Jesus invited him to not only see, but to touch his wounds.  Thomas responded by saying, “My Lord, and my God!

Our inclination towards wounds is a lot like grief: we want to hide them, cover them over, close our eyes to them.  Because the wounds of others, like the wounds of Jesus, remind us of our betrayal of innocent love, and the memory of innocent suffering.

As people of faith, we cannot close our eyes to the wounds of others.  Faith that closes its eyes to wounds is just an illusion.

How fitting and beautiful, that God would send us His Son as a wounded prophet, a wounded Messiah, a wounded Savior, to give us courage and the assurance that God understands and enters our suffering and takes our wounds and makes them his own; and even more, He opens our tombs and restores us to a new life.

Our wounds, like his, remain, but they are no longer signs of sorrow and lament, but signs of a greater power: the love of Christ.  A love that heals and saves.

+Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr.

Service of Lament, June 26, 2016

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