On June 29, 1972, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Pope St. Paul VI delivered one of the most famous homilies of his 15-year pontificate — one that remains relevant for 2019.
Speaking of the crises that were facing the Church, the pontiff used a striking image, saying that it seemed as though “the smoke of Satan entered the temple of God from some fissure,” adding there was an atmosphere of “doubt, uncertainty, problems, restlessness, dissatisfaction, confrontation.”
The Holy Father was speaking seven years after the end of the Second Vatican Council and four years after the release of his heroic encyclical — Humanae Vitae — that reaffirmed Church teaching on contraception and married love.
In those intervening years, Catholics had witnessed wholesale confusion in the Church over the decrees of the Council, open dissent against Humanae Vitae and liturgical, sacramental and theological aberrations in parishes, and Catholic schools and universities. For those who lived through it, the era was horrendous.
The lament of Pope Paul, canonized during this tumultuous, just-concluded 2018, expressed perfectly that sense of gloom, but it is also an image that many Catholics might consider especially apt for our current situation as we begin 2019.
Still reeling from the sexual scandal surrounding former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the devastating Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse in August, Catholics ended the year learning about new scandals.
On Dec. 19, the attorney general of Illinois issued a report claiming that the Archdiocese of Chicago and the other dioceses of Illinois had failed to disclose all of the names of priests accused of abuse over the decades.
The report asserted that instead of the 185 names made public by the Illinois dioceses, the actual number was 690, meaning the Church had supposedly withheld more than 500 names of accused priests.
There are obvious questions as to how credible all of those accusations might have been, but the claim sparked new outrage and new calls for the government to police the Church.
At the very same time, the Vatican announced the resignation of Auxiliary Bishop Alexander Salazar of Los Angeles over allegations of sexual abuse of minors dating back to 2002. He became the latest U.S. bishop to resign in 2018 in the face of accusations. Others included Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, who resigned in September and is being investigated for allegations of sexual harassment of adults, and Auxiliary Bishop John Jenik of New York, who resigned at the end of October after being credibly accused of inappropriate behavior with a minor years ago.
These resignations followed the disastrous revelations in June of a decades-long pattern of sexual misconduct committed by Archbishop McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington. As a result of a credible accusation of abuse of a minor during the early 1970s, Archbishop McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals.
Pope Francis also accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington in October, three years after he was required to submit his letter of resignation upon turning 75. Cardinal Wuerl was accused of failing to deal with sex-abuse cases properly while he was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006 and of failing to address Archbishop McCarrick’s misconduct.
After a difficult year in which he had been roundly criticized for his handling of the abuse crisis and his silence on the issue while the Catholic faithful clamored for action, Pope Francis seemed to echo the words of Pope Paul VI during his annual Christmas greeting to the officials of the Roman Curia Dec. 21.
Speaking of the Barque of Peter, he said, “Many have found themselves asking the Master, who seems to be sleeping: ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ (Mark 4:38). Others, disheartened by news reports, have begun to lose trust and to abandon her.”
The Pope, however, then expressed a most welcome sense of resolve in confronting the current sex-abuse scandals.
“The Church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case,” he said to the officials of the Vatican. “It is undeniable that some in the past, out of irresponsibility, disbelief, lack of training, inexperience — we need to judge the past with a hermeneutics of the past — or spiritual and human myopia, treated many cases without the seriousness and promptness that was due. That must never happen again. This is the choice and the decision of the whole Church.”
To be sure, these are as yet words that must be followed by meaningful and transparent action, but they give us all direction for 2019.
A new year demands not fleeting resolutions that we are unlikely to keep, but greater resolve — to be holier, to love the Church even more, and to be tireless in our pursuit of truth and transparency.
As Catholics, we have both the right and the obligation to add our voices in crying out, “That must never happen again,” and in demanding the accountability of our shepherds and justice for the victims.
We must call for a full understanding of the root causes of sexual abuse in the Church, from the abuse of minors and vulnerable adults to the harassment and abuse of seminarians and others at risk of predatory homosexual clergy.
No topic must be declared off limits because of political correctness, and nothing must be set aside in favor of vague notions of “clericalism.” Institutional reform must also be accompanied by spiritual reform and renewal. All Catholics must play a role.
As the ancient maxim says: Oremus pro invicem (“Let us pray for each other”). May all of us be strengthened in faith and helped on the road to holiness and the truth. It can begin by keeping our bishops in prayer as they gather for a weeklong spiritual retreat at Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago in early January. Pray that they find the courage and the fortitude to do what is needed for their flocks and for the good of the Church. Pray for Pope Francis as he prepares for the February meeting at the Vatican about the abuse crisis.
In that 1972 homily and in the midst of what seemed a dark and terrible time for the Church, Pope St. Paul VI warned of the “smoke of Satan.” But he also ended with hope and a reminder of the power of faith. “Faith gives us certainty,” he said, “security, when it is based on the word of God accepted and found consenting with our own reason and with our own human soul. Whoever believes with simplicity, with humility, feels that he is on the right track, of having an inner testimony that comforts him in the difficult conquest of the truth.”
May all of us have that resolve of inner testimony in this new year, a year sure to bring shadows, challenges and some terrible moments. May we proclaim throughout the year the words of the Laudes Regiae: Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat! (“Christ conquers! Christ reigns! Christ commands!”)
Wishing you a blessed 2019 from everyone at the Register.