Pope Benedict XVI, seen here in 2009, said the capacity to repent is a grace. CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Catholic Press Photo

Fr. Raymond de Souza: The grace of penance in summer of shame

  • July 15, 2021

In 2018, American Catholics experienced their “summer of shame” — first the revelations about Theodore McCarrick and then the Pennsylvania grand jury report on priestly sexual abuse. Given the media reach of the United States, the shame spread around the world. Soon Pope Francis announced a global summit on sexual abuse for February 2019. From that emerged some key reforms for episcopal accountability.

Canadian Catholics are experiencing something of a “summer of shame” as the history of residential schools is again at the forefront of public debate. Much like the Pennsylvania report, the general media impression is at wide variance with the facts. The history is already painful enough on its own; misinformation serves no good purpose. Indeed, it can distort the record of what has actually been done, fomenting turmoil and tension. That may be what is behind the church burnings and vandalism.

In the Pennsylvania case respected journalist Peter Steinfels, no lapdog of the Catholic hierarchy, amply demonstrated the manipulations and misrepresentations in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, which made long resolved cases seem like ongoing negligence. Steinfels concluded that what Americans supposedly learned from the grand jury report was “grossly misleading, irresponsible, inaccurate and unjust.”

There is something of that in the air at the moment, and over the several issues I hope to sort through some of the key issues, as I have already done in these pages with regard to Church apologies and papal encounters with Indigenous Canadians.

Yet before that, it is important to live this “summer of shame” as a spiritual experience. Shame arises from regret, anger, embarrassment and humiliation. Catholics are likely feeling some combination of all those. It can make one prickly and defensive, feeling set upon or even “persecuted” in the words of Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg, president of the Canadian bishops’ conference.

Archbishop Gagnon’s “persecution” remark earned him considerable criticism. Yet, aside from the public debate, I think that it pointed Catholics in the wrong direction, toward protesting false allegations rather than accepting penance for real injustices.

Truth demands the record be set straight, but where there are injustices the first spiritual response is to do penance. Penance is the proper response to sin, whether it is our sins, the sins of our fellow disciples or simply sin in the world. We need not fear “implicating” ourselves in the sins of others in the body of Christ, for we also “implicate” ourselves in the holiness of the saints and the merits of Christ crucified.

We might take our lead from an extraordinary, extemporaneous homily that Pope Benedict XVI gave in 2010, just after Easter. That Holy Week, a co-ordinated attack upon his record of handling abuse cases was launched by The New York Times, its scurrilous reporter in cahoots with a trial attorney with a financial interest at stake and a disgraced retired archbishop, the morally corrupt Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee. The mendacious case against Benedict quickly collapsed upon rigorous examination of the claims, but not before that unholy trio set off a global firestorm.

Days later, Benedict did not protest his persecution, but rather reflected on the need to do penance — by both the innocent and the guilty.

“Repentance is grace; it is a grace that we recognize our sin; it is a grace that we realize the need for renewal, for change, for the transformation of our being,” Benedict said about penance in general. “Repentance, the capacity to be penitent, is a gift of grace. And I must say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word penitence. It seemed to us too difficult.”

He then addressed penance in the context of scandals which capture widespread attention.

“Now, under the attacks of the world that speaks of our sins, we see that the capacity to repent is a grace,” Benedict said. “And we see that it is necessary to do penance, that is, to recognize what is wrong in our lives, open ourselves to forgiveness, prepare ourselves for pardon by allowing ourselves to be transformed.

“The pain of repentance, of purification and of transformation, this pain is a grace, because it is renewal, it is a work of divine mercy.”

Justice requires that the truth be established. But justice in this world is blunt instrument, however necessary. The Christian logic is that of the Cross, which is partly about justice but mostly about penance, reparation, sacrifice and mercy.

The world now is speaking of our sins. Our first response — which is not the only response — is penance. We begin there, knowing it is a grace. A difficult grace to be sure, but a grace nonetheless.

(Fr. de Souza is the founding editor of Convivium and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)

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