Mary as a model of response to injustice in the Church

Today is the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. In the Gospel, Jesus emphasizes that those who are blessed are those who hear God’s word and listen to it. Mary is not only honored because her body bore Christ but also rather for the wholeness of her personhood (body and soul) and especially her capacity to listen for God’s word and to  respond freely. Readings for the Vigil Mass

Right now there is pain in the Catholic Church, especially with the documents being released in Pennsylvania. I imagine this is only the beginning of a longer timeline that we are going to see unfold about the culture of the institutional church.

The release of these documents is difficult insofar as we rightly feel pain and anger over what our brothers and sisters in Christ have suffered. Their release is also a positive first step insofar as we are seeing transparency instead of secrecy, openness instead of communication taking place behind the closed doors of bishops, who shut out the laity and ignored the “cries of the poor.”

The Gospel reading is relevant to us today because it emphasizes that the Church is about listening to the word of God and acting on it—as Jesus did. Jesus healed. Jesus shut out nobody. Jesus constantly questioned religious authority in his day and even actively broke conventional laws rather than obey them when God’s call pointed him in a different direction (e.g., healing on the sabbath, picking grain on the sabbath, eating with sinners, ministering to Samaritans). Jesus communicated openly and transparently, even when it meant that people wanted to throw him off a cliff for it (Luke 4:29), because it was so important to “set captives free” (Luke 4:18).

The bishops and church leadership who covered up these atrocious, traumatizing actions against children and adolescents probably fall into two camps: those who were complicit in the atrocities themselves (probably a small number) and those who wanted to protect the institution of the church against “scandal” or who obediently followed old internal church judicial mechanisms (probably a much bigger number). These mechanisms hurt people in addition to the original trauma that they suffered from the abuse. The Church continues to have a leadership that distinguishes between “insiders” and “outsiders”–those who decide and those who are asked to trust and to obey those who decide. We now know that such trust is not warranted and that it is not only the individuals within the structure but the very judicial structure itself that is the problem. When we compare the structures of response to complaints against priests to structures in place in many Protestant churches, we find far more secrecy, clericalism, and injustice than in more transparent and lay inclusive models.*

Mary provides us with a model of how to respond as Catholics. First, her very being as an ordinary young Jewish woman–not a religious official or priestess or privileged person–is significant. Images of Mary such as Our Lady of Guadalupe remind us that Mary is of the people. God became incarnate in cooperation with a holy but not an institutionally privileged woman. Historically, God likes to choose to be with, to act in and with, poor and ordinary folks–even King David was chosen as the shepherd boy, forgotten in the fields because no one thought he could be consequential.

Second, Mary listens to God and acts according to God’s invitation, even when that invitation seemed countercultural—as surely the assent to bear Jesus was. We (both the laity and priests and religious who don’t feel themselves to possess any particular kind of power) need to listen carefully as to what God desires for us to do, and then to respond. Even if it goes against the culture of the Church with all its capital Cs.

Third, Mary pondered what it meant when she was told that a “sword” would pierce her heart because of what would happen to her son. We also suffer because those who suffered sexual abuse are our “sons and daughters” in the family of the Church as well. We are going to have to ponder and turn over in our hearts how to respond.

Last, Mary stands openly at the foot of the Cross when others like Peter run away in fear. Her standing nearby reflects her willingness to be close to suffering rather than to flee. It is easy to think about just leaving the Church or abandoning relationship but this does nothing to address the wounds or their entrenched causes. Mary also acts transparently and openly, not secretively. We also need to follow her example of staying with what is difficult and addressing it with open, transparent, authentic communication.