I have received numerous e-mails or phone calls from parishioners who have been concerned about the child sexual abuse scandal. The concern is on multiple levels – for the abused, for the faith of God’s people, and also for me. I received numerous e-mails and messages enquiring about my well-being. Thank you for all this. I would be lying to you if I said that I am not struggling. I am more than struggling. I feel despondent, discouraged, and overwhelmed. The question I am asking myself is – what now? I joined the seminary when I was 17 years old. I am fifty-two years old now. The Church is all I have known. I have loved the Church like a man would love his family. Intentionally, consciously, and even aware of her imperfections, I have given my life to the Church. What now? What does my priesthood mean now? I am wondering if you are asking yourself, “What does my Catholicism mean now?”
Often in times like these, I turn to the Scriptures for help. This time around, it is as if the Scriptures sought me out. This weekend’s readings (http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/090218.cfm - Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; & Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23), offer me very clear answers. They remind me of the true meaning of religion. Perhaps, you too are struggling, and may be this reflection might help.
Why Religion? Religion in its most basic role, regulates the divine-human relationship. Religion primarily is about God’s relationship with the community and vice-versa. Religion also regulates the relationships of the members within the community and the relationship of community with other religions. Laws, decrees and statutes become important because they guide the community’s actions both spiritual and temporal. From the Christian perspective, religion is God’s initiative. It was God who created the world and human beings. It was God who revealed God’s self to us. At least, this is how Moses understood religion and faith. In today’s first reading Moses tried to impress upon the people that religion, the Covenant, the laws, statues and decrees that Israel came to know, were a gift from God. The statues and decrees that God gave the people was a sign of God’s care, and of God’s steadfast love and fidelity. Religion was not to be perceived as a burden, but rather as an opportunity and an invitation to participate in the divine life. We Christians go one step further. We believe that God’s love and care far exceeds God’s laws and decrees. We believe that God gave us not just a religion, but that God gave us, Jesus! We believe that Jesus gave us more than just a new religion. Jesus gave us his own body and blood. All these things are God’s gifts to us. Today, let us be grateful to God for the gift of faith and for God’s self-gift to us.
What Goes Wrong with Religion? Many things can go wrong with religion. Religion, which is meant to set people free, can become oppressive. Historically, we have seen this play out in society over the millennia. Jesus himself was a victim of oppressive religion. He deals with it in today’s gospel reading. He called the Pharisees, “hypocrites,” because they disregarded God’s commandments and clung on the human tradition. Religion becomes oppressive when those who stand to gain from it, use it to suppress people. The child abuse scandal and it’s cover up was and is an abuse of power by those in whom such power is invested. Historically, religion has been used to suppress women, to suppress human freedoms, to justify slavery, and racism. Religion was been used to further the colonial agenda. Wars have been fought in God’s name. This does not mean that religion has had no positive role in society. Historically, religion has also brought about a new awareness of the dignity of every human person. Religion was instrumental in the movements that championed women’s right, civil liberty, and these days is becoming instrumental in creating a safe-environment for children. Religion empowers people. Religion has given rise to heroes in the Church such as Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Maximillian Kolbe, Mother Teresa, and Archbishop Oscar Romero. Religion is our sure guide to eternity. As believers who have come into a Catholic Church in spite of the recent scandal, we must be aware of this one simple fact – the problem is not our religion or our faith; the problem is what some people make out of it. We must hear Jesus saying to us in today’s gospel reading, "Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. "From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile" (Mt 7:21-23).
What is True Religion? As you see, I am still left with the question, “What now?” I am taking my cue from St. James. In today’s second reading, he says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas 1:27). James refers to the orphans and widows because they were the most helpless in the society of his times. These days, as a priest, I am reaching some very strong convictions. I am convinced, that only two things matter – that I love God with all my heart, mind, soul and strength; and that I care for today’s orphans and widows, whoever they might be. Yes, there are many laws and traditions that I must follow. However, if these laws and traditions do not help me to love God more deeply and serve the poor, the powerless, the oppressed, the helpless, the lonely, the grieving, those on the periphery, then, I am wasting my time. I have decided, that I staying to Jesus in the gospels. I am not saying that I succeed all the time, but, my only goal in life is to think like Jesus, talk like Jesus, and act like Jesus. Everything else is secondary.
Fr. Satish Joseph