A blog by Rolf Wagner, April 6, 2019
Last Sunday, our church conducted a townhall meeting with our Auxiliary Bishop. He was seated in front of us answering our questions regarding the ongoing scandal, and I could tell he was deeply pained. Seated next to him were our 2 senior pastors and a priest/professor who heads the Department of Worship and Liturgy at the archdiocesan seminary. The meeting carried on for several hours as they were drilled with questions by the ~200 people assembled there. At one point I stood up and addressed the seated committee relaying how the current scandal affected me personally, how this was different from 2002, and that an emotional tectonic shift had taken place deep within me. I told them that if I asked any of them if they had ever broken their vow of celibacy, I couldn’t be certain as to the truthfulness of their answer. They had betrayed the laity’s trust in them. Bishop Rojas nodded knowingly, as did the other priests. I detected no defensiveness at all. They understood. Yet I still have my doubts.
As I was driving to work early on Monday, I was reflecting on why I was so angry when the McCarrick scandal and all of its associated fallout descended upon us over the last few months. There were multiple reasons, but the one I’d like to mention this week is, embarrassment. I was, and still am, proud of being a Catholic Christian, connected by tradition/history to the apostles via the sacrament of our valid holy orders. That magnificent connection is loaded with profound implications for us, and for our Christian brethren who don’t have their clergy validly rooted to the apostolic lineage. And yet . . . to see validly ordained bishops behaving as sexual predators protecting, nourishing and secretly promoting evil, essentially willing to sell their birthright just like Esau, sends a message of how little value they placed on protecting that spiritual inheritance. I was embarrassed by their behavior, I was embarrassed to be associated with them. I wondered if others view me as somehow stained by this scandal because I chose to become Catholic. What a fool I must seem to my protestant family and friends, to say nothing of my agnostic/atheist friends.
Then I was reminded of Mary, a young teenager barely out of puberty, engaged to a much older man . . . who became pregnant prior to their marriage. They lived in a small intimate town where all knew everyone else’s business. I wonder what the neighbors thought, or even Joseph’s and Mary’s extended family? Tongues, they were awaggin’. Scandalon (σκανδαλον). It is a Greek word used in the New Testament which is “a snare for an enemy, a cause of moral stumbling, an obstacle over which people trip and fall”. The child she was carrying was a social Scandalon. Mary was a Scandalon . . . Joseph, an older man that apparently was not able to control himself, became a Scandalon. And it was all God’s fault. Innocent people were accused of heinous, sinful, socially unacceptable behavior.
The priest who teaches at the Mundelein seminary, came back to my comments a few minutes later that Sunday. He affirmed and acknowledged my grief and sadness at losing trust in my shepherds. He also said, that he feels it doubly because he knows that people don’t trust him, not because he is guilty, but simply because he is Catholic clergy. Guilt by association.
And then there are the victims, bearing the weight of the brutality wrought by our Catholic priests and bishops. I cannot imagine the extent of their pain, confusion and sense of betrayal, which so often leads to a devastated life, including addiction, fractured relationships and even suicide. Scandalon.
Redemption, it is still possible for all of us. It is because Jesus understood what being a scandal was all about . . . in the midst of being the ultimate innocent victim. As impossible as it seems, he uses this very characteristic in our own salvation. Him becoming a Scandalon for us gets turned around. We must be humbled by stumbling over him . . . in so very many ways (Is 8:12-15, 1 Peter 2:4-8). A popular 1980s song by Michael Card describes this much better than I can.
The seers and the prophets had foretold it long ago
That the long awaited one would make men stumble
But they were looking for a king to conquer and to kill
Who’d have ever thought He’d be so weak and humble
He will be the truth that will offend them one and all
A stone that makes men stumble
And a rock that makes them fall
Many will be broken so that He can make them whole
And many will be crushed and lose their own soul
Along the path of life there lies a stubborn Scandalon
And all who come this way must be offended
To some He is a barrier, to others He’s the way
For all should know the scandal of believing
It seems today the Scandalon offends no one at all
The image we present can be stepped over
Could it be that we are like the others long ago
Will we ever learn that all who come must stumble
I now see that the faithful laity and those in the clergy/hierarchy that are truly innocent of this scandal, can now identify more fully with Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Because we are His Body, the collective anguish we are experiencing as the result of the betrayals of Judas, is now causing us to stumble, to get on our knees and crawl through the narrow gate of humility. While evil is never God’s choice for anyone, He can nevertheless redeem the circumstances of these times for good, if we cooperate with Him. I’m wondering if instead of spending so much time and energy in accusation, that the future of our healing, redemption and resurrection of the Church will only happen if we are willing to be humbled, to die to ourselves and become a Scandalon as well . . . all while still fighting the good fight.
For similar content and to receive our newsletter, sign up at: https://stjosephsbattalion.com
Rolf Wagner is Chief Prefect of the Congregation of Pew Heating at his local parish. He holds a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from The University of Texas at Austin. Rolf and his wife Barbara have one son and have been married for 39 years. He enjoys sailing and scuba diving in his free time, of which there is precious little.