November 30, 2018

Evangelization Supplement

Abuse crisis is a moment for the Church to share the Gospel in challenging times

People pray on Sept. 15 in SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis during a “Holy Hour for Prayer, Penance and Healing” for victims of sexual abuse. Three parishes in the Indianapolis North Deanery held listening sessions or a similar holy hour in response to the current clergy sexual abuse crisis. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

People pray on Sept. 15 in SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis during a “Holy Hour for Prayer, Penance and Healing” for victims of sexual abuse. Three parishes in the Indianapolis North Deanery held listening sessions or a similar holy hour in response to the current clergy sexual abuse crisis. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Sean Gallagher

The faithful of the Church are called to proclaim the Gospel at all times.

That can be fairly easy to do when life is going well. But when crosses come our way, sharing the Good News can be more difficult, but no less necessary.

Priests, deacons, religious and laity who reach out to families experiencing tragic deaths or illnesses know this.

It’s also the case with the family of the Church at present in the current clergy sexual abuse crisis.

How do the faithful bring the Gospel into people’s lives, especially other Catholics, in this challenging time for the Church?

Three parishes in the Indianapolis North Deanery sought to do this in recent weeks by holding listening sessions or a holy hour related to the abuse crisis.

Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. Pius X parishes hosted listening sessions attended by several dozen parishioners. Christ the King Parish held a holy hour in which parishioners were invited to offer prayers related to the crisis.

Father James Farrell, pastor of St. Pius X, attended the two listening sessions in his faith community and witnessed the sharp emotions that the crisis has brought about in his parishioners. Their reaction nonetheless encouraged him about their faith.

“The passion and outrage expressed were a testimony to how deeply these people love the Church,” he said, “how much they want the Church to get it right and how anxious and concerned they are that their children and grandchildren have either already walked away from the Church, or now have another reason to walk away from the Church.

“So, in one sense, I was encouraged to see how much these people love the Church.”

Being present to parishioners as they expressed their strong feelings is a necessary part of evangelization in any difficult situation, Father Farrell said.

“If you don’t meet people where they are in suffering, you can’t bring the Gospel to them,” he said. “Prior to evangelization is being with the people wherever they are, whether they’re in pain, suffering, hopelessness, depression, or whether they’re in joy. How do I bring the Gospel to them if I’m not willing to listen to them, hear them out, see what’s going on in their lives?”

Father Todd Riebe, pastor of Christ the King Parish, did this at a personal level with several parishioners who were angry with Church leaders about the abuse crisis.

One of them was Chris Herschfeld. He said learning of the decades-long instances of abuse reported by a Pennsylvania grand jury in August “hit me right at the core.”

Hirschfeld was angered by the actions of priest abusers, of Church leaders who mishandled abuse claims, and even how allegations of abuse have been handled at times in the archdiocese.

Father Riebe met with Hirschfeld personally and invited him to participate in the holy hour at Christ the King. He did, and he offered a prayer.

“I expressed that I’m angry about the volume of the incidents, and how they’ve been handled,” Hirschfeld said. “But I first prayed for the victims, the healing of the Church and the honorable priests who probably lack support right now given what’s going on.”

Although Father Riebe has been in contact with people who are distancing themselves from the Church in response to the crisis, most of those he has spoken with continue to practice their faith, even in the midst of the difficult feelings this challenging time has caused.

“The experience has taught me how resilient Catholics are,” Father Riebe said. “In spite of the failings of priests and bishops, their faith and love for the Church is strong.”

Sharing the Gospel in difficult times can be challenging even for priests who have been ordained for decades. This was the case for Father Robert Sims, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish. He had mixed feelings in the time leading up to the listening session held in his faith community.

“Frankly, there was a part of me that didn’t want to do it,” Father Sims said. “But I felt that it really was important for people to have a venue in which they could validate their feelings. Before you can heal, you have to get those feelings out. I think there was a benefit for people to get those feelings out and look at them.

“I’m not saying that we can move on after the feelings were explained. But it was step on the road to healing, to get the feelings out.”

Like people who experience a tragedy in their lives who ask questions of a priest about what it all means, some of the people who attended the listening session at Immaculate Heart asked Father Sims about his thoughts regarding the abuse crisis.

Joe Klein, a member of the parish who attended the session, came away satisfied with his pastor’s honest responses.

“He didn’t try to sway us,” Klein said. “He was direct in answering questions to the best of his ability. I think we walked away thinking that our pastor has the same feelings we do, and that he doesn’t have the answers. I’m not sure who has the answers. It’s hurting him as badly as anyone who was in that room.”

Father Riebe said simply offering a caring, listening presence is at the heart of sharing the Gospel with people in difficult personal circumstances, as well as during this challenging time in the Church.

“Give people the chance to vent, to express their disappointment, frustration and hurts,” Father Riebe said. “The fact that someone from the Church says very little but instead listens to their hurt is probably the most healing thing we can do.” †

 

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