"Don’t worry, Father, no bad priests are going to take me from my Jesus. But I still want to do something ..."
Recently, an older woman approached me after a Mass where I preached about the sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups. She grabbed my hand, starred me in the eyes, and said, “Don’t worry, Father, no bad priests are going to take me from my Jesus.” “Amen,” I thought. But she wasn’t done. After her declaration, she seemed more perplexed. Stilling holding my hand, she asked me, “What can I do now?”
It’s a simple question, but one that has echoed throughout salvation history. A look into the narrative of this question can help us to find a solid answer for our own times. In this process, we might be surprised to find an answer already right in front of us.
After the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon — known to be the dwelling place of God on earth – the Chosen People were taken into captivity. No one could have imagined such a reality. The Temple was razed, the Holy City of Jerusalem ravaged, and the promises of God veiled in shadows. How could the very Temple of God be overtaken? How could the City of David be demolished?
Not sure what to do, in desperation, the Israelites turned to the Prophet Ezekiel and pleaded with him for guidance: “Our offenses and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?” (Ezekiel 33:10)
In our own age, we suffer a similar devastation. How can the very Church of Jesus Christ be plagued by sexual scandals? How can shepherds of God’s people be so negligent? How can these things happen in the Church, which is to be the sacrament – the presence — of God on earth?
As a help to us, what was Ezekiel’s response to God’s people? The Lord calls his people to spiritual conversion, transparency, and moral integrity. As he describes God’s solution, the imagery of a shepherd holds center stage.
In describing a shepherd, certain attributes stand out in the visions of Ezekiel (and throughout salvation history). Attempting to paraphrase and encapsulate these elements, they could be listed as: poverty in spirit, sorrow over evil, meekness, a hunger for holiness, mercy, purity of heart, seeking of peace, and a willingness to suffer for righteousness.
These qualities can be described as archetypal. They are each, and in different ways, upheld and sung throughout the biblical narrative.
The synopsis was given to the human family in its most precise form by the Lord Jesus in the “Beatitudes” of his Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7). In the eight counsels of the Beatitudes, offered by Jesus Christ, believers can find the sure path to happiness, holiness and, yes, true Church reform. In the midst of the scandals and cover-ups, disappointments and outrage of our age, if we are willing to trust – in spite of the darkness — in the living God of our forefathers, and hold fast to the way of holiness that he teaches and modeled for us, then evil will be exposed and goodness will triumph.
This is why the first Beatitude speaks of a poverty of spirit. It is only in approaching God with a true acknowledgement of our profound need for him that we can authentically labor (and suffer) for righteousness. It is this poverty of spirit that leads us to a sorrow over evil (the second Beatitude) and to an appreciation of our true place in his work (the third Beatitude).
These three movements cause a pining within our souls and we begin to hunger and thirst for holiness (the fourth Beatitude). This craving is oftentimes called the intermission, not only because it references food, but because it marks a shift in the focus of the Beatitudes.
After a true thirst for righteousness in born within us, we can now be merciful to our neighbor, pure of heart, and a peacemaker (the fifth, sixth, and seventh Beatitudes).
This fluidity of the Beatitudes displays their inner logic and shows them to be a summary, an expose, of a way of life. They culminate in the eighth Beatitude, which is a willingness to suffer persecution. It is no surprise that only the first and eighth Beatitude specifically address God’s kingdom. The first Beatitude is the doorway, while the eighth is the commission to go and share the dynamic life we have received.
And this beatitudinal way of life, and its summons, stands for all believers. It was the veiled answer to Ezekiel. It’s the answer to the older woman at my parish. It’s my answer.
The Beatitudes are the answer offered to all those who will never allow bad priests to take us away from our Jesus and who desperately want to see the Church credible, consistent, and convincing in its worship of God, the proclamation of the Gospel, and its service to young people and the poor.