An Example for the Church
“I cannot let my selfishness stand in the way of your whole well-being.”
I wasn’t very far into a series of letters shared with me from a birth mother to her son, when this sentence jumped off the page. This was a mother who knew she couldn’t give her unborn son what he needed and made what really is the ultimate sacrifice for a parent — giving up her child for adoption. For the rest of her life, this birth mother will live with an ache for the child she gave up. But she will also live as a model of love — the kind puts another’s happiness before your own.
“It no longer matters what your father and I want, but what we should do so that you have the best opportunities in this life,” she wrote in a letter just one month before her son was born.
I was thinking of these letters in the wake of reading through the grand jury report about allegations against Catholic priests in Pennsylvania dioceses. Most of them involved incidents decades ago, but the rot and the leadership crisis continues. I was watching the anger, betrayal and disgust that people were feeling all around reading the headlines and the words of the victims. I was thinking of the birth mother’s letters in part because of a prayer I recently heard in church. Namely: “Almighty ever-living God, whom, taught by the Holy Spirit, we dare to call our Father, bring, we pray, to perfection in our hearts the spirit of adoption as your sons and daughters, that we may merit to enter into the inheritance which you have promised.”
Christians believe themselves to be adopted sons and daughters of God. He’s a good and generous God, who gives us so much more than we could ever deserve or earn on our own. Christians believe that our lives in this world are gifts that we should use to lovingly serve God.
This birth mother whose letters I was blessed to read is a Catholic. Again, just before her son was born, she wrote: “I often stop in a chapel dedicated to our Lady of Providence to say a prayer that I will make the right decision concerning this new life that I will soon be bringing into the world. In the front, there is beautiful statue of Mary holding the child Jesus (who is reaching out to her). In the back of the church is a statue of the Pieta. It seems like there is so much contrast between the two. Yet some joy can be found in the suffering that Mary went through. I think of all the suffering that I have gone through, and that which is still to come when I must say goodbye to you — It seems so great.”
In another letter written after her son’s birth, she explains “I have thought about you every waking moment.”
She began her first letter with “My Most Precious Child.”
In the Catholic Church, we call priests “Father.” We believe that priests have devoted their lives to God, to act as a representative and exemplar of Christ. It’s not Father So-and-So you go to for Confession, it’s Christ who hears it through his ministry. And so, a priest is expected to gaze into the eyes of the faithful as God would, as those children He so loves. When a child is harmed in the most intimate and heinous ways by a priest, it is an incestuous evil. In the case of the man formally known as Cardinal McCarrick, he allegedly preyed on the first child who was ever baptized by his hand. And that does not even begin to touch on the despicable sacrileges described in the grand jury report.
There are no words that can make that better. There is no reform platform that will heal such wounds. It will take a lot of rigorous sacrifice. The Church is meant to be a loving mother. I cried going through the grand-jury report. Bishops are going to have to adopt the same kind of heroic sacrifice of the birth mother who gave up her son so he could have a better life. For the love of God and children. Nothing less — and there are miles to go — will even begin to restore any semblance of trust and credibility.
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