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The voice of an anguished dad in a Catholic pew

Saturday, August 25, 2018

It wasn’t a normal Sunday in Catholic pulpits across America, as priests faced flocks touched by sorrow and rage after the release of a sickening grand jury report packed with X-rated details about decades of sexual abuse by clergy.

At St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Decatur, Ga., Father Mark Horak said he half expected empty pews, but was thankful the faithful came to Mass. He openly addressed the crisis and urged the laity to speak out.

“We should not be afraid to demand, of our leadership, fundamental reform,” he said, wrapping up his homily, which was posted online. “Don’t be afraid to demand it. But do it with love. Maybe with some anger mixed in – but do it with love. Please.”

But something extraordinary happened in another Mass that day, according to a wrenching series of Twitter posts by Susan B. Reynolds. Reynolds is a Catholic studies professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. One of her research topics: religious rites in the context of suffering.

Reynolds posted about something that happened at the Mass she attended Sunday. After a sermon similar to Horak’s, with the same appeal for the laity to act, “a dad stood up,” she wrote.

“‘HOW?’ he pleaded. ‘TELL US HOW.’ His voice was shaking and determined and terrified. His collared shirt was matted to his back with sweat,” wrote Reynolds. “Jaws dropped. My eyes filled with tears. ... This is a big, middle-of-the-road parish in a wealthyish Southeast college town. In such contexts, it’s hard to imagine a more subversive act than doing what that dad just did.”

One parishioner muttered, “Sit down.” But the priest listened, and this unusual dialogue continued.

“I have a son,” said the dad. “He’s going to make his first communion. What am I supposed to tell him?”

The posts by Reynolds exploded on social media on a day when many Catholics were posting commentaries on what their priests did, or didn’t, say on the Sunday after the Pennsylvania grand jury report.

Many Catholics were pleased that priests were candid and frustrated. Others were disappointed to hear bureaucratic “PR talk.” Some were furious that all they heard was –to use one common image – “crickets.”

The wave of online reactions to “a simple plea by an angry dad” showed the depth of the pain many Catholics are feeling, said Reynolds, reached by phone. She received notes from friends about similar confrontations – in Mass or afterward – in other parts of the country.

In addition to her academic work, she said, “I am a mother and a Catholic. I am both of those things. I am a lifelong Catholic and this is what I do. ... This dad had the courage to stand up and speak for all of us.”

The drama continued the following day, when Pope Francis released a letter to the “People of God” about the grand jury report.

“The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced. But their outcry was more powerful than all the measures meant to silence it, or sought even to resolve it by decisions that increased its gravity by falling into complicity,” he wrote.

“The Lord heard that cry and once again showed us on which side he stands. ... If, in the past, the response was one of omission, today we want solidarity, in the deepest and most challenging sense, to become our way of forging present and future history.”

The pope’s letter – after a painful silence – declined to commit the church establishment to specific reforms or pledge that bishops and cardinals who hid crimes would suffer consequences, including being removed from ministry. The pope didn’t name names or announce any resignations. He pledged that the church would repent, without saying how this would happen.

People in the pews, said Reynolds, are listening and watching to see what their leaders are willing to do. Some are fed up. Some are ready to take action. Something needs to happen.

“Even the most faltering attempt to speak or to act is better than nothing, in a situation like this,” she said. “Silence is not where you begin, with something this painful. Silence is what kills. Silence followed by more silence will be profoundly wounding.”

Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City.

2018 Andrews McMeel Syndication