An Irish woman made headlines last week when, as the first clergy-abuse victim ever to address a Vatican conference, she expressed hope that the Church might “become a leader in child protection.”
Speaking to a reporter prior to addressing the “Towards Healing and Renewal” symposium at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, Marie Collins said, “If the Catholic Church can become a leader in child protection, in the world, then it would be a start towards this terrible evil being controlled.”
With those words, Collins revealed what is truly at stake in responding to the abuse crisis. The sins committed against children in the Church represent the intrusion of a wider culture in which the dignity of the human person is routinely violated. Healing the Church is the necessary precursor to healing the culture. Developing an authentically Catholic pastoral approach to healing from abuse is the missing piece of the Church’s efforts to spread the gospel of life.
In the United States alone, an estimated one in four women and one in six men were sexually abused as children. The overwhelming majority of such abuse is perpetrated in private residences—the child’s own home, or the home of a family friend or neighbor.
Although Collins urges bishops to continue working towards “acknowledgment and accountability,” she also recommends the Church do something more for victims of childhood sexual abuse—something she believes is currently not being done at all.
“There is no spiritual help out there specifically, as far as I know, aimed at survivors who want to return to the Church, and I think maybe there should be,” Collins says.
By “survivors who want to return,” Collins is speaking of clergy-abuse victims who have become alienated from the Church. The need for spiritual help, however, is common to all Catholic adults who seek healing from the wounds of childhood sexual abuse. Nothing so makes a person doubt divine providence as a profoundly damaging experience of evil at a young age.
Dioceses in the United States have historically recognized their mission to help needy Catholics find health care, including mental health care, referring them to Catholic Charities and other organizations. Helping abuse victims get psychological aid has become a particular priority since the U.S. bishops in 2005 approved the “Charter for the Protection of Young People.” Conspicuously lacking, however, is an organized spiritual outreach—one that does not merely refer victims to therapists, but helps them, by means of the liturgical life, to discover God’s abiding love for them.
What would such spiritual help look like? The observations made at another Vatican conference, held two weeks before “Towards Healing and Renewal,” offer a clue. At the Pontifical Theological Academy’s forum on Christology in light of the Second Vatican Council, Monsignor Nicola Ciola of the Pontifical Lateran University spoke of the need to bring the faithful a fuller account of Christian hope. One way to facilitate such hope, he added, would be to develop the divine science known as the “theology of saints.”
Ciola is not the only person at the Vatican to note that hope may be fostered through studying the lives of those who have attained the substance of things hoped for. Pope Benedict XVI has long been taken with the theology of saints, and has highlighted their witness as a means of confronting the “crisis of hope.”
As early as 1964, Benedict (as Cardinal Ratzinger) wrote that such elements of the Canon of the Mass as the “remembrance of the sublime multitude of the saints” were not “not mere ornaments.” Rather, as he wrote in the first volume of the Consilium series, they were “the intrinsically necessary expression” of the Eucharistic action uniting Christ’s Mystical Body in the pews through His True Body on the altar. Just as recognizing Christ in the Eucharist helps us to recognize Him in our brethren, so too does recognizing Him in his holy ones help us to recognize Him in the Eucharist and in all the communion of saints.
In his writings and talks as pope, Benedict has built upon this same liturgical understanding of the theology of saints. He devoted a two-year series of Wednesday catechesis on the saints, so that he might show how “our companionship with the saints joins us to Christ, from whom as from their fountain and head issue every grace and the life of the People of God itself” (Lumen Gentium 50, quoted by Benedict in his final saints catechesis). Most importantly for victims of childhood sexual abuse, and all who have been wounded by the sins of others, he has gone to great effort to show how the theology of saints leads into the healing truths of the theology of suffering.
Aristotle wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics that the question of whether an individual man possesses happiness cannot be determined by the individual’s state at a given moment, but only by the outcome of his complete life—from birth to death. When we study the lives of the saints, each saint’s life is visible to us in all its perfection, as a complete story. Their sufferings take on profound meaning because we know how their stories end—in the union of each saint with Christus passus, the Christ who suffered. Through their lives, we discover how our own lives are likewise “linked with the paschal mystery and patterned on the dying Christ” (Gaudium et Spes 22).
Pope Benedict, speaking of how the Church should address the suffering caused by clergy abuse, emphasizes the need to promote “hope born of God’s love and fidelity”; such hope brings us “the vision of a world reconciled and renewed in Christ Jesus, our Savior.” To make that vision present, he often draws from the saints’ experiences, most powerfully in his encyclical Spe Salvi, “Saved in Hope,” where he writes, “The saints were able to make the great journey of human existence in the way that Christ had done before them, because they were brimming with great hope.”
Benedict in Spe Salvi focuses upon St. Josephine Bakhita (1869-1947) as a saint of our time who can “help us understand what it means to have a real encounter with this God for the first time.” His selection of Bakhita as a model is significant. The story of the Sudanese-born woman, who was kidnapped as a child, sold into slavery, and forced to undergo brutal “tattoos” that left her with 144 scars, resonates deeply with victims of childhood sexual abuse.
But the greatest sufferings of abuse victims are not physical, nor even psychological. They are spiritual, and it is Bakhita’s spiritual journey that the Holy Father brings to the fore.
The trauma of Bakhita’s kidnapping was so great that, upon being ordered by her captors to call herself by the slave name “Bakhita,” she forgot her own name, the one her parents gave her. Her experience of loss of identity, and with it the loss of an understanding of her human dignity, represents beyond all else the spiritual crisis of the abused child. The process of healing for all of us begins, as it did for Bakhita, with finding our identity in Christ.
Benedict describes the interior experience of Bakhita when, after being purchased by an Italian master who brought her to Venice, she first began to learn about the love of God:
“Here, after the terrifying ‘masters’ who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of ‘master’—in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name ‘paron’ for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a ‘paron’ above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme ‘Paron,’ before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited” (Spe Salvi 39).
Although Bakhita ultimately gained her freedom and became a Canossian Sister, the Holy Father stresses that her true liberty began with her hope in Christ: “Through the knowledge of this hope she was ‘redeemed,’ no longer a slave, but a free child of God.”
There is a slavery of external chains, and there is a slavery of the heart. Many victims of childhood sexual abuse, long after the threat is gone, remain shackled by the weight of resentment. Benedict, speaking in his current series of Wednesday catechesis on prayer, observes that man needs to be saved from the sorrow and bitterness that cause him to forsake God. For this liberation to take effect, “transformation from within is necessary, some foothold of goodness, a beginning from which to start out in order to change evil into good, hatred into love, revenge into forgiveness.”
The theology of saints helps those who have suffered childhood sexual abuse find that “foothold of goodness” through the witness of those who, after experiencing the deepest sorrows, were yet able to turn their eyes toward heaven and be saved.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.