By Bob Sullivan
I just had a conversation with a good friend of mine who recently converted to Catholicism. In the course of our conversation, he stated, “I have a lot of friends who are faithful Christians. Given the scandals in the Church right now, how could I recommend they consider converting to Catholicism?”
Good questions are rarely easy to answer. This is a really good question.
As of Aug. 13, we have several priests who have been involved in something which required discipline, or requires further review, or temporarily removed from their parishes pending further investigation. These include the laicized Peter Mitchell, the deceased Msgr. Kalin, Father Townsend, Father Benton, Father Barvick and Father Thomlison. This may seem like a lot but in reality, this represents a very small fraction of the priests who have worked or currently work for the Diocese of Lincoln over the past 50 years. This does nothing to reduce the suffering of anyone harmed, but it does mean that the vast majority of our priests have been, and continue to be, faithful to Christ.
We cannot change the past, and a bishop cannot protect priests from committing sin or getting themselves into inappropriate situations. However, we can all change the future, which is only possible if we are honest about what has happened and what is happening.
Reports must be made, investigations must take place, measures must be taken to protect people and get people the help they need. Names may be cleared as well. Regardless of the outcome, we have been assured of transparency by Bishop Conley. It is clear that he’s making good on this promise. Therefore, while reports are certainly unsettling, I expect our response should be one of faith and virtue.
If there is one characteristic of a saint, which is very similar or identical to that of a Nebraskan, it is fortitude. The average Nebraskan still values hard work in the face of adversity as much or more than the average person nationwide.
We do not have the majesty of mountains, the power of the seas, the skyscrapers, or dense forests of most other states, but we do have sweltering heat in the summer, bitter cold in the winter, and long empty spaces from one part of the state to another. Nebraska is not ugly or boring, but neither is it an easy place to live. Because of this we come to appreciate beauty and excitement that others may not understand.
Ways in which Nebraskans still find beauty and excitement are through our faith, our family, our relationships, and the product of our labors. Nebraskans simply have a lot of grit and determination, which are essential to thriving in this part of the country, as well as enduring difficult things in life, including discouragement with regard to our faith. People everywhere can find joy in these things, but in many other parts of the country, people are losing their ability to appreciate anything but comfort, entertainment, convenience, pleasure, etc....
What does this have to do with the problems we are seeing in our diocese lately? Let’s look at how our statistics compare to those of the national statistics.
We have a higher percentage of people going to Mass each Sunday than most dioceses.
We have a higher percentage of young people pursuing religious vocations per capita than nearly every diocese in the U.S.
We have more priests and religious working in our Catholic schools than other dioceses.
We have families who actually settle in the diocese in order to practice their faith in our parishes, schools and communities.
Because of the faith and work ethic of the average Catholic Nebraskan, we are fully capable of not only keeping our faith through difficult times, we are capable of turning even more to Christ, thereby deepening our faith and trust in God. This did not necessarily happen in other dioceses when the clergy sex abuse scandal came to light in the 1990s and early 2000s. If you visit some parishes in Boston and elsewhere today, you will find threadbare carpet, dusty statues, and peeling paint. Instead of embracing the cross, too many Catholics followed the wrong example of the apostles and abandoned Christ.
The current problems of the Lincoln diocese give us the opportunity—unwanted as it is—to demonstrate, how our Blessed Mother, St. John, and the other women, remained with Christ in his suffering instead of abandoning him out of fear or confusion. When others fled, the faithful remained with Christ in spite of all the doubt and confusion they experienced.
This is similar to what we are facing today, and this has been experienced by the Church over and over again throughout history in the form of corruption, persecution, war, revolution, scandal, and heresy. We are not Catholic because of a priest, a pope, or a feeling. We are Catholic because of Christ and the fact that he founded His Church on Cephas, the Rock. Christ then promised us that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against His Church and sent the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into all truth.
When things are going well, it is easy to be Catholic. However, when difficulties arise, average Catholics become saints. And saints become models for the future of Christianity. It is time for Nebraska’s Catholics to show what we are made of. We have had it very easy. Are we going to abandon Christ because of human error? I don’t see that happening here. If we are the Catholics we have long claimed to be, I expect us to remain with Christ on the Cross, offering all of our struggles, worries, distress, and failures, to Him, for the glory of God. The Holy Spirit will take care of the rest.