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Father Michael Schmitz: What to make of the crisis in the church?

Father, what do you make of what is in the news about the church and scandal?

First, it cannot go without saying that the grand jury report that came out of Pennsylvania is the most horrific and vile thing I have ever read. What priests did to innocent children is beyond shocking. It is absolutely incomprehensible. The further cover-ups and compromises are without excuse. This news is literally the most evil I have ever heard of. Full stop. There is nothing more to be said on that, except that there is a need for the church to do everything possible to care for victims and to be purged of all forms of evil.

Father Mike Schmitz
Father Michael Schmitz
Ask Father Mike

But when there is any kind of issue happening, my initial thought is often to try and make sense of it. Or to try and find the cause for it and then to provide some way an individual or a group might be able to move forward.

I don’t think that I will do that here.

This is a massive turning point in the history of the church. The insane levels of pure evil, along with the foolish, cowardly, and weak response to this evil by members of our leadership, are simply staggering. Even with the reforms of 2002, it sounds like there hasn’t been the thorough cleansing the church has needed. I have no idea where this crisis will lead us, but it is almost entirely unprecedented.

Almost. But not entirely.

We have to note that the Catholic Church in the United States has implemented more rules and regulations to cut down on possible abuse than any other organization. If you have volunteered in your parish, you know that you are to never ever be alone with a minor. This is true for every member of the clergy all the way to a one-time volunteer. I believe that this has helped keep our children safe.

But rules and regulations are not what God has called for. He has been calling for a revolution of sorts. He has been calling for repentance. A top to bottom, front to back, inside out revolution of the heart, mind, and action. And we have not responded. Therefore, God has done what he consistently does with his faithless people: He has allowed their enemies to defeat them.

Remember the story of the Chosen People of God, the Jewish people. Even though God had brought them into covenant relationship with him, they would go through periods where they were unfaithful to that relationship. God would send them prophets, God would give them time, God would provide opportunity for repentance. But if they didn’t truly turn back to him, in his mercy, God would provide a more difficult “opportunity for repentance”: He would allow their enemies to defeat them. This happened with the Assyrians. It happened with the Babylonians. It happened with the Greeks. And this defeat would reveal their need for God and their betrayal of him.

God did this to win them back.

I wonder if God is doing this now, as well. The call to belong fully to Christ has never been more clear. God has sent us prophets and has given us ample time to “clean house,” but we have merely arranged and re-arranged the furniture. So God has allowed our “enemies” to defeat us.

Now, obviously, the media and the government are not our “enemies,” but they are not our friends. More accurately, they are not “with us.” They are not “among our number.” And they have done what we were unwilling or unable to do: They have exposed the sickness that has been allowed to reside in Christ’s church. I have nothing but gratitude for those who have exposed this evil. They have done the work that God had called us to do. And now it is no longer hidden. And now there is a moment of truth.

What will you do? God has done this to win back your heart and my heart. He has done this so that his people might be protected and purified. What will we do?

We must either fully repent or be lost forever. I am not merely referring to the clergy, although we are no doubt included. The prophet Ezekiel wrote, “Woe to the shepherds who do not pasture my sheep …. Therefore … I swear I am coming against these shepherds. I will claim my sheep from them and put a stop to their shepherding my sheep so that they may no longer pasture themselves. I will save my sheep …” (Ezekiel 34:10). Priests and bishops, as shepherds, must be the first to be stripped and purified. We (and I mean myself as well) must pick up the tools of penance, fasting, mortifications, prayer, and a life renewed in Christ.

But this is going to be the work of your life as well. Your life, for the rest of your lives and your children’s lives, will have to be marked with the same spirit of conversion and repentance.

Of course, none of us want this. We would rather be able to be “normal” Catholics in “normal” times. But this is not our choice to make. You and I have been created individually by God himself for this time and for this place. He has created your children for this work: the work of renewing the Body of Christ through conversion and repentance.

You likely did little (if anything) to contribute to this crisis. But we also did little to stop it through our own prayers, penances, and actions of justice and courage. Therefore, now is the time. This is the place. And repentance is the work. Brothers and sisters, I am asking you to be bold and be courageous in turning to the Lord with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength. The Lord has allowed the evil to be seen. Now is the time for the evil to be purged: in the hierarchy, the clergy, the family, and in your life and mine.

Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.