SK Christiaan van Nispen, DD, PGK, FS
Christiaan is a second-year student in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences at GW
In the past month, Catholics have been horrified to learn about grievous sexual misconduct and assault committed by Theodore McCarrick, who, as Archbishop of Washington, was among the most prominent of American prelates. Then, an extensive Pennsylvania Attorney General report laid out detailed and disturbing accusations of sexual misconduct perpetrated by over 300 Pennsylvania priests, predominately committed prior to 1990, with some cases occurring since then. Equally horrible, it details attempts by some Pennsylvania prelates as well as the Vatican itself to suppress the news and shelter these priests, whose conduct was not only sinful, but also downright evil and exemplifies the very worst of human nature. It bears mentioning that the report references the current Archbishop of Washington, Donald Cardinal Wuerl, some of whose actions as Bishop of Pittsburgh (1988-2006) have been called into question. This expansion of the defining scandal of the modern Catholic Church to the highest levels of its hierarchy has filled the faithful and all decent people with incredulity and an unyielding anger. It has compromised the Church’s reputation and undermines its otherwise strong stand in defense of human dignity.
Catholics resoundingly wish to take action to atone for the sins of our shepherds, but do not know how to do so, especially given the extensive scope of this scandal. When a scandal involves the heights of our Catholic leadership, a single individual might feel unable to effect needed change. In recent weeks I have found myself sharing in this sentiment, but refuse to accept it. As a local leader in the Knights of Columbus, the largest organization of Catholic men in the United States described by Pope Saint John Paul II as “the strong right arm of the Church,” I hope to provide some suggestions that all Catholics can take in order to right our Church’s ship.
John Paul II reminds us in Christifideles Laici that “through faith and sacraments of Christian initiation,” members of the laity are “made like to Jesus Christ, [are] incorporated [as living members] in the Church, and [have] an active part in her mission of salvation.” In times such as these, it is not a surprise that many Catholics, weary of scandal, might think to leave their pews and head for the exits. But to accomplish its saving mission, the Church needs a strong laity now more than ever. The Knights, through its pre-existing programs and brotherhood are in a strong position to lead this effort at the grassroots level—our individual council—to step into the breach created by sexually abusive priests and bishops. But what exactly does that look like?
First and foremost, we must support our current priests, the vast majority of whom have stayed true to our Savior. Lost in this decades-long saga are the thousands of men who have answered the call to the priesthood of Jesus Christ despite the scandal, with the express desire of restoring the moral authority of the Church and regaining the trust of its faithful. They are full of energy and a sense of urgency, inspired by Pope Francis’ call that the Church serve as a field hospital, healing the wounded and reinvigorating Catholics everywhere. I think of Knights in GW’s council that I know personally, such as Father Conrad and Deacon Michael who in their own ways are ecclesiastic heroes, deciding to enter seminary and preach the Good News despite the backdrop of these horrible events. They and thousands of seminarians and priests like them are a counterforce to all that is evil and indeed will play a role in renewing the Church. I am proud that GW’s council has supported men studying for the priesthood not only spiritually but also financially through the Knights’ Refund Support Vocations Program. Councils not participating ought to consider joining their brothers in this crucial initiative. Furthermore, as individual men we must help build respect for the priesthood and encourage fellow Knights, family members, and perhaps even ourselves to consider the call to priesthood and religious life. There has never been a more urgent need for strong, principled Catholics to pursue a religious vocation.
More so than ever before, we must also support each other in the practice of our faith to be the holy men that we ought to be. I made a passing allusion to stepping Into the Breach. In fact, this is the title of an apostolic exhortation by Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix, Arizona. It implores modern men to hear the call to holiness as one might hear a battle cry. As part of answering this call, he urges men to aid each other through Christ-centered friendships:
"Therefore, men, ask yourself: what are your friends like? Do you have friends with whom you share the mission of holiness? Often young men will go to the seminary and discover the difference made by Christ-centered friendships, and their lives are transformed. This friendship is not limited to religious orders and priests. The renewal of masculinity cannot happen without banding together as brothers and true friends."
Heeding his words, we must band together as brother Knights if we are to grow spiritually in an environment—college—that is so often hostile to spiritual development. This occurs daily when we lead our brother Knights away from sinfulness and form each other through mutual encouragement to become virtuous adult men who will raise holy families and build the Domestic Church or pursue a religious vocation. Bishop Olmstead offers some practical suggestions: pray and examine your conscience daily, go to Mass as often as possible, read the Bible, keep the Sabbath, go to confession, and build fraternity with other Catholic men. Of course, we should particularly pray at this time for the countless victims of this abuse. They suffer not only from the crime itself but also from the painful revelations that Church officials in positions of authority so often failed them. We must pray for their healing, that justice will be rendered, and for atonement for our Church’s failures.
Finally, we must continue our charitable activities, bringing the love of Jesus to the downtrodden. The Supreme Council encourages us to take up the Helping Hands program, which involves partnering with a worthy nonprofit in its charitable mission. This is not to mention Coats for Kids, support for the Special Olympics, Food for Families, the Ultrasound Initiative, Habitat for Humanity, and the Global Wheelchair Mission. These are the programs especially championed in Knights councils, but there is no limit to the ways in which we can help those in need. And while it should never be the sole reason for performing charitable deeds, it demonstrates to the greater society that the silent majority of Catholics, moved by their faith, place emphasis on love for our fellow man and support the dignity of all people.
Before concluding, let us listen to the Lord’s reassuring words in Jeremiah 23:1-6. It is as though He is speaking to us in no uncertain terms about this very scandal:
"Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord."
May we, the remnants of the Lord’s flock, aid Him to purge the Church of the scourge of sin and evangelize people everywhere through our actions, displaying to a watchful world the light which Jesus brings, which is a light that the darkness will never overcome.