Preventing Spiritual Suicide

In this mini-series on the truly Catholic response to the scandals, we have looked at the example of saints, for every crisis in the Church is a crisis of saints and the holy ones are the “crisis management team” raised up by God in every age to show us the path God wants us to follow to lead us out of the darkness into the light.

We began with St. Josemaria Escriva, whom God used as an instrument to call all people, including the secular clergy, to a truly holy life, to genuine fraternity and fraternal correction, and to the sincerity that counteracts the multiple levels of mendacity we’ve all seen in the scandals. We then focused on Saints Charles Lwanga and Joseph Mkasa who demonstrated for us the horror all of us should have toward sexual sins against the young and how we are called to do all it takes to stop such abuse within the Church and within society, even to the point of martyrdom. Next, we turned to Saints Gerard Majella, Vincent de Paul and John Vianney, who exemplified how to respond in a holy way to false accusations, even those alleging the most wicked behavior. Last time, we looked at the life of St. Maria Goretti, who showed us how to respond in a saintly way to suffering sexual abuse and whose example not only illumined the path of forgiveness for members for her family but eventually even brought her abuser to total repentance.

Today we turn to the last segment of the mini-series and focus on the largest group of people affected by the clergy sex abuse scandals: the multitude of Catholics and others who neither suffered nor committed abuse, who haven’t witnessed it, who haven’t been directly involved in it, and who haven’t been accused of it, but whose faith has been profoundly shaken by it. The saint who perhaps best illustrates the pathway forward for those in this circumstance is St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), the great apostle of the Chablais in Eastern France after the Protestant Reformation.

When St. Francis was ordained a priest in 1593, the Diocese of Geneva was in shambles. Decades of scandals among the clergy had made it very easy for Calvinism to spread throughout the region. The people were so poorly catechized that they were not able to respond to Calvinist arguments. They were, moreover, so angry at the hypocrisy of their local churchmen that they were easily incited to turn on the Catholic faith, run their priests out of town and take up a form of Christianity that at least seemed to be moral. The bishop of Geneva even had to flee the see city and take up residence in Annecy, France. Some reports stated that there were only about 20 Catholics left in the vast region.

Nine months after Francis’ ordination, the bishop asked his priest for volunteers to try to re-evangelize the region, knowing that it was minimally a tough assignment, but likely could prove to be a fatal one. Francis was the only one to step forward.  The 27-year old, traveling by foot, set out to try to win back the vast geographic area. The work was rough and dangerous. For his protection, he was ordered to sleep at night in a military garrison. On two occasions, assassins ambushed him along the way; both times, however, he survived, seemingly miraculously. On another occasion, he was attacked by wolves and had to spend a glacial night in a tree. But he labored on.

Because preaching was proving so dangerous, he began to write leaflets patiently setting forth Catholic teaching, charitably explaining the errors of Calvinism, and tackling head on controversial issues.

To those who still harbored anger toward the clerics for their scandalous behavior, he didn’t hesitate to say that what the clerics did was the equivalent of spiritual murder. But just as plainly, he called the residents of the region not to do something even worse, to commit spiritual suicide through focusing on the scandals so much that they cut themselves off from Christ in the sacraments and in the Church he founded. He wrote in a pamphlet to the people on Thonon that “those who forge scandals for themselves,” who “persuade themselves that they will die if they do not alienate the part that they have in the Church” are “much crueler than the man who gives scandal, because to commit suicide is a more unnatural crime than to kill another.”

He reminded the people of the Chablais that Jesus had said, “Scandals are sure to come, but woe to him by whom they come” (Lk 17:1). There will always be scandals, Jesus implied, because there will always be people of influence who commit grave sins. It is appropriate, Jesus continued, for scandalizers “to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and thrown into the depth of the sea” (Mt 18:6). St. Francis added, however, that, if we allow scandals to destroy our faith, we essentially tie a millstone around our own neck — and toss ourselves out of the barque of Peter, where Christ is at the helm, and into the depth of a sea of misery. The worst sin against charity we could ever commit against ourselves, he said, would be to commit spiritual suicide in this way.

St. Francis’ powerful candor and patient explanations of the teachings of the Church in these pamphlets began to have an impact. A steady stream of lapsed Catholics began to seek reconciliation, and he welcomed them with great mercy, meekness and joy. Within the span of five years, the holy “Apostle of the Chablais” had re-evangelized and reconciled almost the entire region.

St. Francis’ thoughts, words, courage, and holy example need to be reiterated and emulated by those in the Church today. There are multitudes who have downgraded their practice of the faith or given it up altogether as a result of the clergy sex abuse scandals. We need new apostles of Chatham and Chelmsford, Chelsea and Charlton.

The challenges we face in evangelizing those who have distanced themselves from the Church in recent years likely will not involve sleeping in garrisons or being ambushed by assassins. But the Lord needs us just in 2010 just as much as he needed Francis de Sales 416 years ago.

May St. Francis from heaven move us to respond as modern Good Samaritans, going out like he did after those who are tempted toward spiritual suicide, showing them by words and witness what the Church truly is, and patiently and heroically helping them to remove the millstones from their neck.

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About the Author

Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations. He is the former pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, Massachusetts and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

After receiving a biology degree from Harvard College, he studied for the priesthood in Maryland, Toronto and for several years in Rome. After being ordained a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Fall River by Bishop Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap. on June 26, 1999, he returned to Rome to complete graduate work in Moral Theology and Bioethics at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.

Fr. Landry writes for many Catholic publications, including a weekly column for The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, for which he was the executive editor and editorial writer from 2005-2012. He regularly leads pilgrimages to Rome, the Holy Land, Christian Europe and other sacred destinations and preaches several retreats a year for priests, seminarians, religious and lay faithful. He speaks widely on the thought of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, especially John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. He was an on-site commentator for EWTN’s coverage of the 2013 papal conclave that elected Pope Francis, appears often on various Catholic radio programs, and is national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA.

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