Archive for Thursday, April 18, 2002

Church should be firm, forgiving

April 18, 2002

The Roman Catholic Church is in a crisis. It's not the first time the church has faced difficulties, and it likely won't be the last time. But with every crisis comes opportunity. It's an opportunity for church leaders to regain the trust of their parishioners, and it's an opportunity for parishioners to learn more about love and compassion.

That message, delivered by the Rev. Charles Polifka at St. John the Evangelist in Lawrence, earned Polifka a standing ovation after his April 7 homily. For the uninitiated, standing ovations never happen after a sermon. But the message, beautifully crafted and meaningfully delivered, hit home for area Catholics. It was a message worth sharing with people of any denomination or those without any faith.

Polifka started his sermon by saying he didn't want to be poetic or figurative in his words. He bluntly addressed the crisis and said it was a defining moment for the church. But, as Polifka said last Sunday, there's no point in bemoaning the media attention given to these scandals. The Catholic church is being held to a higher standard. And while it's embarrassing, it should not be discouraging. This is an opportunity for rebirth, growth and for newness, he said. It's an opportunity for healing hurts that go beyond the present crisis.

"Abuse is wrong," Polifka said. It is evil, whether or not there is a law that defines it as illegal, he said. What we have seen and heard, and what has been uncovered are abusive situations of clergy victimizing children. Like murder, like theft, like hate crimes, this kind of behavior is immoral, illegal and must never be tolerated, he said. These acts cry out for justice. Abuse can have no tolerance, he said. The law must always be followed, and there can be no hiding from its consequences.

Polifka knows of what he speaks. When he was the provincial for the Lansing parish years ago, he had to sit in a courtroom with his brethren in a most uncomfortable setting. His fellow friars were charged and convicted of abuse. He wrote the policy for the parish on abuse in the church. The current crisis was particularly challenging to him, he said.

Many newspapers have run editorial cartoons lampooning the handling of the sexual abuse allegations by Catholic leaders around the country. They offend some people, and they should. Everything about this scandal is offensive. Pedophilia, sexual abuse and dishonesty by anyone are wrong. Yet people get annoyed at the volume of stories various news outlets have delivered. The media did not create the problems in the Catholic church, but they did bring to light the problem and ultimately, that revelation will be the first step toward fixing what is wrong in the church.

Polifka said celibacy was not the problem. He called it a gift of love that must be discerned daily. Because of celibacy, he could stand in the midst of any pain in the parish and have a credible compassion. "You've lost a spouse? So have I. You lost a child? So have I," he said. "You're lonely? So am I." Polifka said healthy celibacy is a magnificent gift, but one that can only work if there is prayer and support.

Polifka's sermon left quite an impression on his parish. He has made tapes of the sermon available because a number of people have asked for copies.

In perhaps the most poignant moment, Polifka addressed the need for compassion within the Church. While it was (figuratively) our brothers and sisters that were harmed, we must remember it was our brothers and sisters who did the hurting, he said. What they did was wrong, and they should be punished. But we have to remember to have compassion, Polifka said. That compassion, no matter how difficult, is how we can live a more God-like life.

Unquestionably, this difficult time for Catholics has made many defensive about their faith. Wounds are open, and perhaps the coverage has been more like ripping off a Band Aid rather than applying one. While it's not the media's responsibility to apply dressing, here's hoping the discussion and sudden openness of this issue will prevent these unspeakable acts from ever happening again.

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