In this week’s episode …

The-Young-Pope_Gianni-Fiorito-HBO.Courtesy-900x580Last spring one of the cable channels ran a series called “The Young Pope.” The basic premise was a young, American cardinal is elected pope and proceeds to go to battle with entrenched forces – tradition and people – in the Vatican. Each week’s episode was more bizarre than the week before, but the manipulation, infighting and intrigue was fiction. It was easy to watch, roll your eyes, turn off the TV and go to bed.

Now I feel as if every day brings a new episode of ““The Young Pope,” only it’s not the creation of a Hollywood screenwriter. It’s all too real, but maybe not entirely true. Unlike television fiction, this is far too sad and maddening, and – let’s be frank – quite embarrassing.

Between Masses last Sunday I checked messages on my phone — I need to stop doing that — and found a news update reporting allegations that Pope Francis had known about and concealed abuse committed by Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., who was demoted from the status of cardinal last month. The archbishop making the accusations demanded that Pope Francis resign.

Of course this made headlines. One of the pope’’s own archbishops, someone who had served as the highest-ranking Vatican official in the United States earlier in this decade, was demanding something quite unprecedented. And, coming as it did, in the midst of spiritual and emotional consternation following the report of a Pennsylvania grand jury detailing hundreds of incidents of sexual abuse by priests over more than 70 years, the archbishop’s letter only added to the strife. As well as the confusion.

Curiously, and probably not so curiously, some factions in the Church jumped at the chance to endorse the accusations and the demand for the Holy Father’s resignation. One Texas bishop ordered priests in his diocese to read a letter at Masses last Sunday in which he echoed the archbishop’s call for Pope Francis to step aside. Just life that! Seemingly no need or desire for at least a moment’s reflection, or sorting through the complicated details.

Thankfully, most bishops, including our own, have not joined in a public tug-of-war on this matter. There are too many unanswered questions, as well as plenty of complications in the back-story of the archbishop who threw out this bombshell and has since disappeared. More intrigue. Pope Francis has said he will not honor the accusation and demand with a response.

So, what are we to make of all this? First of all, I’d suggest this is far more about Vatican score-settling than it is about children being abused. That is unseemly to be sure, we expect more collegiality and Christian virtue among those working at the highest levels of the Church, but whatever involves people also becomes political, and whenever there are efforts to unsettle long-entrenched attitudes and customs, there is going to be resistance. Pope Francis has, for the better I think, upset the apple-cart of clerical complacency and control, much to the chagrin of entrenched forces in the Vatican and in powerful Church positions around the world, including the United States. He has demanded, in his gentle, firm manner, that the Church and its ministers become more centered in the Gospel and not power or prestige. He’s experiencing the repercussions, and we are unfortunately left to witness it.

Second, let’s not allow this side-show, which is what I hope it is, to distract us further from what we need to be about. In my homily last week – as well as blog post – I expressed the fear that a harmful side effect of the abuse crisis is that it distracts us further from the important work of the Gospel, from confronting injustice and honoring life, from caring for the hurting, the hungry, the homeless and all who need our attention in response to what Jesus has taught and what the Church must always be.

Finally, this is an opportunity to reclaim the Vatican II admonition that the Church is the People of God, of which those political players in the hierarchy are merely a part. We are the Church! This is a time to deepen our commitment to how we celebrate and live the Gospel of Jesus in our parish, in our families and in our lives. It’s more true than ever, that we – the people of St. Anne, and all parishes – need to live, really live, the Gospel with love and courage! TL

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Last Sunday’s Homily

cff89526-0208-4d3f-8feb-36bf52b8768c-AFP_AFP_1812FAHaving been away when the explosive Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy abuse was released, and realizing how distressing and traumatizing this is for so many people, I came to the realization that I needed to address the matter in my homily last Sunday. The gospel seemed to offer a means by which to broach the subject. And yet I find it very difficult to know what to say. One friend observed on Facebook that every priest should stand before his assembly and apologize for what’s happened. I don’t think it’s my place to apologize. In the end, the best I could do was convey that I’m in the same boat as many others. That might be one takeaway from this homily.

Then Jesus said to the Twelve: So, do you also want to leave?
Considering the news of recent weeks, it’s a question I really don’t want to ask, because I fear what – for some of us at least, maybe for myself – the answer will be. Might we want to leave?

After all, how much human imperfection in the Church are we willing to endure? How much more horrible cruelty and evil machinations on the part of our priests and bishops can there be to uncover? How many stories of abuse can we hear, how many excuses can we tolerate, how many apologies can we accept? Can we continue to think that this doesn’t affect me, that is isn’t about me or my parish or my pastor – wanting to believe we’re not somehow affected or damaged or maybe even, some of of us, somehow, even complicit.
How much does all of this distract us from the essential work of the gospel? How much does it diminish the authority and integrity of our Church in confronting injustice and honoring the dignity of life – getting in the way of what we need to do, what the world needs for us to do?
Why must I feel the need to preach AGAIN! about how the Church has been tarnished? Tarnished again by the damage its ministers have inflicted. Acknowledging again how WE feel tarnished, sullied by the sin and wickedness of others?
Why don’t I just talk about something else, anything else? Something pleasant, refreshing, reflective, maybe just a little bit challenging to send us into a new week?
Why does Jesus have to be so blunt in asking that question?

Maybe he asks that hard question because where we find ourselves calls for blunt questions, hard reflection, but also extraordinary compassion – amid the sadness, anger, frustration, and pain.
Maybe Jesus asks the hard question because it gets to the cold, hard reality that – again and again – we confront disappointment and frustration, infidelity, violations of trust, sadness and hurt. It happens sometimes in our families, in various friendships and relationships. The reality of human imperfection becomes all too apparent.
We are confronted with the dilemma, the struggle of staying or going; of striving to reconcile or understand or accept; of trying to accept the harsh reality that sometimes people aren’t just human or imperfect, but they are even viciously cruel and harmful; that even people we presume to trust fail miserably in being who we want and need for them to be.
We are left to struggle with how compassionate we should be, how compassionate we can be. We are left to struggle with where we direct our anger, our sadness. Or has it all become too much for so long that it doesn’t even make us angry anymore, there’s no sadness or emotion left?
We are left to realize once again the complexity of mercy – for victims, many of them children, who suffered in silence, whose cries to family and others in authority were frightfully ignored or excused. The complexity of mercy for priests who so callously pretended not to know or to see; for bishops who did it themselves or allowed the terror of abuse to proceed. The complexity of mercy – if it is even possible – for those who violated and abused. The complexity of mercy that is significant in considering the question Jesus asks, so fundamental to most of the grievous hurts and harsh dilemmas that confront us in life. Will I go or will I stay? How do I endure without becoming hardened, without compromising what’s fundamental to who I am – who I must be – as a disciple?

I say all this not hypothetically. I am angry. I am hurt and I am sad.
It’s beyond imagining what so many children and young people, as well as older victims – what they suffered, the things that guys dressed like me did to them. I can’t comprehend how others allowed it to continue for so long. While I say that, I am confident the Church in our country has taken important steps to prevent what’s happened in the past from occurring now or in the future.
Regardless of that, I am haunted by the awareness that we must do more. There is something rooted in how we function as a larger Church that needs to be transformed, but I cannot begin to really imagine what that is.
With that haunting awareness, I fear what all of this might to do to us as a parish, as individuals, as a Church. What of our trust, our faithfulness, our compassion, our mercy, our potential for hope?
I fear we might not have the confidence or certainty of Peter, and yet I cling to the possibility that we will. That amid all the darkness and pain, all the complicity and collusion, all the doubt and sadness – that, confronted with the hard question, Do you also want to leave?, that we will answer as he did.
And so, without seeming trite and predictable, we pray for victims. In mercy we might also pray for persecutors and conspirators. We pray for ourselves, for a light to guide us from this darkness; the inspiration to confront and uproot all that prevents us from being the force of justice and love that our world desperately needs for us to be; the confidence, the trust, the courage, the hope to answer Jesus’ blunt question as Peter did: Yes, we’ll stay, Lord. We can’t leave. We won’t leave, as much as it seems we should. To whom would we go? You are our source of life and love.  TL

BREAKING NEWS: Transition

breaking newsThis past weekend I shared the news that I will be leaving Holy Spirit Parish for St. Anne Parish in Wausau in early July.  This news might have been as surprising to our parishioners as it was to me.

Obviously, I’ve been aware of the move since Bishop Callahan called in mid-April to talk with me about a potential transfer of assignments.  Regardless, leaving our parish hadn’t seemed like a likely, or even reasonable, possibility.

After all, we are nearing the beginning of only the fourth year of our new parish, the unification process is still something that’s under way, not completed.  More immediately, we have just completed the campaign for our Building Upon a Firm Foundation project and begun initiating more focused preparations for the initial phases of that project and the sale of the Newman Center.

It would not seem, as I mentioned to the Bishop, that this is the right time.  But, I responded to my own remark so that he wouldn’t have to: “Well, Tom, when is there a right time?”

The Parish Center project is understandably a significant concern that’s been expressed since I made the announcement, and even prior to that during the campaign.  “What happens if/when Fr. Tom leaves Holy Spirit?” was a frequent question.  A few parishioners raised that point with me when I met with them seeking their financial support.  My answer then and now is the same:  The project must continue!  We’ve done too much work and there is too much support within the parish to do otherwise.  We need to make necessary improvements to the church and we desperately need the opportunities offered by our proposed center.

Thankfully, Fr. Steve Brice,  Holy Spirit’s new pastor, has considerable experience with similar projects.  He was pastor of St. Anne Parish in Wausau, during a time of a building project far more substantial than our’s.  Gratefully, he’s not only willing to accept this assignment, but I know he’s also enthusiastic about the tremendous benefits that Building Upon a Firm Foundation will bring the parish.

In terms of the evolving life of our relatively new parish, this might be just the right time for a new pastor to come on the scene.  He will bring new perspective, new ideas and a new pastoral sense to what has already been accomplished, and what might be pursued.  And how.

Parish unification, as I’ve come to discover, is a balancing act as we create something new while honoring valuable components of our past.  Sometimes my attempts at balancing have been more successful and at other times, I acknowledge and regret, somewhat painful.  A new pastor arrives as a clean slate — he to the parish and the parish to him.  There’s benefit in that.

Which is not to minimize the challenge of transition.  Regardless of how advantageous the arrival of a new pastor might be, the adage “change is difficult” certainly holds true.  The significance of patience, of understanding, of acceptance in welcoming a new pastor cannot be understated.  Nor the sadness of parting, on my part, as I leave our parish and Stevens Point, which is something I have not even begun to comprehend.  I have been in Stevens Point longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life — 21 years — and, while I am not the longest serving pastor in the diocese at the moment, I am close.  Approaching my final weekend on July 1, I’ll observe more as to the joys and heartaches of these years, much like life itself, but for now I’d urge that we embrace the goodness and potential that awaits us all: a relatively new parish with a generous and skilled pastor, and a grateful pastor anticipating new ministry in a new place.  Good things to ponder as we celebrate spring!  TL

 

Then Wednesday happened

20170111_111127This is a draft of the homily I preached today, the First Sunday of Lent.

This gospel passage (Mark 1.12-15) consists of only four sentences, but it tells two stories: Jesus’ temptation in the desert and the beginning of his public ministry. The first two sentences, the concise telling of the temptation, present a very black-and-white perspective, two extremes: the Spirit and Satan, wild beasts and angels. It’s very clear which is which, which is good and which is evil, seeming to suggest it’s always that way. If only it were. Or, is it?

I had intended to talk this weekend about my experience of visiting the desert last January as I began my sabbatical. I visited the desert near the Arizona-Mexico border with some religious sisters and the bishop of Tucson who are especially attentive to migrants, people from Central America and Mexico who cross that border tempted by hope, opportunity, security, family and friends already here. More specifically I was going to explain some temptations people confront as they cross the desert: illusions and misconceptions, mirages, false-hopes, bad advice; forces, temptations that sometimes lead them to walk in circles or in the wrong direction, to succumb to hunger, dehydration, desperation and even death.

That’s what I was going to talk about, but then Wednesday happened. And I began to experience my own temptation, maybe being guided through my own desert of uncertainty and fear.

Wednesday was the day 17 students and teachers were gunned down at their high school in Parkland, Fla. I wasn’t tempted by this tragedy immediately. To be honest, I was preoccupied with Ash Wednesday and things happening here, but even when I first the reports I was kind of blase; I’d heard that new report before. There’s a shooting at a school, a concert, a school, a church, a school, a nightclub, a school. The number of school shootings this year is being debated in some circles; the fact that such a thing is even being discussed is simply bizarre.

We all know the scenario: There’s a shooting, children or others are killed, there’s shock and the assurance of prayer and concern, flags are lowered, there’s outrage. Then, after a few days, our attention is drawn to the next big thing, the next bright, shiny object, and we move on. Until the next time it happens. As it did on Wednesday. Except, have you noticed, the window of shock and concern seems to be closing faster and faster with each new tragedy.

So I’ve been struggling with what or who is tempting me, the Spirit or another force, which leads to my temptation of uncertainty. I’m uncertain as to whether I should say something about this ongoing series of national tragedies or to just follow the usual script for the Sundays after these incidents: praying for the victims and those who grieve, praying for people afflicted with mental illness, praying that we might be guided beyond such ordeals.

Connected to the temptation to say something and not being sure of what to say is a temptation of fear. I’m torn within these temptations because I know that what I might say may not be heard as it’s intended, may not be received well, may be regarded as political and divisive by some, or inconsequential and trite by others; regarded as not my place, not in this place; too controversial, too irresponsible, too costly, too naive. Too much. Or, not enough.

And in the midst of this temptation, how can we not be haunted by the story of today’s first reading (Genesis 9.8-15)? Amid the splendor of creation, the wickedness of humanity leads to devastation and chaos. From the chaos of the flood, comes, remarkably, the assurance of a covenant, a covenant of God with you and me and every human being and every living creature. What do we make of that covenant amid the specter of this most recent act of human wickedness?

I say that I struggle with whether I’m being tempted by the Spirit or a contrary force, and yet I have to believe the Spirit is a far more dynamic force. While I’m still not sure of what to say, there is hope, maybe even confidence, that as people who share the covenant, who wander together in the desert, who strive to overcome temptation, that we will not be too hasty or too predictable or too harsh; that we will hold all of this up to the light of the gospel, that it matters that we center ourselves on Jesus, that we do take repentance seriously, that believing in the good news does matter. TL

MarchForOurLives.com

Blessed with talents

BEATIFICATION FATHER SOLANUS CASEY
Barney Casey wasn’t given much in terms of talents, to use the imagery of last Sunday’s gospel parable. He certainly wasn’t given five, and probably not two. It would be reasonable to suggest he was given less than one talent.

But unlike the poor oaf in the gospel, Barney invested that measly less-than-one talent rather well. You could say he utilized his less-than-one talent blessedly well.

Barney was born in late fall of 1870 on a farm near Prescott, Wis., in the Diocese of La Crosse. He was baptized a few days before Christmas at the parish church, overlooking the Mississippi River. Barney grew up in what he called a “one-story mansion,” with one room divided to accommodate his parents and 15 siblings. Barney’s family was Irish, and he inherited traits of storytelling, fiddle-playing and a devout Catholic faith. However, the kids only went to Mass every other week; they alternated Sundays because their wasn’t room for everyone all at once in the horse-drawn wagon. Those who didn’t go to Mass prayed the rosary at home.

When he was 17, Barney went to work as a lumberjack, then a prison guard, a hospital orderly, and a streetcar conductor in upstate Superior. His life changed one day in 1891 when his streetcar came upon a woman being attacked by a man with a knife. That abrupt, direct encounter with violence and anger led him to realize the need for a sharper focus in his life, maybe to go in a different, more clear direction. Ultimately, Barney was convinced that he should be a priest.

He entered the seminary in Milwaukee, but Barney was Irish and all the classes were taught in German or Latin. This would be a hindrance a few decades later for another farm boy, Stan Roether of Oklahoma, who struggled mightily with the language demands of seminary, but went on to ordination, missionary work and ultimately martyrdom among the people war-torn Guatemala. We’ll soon discover a significant, common element to the stories of Barney and Stan.

Barney was sent home from the seminary, but he discovered the Capuchins, a Franciscan religious order, who welcomed him. He was given the name Solanus, and while he’ll still struggled with language and his studies, he was ordained – barely. Fr. Solanus was not allowed to preach or hear confessions. That did not prove to be much of a hindrance, he preached and conveyed God’s mercy in other ways.

Fr. Solanus’ most significant contribution would come in Detroit at the Capuchin monastery. He was given the job of porter, the lowliest, some would think the most meaningless, of all jobs – answering the doorbell, accepting packages, turning away people who didn’t have any business bothering the friars.

It was the door, however, that became the touchpoint of his life. It was to the monastery door that people flocked, lining up around the block, early in the morning and late into the night – to talk with him, to request his prayer for healing, for guidance, for peace. As the Great Depression deepened, people came for food and Solanus began giving away the food intended for the friars; that is until an organized soup kitchen was established. It’s still there, two of them a few block apart, serving 1,800 meals a day. Father Solanus used to say, “I have two loves: the sick and the poor.”

Father Marty Pable, one of many Capuchins who fondly remember Fr. Solanus, recalled, “There was nothing spectacular about him. He had no charisma at all! He didn’t preach. He just had that gentleness, that love, that compassion.”

So, clearly I was wrong, at the outset when I said Barney had no talents. But Fr. Marty also was mistaken when he claimed Solanus was not spectacular. You could easily claim he had the most spectacular of talents: gentleness, love, compassion. Not to mention patience, attentiveness, persistence. He had spectacular talents that he invested wisely – no burying in the field on his part.

And his investment of his talents has been recognized by the Church: Well done, good and faithful servant! Fr. Solanus was beatified Nov. 18 in Detroit, at Ford Field. He was declared to be among the blessed; he may one day be canonized as a saint. He’s the second American citizen to be beatified within as many months. Blessed Stan Roether of Oklahoma and Guatemala was the first.

As Blessed Solanus proves, it’s not about how many talents we have, or how seemingly spectacular or lackluster they might be. But that we honor them, deepen them, share them, invest them in our lives. Our stories will be far different than that of Blessed Solanus, but the words at the conclusion of our stories could be the same: Well done, good and faithful servant!

Blessed Solanus Casey, pray for us!  TL

Celebrating a martyr

Today, 23 September 2017, Father Stanley Rother was beatified  in Oklahoma City. That’s where he was from, but not where he endured a martyr’s death. His ministry and courageous demise are described in this homily I preached in February 2009, the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time. The previous month I had been part of a remarkable pilgrimage sponsored by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers to the shrines of the Central American martyrs, which included celebrating Sunday Mass with Fr. Rother’s community in Santiago Atitlan. I have had the privilege to visit the church and the site of his martyrdom two other times with college students. While Fr. Rother was officially declare a martyr today by the church, the Mayan people of his village and many others have regarded him as such for as long as we’ve known of his witness. TL
Blessed Stanley Rother, pray for us.

Stan Rother was a priest from the Diocese of Oklahoma City but he spent nearly all of his life as a priest in the Guatemalan village of Santiago Atitlan. It’s a curious thing — he had been thrown out of the seminary once because he couldn’t get the hang of Latin, but once in Santiago Atitlan he thrived, not only becoming adept at Spanish, but also at speaking the local Indian dialect. He even oversaw translation of the New Testament into that language.

Upon arriving in 1968, he gave his all to his community of Mayan Indians. They built a hospital, renovated the church, established a parish farm, and celebrated Mass five times every Sunday at various locations, and celebrated as many as 1,000 baptisms a year.
At first the people didn’t know what to make of this tall American priest — towering several feet over his Mayan parishioners — especially one who’d help hoe the corn fields or sit down for dinner on the dirt floors of their crowded, shack-like homes. At first they were reluctant to even welcome him into their homes; they didn’t think themselves worthy of such a prominent visitor. But, he persisted, and now seated among them, at least attempting to speak their language, a bond was formed.

Things changed in 1980. Guatemala’s civil war reached even the remote village of Santiago Atitlan. In October of that year, army forces rumbled into town, troops set up camp in the parish farm and parish leaders began to disappear. One prominent leader, a deacon who ran the parish radio station, was kidnaped and killed.

In January the parish’s leading catechist was ambushed on the stone steps in front of the church. Stan was listening to the radio and heard the commotion. He raced to the plaza just as his friend was being forced into a waiting car as he shouted “Help me, help me!” The cathechist was never seen again. He had disappeared.

Four days later, the army gunned down 17 civilians working in a nearby coffee field. Stan directed that the bodies be taken to the Church for a funeral and burial. It was a seemingly obvious, maybe insignificant, instruction, but in the eyes of the government and the military even that simple pastoral response was viewed as public defiance.
Stan had done other defiant, troubling things too. He had, for example, tried to raise funds to support the eight widows and 32 fatherless children now in his parish as a result of the military’s reign of terror. He’d made no statements, his was not a political agenda, but people knew there was a death list and they knew that Stan’s name was on it.

In late January of 1980, Stan returned to Oklahoma to lie low, to wait for things to cool off in Guatemala. But all the while he shuddered at the thought of his people, of having left them behind. What must they think of their pastor who deserts them when they need him most?  He returned to Santiago Atitlan in April, just in time for Palm Sunday and Triduum. Life returned to what it had been, but life was still uncertain, tense and the dangers were all too real.

On the night of July 28, three tall men wearing ski masks forced their way into the parish house. Stan, anticipating such a situation, was sleeping in a different room of the house every night, so they did not find him in his room. But they did find the assistant pastor’s brother and at gunpoint ordered him to lead them to Stan. Padre, han venido por ti. “Padre, they’ve come for you,” the young man screamed as they approached the room where Stan was sleeping that night. Stan had told friends he would not allow himself to be kidnaped and tortured as so many others had been. In the end, Stan Rother was killed with one shot to his face.

Word of his death spread quickly. The people were enraged. Priests and sisters who assembled at the scene feared the mob’s anger might result in a massacre. A group of Carmelite sisters invited the throng of grieving villagers into the church where they sang and prayed.  The immediate instinct of seeking retribution would subside, but not the anger and the dread of loss. Fr. Stan Rother is still revered and remembered by those people.

I’ll share more about him and the parish in Santiago Atitlan another time, but I wanted to mention him today because his example is so true to what Paul speaks of in his letter to the Corinthians — of living the gospel because that is what we are meant to do, each in our own way — not necessarily as dramatically or tragically as Stan Rother — put to preach and live the gospel nonetheless.

And what did Stan Rother do that was so terrible. He did for those Mayan Indians in Santiago Atitlan what Jesus does for Peter’s mother-in-law in the gospel. Jesus grasped her hand and lifted her up. That’s what Stan Rother did for those people. In sitting down to eat dinner on their dirt floors, he raised them up, he enhanced their dignity, he became a threat to those who wanted to diminish and control them.

There’s something in that for us too. Sometimes we need to be lifted up and encouraged, but we also need to be ready to do that for people who are hurting, who have been shoved aside in some way, who have been led of think of themselves as being of less value than others. We won’t become martyrs in the attempt, but it’s living the gospel of life and hope, which is the gospel Fr. Stan Rother lived, and died living.  TL

With tears

penitentsThis is one of my favorite Ash Wednesday homilies, which I share as we initiate Lent this year. There was a student who took offense at it and stopped worshiping with us.  He thought I was advocating that we initiate an Order of Penitents, which is described here in its ancient context.  I wasn’t and I think that was clear.  And, yet, there was something wonderful and loving – and real – about that, and maybe something genuine about his reaction.  It’s important to note that the penitent, the bishop – and probably several others – approached this ordeal with tears. To be honest, I’m surprised by how long this homily is, but I don’t recall anyone leaving the community because of that.  May we all allow ourselves to realize the blessings of Lent.

A long time ago, about 2,000 years ago, to be somewhat precise, give or take a few hundred years, early Christians gathered on the day to initiate Lent and among those gathered were people known as penitents.

These people had publicly acknowledged their sin and now they sought to be publicly reconciled with God and with the Church. During the second to fourth centuries, these penitents would arrive on Ash Wednesday barefoot, in drab clothes, and they were instructed to keep their heads down.

There’s an ancient text that describes the ritual that ensued. The bishop would process from his chair with servers carrying a cross and candles, accompanied by the choir and other priests, and they would go to the middle of the church. The penitents would then come to the bishop and, according to the ancient instruction, lie prostrate in prayer before the bishop and the assembly. The instruction adds that the penitents should do all of this “with tears.” The bishop placed ashes on the foreheads of the penitents, saying: “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. Do penance that you might have eternal life.”

The bishop then gave the penitents a special garment and placed the garments over their heads one by one, offering assurances of God’s mercy. The penitents would then prostrate themselves on the floor while the entire assembly surrounded them chanting a penitential psalm. Finally the bishop prayed for the penitents and then took their hands, one by one, and led them from the church. When they were all outside, the bishop said to them “with tears”: “Behold you are expelled today from Holy Mother Church because of your sins.”

But, all was not lost. Hardly. He urged them to hold fast to the promise of God’s mercy and to be busy with fasting, prayer, giving alms and doing good works. They were told to return on Holy Thursday and not to presume to attempt entry until then. Finally, the doors were closed and the assembly returned to the celebration of Mass.

It was, as you might imagine, a very intense, dramatic and understandably emotional ritual and ordeal. But, this was not a lurid spectacle, this was not about gossiping or finger-pointing or humiliation. That was a ritual of brutal honesty with obvious indications of encouragement and love.

It was called the Order of Penitents and this ritual died out in the fourth century, not because it was humiliating, not because it was excessive, not because of its obvious emphasis upon sin. Rather, it disappeared for practical reasons — the church was simply getting too big, too many people, too many sinners; communities were becoming too large to properly tend to the needs of their penitents. It also disappeared because the church increasingly came to privatize sin, to acknowledge and confess it in private as a matter between the penitent and God, and the priest.

Primarily the Order of Penitents died away — the sending of people out of the church on Ash Wednesday — because there also came to be a realization that we are all penitents; our sins may be of varying degrees and consequences, but we have all sinned.
I think it’s hard for us to get beyond what our 21st century sensibilities bring to the experience. It’s maybe impossible for us to get beyond what we perceive as the embarrassment, the personal trauma of this ancient ritual of penitents. But it was not that.

First of all, the people were not “called out” on their sin, as a few people in our church presume to do today — identifying certain peoples’ sins and accompanying punishments. The penitents stepped forward on their own, recognizing the seriousness of their offenses, realizing that what they’d done, the lives they were living, were detrimental not just to themselves, but to their entire community with which they shared life and love. To stand before that community, the love and prayer and support of that community — to stand before that community in the presence of God seemed not only sensible but desirable, necessary.

The church may have come to the realization that we are all penitents, that we are all sinners, that we are all in need of healing and mercy. But we might each realize that more profoundly if we experienced something as intense, dramatic and brutally honest as what transpired in ancient churches on Ash Wednesdays of the past.

The closest we come, I think, in any of our rituals to that experience is what we do today, when we are marked with ashes, when we are reminded of our very earthly origins and endings, when a black cross marks the spot where we were claimed for Christ at baptism, when we acknowledge are sin by virtue of an admonition to turn from sin, to be faithful to the gospel. In the ancient Order of Penitents, the door was not closed and then the penitents forgotten for 40 days. Remember the tearful encouragement of the bishop to them to pray, to fast, to give alms, to do good works. Members of the community gathered with them, to help them pray, to help them re-direct their lives, to remind them of God’s love. And members of the community, with more tears to be sure, welcomed the penitents back among them as they gathered to begin the Triduum on Holy Thursday. As we cannot comprehend the humiliation of Lent’s beginning, we cannot begin to understand the joy of Lent’s conclusion.

It’s rather like that for us, the penitents of our day; that we don’t leave here on Ash Wednesday and then just disappear. We are given the same encouragement to pray, to fast, to give alms, to do good works. We gather as a community of penitents every Lord’s Day for Mass to praise God. The community comes together during this season to pray the Stations of the Cross, the Rosary, to celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation. We do all of us this not out of fear or humiliation or regret, but as rituals and actions of repentance, of hope, of faith.

In our shared Lenten journey as penitents, may we realize the healing power of gathering with the people of God and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist on Sunday, may we celebrate the healing grace of Christ in the sacrament of reconciliation, may we come to the end of Lent, to Triduum, to Holy Thursday, with the realization that we are still penitents, still imperfect, but renewed, refocused and more determined to abide by our answer to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus. TL