Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Pilgrimage to Rome: Stalled soul on the Scala Sancta (reflections on minor sufferings of American commuters)

According to Catholic tradition, St. Helena, mother of Constantine, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the years 326-328, where she recovered the True Cross. Evelyn Waugh's fictional account of Helena's pilgrimage, simply titled Helena, portrays her as a late comer to faith and spiritual kin to the three Magi, who arrived tardy at the manger of Christ.

A less well known tradition holds that Helena also discovered the actual stairs that Christ walked for his meeting with Pontius Pilate, who condemned Christ to a horrible death. Those stairs, called the Scala Sancta, are now in Rome, where pilgrims can crawl up all 28 steps in remembrance of Christ's suffering.

I creeped up those steps myself when I was in Rome earlier this month, somewhat reluctantly I confess. Pilgrims surrounded the stairs by the hundreds, and I had to wait in line for the privilege of my holy crawl.  I was aware of course that I should spend my time in contemplation as I ascended the stairs on my knees, and I resolved to reflect on the last terrible hours of Christ's life.

But as I waited for my opportunity to ascend the Scala Sancta, I observed a woman half way up the stairs, who wasn't moving. She would kneel for a time in prayer, pull herself erect occasionally to stretch her legs, and then sink to her knees again--always in the same place. In short, she was blocking traffic, forcing other pilgrims to veer around her, exactly like motorists veer around a stalled car on the freeway.

"How inconsiderate," I thought to myself. And that led me to think back on all the years I have spent commuting to work, all the minor traffic accidents I have witnessed, all the times I got stuck in traffic because someone's car broke down on the freeway, slowing the flow of traffic--sometimes for hours.

And that is what I thought about as I crawled up the Holy Stairs--all the years I've spent commuting to work in my car and all the millions of other Americans who spend so many hours of their lives simply driving to and from work. I thought of the collective boredom of all those commuting Americans sitting in their cars with nothing to divert them but their radios and their mugs of coffee.

And why do we do it? We do it to get to our jobs--our boring, uninteresting, unimportant jobs: the jobs we do simply to get a paycheck to pay our home mortgages. Most commuters drive to jobs in the cities but they live in the suburbs, where the schools are better. They sacrifice 2 or 3 hours of their lives every working day simply to live in a town that has decent schools for their children.

These are small sacrifices that commuters make--certainly small compared to the sacrifice Jesus was prepared to make when he walked up the Scala Sancta to meet Pontius Pilate. But I devoted my holy crawl to American commuters who suffer the minor inconvenience of driving to work every day for the sake of their children and for no other reason. Surely the Holy Family looks down on them in their daily commutes and sends them a blessing.

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Cardinal Bernard Law, Saint Maria Goretti, and the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal: Would Saint Maria Goretti forgive a priest who put his penis in a child's rectum? Would she forgive an archbishop who protected child rapists?

The Story of Saint Maria Goretti: Virgin Martyr

Saint Maria Goretti, a virgin saint of the 20th century, died on July 6, 1902, murdered by Alessandro Serenelli, who had tried to rape her. Maria fought off Serenelli's sexual advances, but he stabbed her 14 times.  She did not die immediately; she lived about 20 hours. And before she died, Maria forgave Alessandro and expressed the wish that she would meet him in Paradise. She was only 11 years old.

Alessandro was convicted of murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He was initially unrepentant, but Maria appeared to Alessandro in a dream while he was sleeping in his prison cell. In that dream, Maria offered Alessandro 14 candles as a symbol of her forgiveness--one candle for each stab wound.  He then repented his terrible crime and became a different man.

After 27 years, Alessandro was released from prison. He became a Franciscan lay brother and died at the age of 87. He was still alive when Maria was canonized in 1950.

Would Saint Maria Goretti forgive Catholic priests who raped children?

A few days ago, I visited the Shrine of St. Maria Goretti, which is located in Nettuno, Italy, not far from Rome. I found myself pondering what Saint Maria's views might have been about the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal. She is the patron saint of rape victims, but she is also the patron saint of forgiveness. Would Maria Goretti forgive the Catholic priests who rammed their penises into the rectums of little boys? Would she forgive the bishops and church administrators who shielded child abusers from prosecution--evil men who introduced little children to oral sex?

Would she forgive Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston, who covered up a massive sexual abuse scandal in his archdiocese and allowed predatory priests to have access to children? Would she forgive the lawyers who effectuated Cardinal Law's cover-up by drafting confidential settlement agreements? Would she forgive the psychiatrists who got paid to treat abusive priests and who certified that these priests were cured of their sexual pathologies?

Almost all the abusive priests were serial abusers. They raped a lot of boys, and they raped them multiple times. Would Maria forgive a priest who raped a little boy more than once? A priest who raped a lot of boys? Would she forgive Cardinal Law for every priest he protected?

Perhaps she would. But I think she would expect these sinners to make some act of penance. Alessandro, after all, spent 27 years in jail and lived a holy life after he was released.

But Cardinal Law is in Rome. In fact, he may have passed me in the streets of the Vatican last week. Perhaps he was among the VIPs who motored by me in their black luxury cars with tinted glass, accompanied by their smartly dressed body guards. The cardinal may have passed me as he was going to dinner at one of Rome's fine restaurants.

Perhaps Maria Goretti has forgiven Cardinal Law and all the bishops who closed their eyes to child rape. But I doubt it; I seriously doubt it.


For other commentary on Cardinal Bernard Law or the sex abuse scandal, see these sources:

Abuse Enableng Bishops Who Were Resigned or Removed. Accessible at

Rev. Kenneth Doyle. How Can the Catholic Church Allow Bernard Law To Remain a Priest? Crux, December 14, 2015.  .Accessible at

Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests.  Web site:
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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Pilgrimage to Rome: Labor Day Mass at St. Peter's Basilica where I heard people singing Pescadore des Hombres

On Labor Day, I attended mass at a side chapel of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. A priest from Iowa presided--a man in his mid-forties, humble and earnest. He told us we should ask God to bless the work of our hands and to be thankful for the work that God has given us to do.

An enormous painting of The Presentation of the Lord loomed over our side chapel, and the splendor of St. Peter's Basilica gave the mass a special power. But I was touched more profoundly by music I heard coming from another mass--a Spanish-language mass taking place somewhere beyond my sight at another side chapel in the vast basilica.

Somewhere people were singing a song I had often heard while attending mass in northern New Mexico--Pescador des Hombres. People were singing in Spanish, and they must have sung all four verses, because the singing continued for quite some time.

Immediately, I was taken out of St. Peter's Basilica. In my mind's eye, I was in the upper Rio Grande Valley of northern New Mexico. I saw the pure, unpolluted waters of the Rio Grande River, dappled by sunlight and teeming with trout. I saw the simple adobe churches of the villages in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Hearing that familiar and humble tune, I became aware of the long heritage of my Catholic faith in my own country. The Spanish came up the Rio Grande River from El Paso in 1598. By the early 17th century, they were farming the thin soil along the tributaries of that great river as far north as modern-day southern Colorado. They built their simple adobe churches and prayed the mass a good twenty years before the Puritans landed in Massachusetts Bay. They forted up in their churches and their homes against the Apaches and the Comanches.

As I listened to Pescador des Hombres echoing through St. Peter's Basilica, I was reminded that my faith is an ancient faith and a simple faith.  Although I was surrounded by the great splendor of Roman Catholicism--its art, its statuary, the Pieta of Michelangelo--I am sustained by the simplicity, the  humility, and the childlike faith of my Catholic ancestors.

I believe because my ancestors believed. I embrace the mystery of the Eucharist because the saints embraced this mystery and willingly died horrible deaths in defense of a mystical truth--that Christ is present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

I am proud to share in the patrimony of Catholicism--its literature, its beautiful art, the soaring architecture of its cathedrals. But when I am overcome by doubt--which I often am--my faith returns when the Holy Spirit reminds me that the Catholic faith is the faith of the poor and the humble. It is the faith of people who suffer.

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Lord, When You Came To The Seashore/Pescador Des Hombres
by Cesareo Gabarain
Lord, when you came to the seashore you weren't seeking the wise or the wealthy, but only asking that I might follow. 
REFRAIN (English): O Lord, in my eyes you were gazing, Kindly smiling, my name you were saying; All I treasured, I have left on the sand there; Close to you, I will find other seas. 
REFRAIN (Spanish): Señor me has mirado a los ojos, sonriendo has dicho mi nombre, en la rena he dejado mi barca, junto a ti buscaré otro mar.