As the long, hot summer melted into fall the Church was in full swing. Parishes were ramping up for a new catechetical year. Thousands of catechists around the country came forward to be commissioned on Catechetical Sunday, embracing this year’s theme to “Enlist Witnesses for Jesus Christ.”

Throughout the Diocese of Fall River the homeless were cared for in shelters, the sick were tended to in our health facilities; and the hungry found food in our soup kitchens and pantries. Around the world Catholic Relief Services was helping refugees to resettle; responding to a tsunami in Indonesia and an earthquake in Haiti; and working for justice and peace in more than 30 countries. 

While all of this was going on, the Church was shaken to its core by the attorney general’s report out of Pennsylvania detailing decades of alleged sexual abuse of minors by hundreds of Catholic priests, and the cover-up of immoral behavior by one of her respected leaders. Despite this, the mission handed to our Church from Jesus Christ was safely administered by the faithful who take to heart their baptismal call. Now the faithful have to ask themselves, why weren’t we told? 

In the aftermath of these scandalous revelations many of our Church leaders spoke out; some called for greater adherence to the child protection policies put in place since 2002, others called for more transparency. Bishop Robert Barron spoke emphatically about the failure of leadership and the need to regain the trust of the faithful. This is going to be a challenge, for as the saying goes, “trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.” This crisis is going to require a reexamination of what it means to be a Spiritual leader.

In his book, “Spiritual Leadership,” Leonard Doohan outlines 10 core values of Spiritual leaders. One of these values is that a Spiritual leader has a “profound sense of community and human interdependence.” Doohan explains the importance of this value within a faith community. “Leadership emerges from the interplay between leaders and followers. This will imply open communications and the positive belief in others that leads to the creating of a climate of unity and mutual trust in which the welfare of others is as important as one’s own.” The positive belief in others is sorely lacking at this juncture in our Church’s history, which is why the trust between leaders and followers has been severely damaged. Bishop Robert Barron was more blunt in his comments on the root causes of this crisis of leadership. “Clericalism is one of the causes — a terrible abuse of privilege and power.”

Trust is the firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something. In a relationship of two equals, it is easy to presume the mutuality of trust. When the relationship is skewed toward one who holds power over another, then trust seems like it must somehow be granted by the lesser. This concept was revealed to me when a friend wrote his memoir about discovering as an adult that he was adopted. Throughout his life his mother could never find the right time to tell him until he was nearly 40 years old and she was forced to disclose the truth because of a search by his birth family. There were so many reasons or excuses given for keeping the truth from her son. Adoptions weren’t as open as they are today, or the news might traumatize her son, or her worst fear, that he might choose to leave her for his birth mother. She held all the cards in the relationship, and thus controlled the potential outcome that this news may bring. 

When he finally was told the truth of his adoption at age 40, he was indeed traumatized, as it was a blow to his sense of identity. What really hurt him, however, was that his adopted mother did not trust him enough to love her. Here is kernel of truth within this story: trust is not the prerogative of the greater over the lesser, the leader over the follower; the mother over the son. Trust is a two-way proposition within a community of persons who value their relations of mutual caring and sharing. Trust will be rebuilt if we recapture the mutuality that existed when the Church was born, rather than the “us vs. them” mentality that plagues the hierarchical structure.

If there is anything positive to come out of this crisis in the Church it may be greater recognition of the role played by the laity in carrying out the mission of Christ. The laity has kept the fire burning within the Church through its darkest hours. The laity does not need new roles in the Church, but the Church needs to listen to the wisdom of the faithful who have been doing the heavy lifting for two millennia. Together with our leaders we will rebuild the road to trust, but this time it will be a two-way street.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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