Light in the darkness

In the 10 days before Christmas the Church in Massachusetts received some great news (the announcement that Pope Francis had decided, after much investigating, to declare Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C., “Venerable,” the last step before being beatified, should God choose to have a miracle happen by Father Peyton’s intercession — please see the article on page six) and some heartrending news (the reopening of the wounds from the clergy sexual abuse crisis upon the death of Cardinal Bernard Law).

December is the darkest month of the year here in the northern hemisphere. The celebration of Christmas (and other holidays in the winter) helps people with seasonal affective disorder to be distracted from the dearth of natural light during these shortest of days. One hopes that the message of the Christ Child, the Light of the world, also helps us get through this renewal of sadness.

The victims of clergy sexual abuse have good reason to be aggrieved by Cardinal Law’s lack of punishment in this life. Civil authorities said that they did look into various ways to indict him, but the laws on the books in 2002 did not allow for the punishing of what he and his collaborators did in not informing law enforcement of criminal activity by priests. The honors that Cardinal Law continued to receive in the Church after leaving Boston were particularly galling to the victims and other Catholics.

“I think it’s unfortunate that he’s had such a high profile in the life of the Church,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap., said in a press conference in Boston. These days, he said, “that kind of a decision would not be made, but unfortunately we’re living with the consequences of that.”

As in so many other controversies in which we’re living during this new millennium, anger and hatred gets revved up quite easily and quickly. Anger is OK (within reason, which sometimes is overridden by anger), but hatred only comes from Satan. It is OK to desire that someone pay for his crimes, but it is another thing to actively desire some type of torture for the person who has wronged us. 

On the radio a survivor of clergy sexual abuse did give a balanced reaction to the news of the cardinal’s death. He remarked that now Cardinal Law would be facing the judgment which none of us can avoid. This is very true.

Many journalists asked Cardinal O’Malley and other clerics whether they thought that Cardinal Law was in Heaven (while many other people were proclaiming in the media that now the late cardinal was in hell). 

This question would have seemed preposterous under a century ago. People (especially Catholics) back then did not presume everyone (especially their friends and relatives) went immediately to Heaven, while only a few extreme bad apples (normally Hitler is the one person mentioned, although Stalin and Mao are sometimes thrown in by people trying to be bipartisan) go to hell. In the 1946 Sherlock Holmes movie, “Dressed to Kill,” the villains have left the hero to die of carbon monoxide poisoning. One of them says to the other, “By now Mr. Holmes has no doubt exchanged his violin for a harp.” The other one responds, “Oh well, assuming that Heaven is his destination.” The significance of the quote is not that it reflected what the fictional criminals thought, but that it may have revealed what the writer of the movie believed, that Heaven can’t be presumed, even for the good.

“I hope that everyone goes to Heaven,” Cardinal O’Malley said to the press. “This is what the mission of the Church is. But I am not here to sit in judgment of anybody.” In saying this, the cardinal was not saying that he believed that all the dead go to Heaven, since he has openly spoken repeatedly about praying for the souls in Purgatory. Instead, he was trying to correct the desire so many of us have of trying to determine the eternal destiny of other people’s souls (especially people who have gravely harmed us), while feeling no need to be concerned about our own souls (for which the Church exists to try to help us get them to Heaven).

Cardinal O’Malley added, “Forgiveness is what Christianity is about, and that doesn’t make it easy. This is not something that has been solved. Right now, the hurt is still there, the healing is still necessary, and we must all be vigilant.”

May the Good News that Father Peyton strove to spread (not just by his active work using all the media available to him in the 20th century, but even more so by his example of being a good and faithful priest) help us to see Christ’s light in this time of year and to reflect that light in our love for God and each other. 

As Zechariah said to his newborn son, John the Baptist, “You will go before the Lord to prepare His way, to give His people knowledge of Salvation by the forgiveness of their sins” (Lk 1:76-77). Grave sins and crimes have come back to our minds in these recent weeks, sins and crimes which destroyed so many lives. 

Into the darkness of our world, Zechariah’s words approximately 2017 years ago give us hope. “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death” (Lk 1:78-79). The Church in the Diocese of Fall River (clergy and laity together, which is what the Church is) has worked since the days when Bishop O’Malley came to us after the James Porter scandal in the 1990s to protect our children, help survivors, and to be an example of how to appropriately respect the God-given dignity each of us has. May the light of Christ help all people to get through this difficult time of remembering the past. 

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts