Spirit of Truth and Church of Sinners
Seventh Sunday of Easter. Fr Anthony Axe preaches on the the work of the Spirit in the light of the recent scandals in the Church.
From the disciples’ brightest hour at Easter, the Gospel readings of recent weeks bring us back to their darkest hour, the eve of the crucifixion. There Jesus comforts us:
Let not your hearts be troubled… Believe in God, believe also in me.
He promises to send the Counsellor into the life of the Church, to help us do these powerful things. This will be the Spirit of Truth, which the world cannot receive because it does not know him.
Jesus then asks his Father to glorify him, that he might give eternal life to all who follow him. That eternal life consists in knowing God and his Son.
We’ve recently seen many examples where this Spirit of Truth has not been received and this eternal life compromised. The knowledge of God and his Son has been distorted by the shocking scandals of sexual abuse of children by priests. The Church, like the apostles before the crucifixion, is going through one of its darkest hours.
It is difficult to see any resemblance between the Church and Christ, or the Spirit working in the Church, in what is reported in the newspapers. Some ministers have been anything but Christ-like.
The status of a priest in his parish, and a bishop in his diocese, depends totally on trust. They are there to minister to their brothers and sisters in the name of Christ, to have concern for them in his name, to show them that the Spirit still guides the Church and that belonging to the Body of Christ can give eternal life.
Jesus was especially concerned for children, perhaps the Church’s most vulnerable group, so for a priest to abuse his position of trust here is inexcusable. No wonder the people of God feel angry, betrayed and disgusted.
But this isn’t just a problem for priests. It’s easy to put the blame solely on the abusers and the hierarchy, Church structures, or whatever. Perhaps that’s where the blame lies, but the problem belongs to everyone in the Church, whether they like it or not.
It’s like being in a family. If one member does something wrong, they obviously have to take the blame. But that doesn’t stop their behaviour affecting the entire family and even placing everyone under suspicion. As the Church we are God’s family, and whatever anyone does affects us all.
We bask in the reflected glory of the saints, but we also smart from the behaviour of those who are in the public eye for the wrong reasons. When our non-Catholic friends hear of these scandals, they look at all of us in a different way. We may want to disown the perpetrators, but that doesn’t rid us of our association with them.
What do we do then? Being disappointed, disorientated, dismayed and disillusioned, our knee-jerk reaction may be to consider whether it’s worth having our faith in God lodged in the Church at all, when the Church appears so untrustworthy.
But we have to remember that we are all equally members of the Church. Because God has no favourites, bishops and priests have no greater stake in the Church than anyone else.
It is important to remember this when we talk about the Church. This is why a scandal like child abuse by clergy concerns us all. It isn’t ‘The Church’ that is doing it, it is us, because we are the Church. That is why everyone feels the smart when such things happen.
We may not agree with everything done in our name, but we all belong equally to the Church. Remember, too, that the Church is a collection of sinners. So we shouldn’t be surprised when we see the unspeakable things that happen in the world happening in the Church.
But where is the Spirit? The Bible compares the Spirit’s operation to the wind. It works where it wills and we cannot always see it working. Nor can we control it.
But rest assured that the Spirit is always working in the Church, and it will somehow use this great scandal to the Church’s good. So at a difficult time, let us remember Jesus’ words:
Let not your hearts be troubled? Believe in God, believe also in me.
Believe also that you are a member of the Church, a Church of sinners, most of whom are trying to do better. In this way we shall show that we know the Spirit of Truth because he will be dwelling with us.