Wednesday, May 5, 2010


A prominent Vatican Cardinal has gone from the limelight to the dog house because of a letter he once sent, praising a bishop for shielding a pedophile priest from prosecution for his crime. Moreover, he claimed that the letter was endorsed by Pope John Paul and by the then Cardinal Ratzinger. The offending prelate, Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, was scheduled to celebrate a super solemn high Tridentine Mass at Washington’s national shrine of the Immaculate Conception. However, after learning about the infamous letter, the event’s sponsors told the Cardinal to stay in Rome, and they’d find someone else.

Too bad. It would have been quite a thrill for His Eminence to enter a vast basilica, attired in red watered silk and ermine garments, wearing a scarlet biretta and golden pectoral cross encrusted with jewels, and trailing a 14 foot train. Sometimes participants in these exotic liturgies seem to be like people who spend their weekends re-enacting Civil War battles, dressing in period uniforms, bearing old rifles, shooting blanks which smoke, and shedding artificial blood. Traditionalist Catholics seem to have a similar need to recapture past glories. Perhaps some are also neo-monarchists seeking to revive the Bourbons, the Romanovs and the Council of Trent.

Sixty years ago, as high school seminarians, some of us were involved in the real thing when we were assigned to sing Gregorian chant at pontifical Masses at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral. A long procession led Cardinal Samuel Stritch down the main aisle to the strains of “Ecce Sacerdos Magnus” (behold the great high priest.) We weren’t sure if those words referred to Jesus or to the Cardinal, and that ambiguity has caused much mischief in the Church over the centuries. But that’s getting ahead of the story. Let’s talk about the grand entrance procession, which reflected the hierarchical pecking order of those times.

First came a cross-bearer and a phalanx of servers. Next, an array of laymen in intriguing costumes, sort of ersatz nobility. In descending order of importance were the assorted Knights -- of Malta, the Holy Sepulcher, Columbus and Peter Claver. This last group was composed of negro Catholics who, in former days, had been excluded from the Knights of Columbus. There were no women. Next came three varieties of priests – religious order men, diocesan priests and monsignors, who were subdivided into three categories: papal chamberlains, domestic prelates and proto-notaries apostolic. (I kid you not. That’s how it was in those days.) Finally, there were the bishops in ascending order of rank --auxiliaries, ordinaries, archbishops and cardinals. The cardinals also had their own subdivisions, but we won’t get into that.

When Cardinal Stritch finally reached the sanctuary area, he went not to the altar, but to his elaborate throne, where he spent another half hour changing clothes. Surrounded by scurrying servers, he removed his “street clothes” (the red robes, ermine, jewels and 14 foot long train) and was ceremoniously garbed in many layers of golden colored vestments for Mass. We seminarians were so bored by that time that we rolled our eyes and offered it up for the souls in Purgatory. Coordinating all of this was Monsignor Jim Hardiman with the aplomb of a master choreographer at the grand opera. He had a gleam in his eye, which seemed to say to us, “Boys, focus on the Eucharist. The rest of this is only frosting.” Indeed, eventually the Gospel was proclaimed (in Latin with abundant incense), a sermon delivered by a visiting prelate (with numerous oratorical flourishes), bread and wine consecrated (accompanied by bells, chimes and more incense) and Communion served (but only for those who had fasted since midnight.) Somehow, in all of this, God was praised and Jesus celebrated not as the humble carpenter of Nazareth, but as the king of endless glory.

These triumphalistic (Vatican II’s term) liturgies were replicated throughout the Church on a smaller scale whenever bishops administered Confirmation, monsignors presided at First Communions, and newly ordained priests celebrated their First Masses. Also when Knights were buried, or their daughters married. Generally, the people in the pews were merely faces in the crowd, virtually invisible. And that brings us to the connection with the Church’s current sex abuse crisis.

Although the molestation of children by clergy was first publicized only two decades ago in Louisiana, historians report that it’s been going on for centuries. The efficiency of modern media and aggressive lawyers has breached the ancient ecclesiastical wall of silence and secrecy. Unfortunately, the scandal will likely continue to surface throughout the world until the Church faces two of the many root causes – privilege and invisibility.


Hierarchical theology places the ordained on a pedestal. Priests are privileged people. Bishops are even more privileged. Cardinals are the most privileged. And the Pope is, of course, off the charts. The Church is like a giant pyramid. The Holy Spirit speaks to the Pope who speaks to the bishops who speak to the pastors who speak to the people, whose task it is to listen and obey and not talk back. Vatican II challenged this scenario with its theology of the Church as the pilgrim people of God, but the Traditionalists roared back to, as they say, reform the reform. Hence, things such as grandiose Tridentine Masses, and a letter of praise from an arrogant Vatican Cardinal for the enabler of a pedophile priest..

Privilege explains a lot. Why was John Paul II blind to the predations of his friend, Fr. Marcial Maciel? Why did the Vatican “punish” Cardinal Law with a cushy position in Rome? Why did Cardinal George resist removing Fr. Dan McCormack from his post, thereby enabling him to molest even more children? Why did the American bishops elect Cardinal George president of their national conference even after that awful mistake? Why did that French bishop shield the pedophile priest? Why did Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos write his infamous letter? And why has the hierarchy stumbled so badly and so often in dealing with the sex abuse crisis?

Thankfully, there are some signs that the walls of secrecy, denial and privilege are starting to erode, like the fabled walls of Jericho, but there’s a lot more to be done. We have to keep blowing those trumpets and circling the ramparts.


Initially, the abused children and their parents were invisible, an embarrassment to the Church, a cause of scandal, a problem to be dealt with. Then the families hired lawyers, who launched lawsuits. The bishops countered with their own teams of lawyers, instructing them to arrange out of court settlements with confidentiality clauses to maintain silence and invisibility to “protect the Church from scandal.” We all know how well that worked. The sense of privilege reasserted itself, and the bishops began to embroider the truth. This enraged some of the victims. The masks came off, and they began telling their stories in public, and organizing. They refuse to remain invisible.

However, the true conversion that’s needed to deal with the roots of the sex abuse crisis is not one in which the visibility of ordinary people ifs forced upon us against our will. It involves a fundamental change of attitude. We must move beyond the attitude of a suburban matron, who bemoaned the fact that people had dared to suggest that Cardinal George resign because of his mishandling of the McCormack case. She said, “Why are they harassing our poor Cardinal about some throw-away children in the inner-city?” Rather, we need to embrace the attitude of Jesus himself, who said, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.”


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