What does it mean to be Christian?

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Boz Tchividjiam, a grandson of the Rev. Billy Graham, has written a very insightful article touching on the sex abuse tragedy. It may be particularly significant in that it is written by a non-Catholic and does not directly address the sex abuse by Catholic priests. Yet it gets to the core of what we have been experiencing in our own faith community.

Why the cover-up? Graham gets right at the problem. The institution has become more important than the people. That fact explains why children were not protected and accusers were themselves abused, disbelieved, and essentially condemned as those who wanted to do harm to the church.

Tchividjiam points to Matthew 19 where Jesus tells the disciples to “let the little children come to me.” The disciples tried to prevent the children from coming to Jesus because they felt that the adults were more important than the children. This is not the way Jesus sees it.

It is small comfort to know that other denominations are also grappling with a response to sexual abuse in their midst, and that they have been guilty of many of the same failures we have seen. The real lesson is that we have failed to be responsive to the victims – the children who have been molested by priests that they and their parents trusted. Again, Tchividjiam points to pastors who come into court to support their fellow pastors but ignore or disparage the victims and their families.

In addition to valuing the institution over abuse victims, our church has always had a sense of self that seems to surpass the importance of the Gospels. We Catholics grew up knowing the precepts of the church, the importance of our Easter duty, the importance of the pope and how he and the church are infallible. We knew that what made us Catholic is that we didn’t eat meat on Fridays. We knew less about what Jesus said and almost nothing of salvation history from the Hebrew Scriptures.

We learned about the church as the spotless bride of Christ. We were told it was our duty to follow the rules of the church, and these rules appeared to take precedence over whatever Jesus might have said in the Gospels. A church that is sinless can do no wrong and must be protected at all cost. Such an attitude has led us horribly astray.

Today we hear a lot about Catholic identity, and there is nothing fundamentally wrong with that, but I would suggest that we might do better to look for our Christian identity. Together with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters, we all seek to follow Jesus. We can learn from each other, and we can learn to value people above an institution which still has much to answer for.

As did the earliest Christians, we fall to our knees and proclaim Jesus as Lord. Pope, bishops and all Christians of whatever denomination profess the same Jesus as Lord. If the sex abuse scandal teaches us anything it is that those who are supposed to be “alter Christi” are pale representatives indeed. Jesus taught us to value little children, the outcasts, and all those on the margins as highly as we value the powerful. Pope Francis points to a church for the poor, and even a poor church. We still have a long way to go.

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