On Good Friday, Alice and I found ourselves in Rockport, Massachusetts, a small town that juts out into the Atlantic along New England’s rocky coast. In summertime, the town is a tourist attraction, but in early spring, the boutiques, restaurants, and art studios were “closed for the season,” leaving only a remnant of blue-collar families to attend the day’s church services. Despite the darkness, parishioners from Rockport and nearby filled the pews as the somber Good Friday ceremonies began to unfold. A white-haired priest in a red chasuble approached the altar and prostrated himself on the ground, praying for a prolonged period in silence. Rockport is a relatively small community on the edge of the Boston Archdiocese, home to over two million Roman Catholics.
A cold wind had been blowing that evening as we walked through the town, and the church had been one of the few buildings showing light along the main street. When entering, the usher us handed a Good Friday letter by the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law. The personal letter acknowledged that a “betrayal of trust is at the heart of the evil in the sexual abuse by clergy. Priests should be trustworthy beyond any shadow of doubt.” Expressing obvious personal anguish, the Cardinal wrote to the victims: “with all my heart I apologize for the terrible harm that has been done to you.” He was not alone in his grieving.
Earlier that afternoon, Alice and I had visited a church in another town where a priest had greeted us and told us that a brief service was about to take place. Catholics were walking in procession from one church to another carrying a large wooden cross — a local Good Friday tradition. I had looked at the celebrant and wondered what pain he felt this Good Friday. In each of the 262 parishes of the Archdiocese of Boston, Good Friday liturgy was being celebrated this day, and the sufferings of Christ and his body the Church seemed tangible.
“This story has legs,” one newspaper commentator had noted, suggesting that the topic of clerical pedophilia would not soon go away. During the previous week, the press of this nominally Catholic city seemed engaged in a feeding frenzy, as each day brought forth new allegations and endless analysis. Over 1600 priests now minister in the Archdiocese. There were few words of sympathy for them. Each, it seemed, had become a potential Judas. A beleaguered cardinal struggled to address the issue. “A betrayal of trust,” the wrote, “is at the heart of evil in the sexual abuse of children by clergy…. When some [priests] have broken that trust, all of us suffer….”
The Catholic communities are very old in parts of the East. The church at Rockport dated back to the 1840, when Irish immigrants had come to the area to vie for jobs in the stone quarries and on the fishing boats. These are still strongly ethnic communities were being Catholic is part of one’s religious and social identity. It was not only the priests here who were suffering but also the people. There are special intercessions on Good Friday. One intercession seemed particularly meaningful that evening: a prayer for the clergy and the laity.
As the Good Friday service progressed at Rockport, the elderly pastor placed a large cross before the altar and then knelt to kiss it, followed in turn by each member of the assembly, young and old, men and women. Then the sacred bread was placed on the altar, and all were invited to join the priest in this memorial of Christ’s passion. Within the Catholic community there is a distinction between the lay Catholic, and the priestly hierarchy. But there is a greater unity that we share in common: each of us in our own way are sinners before the Lord, just as we are all redeemed and called to repentance by the same holy cross.
The closing prayer was said and a few moments later we stepped out into the bracing air, shaking the priest hands as we left the church. I wanted to offer a word of support, but could think of nothing to say. With only a few words, Alice and I walked quietly through the night to our motel.
I cannot say when this period of shame will end for the Church I love. But I know that no amount of disappointment in a few will ever lessen my regard for the many priests who throughout my life have been a mainstay and an inspiration — and that I am hardly alone in this sentiment. I also know that the silent witness of a life of celibacy speaks more eloquently of the Gospel’s deeper meaning than all the sage commentaries that will ever be written. And I know that the chilled darkness of a Good Friday, regardless of how long it lingers, will eternally be followed by the sunlight of Easter morning.
April 1, 2002