Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Thank you all for your continued prayers and concrete suggestions in these difficult days in the church as we address the clergy sexual abuse scandal and the role of many bishops in dealing correctly with these problems in the past and present. I have asked you for courage in clinging fast to hope in Jesus Christ present within us in the church and to hold on deeply to your Catholic faith. I have also asked you to fast for conversion and reparation, especially on the first Fridays of the month.
Many people ask why lay people should make sacrifices for the sins of the clergy. They say that this seems unfair, a kind of double victimizing. Allow me to explain what the church means by “reparation,” and why lay people, priests and bishops should undertake these acts, even though they are not guilty of the sins and failings of the sexual abuse crisis.
“Reparation” is rooted in the Catholic understanding of God becoming one of us in the person of Jesus and his suffering, death and resurrection. This is summed up in the Eucharist. All sin requires reparation, as far as possible; that is, something must be done to try to correct the harm caused by the sin. An item stolen must be returned or paid for, a lie must be retracted and apologized for, and so forth. “Every offense committed against justice and truth entails the duty of reparation, even if its author has been forgiven” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2487).
The problem, however, is that, while we can make some efforts of reparation towards each other, we cannot on our own make even the slightest reparation to God for the wrong we as humans do. We are finite and weak creatures, entirely dependent upon God for every aspect and every moment of our existence (Acts 17:28).
We already owe God the greatest possible worship, because he is God, and the greatest possible thanksgiving, because he is our generous creator. There is nothing that we can offer, no conceivable act or expression of reparation, that is over and above what we already owe as creatures.
Beginning with original sin, and continuing with our own personal sin, we find ourselves divided from God by the loss of grace and spiritual gifts (although he is never distant from us). We need someone with an infinite capacity to give, in order to offer to God the Father the reparation for sin. This is, of course, Jesus, God the Son, who takes on our human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary and becomes one of us precisely in order to reconcile us to God in his person (e.g., 2 Cor 5:18-19).
In choosing freely to die on the cross for our sins, Christ makes an infinite sacrifice of himself as Paschal Lamb to the Father on our behalf. He makes reparation for us in his own blood.
In order to benefit from Christ’s reparation, we must do two fundamental things: we must first repent of our sins (we never stop doing this in this life), and we must also participate in Christ’s sacrifice of himself, that is to say, receive the sacraments (especially, in this sense, baptism, penance, and holy Eucharist) and live them as faithfully as we can.
This is what it means to belong to the church, to be the “Body of Christ.” The unity of all the members of the church as “one body” is a fundamental feature – what hurts or helps one, hurts or helps all.
Both because Christ is God, and because he is a sinless human being, his death on the cross is a grave injustice. Reparation for this injustice should be made to Christ. But, being God and therefore infinite and perfect, Christ does not personally benefit from this.
Yet, we can give restoration of justice to Christ by living as members of his body and by the “merit” and “grace” which we share as the church. When we need to make reparation to God for our own sins, we depend upon the “treasury of merit and grace” that we receive through Christ and the sacraments (see CCC, #2010).
Because of the unity of the church, there is no reason why one of us who belongs to the church cannot ask that the treasury of merit and grace (that is to say, Christ’s saving work, and all he has done for us) be given on behalf of another member (CCC, #2011).
This is what we do when we pray for the dead. That’s why we desire to have funeral Masses, rather than just perfunctory prayers and burials; we want to appeal in the most profound way, through the holy sacrifice of the Mass, to Christ’s treasury of merit and grace for the sake of our loved one who has died. That’s also why we ask our priests to offer Masses for many other intentions and pray ourselves for each other in many different ways.
Acts of reparation in response to the scandalous sins of some clergy work just the same way. Our action and intention is for the treasury of merit and grace to be opened, in order that Christ heals the harm caused by these sins, both in respect to the victims’ healing, and in respect to conversion of heart for the guilty, and even in respect to the spiritual health of the whole church, scandalized as we are by the knowledge of such acts. The whole church benefits from these acts of reparation.
By voluntarily undertaking acts of reparation, we are uniting our will and works to the saving work of Christ’s sorrowful passion, death, and glorious resurrection. We are purifying our faith, hope and charity. We are expressing a real, spiritual oneness with the suffering of those who have been harmed. We are holding accountable before God, in a spiritual sense, those guilty of such crimes, because Jesus is not only our savior but also our final judge (CCC, #1040).
And we are doing the best and most powerful thing we can do, in union with Christ, to ask that even these sinners impenitent and unworthy of the eternal life for which God made them be saved by Christ’s love.
The devil wants above all else to separate us from Christ and the church – permanently. Sin is not the only path to that end. Our righteous anger against others’ sins, good though it is, can also become the tool that kills grace in us, if not united with Christ’s saving work.
Therefore, I ask you again to pray and fast in some way for the whole church. The more each of us begs Christ to open the treasury of merit and grace, the stronger all of us will be in faith, hope, and charity. May you always know the love of Christ in your heart and persevere in faith through every difficulty.
My prayers are constantly with you and our church. I count on your prayers for me. Blessings to all in this beautiful autumn season.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City