The Catholic Church is again mired in scandal and suspicion. Our best hope is the entrustment of our entangled webs of crisis and deceit to Mary, Undoer of Knots.
With almost no exceptions, everyone in prison is very much wrapped up in a weekly television drama on the AMC network called The Walking Dead. I have watched every episode for eight seasons, most of them twice. It is not just a repulsive show about zombies. It is much more about humanity and what it means to be part of a human community.
There are priestly scandals even in The Walking Dead. Two seasons ago, the remnant of survivors I have followed for all this time came upon a priest, Father Gabriel, being pursued across the wasteland by the walking dead. They rescued him, took him in, fed him, and then discovered his backstory. He was a coward. In the onslaught of battle, he took refuge in his church locking his parish family out to face their doom. None survived.
I cannot tell you how relieved I was after seven episodes to learn that Father Gabriel is not a Catholic priest. Prisoner after prisoner came to my door each week to ask in exasperation, “What is UP with that PRIEST?!” I admit that I took some comfort in being able to finally say, “He’s Episcopalian!” They would walk away with a quiet nod as though that explains everything.
I once wrote about The Walking Dead and its surprisingly compelling story about respect for life in a controversial post, “Planned Parenthood: An American Horror Story.” It strikes me powerfully now how much this culture is rubbing our Catholic noses in a 50-year-old sordid story about the hypocrisy of an 88-year-old American cardinal while the scandal of Planned Parenthood pretty much gets a full pass. I am no conspiracy theorist but I have to ask: Do you ever wonder about this?
These Stone Walls occasionally gets a cursory notice from the Vatican and other entities in and around Rome. One post often visited in Rome these days is something that I wrote back in 2010: “Michelangelo and the Hand of God: Scandal at the Vatican.”
Perhaps it takes a prisoner to see that most of us are prisoners of our own perception of things. The degree to which we are scandalized depends upon where our treasures lie. Scandals are not really scandalous unless we at some level have an investment in the arena in which they occur. Those who have no investment of faith are not nearly as affected by the knots of Catholic scandal as those who have entrusted their souls to the Church.
That is at least a partial explanation for why the news media hypes Catholic scandal with such vehemence. It’s an attempt to drive a wedge. So when you get right down to it, the degree to which you are perturbed by Catholic scandal speaks well of you. Trust me, it would be far worse for you, for us priests, for the Church, and even for the world if you just didn’t give a damn anymore. But you do. You would not be here reading if you didn’t.
SCANDAL IN PERSPECTIVE
In the six decades leading up to the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th Century, a succession of Renaissance popes presided over the most viral and vile scandals ever to rock the Church. But the rocking was in slow motion back then. Fake news existed just as it does today, but the printing press was just coming into its own and the printed word, the precursor to the Internet, took months or years to disseminate a story.
Imagine what Martin Luther might have done with the Internet at his fingertips instead of nailing his 99 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral 500 years ago for only the literate minority to decipher.
Our sordid stories today are as much fueled by social media and 24/7 cable news as they are by their own nasty narratives. So they feel bigger. They bite harder. A reputation and a life can be smudged then destroyed in a single 24-hour news cycle.
There has been a lot of commentary lately that equates what has come to be known simply as “The Scandal in the Church” to the events that sparked the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th Century. I think it’s an exaggeration, but Wall Street: Journal columnist William McGurn did just that in a recent op-ed, “When the Cardinal Sins” (July 31, 2018).
The most important point Mr. McGurn made was that the Church will survive this latest assault from within just as it has survived centuries of others. Nonetheless, as in Martin Luther’s time, the popular response to the “Cardinal Sins” of our time comes as a stinging rebuke. With the help of a friend, I posted a comment on William McGurn’s WSJ column with a link to my own “Cardinal Sins” article, “Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the Homosexual Matrix.”
If that title has in any way put you off from reading or sharing it, then please at least go read the comments on it first. As often happens at These Stone Walls, the comments raise up my post to much greater insight. Some people feel intense anger about recent revelations of scandal. Others feel hurt. Some others and they are a minority, dump their faith overboard in response, but that response is the greatest folly of all.
As a younger priest, I lived in the shadows of a renowned Jesuit Scripture scholar, my uncle, Father George W. MacRae. At my ordination in 1982, he got much more notice than I did. Uncle George was then Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard. Two years later, he became the first Catholic Dean of Harvard Divinity School, a fact for which the University’s Puritan founders in 1636 might have been deeply scandalized. In the 1980s, most at Harvard just rolled with it.
If you have ever read the Affidavit of Rev. Gordon J. MacRae, a document that I wrote out of necessity, but with much reluctance some years ago, then you know that my first years as a priest were surrounded in scandal and moral upheaval. In the midst of my ordeal, my Uncle sent me an excerpt of a homily by his Jesuit friend, Father Walter Burghardt, S.J. who wrote it for his own 50th Anniversary of priesthood ordination.
I never forgot it. A few years later in 1985, My Uncle died suddenly at age 57 while giving a Scripture lecture to the New England Catholic Bishops. I was entirely out of my element at his Mass of Christian Burial in Saint Paul’s Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts on September .10, 1985.
Surrounded by bishops, including Cardinal Bernard Law, a sea of Jesuit professors, and some of the world’s most prominent Catholic Scripture scholars, I read Father Burghardt’s excerpt about corruption and scandal that my Uncle had sent to me in darker times. Today, 33 years later, I want to share it from memory with you. It provides something to ponder about faith and all that really matters in a time of scandal and upheaval:
“In the course of a half century, I have seen more Christian corruption than you have read of. I have tasted it. I have been reasonably corrupt myself. And yet I love this Church, this living, pulsing, sinning people of God, with a crucifying passion. Why?
For all the Christian hate, I experience here a community of love. For all the individual repressions, I breathe here an air of freedom. For all the institutional idiocy I find here a tradition of reason. For all the fear of sex, I seek here the redemption of my body.
In a world so grim and humorless, I share here rich joy and earthy laughter. In the midst of death, I hear here an incomparable stress on life. For all the apparent absence of God, I encounter here the True Presence of Christ. (From a sermon of the late Father Walter J. Burghardt, S.J.)
MARY, UNDOER OF KNOTS
I want to put some unexpected context on the significance of that day – September 10, 1985 – as I eulogized my beloved Uncle near Harvard. Unbeknownst to me, on that same day and moment on the far side of the world, Pornchai Maximilian Moontri turned 12 years old in Bangkok, Thailand where he was reunited with his mother after her ten-year absence from his life. On that day, he began a journey to a promised new life in America.
I can only ask you to remember that connection, for these were pivotal moments in our lives before they converged to the point where we are right now, 33 years later, in a prison cell in Concord, New Hampshire. I will soon be writing this story of impossible entanglement, with knots that other humans tied in both our lives, knots that no human on Earth could untangle.
In this entanglement, much of which has been deeply, deeply painful, you will soon witness the resonance of the Great Tapestry of God. It was because of these events – events that you do not yet know about – that I developed an interest in an unusual 17th Century devotion to Mary, Undoer of Knots.
This is also a favorite devotion of Pope Francis who discovered it 27 years before becoming pope. The story behind this devotion and the lives upon which it converged is itself a scandalous entanglement.
In 1610, Bavarian nobleman Wolfgang Langenmantel traveled to the Bavarian city of Augsburg in West Germany to seek the counsel of Jesuit priest, Father Jakob Rem. The nobleman’s marriage had collapsed and he and his wife, Sophia, were on the verge of divorce. It was an unthinkable scandal for a Catholic nobleman in that time.
Father Rem had asked the nobleman to bring with him the long white ribbon used in the couple’s marriage celebration. What Father Rem had in mind was something written many centuries earlier by the Second Century Church Father, Saint Irenaeus. He had once written about how “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was untangled by the obedience of Mary.”
Father Rem entrusted to Mary the difficulties in the marriage of Wolfgang and Sophia. “I raise up the bond of marriage that all knots be loosened and resolved,” he prayed. The couple overcame their difficulties and remained together. In 1700, their nephew, knowing this story, commissioned a painting in oils upon wood paneling by Johann George Schmidtner. The painting was entitled, “Mary, Untier of Knots,” and it hangs to this day in the church of St Peter Am Perlach in Augsburg.
The painting depicts Mary, accompanied by angels, patiently untying the knots of a long ribbon while her foot subdues the head of a serpent below. Some 300 years later – 33 years ago – Bishop Jorge Bergoglio was studying in Germany when he visited that church and encountered that painting for the first time.
He was so moved by the piety of entrustment in its message that he bought a small print of it to take back to Argentina. He then entrusted to Mary all the entanglements of his life including a deep rift that had arisen among the Jesuits of Argentina. He could not have foreseen the future where the disentanglement of knots would lead him.
Some months ago, Marian Father Michael Gaitley sent me a copy of that same print, Mary, Undoer of Knots when he invited Pornchai Moontri and me to join the Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy. I was as moved by this image as Pope Francis was, and entrusted to her the knots of my life that I am powerless to sort out. I wrote about her intervention in untying one of these knots. It was a story that many found to be inspiring: “Pornchai Moontri at a Crossroads Behind These Stone Walls” (First posted August 16, 2017).
Five hundred years ago, the Protestant Reformation used the politics of scandal to persuade believers to walk away from the Church. That “reformation” went on to splinter another 250 times in the five centuries hence. The scandals that consume our news have everything to do with politics and nothing to do with faith. If we were looking to Theodore McCarrick to be a model of sacrifice and witness, well, that’s on us.
I look to St. Maximilian Kolbe, to St. Padre Pio, to St. Damien of Molokai, to Edith Stein – St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – all of whom carried their crosses with heroic Virtue. They each entrusted to Mary the knots of humanity that plague as. They entrusted themselves to her not because Catholics see her as some minor divinity – as the Reformation was fond of distorting – but because she is humanity reaching its highest potential. Entrust to her our knots of scandal and doubt.
Editor’s Note: Please share this post written from unjust imprisonment. You may also like these related posts from Father Gordon MacRae at These Stone Walls:
- How I Met Your Mother: Mary and the Fatima Century
- Saint Maximilian Kolbe and the Gift of Noble Defiance
- Saints & Sacrifices: Maximilian Kolbe & Edith Stein at Auschwitz
- The Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy