Noon Mass at Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral on Sunday, Dec. 29, was sparsely attended. Typically, it’s hard to find a seat at that hour.
It was my first time seeing the controversial renovations made to the magnificent basilica by disgraced former Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston bishop Michael Bransfield. The new marble cathedra, which is the actual name of the bishop’s chair, replaces a more modest mahogany one. It sat empty beside the bishop’s crozier (shepherd’s crook) in its stand.
Like many West Virginia Catholics, I am confused, hurt and angry over allegations of Bransfield’s exorbitant spending on an opulent lifestyle — certainly by West Virginia standards. At first, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to take part in the service Sunday with any sense of reverence or peace.
But then the rhythms of the Mass began to wash over me. It was the Mass for the Holy Family, the scripture readings threaded together with themes of family relationships.
The Old Testament reading about how a man should suffer his father, even in old age. The Psalm, “Thy wife as a fruitful vine, in the recesses of thy house; thy children like olive plants around thy table,” followed by the booming baritone of the cantor, “Blessed are all they that fear the Lord: that walk in his ways.”
The New Testament letter was one that always causes a ripple among the congregation: “Wives, be subject to your husbands. Husbands, love your wives. Children, obey your parents. Fathers, do not nag your children lest they lose heart.”
Finally, there was the Gospel reading that told the compelling story of the new father Joseph, having to smuggle his wife and newborn into Egypt to escape the sword of the evil Herod. That family trip was around 400 miles across a desert with no air conditioning, GPS or iPads.
After the readings, Father Donald X. Higgs tied his homily to the notion of the church as family to our own families. Almost as if on cue, I noticed the heads in the pews tilt from one side to the other. If the thoughts of the congregants could have been visible in cartoon bubbles above their heads, what would they have shown? How many Christmases were ruined because of the scourge of addiction? How many family dinners were cut short over a political argument? How many decades-old grudges were clung to despite God’s love pressing on our hearts to let them go?
If it is true that the Catholic Church is a family, then we must do what good families do. We must roll up our sleeves and fix our problems.
That begins with our own families. We must honor and respect each other, even when it means swallowing pride. The now viral “Pope slap” provided a perfect teachable moment for our 989-million member Catholic family: We test Dad’s patience. Dad loses his patience. Feelings are hurt. Contrition leads to apologies. Healing begins.
Healthy families practice the virtues Paul admonished in his letters from prison: mercy, kindness, modesty, humility, patience. More importantly, they forbear, forgive and love.
It is tempting to walk away from the Catholic Church in this difficult time. It is equally tempting to believe dramatic changes like female priests and married priests will instantly fix everything.
Like any family, our church family is populated by sinners. This is certainly not the first time scandal has rocked church leadership. The church was founded on the impulsive and fickle Peter. Dozens of popes who followed him would succumb to every manner of evil temptation.
But we must remember the reformers: St. Thomas More. Ignatius of Loyola. St. Catherine of Genoa. Teresa of Avila. St. John of the Cross. These and others spoke truth to the powers in Rome and sparked periods of rectification, healing and rebirth.
We are at a crossroads as a family. We can walk away and no one will blame us. But Catholics need the sacraments. We need the church’s traditions and stability. The community at large needs its resources and outreach. Most importantly, we need each other.