The shadow of the crucifix loomed over the altar and the steps leading to it. Last week, Fr. Mike Schmitz pointed to its origin, an image of Christ crucified suspended over the center of the building, and spoke, of all the things in the world, about persevering through adversity.
He very likely did not know– if he did he did not mention it–that the parish from which he was addressing a worldwide Internet audience knows a thing or two about this topic. The community hosting Father Schmitz was not only enduring a pandemic and the usual insta-anti-Catholic opposition hovering as closely as the cell phones in the pews. They were recovering from one of the worst blows a Catholic community can withstand.
The crucifix to which Fr. Schmitz was pointing was recently moved from its original placement to the side of the altar. The man who ordered its relocation was the former pastor. It was his last act just before he was indicted on nine counts of rape of an altar server.
The victim was likely one of my classmates. I didn’t know. None of us had the slightest idea. The pastor committed these crimes at another parish while working as a music minister, before he was a priest, but such horrific wounds seem to exist out of time. This evil is so fully the opposite of the great reaches of kindness and flourishing love of which we are capable that the foulness of it shudders through the parish, the city, the nation, the Church, the planet. The damage is vast, and it is perpetual. To see hands consecrated to perform the most sacred of rituals now justly in handcuffs for the most sickening of crimes is a particular form of nausea.
But before the former pastor ever knew that law enforcement was rifling through a storage unit containing potential evidence, before the national news cameras descended on the lawn of the parish preschool, this man ordered the defining image of suffering innocence removed from the periphery to hang smack in the middle of the church.
This weekend, the shadow of the crucifix fell on an entirely different sort of man, one who applies comforting words and the stinging antiseptic of truth to these unbindable wounds. Both priests wear the same Roman collar, but could not be further apart in their understanding of it.
One way to prepare for adversity, Father Schmitz said, is to commit to making ourselves and our children dangerous. Not in a shiv-wielding, abandoned-building, Dateline sort of fashion, but dangerous to the worldliness of the world. To apathy. To exploitation. To hatred and revenge and depersonalization.
How does the world become– and stay– so very broken?
Partly, I think, because we allow it to remain so. I do it all the time. Sports might operate as not only a pleasant distraction from everyday life, but also as a blinder to the parts of it that most require our awareness.
It’s so easy. It is so easy– to sink into harmless lumps of consumption. It scrolls past in every form of entertainment on every possible topic. Social media extends the invitation to view people as pixels, and athletes as commodities. MLB culture is guilty of this, but not more so than other sports; we who re-tote numbers on an at-bat basis are merely catching up to the likes of football and basketball, where potential players are measured fingertip to fingertip and judged by how high they can leap to a wooden box.
Are pro sports bad? Well, no. The Bengals are bad. The Detroit Red Wings are very bad. Sports in themselves are fine, and can, in fact, be very good.
Tuning our total awareness to what is supposed to function as a healthy distraction is a matter of perspective and personal limits. But as we exit from a year-long winter of suffering, barred from the ball park for so long, just now reaching our fingertips towards a few hours sitting in the sun as the river flows past, it’s tempting to rush into the warm open seats and forget what we might have gained this past year.
And what we have gained, in vastly varying degrees, is a knowledge of suffering. In some ways it drew us closer. In others, it pushed us further apart.
We can profit by this suffering or prolong it by sinking further into the wounds it left. We can enjoy a few innings in the sunshine with a friend or a nephew or a co-worker, or we can anxiously hunch over a flickering set of stats while various family members, having long ago given up on gaining our attention, leave the room in silence.
Sometimes our suffering is to the side; in other seasons it is center-front, shared by all, ignored by none. Others might inflict the pain, or it could arrive through our own choices.
What matters is how we act when we find ourselves in its shadow.