On Holy Thursday, I brought Nikolai Ge’s haunting “The Conscience of Judas” to prayer, along with the various Gospel accounts of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. I soon found myself pleading with God to be merciful with this broken man whose very name is synonymous with “traitor.”
When I was seventeen, I betrayed a friend. I will not disclose specific details because the story is not mine alone. I simply offer that my (sadly, former) friend and a certain young woman, who had been his girlfriend, were involved.
If this were a matter for a court of law, I may be able to argue successfully for a reduced sentence. Indeed, I believe there were some mitigating circumstances. Still, the cold fact is that someone I cared about, and still care about, was deeply wounded by my selfish, deceitful actions; and, I have carried that grief, that frightening yet enlightening awareness of what I am capable of doing, with me ever since.
One of the features I enjoy most about Facebook is the “Memories” function, which reminds users of their post(s) on the same date in prior years. Recently, I was reminded of an inspiring quote I originally posted back in 2017. The quote spoke about virtues invariably found in healthy Christian communities, and its relevance for the present-day Church, so rife with division, was blatantly obvious to me. I was about to repost the memory until I saw the name of the person I had quoted – Jean Vanier.
In 1987, two of my dearest friends, Nina Pension and Janie Korins, joined me in offering a Lenten mission in several local Catholic parishes. The mission, titled “I Believe; Help My Unbelief,” was based upon the pericope found in Mark 9:14-29, in which a father seeks help from Jesus in healing his apparently demon-possessed son. In pleading his case, the tormented man says to Jesus “… if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus responds with a challenging statement that all things are possible for one who believes. At that point, the father confronts and confesses his own weakness by uttering the words comprising our mission’s title.
My co-presenters and I could sense the power of that theme even as we met to discuss the mission’s content and our respective assignments. We knew that the words of that desperate father could aptly be placed on our own lips, as well as on those of all who would attend the mission, at various times in our respective lives.
I must have drawn the short straw because one of my assignments was a presentation titled “Forgiving the Church.” I based the talk on Matthew 13:24-30, the parable of the weeds among the wheat.
The story is a familiar one. A man sows good seeds in his field, but an enemy comes at night and sows weeds among the sprouting wheat. The owner must then decide whether to root out the weeds during the growing season or to wait until the crop has matured and then separate wheat from weeds at harvest. He wisely chooses the latter approach so as not to risk rooting up the growing wheat along with the weeds.
At the mission, one of my living examples of a weed among the wheat of the Church was a bishop (from the Midwest, if I’m recalling correctly), who had been credibly accused of abusing children. Little did I know then of the startling revelations that would dominate the headlines fifteen years later and well beyond – headlines that would strike painfully close to home.
The late Jean Vanier was a personal hero to countless people, Christians and non-Christians alike. His founding of L’Arche, his voluntary life of sacrifice and (apparent) chastity, and his close fellowship with people with mental health disabilities made him a model of agape love at work.
To call him an inspiration would be an understatement. Like many, I drank in his writings because he seemingly lived a life that mirrored the virtues he extolled. In other words, he “walked the walk” and thus, credibly, “talked the talk.”
I had always struggled to appreciate the Gospel of John, until I read Vanier’s book Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus Through the Gospel of John. I subscribed to an email service that provided a daily reflection drawn from Vanier’s writings. In that way, he was with me every morning to strengthen and encourage.
I described one instance of Vanier’s influence in my essay “Bridging the Chasm.” In that case, his challenging words, working in tandem with God’s grace, gave me the courage to move beyond my comfort zone when I really needed the push.
Vanier’s fall and the exposure of rank weeds growing in his life was, for me, the most disillusioning of all the Church-related sexual abuse revelations. I do not want to let his case harden my heart; yet, thinking about this man, whom I once considered a living saint, now yields profound sadness.
But there was also wheat, amazing wheat!
The lyrics are simple but sublime.
I will come to you in the silence
I will lift you from all your fear
You will hear My voice
I claim you as My choice
Be still, and know I am near…
They give voice to the longing in the heart that draws one to prayer. No doubt, many have used a recording of that contemporary hymn specifically to lead them into prayer. The songwriter is the accused serial sexual abuser David Haas.
At a crucial time in my life, when much was going right, but I nonetheless felt a deep sense of emptiness, a (then) young priest helped me to rediscover God and was thus instrumental in changing the course of my life. I wrote briefly about this pivotal encounter in my essay titled The Red Sweater.
This priest became a trusted friend and even officiated at my wife’s and my wedding. But, in 2005, he was finally laicized after multiple instances of molesting children.
The Catholic Church teaches that only two people have ever walked sinless upon the earth, Jesus and his Blessed Mother. My presentation on “Forgiving the Church” focused on the hard truth that we all can sense in our hearts. Our lives and characters comprise both wheat and weeds.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus sends his twelve apostles out two by two on a mission trip to preach repentance, heal, and cast out demons (Mark 6:6b-13). Judas Iscariot was among those missionaries. His efforts likely touched, healed, and redirected many lives toward God. Wonderful wheat!
Yet, weeds have become his defining legacy – a Biblical example of cancel culture.
I pray for and have compassion for Judas… maybe because I know in my heart that I have been Judas.
Sometimes the wheat and the weeds are so intricately interwoven that only God can do the untangling. The disciples tried to help the father and his tormented son, but Jesus alone could set them free from their bondage.
I understand the motive behind cancel culture. Public figures who are revealed to have engaged in abhorrent behavior are finally and rightfully being held accountable. Vanier is no longer held up as an example to follow. David Hass’s music is no longer played at liturgical celebrations. The priest who touched my life can no longer exercise a priestly ministry. Judas is a pariah.
I get it. But, I’m left with some haunting questions.
What do we do with the good, the wheat in their lives?
Is the L’Arche movement invalidated by Vanier’s sins? Are his inspirational words nullified?
While Hass’s music is rightly no longer played in churches, would a believer who has always been inspired by his songs be wrong to play them privately if they still inspire prayer and faith?
Should my wife and I remove pictures from our wedding album that show the offending priest?
Is there hope for Judas? I pray that there is, because therein lies the hope for me.