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.
Steve, you yourself, however flawed in your own mind and heart, are an inspiration for love, tolerance, and the courage to ask unanswerable questions. They are important questions, and each of us must find the courage to look for answers that seem right to us. I believe Thomas Sowell is the source of my current mantra. “There are no perfect solutions. There are only acceptable compromises.” I believe it is those compromises we are responsible for finding. Everyone’s parameters are different, and there are no universal answers. For me, it is to do the most good for the greatest number in the *long term.* Thank you for opening your heart and mind to help others (including me) question, think, and feel. That is a gift. Love, peace, and Joyeuses Paques fom rural France.
Karen, it is always a joy to hear from you, my friend! Thank you for your kind words and for sharing such wisdom. I hope that you are safe, well, and thoroughly enjoying your life. Rest assured, all who know you see the wonderful evidence of your “parameters” being lived to the full. Blessings always! – Steve
God bless you , Steve, for once again opening our hearts to a wide field of compassion beyond our limited understanding. I cannot help but believe that what you are speaking about here is at the very heart of Resurrection hope. In the face of death and disappointment, Jesus says, “I’ am the resurrection and the life. . . And when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.” What is impossible to human beings is possible to God. Once again, Steve, you have opened our imagination to live inside of this Divine possibility.
Joyous peace to you and your family this Easter weekend.
Thank you, Nina! God bless you and John for being such wonderful friends through these many years! Marianne and I look forward to seeing you both very soon. Blessings always! – Steve
Thank you, Steve, for this beautiful, God-inspired post,. Thank you most of all for inviting me and all of your readers to celebrate the wheat among the weeds in others and in ourselves, however “unforgivable” their/our weeds might appear. I am blessed to be one of your readers, and–even more–to count you as a friend as well as former colleague. May you and your family have a blessed Easter, and may we meet again and continue this conversation when that is possible,
Lucretia, what a delight to hear from you! Just the other day I recommended a chapter from the 2nd edition of your book to an alum who is writing a book review for publication. I would so enjoy seeing you again once it is deemed safe to do so. In the meantime, I wish you all the blessings of this holy season! – Steve
Soooo much to ponder in this. Thanks for working through this “out loud” so we can all give this deep contemplation. There is a lovely book on copyright whose author was later convicted for child pornography. I’ve wondered whether to recommend his book ever since and this post is rich with insight.
It really is a dilemma, isn’t it, Mary? Have you ever recommended it since his conviction? I hope you and your family (especially your parents) are well, my friend! And, Marianne and I really look forward to seeing you soon! Blessings always! – Steve
Steve, Christianity is larger than the stories of sexual abuse…both Catholic and Protestant. Holy communities are both in church and in the literary world. Maybe even your inner bibliography of favorite books in a community. Are not the humanities God’s auxiliary? Especially when young people make mistakes. If reconciliation with your former friends is not possible, perhaps put the matter into God’s hands, then trust that the future is open and that He is Risen. Grace and Peace, Sharon R. Chace
Thank you for sharing wisdom, Sharon! I hope that you had a wonderful Easter and that you are safe and well. Blessings, my friend! – Steve
I always discover new insights in your posts.
Thank you for years of friendship.
Thank you as well, Maxine! May God richly bless you during this holy season and forever! – Steve
Happy Easter Steve,
It is a very frightening thought, to imagine that those we love and who have helped us along our journey would or could possibly be excluded from God’s grace. I would like to think that God’s Mercy is so much grander than our fragile limited minds. Why would Paul say, ” For I do not understand what I am doing; for I am not practicing what I want to do, but I do the very thing I hate.” It sounds like a Saint struggling with sin to me. How many times are we called to forgive the sinner? And how about the verse that states… “many will say I did great things in my name, but I will say get away from me you evil doers” paraphrase sorry .
What we do not see, is the direct violation that was done to the sinner, that most likely caused this horrid compulsion to act out in such a manner.
I don’t think everything is clearly black and white. If we are made in God’s image and we, with our weak and futile minds have compassion, wouldn’t our Lord God have at least as much compassion for the lost souls He came to save? If there was a desire to be healed or repent, I would think that God would honor that.
I’m not defending any of these horrific acts but we really don’t understand fully what surrounds these acts and what came before them. I remember the movie “Nuts” with Barbara Streisand, and by the end of the movie it is evident what her crazy behavior was caused from, violations that were done to her at a young age.
There is so much… too much…God heal our mind, body, and soul and I pray for the generational sins that were visited on us because of our ancestors. Have mercy.
Much love to you, Marianne and your beautiful family.
Joanne, your and my perspective are very similar. The acts are heinous, but God’s mercy is immense. I would never wish to minimize the suffering of victims, not even one iota; however, as you indicate, we don’t know if the offenders were themselves victims. I trust that God will sort things out. In the meantime, I would never trust an offender in the presence of a possible victim, especially a child. Living in the world of grays is difficult, but it is also reality. Blessings to you, my friend! – Steve