While the Roman Catholic Church gathers to celebrate the holiest week of its year, it isn't looking too holy. As a priest, I have read the news of sexual scandals involving priests and bishops with sadness and dismay. I don't recognize the church depicted in the media as the one in which I minister or one I even know.
I've wondered if I, too, have been duped these 17 years that I have presided at the holy altar. Is there some subterranean church of pederasts and conspirators that has managed to elude my theologically honed ecclesiastical radar? Who are these demonic predators described in newspapers? Where is the church of justice and rectitude to which I have given my life, the church whose initiation by Jesus we commemorate during these high holy days?
The church is where it has always been: in the people of God, not in the trappings of hierarchical mendacity and excess.
The priests and bishops and hierarchy exist only for the purpose of serving the faithful and helping to facilitate their way to God. When they fail to do that, the people of God have the imperative to rise up and demand accountability and reform. That is exactly what they have begun to do.
It is about time. And it is about grace.
Yes, the current ecclesiastical morass may well be a time of blessing and growth for a church mired in centuries of outdated governance and accumulated arrogance. Conservative Catholic newspapers have questioned the relevance of priestly celibacy when some priests themselves no longer seem convinced of its value. Talking heads have debated the wisdom of an obviously flawed all-male priesthood when qualified women wait in the wings to help relieve a vocational crisis sure to be exacerbated by this scandal.
But there are even more important changes possible as the cracks in the Rock of Peter become glaringly obvious. The faithful might finally begin to take back ownership of their church.
Priests and bishops may at last be held accountable to those whom they serve or risk the defection of people and money to places of safe harbor and true spiritual comfort. The possibility of a new age dawns if it is not eclipsed by continued arrogance and unwarranted moral superiority.
As a priest, I have been blessed with immersion in the church of the people rather than the one of the princes. I don't personally know any pedophile priests, and I believe, as most reports indicate, that they are a minority, equivalent in number to that of the general population. Given their positions of trust and moral authority, however, the errant priests' despicable actions inflame more virulent ire than do the crimes of the common pedophile. So they should. More is expected of those to whom more has been given.
We know that pedophile priests exist and that they have caused unspeakable harm and inconsolable heartache. The innocent victims must be compensated and helped in dealing with the lifelong scars inflicted. And justice must be served.
But might the sin of the perpetrators also be an opportunity of grace for those of us who believe that reform and rebirth are possible from failure? Haven't each of us known the beckoning balm of renewal in the midst of our own sin and shortcomings?
As churches gathered on Holy Thursday, to commemorate Christ's Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood, may they have been encouraged by the recent debacle to celebrate another kind of priesthood, the priesthood of all the faithful, with the hope that its long overdue institution might lead the way out of scandal to Easter resurrection and new life.
Edward L. Beck, a New York City priest, is the author of "God Underneath: Spiritual Memoirs of a Catholic Priest."