Mass of Atonement Homily (2019)
by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki
Two thieves were crucified with Jesus Christ. Both stood guilty of crimes for which they were paying the ultimate price. However, the two could not have been more different in the way they called out to Jesus. One mocked and demeaned Him, taunting him to save himself and them. This “bad thief” desired the interests of the world. He wanted to avoid the punishment, which was his responsibility for his actions. He did not care about the relationship offered to him in faith; he just wanted Jesus to make the punishment magically disappear. The “bad thief” represents the world, which seeks power, manipulation for self-interest and personal gain or pleasure, and avoids personal responsibility. The “good thief” took responsibility for his actions and recognized the innocence of Jesus. In doing so, he embraces Jesus as Messiah and begs Jesus to remember him when he enters the kingdom. The first step toward atonement for sins is the recognition of our responsibility for those actions, which have separated us from God.
We began this Mass of Atonement by stripping ourselves of every trapping of office, approaching the altar of sacrifice as sinful creatures before our God. This is a sign of our personal and collective responsibility. As archbishop and shepherd of the Church in southeastern Wisconsin, I placed the crosier, miter, zucchetto, and ring – all signs of my office – before the altar, a symbolic action acknowledging my own sinfulness as a creature before God and the sinfulness of our community. We cannot approach our God through the lens of power. We must approach Him as humble creatures seeking His love and attention. Like the “good thief,” we call out in need of God’s intervention and his mercy, to heal the wounds that have been created by our sins, especially those of clergy sexual abuse.
In this Mass for Atonement, we are not only saying that we are sorry for our sins, but we are also committing ourselves to correct the behavior that permitted sins to occur. We are entrusting ourselves to the only source that can accomplish healing, that is the love of God.
What is our motivation for seeking to heal the wounds that separate us as the Body of Christ? As St. Paul states, “For the love of Christ impels us … He indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake dies and was raised.” (2 Cor. 5:14-15)
Going forward, it is our task to accept our roles as ambassadors of Christ, imploring those in our community to seek the path of reconciliation and assuring them that we are different because of God’s mercy.
We begin the journey of reconciliation, not from a position of perfection and power, but as frail human beings in need of God’s abundant mercy, standing before the cross of the sacrificed Jesus. We come as beggars before the altar of the Lord, to be fed by the love that Jesus demonstrates in His sacrifice.
Our action must begin at the foot of the cross. We cannot move forward without the naming of our sins, our responsibility, and the reliance on the power of the cross to save us. From the cross, Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Pope Francis, who preaches and teaches mercy, stated, “Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father; it becomes a criterion for ascertaining who his true children are. In short, we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us. Pardoning offenses becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians, it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves. At times, how hard it seems to forgive! Yet pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart. To let go of anger, wrath, violence and revenge are necessary conditions to living joyfully. Let us therefore heed the Apostle’s exhortation. Do not let the sun go down on your anger. Above all let us listen to the words of Jesus, who made mercy an ideal of life and a criterion for the credibility of our faith, Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” (Misericordiae Vultus)
As a church, we shamefully and remorsefully acknowledge that there were clergy and others among us that abused our children, the most vulnerable entrusted to our care. There was also a silence, a dismissal of the cries of those hurting, which magnified the distrust. There was ignorance on the part of many in the lack of understanding the gravity of the sin, all of which inflicted wounds on the Body of Christ. However, we cannot be naïve. Abuse continues in our society, and we must be prepared to be a catalyst of change, bringing to light those sins and crimes against our children and others.
I have said this before, and I will continue to state, that we are a different Church today because of those who continued to love the Church and courageously share their stories so that the sins and crimes that damaged the Body of Christ could be addressed. We also mourn for those who have been abused and have been driven from the Church because of the pain of their abuse. I pray for their healing and return.
Therefore, there is a need for all of us to remain vigilant and to understand the broader implications not yet embraced by our society. And always, first and foremost, there is a need to create an environment where our children are protected and spirituality nurtured by our Church, the Body of Christ. We pledge to form our consciences so that we may not ignore signs or trivialize hurts.
I promised that we would always gather together as a community and offer this Mass of Atonement, not simply to say that we are sorry, for we can never apologize enough to those who were wronged, nor merely to seek our collective forgiveness, even though we need to do so as a community. However, most importantly, we gather to remember and never forget that it was our sin that damaged the Body of Christ, and it is only through embracing the cross that we have any ability to bring about reconciliation and healing.