“I love the Church.”
This is the answer I give when people ask me why I’m on my seventh year of school working on yet another theological degree, or when DC Uber drivers ask why I moved to the district.
I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school from kindergarten through eighth grade and Catholic universities from my undergraduate years to my current pursuit of a PhD in Catechetics. My mom brought me along to daily masses before I was old enough to go to school, and my grandmother taught me the Hail Mary and how to pray to my guardian angel. My favorite classes in elementary and middle school were always religion, and one of the best days of my life was when I stepped into St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time when I studied abroad in Rome during my sophomore year at the University of Dallas. Since my senior year of college, I have been involved in some form of lay ecclesial ministry, and I am preparing to continue catechetical ministry upon the completion of my degree in Catechetics. For most of my life, my love of the Church has remained untested. “Catholic” was the most important part of my identity and the way I’d immediately describe myself to anyone who asked.
Last summer, the sexual abuse crisis challenged this core component of my life and identity. I spent the summer interning at the Archdiocese of Washington, so when the news about Archbishop McCarrick began breaking, I felt like the crisis was unfolding immediately around me. When Cardinal Wuerl, someone who I had long admired for his contributions to the Church and the field of catechetics, started to come under fire for the way he handled reports of McCarrick’s behavior and abuse cases, I was geographically in the eye of the storm. One day soon after the news of the crisis had broken, I distinctly remember leaving my internship one day to see Cardinal Wuerl getting into a car in the parking lot at the archdiocesan pastoral center. At first, my immediate reaction was to be “star-struck” because of how much I admired him; but when I observed myself in this feeling and remembered what was going on in the Church around me, I felt betrayal and sadness—things I had never before felt about my own Catholic identity.
When the details of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report came to light later in the summer, I was shocked and in pain; the Church that had become the core part of my identity was being destroyed. While the events of the report happened years ago, it still angered me that they not only had taken place, but that this was also the Church I had inherited as a future catechetical leader and theologian. It was impossible not to question my own future as a theologian, member of the faithful, and lay ecclesial minister. As more and more reports, stories, and accounts surfaced, the things I loved about the Church were challenged. My anger and disgust only increased as the letter of Archbishop Vigano was released in August, due both to the thought of Pope Francis mishandling reports of abuse and the blatant attempt to use the crisis as an attack on Vigano’s ideological enemies. Not only were cardinals, bishops, and priests refusing to take responsibility for the pain they were continuing to cause, but many also tried to shift the blame onto marginalized Catholics and hijack any discussion of the crisis with their own agendas. My Church was self-destructing.
As the summer months ended, the local Church of Washington, DC was left trying to cope with the Vigano letter, credible accusations of sexual abuse by McCarrick, and the mishandling of cases by various clerics. Through the months of August to December, I attended panels and round-table discussions held by my university, and also spent time processing the events of the crisis with friends, colleagues in ministry, and professors. While it helped to acknowledge my own anger and know that I was not isolated in my emotions about the crisis, these conversations often made it harder for me to find any peace in the midst of the crisis. I heard others blame “the gays” for the crisis, priests who expressed confusion at the anger of the laity, and priests and laity accuse Satan of attacking the Church through the accounts of sexual abuse survivors. Frequently, I had conversations with people who tried to reassure me, by appealing to the embattled history of the Church, that the crisis would pass. Online processing of the crisis also increased my anger; entire organizations and websites declared war on their ideological enemies in the name of “saving the Church,” while bishops and priests continued to fan the flames by taking sides on the Vigano letter.
During this time, my love for the Church had morphed into anger and confusion. I wrestled with the idea that, as a future catechetical leader and theologian, my task would be to form individuals to be more engaged, more bound up with this deteriorating Church. At best, I would be responsible for finding ways to help heal a wounded Church for many years to come. But at worst, I might be involved in engaging others in a Church so systematically broken that my own future ministry might cause more pain. Struggling to hold the tension of my vocation to catechetics and my strained relationship with the Church, I reached out to a former colleague and mentor in ministry. In our conversation, she did not appeal to Church history or blame a certain “side” of the Church; rather, she challenged me to remember Who the Church is, rather than what the Church is.
In my own processing of the abuse crisis, many people have reminded me of this line in the Gospel of Matthew: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). However, because of the conversation with my former mentor, my own healing and peace have started to come from Jesus’ question to Simon Peter and the disciples from the preceding few lines: “He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). Jesus establishes the Church on the shoulders of Simon Peter after his recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. A question of who, rather than what.
As the stories and reports of the crisis continue to flood Catholic consciousness in the United States even today, I hold the tension of my love for the Church and my pain at her discord by rooting myself in Who the Church is: Jesus Christ. In order to remain, although with difficulty, faithful to the Church, I have to allow my love for her to be shaped by who rather than what. The Church is Jesus Christ, but it is also my grandmother who taught me my prayers, my parents who raised me in the faith, the Dominican sister who fostered my love for the Church in middle school, the wonderful pastor and lay women I worked alongside in a parish in graduate school, my friends and colleagues in ministry, the Jesuit and diocesan priests in my doctoral cohort, and the Carmelite community here in DC who have embraced me. Though the entire Church has been ravaged by individuals who have perpetuated a systematic problem of power in the sex abuse crisis, I return to my own experience of Who the Church is to gain strength and continue living out my own vocation.
Colleen Campbell holds a BA in Pastoral Ministry from the University of Dallas, an MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame, and is currently a second year PhD student studying Catechetics at the Catholic University of America.