Eight years ago I wrote a short article about why our Church needs victim-centered reform, a reform that first listens to the victims of abuse and then takes appropriate action, without defensiveness or denial. I argued that Christ is most present to us in those victims of abuse who have long suffered in silence.
In those eight years, I’ve been perpetually disheartened by the inability or unwillingness of our Church to create mechanisms of accountability and transparency that apply to our bishops—or more importantly, our unwillingness to take stock of how power is too often acquired and exercised in a most unchristian way by those in our Catholic Christian Church.
I have felt—as have many Catholics—like a displaced person, a refugee from my own religion.
And so I turn to literature.
In Flannery O’Connor’s The Displaced Person, the brilliant Catholic writer illustrates how God is perpetually pushing us out of our comfort zones. The short story begins with the arrival of Polish refugees fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust. Their arrival, facilitated by an aged and senile priest, intrudes upon a delicate social balance on a farm in the American south. The displaced Guizacs are reluctantly welcomed by the landowner, Ms. McIntyre, but the tenant farmer family, the Shortleys, are immediately suspicious. The Guizacs, however, quickly prove to be more efficient workers than the Shortleys, and the Shortleys are fired, becoming displaced persons themselves.
During their indignant exit from the farm, Mrs. Shortley has an apocalyptic vision as she suffers a fatal stroke:
There was a peculiar lack of light in her icy blue eyes. All the vision in them might have been turned around, looking inside her… her huge body rolled back still against the seat and her eyes like blue-painted glass, seemed to be contemplating for the first time the tremendous frontiers of her true country.
In the end, Mrs. Shortley’s vision turns inwards as her sense of this world dissolves. Even as tenant farmers, she and her family had enjoyed certain privileges, their race and religion affording a certain psychological comfort, but the Guizacs’ presence, and her impending death, utterly shatters those illusions.
The hope we have in a God who will somehow spare us the tenuous journey towards divine intimacy, who will stay forever, to quote Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, “a ragged figure… moving from tree to tree in the back of our mind,” is quite simply, impossible, given who God is and how God chooses to break into our comfortable realities.
I think many of us Catholics are feeling like Mrs. Shortley or Ms. McIntyre, like our entire world has been turned upside down with the continuing revelations of abuse, conspiracy, and the forces of division who hope to use this crisis to fight their side of the culture war. I imagine, with many dioceses choosing to open their records to their local attorney general, that this is only the tip of the iceberg.
As much new pain and trauma as this will cause, it is an absolutely necessary step in repenting and helping us begin to see again the “tremendous frontiers of [our] true country.” Namely, it will point our Church towards the utterly humble and self-emptying cry of the One who calls us to sincere repentance and new life. But that call can easily be ignored.
Ever present throughout O’Connor’s The Displaced Person are peacocks, who freely roam Ms. McIntyre’s farm (as they did O’Connor’s own). Ever a cynic and realist, she simply calls them “another mouth to feed,” and explains to the priest responsible for bringing the refugees that she’s let twenty or thirty of them starve, as she “didn’t like to hear them scream in the middle of the night.” But the priest remains ever transfixed by their presence:
The peacock stopped suddenly and curving his neck backwards, he raised his tail and spread it with a shimmering timbrous noise. Tiers of small pregnant suns floated in a green-gold haze over his head. The priest stood transfixed, his jaw slack. Mrs. McIntyre wondered where she had ever seen such an idiotic old man. “Christ will come like that!” he said in a loud gay voice and wiped his hand over his mouth and stood there, gaping.
Mrs. McIntyre tries to get him back to the subject at hand, namely, the refugees and the trouble they have caused her: “It is not my responsibility that Mr. Guizac has nowhere to go… I don’t find myself responsible for all the extra people in the world.”
Finally, exhausted by the complications that the displaced have brought into her life, she exclaims: “He didn’t have to come in the first place.”
The priest replies: “He came to redeem us.”
In listening to the victims and their terrible stories of injustice, perhaps we too can be redeemed and can come to realize that our picture of the world, however comfortable and coherent, was incomplete. More importantly, the degree to which we have been deaf to the cries of the victims is the degree to which we have been deaf to the call of Christ.
If there’s any hope, it is that this time, our reform may be real, radical, and utterly transformative.
Michael Sanem has a theology degree from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and writes at incarnationiseverywhere.com. He has written for US Catholic, God In All Things, and the Leaven, among other publications.