The crisis of sexual abuse and leadership failures in the Catholic Church has led many faithful people to experience a mix of painful feelings such as anger, sorrow, horror, frustration, and embarrassment. It has also raised fundamental questions about the Church and what God asks of each of us.
Such questions informed an outdoor prayer service hosted by Awake Milwaukee last Thursday, August 12. Called “Out of the Depths: Offering Our Questions to God,” the service was also live-streamed for remote attendees. A recording of the event is available here.
Praying in the Beauty of Nature
The service took place under a canopy of trees in the outdoor amphitheater near the Urban Ecology Center at Riverside Park in Milwaukee. The in-person attendees included several abuse victim-survivors and their loved ones, Awake leadership team members, and other concerned Catholics.
“We’re gathering tonight as a community to lift up our prayers together, and to trust that the God who loves each and every one of us more than we can ever imagine, the God who also knows abuse and suffering and betrayal, will respond in ways that might surprise us,” said Cathy Melesky Dante, chaplain of Awake Milwaukee, as the service began.
The evening included Taize-style chants, and a reading of Psalm 130, which begins, “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord.”
Awake Leadership Team member Sara Knutson offered a reflection, sharing her own questions in the aftermath of the 2018 news about former-cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. “What did it mean that this kind of evil was present in the Church that I had grown up in and that had been a home for me, that I now worked in,” she recalled. “Was this a Church that I could stay in with integrity, was it a Church that I felt like I could raise my children in with integrity?”
She said that she began to consider in prayer what was hers to do in working to heal the Church. “I invite us to sit with those questions tonight, to pray with them, and to see where God might be leading us through the process of asking those questions,” she added.
Deacon Larry Normann, who has ministered in the diaconate for 37 years and serves on Awake’s Survivor Advisory Panel, also offered a reflection based on his own experience of abuse as 19-year-old seminarian. Normann described how he prayed with the Gospel of Luke in the weeks and months after the abuse and heard Jesus speaking words of comfort to him in that period. Those words set him on the road to healing.
“Jesus Christ is the light of the world,” Normann said, “a light no darkness of any kind, including abuse, can overcome.”
Raising Questions to Heaven
Dante invited participants to write their questions and thoughts on slips of paper, and then add them to the fire crackling at the front of the group. “In the Christian tradition, fire is a way to offer our prayers to God,” she explained. “In ancient times, people believed that the smoke raised our prayers up to the God beyond our imagination. Fire represents the power of the Holy Spirit to lift our questions out of isolation, through our community and to God.”
Attendees found the ritual moving. “What was most meaningful to me was the opportunity to write down my own questions to God in a prayerful setting while surrounded by others united for the same purpose, and then to watch all those questions go into the fire and rise up to Him,” explained Jennifer, an abuse survivor who asked that we not use her last name. “Prayer offerings like this are valuable to me as a survivor because of the solidarity with other survivors and people who truly care about survivors of clergy sex abuse.”
Another participant, a family member of a victim, liked praying and listening, side-by-side with others, to the witness talks by Normann and Knutson. “I appreciated the opportunity to gather in person and offer our prayers as a community and to see the faces in real life of those who are working towards Awake’s mission,” she said. “Praying around the fire, surrounded by mighty old trees and a setting sun was such a reminder of God’s presence and the hope we can have for the future.”
—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog