If our communities within the Church are going to live up to our calling to preach the Gospel, teach the Tradition and heal the sick, then we must first live out what we preach. Our parishes must be places of healing, and we ourselves must be in the process of healing.
The spiritual healing from God begins when we confess our sins and repent, the latter meaning that we ‘turn around’ and seek genuine change in ourselves. That means we need to have our ‘covers blown’ and be confronted over our own dishonesty with ourselves. This usually means we need someone from the outside to come in and ‘counsel’ us by seeing our situation with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective. That’s counseling in a nutshell. Accountability means that we agree to receive that counseling and make changes accordingly.
The difficulties we face in our parishes is that because we tend to identify as individual parishes, rather than the larger community of the eparchy/diocese, our parishes focus more on the ‘needs’ and demands of the ‘locals.’ And, most of the time, those ‘needs’ actually have little to do with real spiritual healing, but rather tastes and preferences. By being isolated, we avoid that fresh perspective and can preserve the status quo.
Should we really want to be healed, we first must ensure that our parishes are accountable to the bishop and the greater community, which can call us to account for our unhealthy acts. We have to look at the ‘big picture’ of the Body of Christ and see that each parish has a role in healing the entire community rather than just a few members. When we become aware that there is more to the parish than just ‘us’ and our desires, then we can see how we are accountable to our fellow Christians for what we do in our parish, but we also become more aware that there are many people outside the parish that need to be brought in (or at least invited).
With this accountability come some hard words. Sometimes we have to be told ‘no,’ while other times we must be told we are wrong. In many circumstances I have encountered, the community refused to hear hard words either from the bishop or the priest. The members became indignant when they were told that they needed to change even in minor details. All too often, we have seen small changes trigger schism and rebellion.
People will often equate the permissiveness of the priest with his compassion, and the same is true of bishops. The more he leaves us alone, the better off we are. We want distance, and the more distance we have, the less he knows about us and that’s just fine. We can fix ourselves.
If anyone wants to be sober and work the 12 Steps, he must be prepared to hear lots of hard words. He needs the truth in order to be healed, because healing starts with honesty. You cannot confess and be healed of things that hurt if you are not willing to be hurt to begin with. If you are afraid of change and of pain, then you will go nowhere. Things will stay the same and you will remain addicted.
The same is true in parishes: often we must hear hard things. I know of a case where a parish was really struggling, in large part because their liturgical music was horrid. It drove visitors out, but they liked it and took pride in it. They had been doing it that way for decades. But, it was also killing them.
The priest tried to tell them, gently at first, that they needed to change in order to survive. His warnings led to an insurrection, calls to the bishop, and lots of drama. Finally, the priest fired the choir director, tossed the old sheet music in the trash, appointed a new director and started over. Things got worse. The only thing the priest had going for him was the support of his bishop, who refused to budge in hopes that after years of neglect and letting them make their own rules, perhaps they could change with a hard-nose approach.
They did change: the parish had a rough first year, but in the next year visitors stayed and became catechumens. Now, there are no more complaints and the parish is healthy, though the priest paid a great price. Just for music!
Imagine if the priest had to confront the people about their pride, their stinginess when it came to alms and supporting the Church, their irregular attendance, their neglectful or over-protective parenting… how long would he last before the community would be up in arms? This is because our common expectation is that priests lend a ‘sympathetic’ ear to what we want to complain about and keep their mouths shut about the rest.
This pastoral approach kills addicts. They need to hear the truth about their errors because they have utterly lost their way. They need help, and someone has to tell them the difference between right and wrong. A sponsor does this by saying the truth, even the offensive and unwanted bits, in order for the addict to see it for himself, reject it and ask God for help to change.
If we are going to help addicts in our communities to change, or if we are going to invite recovering addicts into the Church, they we ourselves must remake our parishes into places where change is welcome and encouraged. No, this does not mean inventing new services or painting the walls orange or strumming a guitar. Those kinds of change are external. They are not challenging. Real change goes on within. We must be willing to repent, to acknowledge our sinfulness and weakness, and to serve others rather than ourselves.
We must look and see our own sickness first before we can help others. People in 12 Steps help each other not by examining the other person, but looking into themselves and repenting. This inward examination leads to empathy, where we can relate to the suffering of another person because of our own suffering. Thus, we are no longer alone and we receive hope, the hope that our pain, if share, can be lifted with the help of others.
So, if we can see others in our parish in an empathetic light, seeing in them our own suffering, then we can truly be their brothers and sisters in Christ. We can help one another on the path to healing. Even Christ has empathy for us, having endured our own humanity.
If we can see our own sickness, then we can offer fellowship to addicts even when we ourselves are not addicted. That’s because we can see our own sickness and hear the unflattering truths about ourselves.