From the Editor’s Desk
Surviving the Storms of Dysfunction

By Tom Roberts
National Catholic Reporter [United States]
October 15, 2004

Many in the Catholic community go through a delicate balancing act these days: teetering between being sucked into the vortex of dysfunction that was put in motion by the sex abuse crisis and finding clear going along avenues of everyday holiness.

The difficulty in avoiding turbulence increases as each month the vortex grows wider and deeper, fed by the effects of cover-up, denial and a lack of accountability.

As other communities beset by storms and floods, we have become good at survival. Exquisitely good, in fact. Anyone who travels around the church in the United States will tell you endless stories of good things happening "despite." You know the list that can accompany that "despite."

But any community will also tell you that surviving is not quite the same as thriving; that finding innovative ways to work around the dysfunction is quite different from creatively embracing the future as a truly free, healthy and whole community.

So on what do we concentrate our efforts -- the dysfunction or seeking healthy pursuits as adult, fully functioning people of God? I believe it has to be both, exhausting as that might be. That’s why I think the Jason Berry essay in this week’s issue is significant (see story). We stand less chance of being sucked into the spreading swirl of junk from this scandal if we understand it and know its patterns. I think we are also called to action, both in the pursuit of everyday holiness and, in these extraordinary times, in seeking accountability so that forgiveness can follow and the storms can cease. Berry speaks with the authority of one who has followed this tragic tale from its start. His suggestion for forcing accountability by presenting evidence to the highest levels of leadership deserves consideration in those moments when we’re hunkered down with friends, seeking respite from the storm’s fury.

~ ~ ~

I found respite recently in one of those holy places and times where the dysfunction and the scandal was fittingly left outside the door. The occasion was the Jubilee Celebration of Monastic Profession for seven members of the Mount St. Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pa.

Three members -- Srs. Nora Curran, Irene Warchol and Rita Pruchniewski -- celebrated 60 years in the order. I was invited to celebrate by Sr. Joan Chittister, prolific author and NCR columnist, who celebrated her 50th anniversary along with Srs. Bernadette Sullivan, Lucia Marie Surmik and Placida Anheuser.

I’m familiar enough with religious communities to know that none is perfect, which is to say they’re all made up of humans. And yet there are some places where it is immediately clear that something deep and profound, something unusual, is occurring amid the ordinary business of holy living. The Benedictine monastery at Erie is one of those places.

The nuns, over the decades, have had a deep effect on the life of this city. Ministries with the poor -- ministries the sister run, own and fund -- strike deep at the kind of urban weariness that can cause despair. They uplift, they renew, they educate and feed. They have fun.

Some years ago, I was privileged to watch the late Sr. Thea Bowman preach during a meeting of the U.S. bishops. The bishops and I were mesmerized and deeply moved. I said to myself then -- and have said since to anyone who would listen to the story -- that I thought I saw a glimpse of the church’s best future that day.

I felt the same way recently as I sat through a vigil of celebration conducted by women on a sunny Sunday in a gritty city by Lake Erie.


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