October 24, 2018 // Perspective

Hope for the future of the Church

Guest commentary by Tom and Barb Niezer

Almost every day, the question is asked: How can the Catholic Church remove the sexual scandal from its ranks? Can the Church retain or regain its moral standing? How can the Church hierarchy place a meaningful priority on the plight of the victims? How does the Church move forward with the assurance of having priests who live their lives in a manner that is in the best tradition of Jesus’ call to discipleship?

Often overlooked in the reporting and commentary on the scandal is the reformation initiated by St. John Paul II in seminarian formation and education following the scandal in Boston in the early 2000s. In some ways, this may prove to be John Paul II’s best act of service to the Church and the whole world.

That reformation led the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in 2005, to adopt a new seminarian and priestly formation process. That process requires a more thorough vetting at time of application to the seminary, a more critical assessment of a young man’s social and psychosexual development at time of application, ongoing formation and discernment throughout all of seminary life that furthers and continues this vetting process and an overall educational environment that nurtures not only one’s spiritual growth, but also his human, intellectual and pastoral growth. The purpose of this process is to assure that all seminarians, upon being ordained, will always serve in the best traditions of the priesthood. This reformation has had a top-to-bottom effect beginning with the rectors in our seminaries down to the vocational directors within each diocese. It is a process that was embraced by the late Bishop John M. D’Arcy.

In Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades we have an individual who was a seminary rector himself. The priority he places on the discernment process and its adherence to the reforms adopted in the mid-2000s is part of the reason we have seen an increase in vocations within the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Similar increases, for similar reasons, can be seen in a number of other dioceses nationwide. The young men who have been ordained over the last five to 10 years represent, in many ways, the initial response of the Catholic Church in assuring a future priesthood that seeks only to emulate Christ in the service of others. It is no coincidence that credible allegations of sexual abuse as to currently active clergy have literally reached a point of nonexistence within our diocese.

We ourselves are the parents of a current seminarian with the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese. We know what our son will face as he progresses towards ordination. We know his priesthood will always have an additional burden because of the wrongs committed by some of those who have come before him. We know there will be more investigations that follow the one recently conducted in Pennsylvania. We know that, in many ways, the hammer has yet to fall on this portion of Church history. We are neither ignorant nor immune from the problems facing the Catholic Church.

Through it all, we continue to see happiness in the hearts of our son and those of his classmates in seminary. In Bishop Rhoades, our currently active priests, deacons and seminarians, we see a true faith that seeks only good and not evil: A faith that is abundant in mercy with a sole desire to help others. It is a faith that asks the question posed by St. Peter almost 2,000 years ago – “Lord, to whom shall we go?” We also have seen the effects of this process on the very victims it seeks to heal as it moves forward. We see hope for the future.

Bishop Rhoades is not only a shepherd for the victims in our diocese, but he is also the gatekeeper and shepherd for the men discerning and being formed for the priesthood. We have devoted priests and deacons in our parish communities that desire nothing more than to provide care, support and spiritual guidance to all they serve. We have, with the intercession of our Blessed Mother, Mary, Mother of Jesus, young men who are in seminary or discerning application to the seminary that seek nothing but a life of holiness and a life that is ready to be sacrificed for others. In short, we see throughout our diocese the kind of priest, both existing and those to be formed, that was sought by the victims of sexual abuse at a time when it was most needed in their lives. God willing, that type of priest will once again enter their lives to bring God’s love and mercy to not only the victim, but the loved ones of the victim who have been hurt as well.

None of this should be construed as being ambivalent to the victims of sexual abuse or a desire to see anything less than a full and complete effort to correct the wrongs of the Church. We simply see matters not solely rooted in the past sins of the Church, but also rooted in the future of its existing and future clergy. We have seen that future in sermons from the pulpit over these past months from our priests, both young and old alike, and in Bishop Rhoades’ decision to identify past clergy of this diocese who have had credible allegations of sexual abuse brought against them. We have seen the care given by our diocese to victims of sexual abuse, and we have also, personally, witnessed a victim’s joy in knowing there is abundant good that stems from the formation of young men who seek only to be holy men of God.

We continue to pray for victims of the sexual abuse scandal and to pray for our Church. We pray that the Church always keeps the victims at the forefront of all that she does. We pray that the Church remains able to ordain holy men of God that are able to provide a saving grace for the victims of the sexual abuse scandal, and their families, in the years and generations to come. Admittedly, some will say prayer is not enough. We agree, but to say prayer is all the Church is doing belies a truth and a reality that can be found in how young men are being formed for the priesthood.

Barb and Tom Niezer are the parents of Deacon Daniel Niezer, who is in his fourth year of theology studies at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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