Why Psalm 51?

As most of you know, I wrote a letter to you last week on the Feast of the Assumption expressing my sorrow not only for the victims of abuse, but also at the failure of some of my brother bishops. The Body of Christ deserves better.

I also asked our priests here in our diocese to help me spread the word by reading the letter at Mass, along with the prayer of Psalm 51. Some priests offered their own thoughts on the current abuse crisis and I’ve heard from many of the lay faithful that they were happy to hear a conversation beginning. Obviously, more has to happen. What we do, who we are, and how we live has to be congruent with that we say we believe.

At the same time, some people were confused as to why I asked our congregations to pray Psalm 51. After all, the faithful sitting in the pews are not the members of the clergy who are under international scrutiny for serious offenses.

It is a fair question and brings up the question of why I asked this. To clarify, I asked that the prayer be led by the priest, either alone or with the congregation. I was explicit that a lay person or a deacon was not to lead the prayer because I want our clergy to witness with me that as priests we are called to serve as Christ did. Also, Psalm 51 is known as a “penitential psalm” because it is prayed in the Liturgy of the Hours by the entire Church each Friday as a sign of penance and reparation.

I know it is difficult to think about our own sins, many of which might seem insignificant compared to what we’re hearing in the news of the sins committed by Christ’s own bishops and priests. But the very foundation of our religion is the God-made man who was sinless, and yet died a criminal’s death so as to make reparation for our sins.

As Christians, we are members of the Body of Christ, of which the Church is the visible sign. In other words, we are all deeply connected to one another. In fact, as we find time and time again, there’s really no such thing as private sin. Even if a sin is not made public, it still impacts us and who we are, which in turn impacts how we are in relation to others.

Consider, for example, a corporation. Suppose a corporate official is guilty of a serious criminal activity. That employee would be terminated immediately. That said, the corporation remains responsible in justice to make up for damages and to make reparation.

If we consider this example and in an analogous way apply it to the Church, the Body of Christ is the corporation. Some of its highest-ranking officers have betrayed trust, victimized people, and broken laws. And yet the whole corporation has to answer for these individuals. You know as well as I do, that many people in the corporation would be rightly angry. Nevertheless, the corporation would have to pay damages, etc.

Certainly, here we’re dealing with more than a corporation. It’s the Church which involves profound vulnerability on the part of the faithful. Trust, and even faith, have been shattered.

So when I ask for us to take steps of reparation, I’m not asking for anyone to own the sins of another. But I am asking us all to help rebuild the Church, to help repair the Church, not unlike the call of the Lord on the San Damiano Cross to St. Francis of Assisi in the 1200s.

It’s worth remembering again that we are not solely a corporation. Public relations campaigns have certainly shown themselves to be ineffective, at the very least. Rather, reparation means making amends for offenses (sins) against God. At this critical time, much like the 12-step programs, we first focus on keeping our side of the street clean. We address our own sins, no matter how insignificant they may seem, so that we become stronger members of the Body of Christ. When we do this, we are then able to participate in the supernatural grace whereby Christ, the unblemished victim, was able to make reparation for all of us.

St. Paul reminds us, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5,19) Reparation, a long-held practice and concept, but rarely used in recent years, helps to make us stronger. It makes us more Christlike.

In no way do I want to emphasize the personal sinfulness of the faithful. Rather, I want to point to the effective tool that each person can be in the Body of Christ, to make it stronger, to help it heal, to make her a Church worthy of the people of God – worthy of you.

As we move forward each day with the help of the Lord, I will be confirming plans for a monthly hour of adoration, complete with rosary and a brief reflection here at Christ Cathedral. Confessions will also be offered. I want the focus to be quiet time in adoration when the Lord speaks to each of us privately, heals and strengthens us. I pray and hope that you will join me as we each become more Christlike to build up the Church that the Body of Christ deserves.

Make no mistake, there certainly needs to be other juridical and canonical actions taken to address the injustices we are facing. But reparation is what restores the Body of Christ to the strength that nurtures us all.

With continued gratitude, I ask you to please join with me to pray that our Church be purified, that all the people who have been wounded by abuse on the part of the clergy experience healing, and that I, along with the rest of Church leadership, act with wisdom, courage, and humility to fulfill the office that the Lord has entrusted to us. Thanks to all of you for your helpful and thoughtful reflections and reactions this past weekend.

+ Kevin W. Vann, Bishop of Orange