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Not a typical Sunday Mass: Listening to voices in the digital Catholic pews

Not a typical Sunday Mass: Listening to voices in the digital Catholic pews

(COMMENTARY) It wasn't a normal Sunday in Catholic pulpits across America, as priests faced flocks touched by sorrow and rage after a sickening grand-jury report packed with X-rated details about decades of sexual abuse by clergy.

At St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Decatur, Ga., Father Mark Horak said he half expected empty pews, but was thankful that the faithful came to Mass. He openly addressed the crisis and urged the laity to speak out.

"We should not be afraid to demand, of our leadership, fundamental reform," he said, wrapping up his homily, which was posted online. "Don't be afraid to demand it. But do it with love. Do it with love. Maybe with some anger mixed in – but do it with love. Please."

But something extraordinary happened in another Mass that day, according to a wrenching series of Twitter posts by Susan B. Reynolds, a Catholic studies professor at the nearby Candler School of Theology. One of her research topics: Religious rites in the context of suffering.

Something happened down front at St. Thomas More after a similar sermon, with the same appeal for the laity to act.

"A dad stood up. 'HOW?' he pleaded. 'TELL US HOW.' His voice was shaking and determined and terrified. His collared shirt was matted to his back with sweat," wrote Reynolds. "Jaws dropped. My eyes filled with tears. … This is a big, middle of the road parish in a wealthyish Southeast college town. In such contexts it's hard to imagine a more subversive act than doing what that dad just did."

One parishioner muttered, "Sit down." But the priest listened, and this unusual dialogue continued for several minutes.

"I have a son," said the dad. "He's going to make his first communion. What am I supposed to tell him?"

The posts by Reynolds exploded into social media on a day when many Catholics were posting commentaries on what their priests did, or didn't say, on the Sunday after the Pennsylvania grand-jury report.

Many Catholics were pleased that priests were candid and frustrated. Others were disappointed to hear bureaucratic "PR talk." Some were furious that all they heard was – to use one common image – "crickets."

The wave of online reactions to "a simple plea by an angry dad" showed the depth of the pain many Catholics are feeling, said Reynolds, reached by telephone. She received notes from friends about similar confrontations – in Mass or afterwards – in other parts of the country.

In addition to her academic work, she said, "I am a mother and a Catholic. I am both of those things. I am a lifelong Catholic and this is what I do. … This dad had the courage to stand up and speak for all of us."

The drama continued the following day, when Pope Francis released a letter to the "People of God," about the grand-jury report.

"The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced. But their outcry was more powerful than all the measures meant to silence it, or sought even to resolve it by decisions that increased its gravity by falling into complicity," he wrote.

"The Lord heard that cry and once again showed us on which side he stands. … If, in the past, the response was one of omission, today we want solidarity, in the deepest and most challenging sense, to become our way of forging present and future history."

The pope's letter – after a painful silence – declined to commit the church establishment to specific reforms or pledge that bishops and cardinals who hid crimes would suffer consequences, including being removed from ministry. The pope didn't name names or announce any resignations. He pledged that the church would repent, without saying how this would happen.

People in the pews, said Reynolds, are listening and watching to see what their leaders are willing to do. Some are fed up. Some are ready to take action, on their own. Something needs to happen.

"Even the most faltering attempt to speak or to act is better than nothing, in a situation like this," she said. "Silence is not where you begin, with something this painful. Silence is what kills. Silence followed by more silence will be profoundly wounding."

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