Thoughts for February 21 (St Peter Damian) from Fr Willie Doyle

St Peter Damian

The great light of this retreat, clear and persistent has been that God has chosen me, in His great love and through compassion for my weakness and misery, to be a victim of reparation for the sins of priests especially; that hence my life must be different in the matter of penance, self-denial and prayer, from the lives of others not given this special grace.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle clearly perceived that he had a special calling to make reparation for the sins of priests. In fact, he reiterated this calling in the very last entry that he ever made in his diary, on July 28 1917, the 10th anniversary of his ordination and just two weeks before his death:

I have again offered myself to Jesus…to do with me absolutely as He pleases. I will try to take all that happens, no matter from whom it comes, as sent to me by Jesus and will bear suffering, heat, cold, etc., with joy…in reparation for the sins of priests. From this day I shall try bravely to bear all “little pains” in this spirit. A strong urging to this.

We don’t hear very much about reparation these days. It seems like an old fashioned concept, although Fr Doyle was writing less than 100 years ago. Yet this idea is entirely scriptural. St Paul tells us:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.

In some mysterious way, our own sacrifices strengthen the Church and win grace for others.

Yet, even though Fr Doyle’s emphasis on reparation may seem a bit old fashioned, it is also very radical, and ahead of its time, in another way. Fr Doyle specifically focuses on the sins of priests. Priests were held in very high esteem 100 years ago, yet here we have Fr Doyle recognising the reality of priestly sinfulness. It was a desire to atone for these sins that drove him to some of his severe penances.

How much more we know about the sinfulness of some priests now than we did 100 years ago! The Church in Ireland has been especially badly hit by the scandal – the crime! – of child abuse. It is no exaggeration to say that the moral credibility of the Church has been dreadfully undermined by these scandals, and especially by their mishandling.

Today we celebrate the feast of St Peter Damian, Doctor of the Church. St Peter Damian is not one of the better known Doctors, but he is of great significance for his zealous work in reforming the Church, and in particular the clergy, of his time. And what was the main focus of his reform? Yes, that’s right, sexual corruption amongst the clergy, and in particular the abuse of teenage boys by priests and monks. Remarkably, St Peter Damian was born over 1,000 years ago, and died in 1072. His extensive writings on this problem cite with approval the works of another Doctor of the Church, St Basil the Great, who died over 1,600 years ago in 379. It is clear that neither saint took the matter lightly. Their prescription for abusers included public flogging, imprisonment, bad food and constant supervision to ensure that the guilty party never again had contact with children.

This is not to suggest that the crime of abuse is disproportionately acute in the Church; we know from authoritative statistics that this is not the case. But we do know that the way in which the problem was handled in recent decades was gravely deficient. Perhaps the Church leaned too heavily on psychologists, or was too strongly influenced by the prevailing social norms which, in that period, trivialised this activity.

The point remains that the Church has, within its own tradition, a strong response to the problem of clerical abuse. Yes, we may wish to adapt some of the penalties prescribed by St Peter Damian and we may consider that there is a role for psychological therapy in addition to punitive measures. But if the Church in Ireland had adopted the zero tolerance approach of St Peter Damian the Church would have underlined its seriousness in eradicating this crime and would have protected children.

For some reason, however, especially in Ireland, the Church decided to prefer the solution of secular therapists to that of the saints.

And so we come back to Fr Doyle and reparation for the sins of priests…

Once again we find that Fr Doyle is a model for us today. True, we must not follow his own personal style of penance – he makes it clear that he had a special calling for hard penance that others did not have – but the principle is there for us to follow nonetheless. And it now officially forms part of the Church’s response to the abuse crisis. Pope Benedict, in his letter to the Catholics of Ireland, urged us to offer our Friday penances essentially in reparation for the sins of priests and for healing and renewal.

Let us pray to St Peter Damian for reform within the Church – and most importantly within ourselves – and to Fr Doyle that we may make adequate reparation for sin through our own small penances.