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Why I'm staying in the church

Updated 10:39 PM ET, Thu September 6, 2018

Editor's Note: The Rev. Kevin O'Brien, S.J., is a Jesuit priest and dean of the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in California. He formerly served as vice president for Mission and Ministry at Georgetown University in Washington. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.

(CNN) - This week, our students begin class. Among the millions of young adults in universities right now, they are a unique bunch.

They come to our graduate school to study theology and ministry in preparation for a career serving in the Catholic Church. Some will be ordained as priests. Others will be commissioned for service as lay ministers. They will work together in schools, universities, parishes, retreat centers, hospitals and prisons. Yet they study, pray and serve in a church riddled again by scandal. As we reckon with recent revelations of sexual abuse and abuse of power in the church, I struggle for words to welcome them.

Sadly, we've been through this before. But there is something different now. Partly because of the #MeToo movement, we want to do more than punish sexual offenders and establish rigorous prevention programs. We rightly insist on confronting a culture of clericalism and privilege that enables abusive exercise of authority. We seek lasting structural reform, which includes greater transparency and accountability and more meaningful participation of lay people in church governance.

In my two decades as a Jesuit, I have counseled many people scandalized by past revelations of abuse and frustrated by the insensitivity or arrogance of church leaders and ministers. Prayerfully, thoughtfully and as a matter of conscience, some decided to leave the church lest they lose their faith. Others decided to stay. They wanted to help repair the church from the bottom up.

Right now, there are many Catholics caught between these two alternatives. Distasteful infighting between traditionalists and progressives and scapegoating gay and lesbian Catholics for the crisis alienate even more those stuck in the middle. In this environment, what do I say to a class of talented women and men who desire to serve in a church that has disappointed or hurt them so profoundly?

Perhaps the best thing I can do is to reveal my own struggle. Once I muddle through the complexity of emotions and reactions stirring within me, I find the same voice that called me to be a Jesuit 20 years ago: "This is your path to growing in faith, hope and love." But it is a path more bumpy and crooked than I had imagined back then.

I stay because this is the church I've always known. It's my home, in all of its beauty and brokenness. This is how I best know Jesus Christ, the human face of God, revealed in the church's Scriptures, its rich intellectual and artistic life, its liturgy and sacraments, and its inspiring works of mercy.

In this church, I have been part of parish and school communities who remind me that the church is ultimately not the Vatican or any institutional trapping. Before all else, the church is a people on a journey to make God's dream for the world a reality. We make that journey together, in good times and in bad.

In this church, I am challenged to keep close to the poor and voiceless. To believe in the Gospel of our faith demands doing something concrete to make this world a more just, gentle and welcoming place. As I walk with those on the margins, they teach me about what is most important in life and what faith is all about. Victims of sexual violence and abuse of authority have something to teach us now. Will we let them?

In this church, I find students like those arriving this week. With their faithfulness, creativity, insight and generosity, they reveal the way forward on a path that is both winding and straight. I do not need to have all the answers nor perfect words. They will supply them. Together, we will reform the church in the image that God desires for it. Their education demands it.


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