By Rev. Eric Eichinger, Sr.
The Pennsylvania grand jury report of Catholic priests concealing generational, systemic sexual crimes still resounds in church sanctuaries around the world. Life attempts to go on, and more stories break … haunting hints of priests grooming young boys into a similar lifestyle. Unsurprisingly, the abused become manifested into abusers themselves. Demonic repetitive cycles are at work. Meanwhile the body count climbs of the defrocked, the fallen and the newly faithless. The masses wonder, where are all the trustworthy clergy?
When I entered the ministry, I was excited to proclaim the Gospel. Fortunately, one of my heroes of the faith – Eric Liddell – had blazed a trail for me to follow. Hollywood’s depiction of Liddell in “Chariots of Fire” had influenced me as a young boy very positively, with a glimpse of how a man of God should conduct himself. That experience was a powerful touchstone, charging me forward into missionary work in China, and the office of holy ministry.
The more I learned about Liddell’s ministry life, the more I discovered him consistently pointing toward Christ in the darkest times. His spiritual resolve in extreme adversity is a ministry example worthy of imitation. I took that to heart, yet to grasp the adversity I might have to face. Such is the effect of an affirmative portrayal of clergy.
The first time I wore a clerical collar was in seminary. The Boston Globe Spotlight story had broken earlier that year. I learned the responsibility of a visible ambassador of the church immediately. I could deal with skepticism toward clergy. What stung was realizing people were losing their faith. Thirteen ominous years later, Hollywood released “Spotlight.” By then I had enjoyed some ministry success, but also had forged through the painful aftermath of sexual sins by several other pastors.
I pondered, was it good that “Spotlight” shone all this negative attention on the church? Ultimately, yes. Truth must come forth, for the validating respect to the survivors, and for the good of the church. Consequently, we are endlessly presented with personal tragic stories of religious scandal. The all-too-willing media highlights the way as emotions of identity politics fester, and more people question or leave the faith. The negative cycle repeats. This is neither right nor fair.
Suppose a person of a different ethnic background harmed me? And suppose my feelings ran so wild that I no longer trusted anyone of that ethnic group? That would be indefensibly wrong. Yet this very position against the church calcifies with every new sensitive story unearthed. Souls are at stake; yet while every group has bad actors, they also contain many more decent citizens. Perhaps hope has been hiding in plain sight all along.
The Apostle’s Creed states, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church…” which means universal – all Christians. The word “catholic” in conjunction with Roman Catholics has confused many. Frequently this line is edited to, “the holy Christian church…” and many Christians are more than willing to write-off Roman Catholics wholesale on this sexual abuse deal, as if they aren’t Christian at all.
Non-Catholics play the game where we distance ourselves from actual Roman Catholics, but these abuse stories are a scorch mark on all of Christendom. Roman Catholic or not, if you confess Jesus Christ as Lord, this spotlight of sin refracts back on all Christians. We’re all in this together. And the more the media runs these horror headlines, the more it discourages believers to continue believing.
One speculates, are any Christians doing anything positive in the world? Yes. Millions. Everywhere. And quality clergy have led the way through the centuries. These heroes of the catholic church are ordinary. Pastors with integrity, who repent of their sin, live under grace, faithfully preach, love their wives, nurture children, and defend their flock.
We must not exalt our heroes, like Liddell, on pedestals; but we can make acknowledgements. Just as repetitive negative stories damage faith – while they are necessary to tell – so too are the positive stories. They can instill, reaffirm and inspire faith worth replicating.
Perhaps we need an occasional spotlight on those being faithful to God, a little fanfare for the common minister. Those heroes in the church, those saintly ones among us, who often go unnoticed. Their ways are unassuming as they quietly, but consistently point to the Savior of not just the catholic church – but the world.
Rev. Eric Eichinger, Sr. is pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church, Clearwater, Florida and author of “The Final Race: The Incredible World War II Story of the Olympian Who Inspired Chariots of Fire“