I was in Assisi last week when news of Archbishop Viganò’s dossier broke, swelling the tsunami of scandal that raged all summer. The geography alone was fortuitous because it meant I could go and pray before the San Damiano Crucifix.
This is not really a crucifix but an icon dating from the early 12th century written on the broad, flat panels of a Latin cross. Surrounding the figure of the Crucified are other painted images. There is a cockerel to reminds us of Peter’s denial and a shadowy figure of a fox or a cat, symbolising deceitful, cunning acts of treachery, placed there as reminder that Christ died to overcome the evils of both public and secret sin. All such have been present in the Church since the beginning. The cross stands on a solid mass of rock, said to represent the Church. Below it, almost obscured by the constant kissing by pilgrims, are the images of saints who, in their turn, appear to be supporting the rock of the Church. The merits of Christ’s Passion and those of the saints will never leave the Church.
In 1206 the young Francis Bernadone was in crisis. He had recently suffered a near fatal illness and was desperately seeking conversion and vocation. It was his practice to withdraw to pray in the ramshackle church of San Damiano. Even today this remains a tranquil spot, set on a steep hillside below the city. His biographers recount the beautiful prayer he repeated before the crucifix:
Most High glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart. Give me, Lord, a correct faith, a certain hope, a perfect charity, sense and knowledge, so that I may carry out Your holy and true command.
One day Christ spoke to him from the cross, saying ‘‘Francis, don’t you see that my house is being destroyed? Go then and rebuild it.’’ I am sure that Jesus must be saying at the moment to us all, “Don’t you see that my Church is being destroyed?’’
Just as Francis eventually grasped that Jesus didn’t mean just a particular church was in ruins, but the Universal Church, so the present crisis is not just whether powerful men will crumble or whether the media will lose interest and move on as they have been encouraged. At stake is the reputation of all priests. The priesthood is the love of Jesus Christ, St John Vianney tells us, and the crisis of priestly abuse will continue to obscure that love for years to come.
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