A Roman Memory

Interior of St. Mary Major. The apse is truly breathtaking. The church (including the apse) were built by wealthy Roman patrons during the final century of the Roman Empire, and it has been essentially unchanged for 1600 years.
Interior of St. Mary Major. The apse is truly breathtaking. The church (including the apse) was built by wealthy Roman patrons during the final century of the Roman Empire, and it has been essentially unchanged for 1600 years.

When I was studying in Rome, I attended Mass at the great basilica of St. Mary Major, one of the leading churches of Rome (which has no shortage of important churches!). It was a beautiful Mass with an enormous, elaborate entrance procession. The parish’s “arch-priest” was saying Mass that day and came in decked out in serious-business garments with a serious-business entourage. I don’t remember the details, but I remember being impressed.

It took me a few minutes to realize that this impressive arch-priest was Cardinal Bernard Law, the quintessential devil of the American sex abuse cases, best known today as the (absolutely deserved) villain of Spotlight. Not a pedophile cleric himself, Law nevertheless worked for decades to protect them. I had always believed he had been exiled from the United States and sent to a monastery to live out his days in sackcloth and ashes.

One of the clearest memories of my entire life as a Catholic is the sick, furious horror I felt at that moment, when I realized Law had not been punished, but promoted. That he was sitting here in a fancy-pants cathedral in rich garments at the pinnacle of the Roman Church while his victims languished in Boston, still suffering the lifelong wounds of child sexual abuse. The rage I felt in that moment–at Law, at St. John Paul II, at the entire institutional Church–has never, ever subsided. On the contrary, subsequent years have justified my anger, again and again. My aphorism, “Never trust a bishop,” started there, in October 2009. I suppose I am grateful to Law and JP2 for so flagrantly flaunting justice that even I couldn’t help but see it. I believe Rod Dreher erred intellectually when he converted to Orthodoxy, for I still believe Catholicism is true… yet Dreher’s famous apologia captures well the emotions I feel toward the institutions and leaders of the Catholic Church today.

And that’s my eulogy for Cardinal Bernard Law, who died today. I will pray for the repose of his soul, and, in the spirit of “love thine enemies,” I encourage you to do the same. May he rest in the same peace of Christ he worked so hard to deny to his flock. And may the Roman Curia, which plans to give Law a cardinal’s funeral with full honors while (still) neglecting the abuse scandal, be utterly destroyed, so that no stone be left upon another stone, amen.

(I suppose this post takes me out of the running at the next conclave.)

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  • Anne Maloney

    I heard last night on the radio that he died and my first thought was, “They had better not give him a funeral with all the bells and whistles!” I tossed and turned a bit while worrying that yes, they probably would. Then I realized that I needed to do something very, very hard–I needed to pray for Cardinal Law’s soul. I, too, was appalled to discover, while in Rome, that Cardinal Law was living in Rome as if he hadn’t betrayed and abandoned hundreds of children. He did his fellow priests no favor, either, since they were never going to find their way to penance and reparations while their Cardinal was busy covering up their crimes. At times like this, I think of Walker Percy’s response when asked, “Why are you still Catholic?” He sighed, then said, “What else is there?”