Thursday, August 01, 2002

My Charismatic Moment

It was about thirty years ago. I was a senior in high school back in Cincinnati, and very fortunate to be enrolled in the advanced-placement "Humanities" class. There were about fifty of us, juniors and seniors, the best and the brightest, in a course that combined the study of religion, language arts, and social studies.

It also meant attending, once again, a retreat at the Jesuit Renewal Center outside the city. Having already fulfilled such a requirement in my junior year, I had some idea of what to expect.

One of those expectations was an older priest, to whom I will refer here as "Tom Overbeck." "Call me Tom," he told the boys the previous year. As monitor for my group session then, he loved to "relate" to the guys with rather crude talk about girls -- "Right now you must be saying to yourself, wouldn't you like to *** her?" -- as if to make some point regarding interpersonal relations.

There he was once again, during my senior year, as monitor for my small group, which included about eight young men and women.

I was in the beginnings of what I now know, to be a long bout of chronic depression, one that would last for most of my senior year. This was in the days when "Snap out of it!" was the counsel of choice for parents and physicians alike. There was physical and emotional abuse at home, as my father was coming to grips with his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. I had (at the risk of sounding cliché) very low self-esteem, and held little hope for my future place in the world. These factors obviously rendered me vulnerable. After one of those sessions, "Tom" came over to me, and gave me a big hug. You know, the kind that make you really uncomfortable after about twenty seconds. He asked why I was having so much trouble opening up in the group. Failing to give him a satisfactory answer, he invited me to visit him in his room later that evening to explore this issue further.

I didn't take him up on his offer. But that wasn't the end of it.

At the close of the retreat -- which was predominated by experimental liturgies, staying up until all hours, and young Jesuits complaining about their vow of celibacy -- all of us gathered in a circle. There we were; the students, the retreat staff, the faculty who served as "chaperones." We were reminded that, once we re-entered the world, we would meet others who would not appreciate the gravity of the experience we shared at that place. We were then counseled not to feel obliged to go into too much detail with those who might not understand, even our own parents.

I was reading about the scandals of clerical sexual abuse twenty years later, in the early 1990s. The young men listed as victims would have been young boys the same time as me. Their emotional state at the time was much like my own. I remembered "Tom," and his attempt to become familiar with me. What could have happened? Had it been for the worst, what spared me? I was no more astute than those other boys. Why was I spared and not them?

My answer came, not from a priest, or even a Catholic, but from an Protestant evangelical who was active in the charismatic movement. He told me that what I experienced was the gift of discernment. The Holy Spirit was warning me that there was danger present.

For all their faults, my parents had succeeded as my first Catechists, if only for that perilous moment. In all my wanderings, both in the world and in the Faith, I have remained a Catholic of the "old school" at heart. I can never pretend to share the fate of those who fell victim to a sexual predator. Nor can I pretend that my own experience did not happen.

For all the hoopla about "reforming" the Church, I am perfectly safe in maintaining, that neither a loosening of Church teaching or discipline, nor the onset of lay supervision (never mind one occasionally looking the other way), will necessarily provide for a cure. It must come from a Higher Place -- one that certain would-be "reformers" would blissfully ignore, in their mad dash for what they imagine to be power. My experience proves that they do so to their peril. None of them, for all their credentials and attention in the press, could ever convince me otherwise. I was there for the Feast of Fools thirty years ago. None of their solutions would have saved me then. They will not save our children now.

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