Abbot John Klassen: A Scarred Church Faces a New Century

Abbot John Klassen
Image by Edith OSB via Flickr

Abbot John Klassen of  St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville opened the series of Catholic Studies talks with Reconciliation:  A Scarred Church Faces a New Century.   Quite a crowd gathered in Our Lady Queen of  Peace Chapel for the presentation.

Abbot John unpacked the metaphor of scars and scarring – long after the original injury, even if the healing is functionally complete, the scar remains.  With considerable openness and honesty, Abbot John proposed to look at episodes of recent history that are wounds in the Body of Christ, the Church.   His perspective is a valuable one:  he has dealt with many painful and difficult wounds in the decade since he was elected abbot in 2000.

The first wound was, of course, the sex abuse scandal and crisis.  Going back to the initial discussion by the US bishops in 1985, he traced the slow – too slow – and painful process by which the bishops moved from treating cases of abuse as a moral issue (handled in the confessional) to a therapeutic one (handled in a treatment program) to a criminal one.   I could hear the pain in his voice as he described his own awareness, as an abbot, of the scars left on the victims of sexual abuse.  The healing is slow and never complete; new situations may re-open the old wounds, and new healing is needed.

A Culture of Safety.  This gaping wound left a variety of other scars – broken relationships between priests and bishops, within religious communities where one member abused a child or teen, between priests and religious and the lay people they serve.   What is needed most, said Abbot John, is constant on-going effort to build a culture of safety within the Church.  He emphasized, too, that this was not something that could be done once and checked off: it requires constant effort, constant vigilance, and most of all, making sure that there is always someplace and someone to whom it is safe to talk.  Listening especially to the voices of victims is at the heart of this culture of safety.

The wound of clericalism.  Abbot John turned to the huge upsurge in lay ecclesial ministry, comparing its importance to the tremendous growth of monastic communities in the early middle ages or of apostolic communities in the 18th century.  He named the richness and fruitfulness of their many ministries, but pointed also to the wound in the body of Christ in the tension of the as-yet unsettled meaning of lay ministry and the ordained clergy.   Clerical culture, in a positive sense, could bear much fruit:  developing a collegiality and esprit de corps, upholding each other in witness and ministry.  Clericalism, in a negative sense, opened a chasm between the ordained clergy and lay ecclesial ministers.  Abbot John described the 1999 meeting of Catholic bishops where several questions were addressed.  Some pushed to resolve the questions strongly one way or the other; Avery Cardinal Dulles is reported to have spoken instead for defining only what was truly clear and agreed, and living into the answers – the approach adopted in  Lay Ecclesial Ministry: The State Of The QuestionsListening – among all parties – is again the heart of healing and growing past this wound.

Sexuality.  Close to the end of his time, Abbot John took up questions regarding sexuality, picking up the thread of the importance of a healthy and integrated sexuality from his discussion of the sex scandal crisis.  He turned here to the many issues of sexuality dividing society and with it the Church.  He described the tremendous anticipation among lay people while Pope Paul VI was writing his encyclical Humanae Vitae, followed by their tremendous disappointment when it upheld the Church’s traditional teaching against artificial contraception. Time constraints definitely shaped this part of the talk; I watched Abbot John set aside a page and so not develop this topic as fully as the others.  It was clear that he was reporting with tremendous empathy the shock, the disappointment and ultimately the rejection of the teaching of Humanae Vitae by the majority of Catholics at the time.  His own position on this, and issues such as same sex unions, was less clear.  The wound was clear – the hopes and aspirations of some for changes in the teachings of the Church.  The path forward, as described by Abbot John, required a deep listening to what was being said.

Scarred church.  The talk left much to ponder.  One friend was pretty disgusted at Abbot John’s empathetic description of the massive rejection of Humanae Vitae by Catholic lay people, and left.  I shared some of his dismay, wishing I had also heard am empathetic discussion of the truth and beauty of its theology of marriage, and the accuracy of its social predictions.  Abbot John’s overall message, though, was stronger and deeper.   Drawing again on the image of the Body of Christ, he said, quite forecefully, that even when we disagree, we cannot say to each other, “I am the eye, and I don’t need YOU!” or “I am the ear and we only need hearing here!”

What bridge can there be when the disagreement is strong?  It is not surprising that a Benedictine abbot would recommend that we “Listen  — with the ears of our hearts.”  From an Abbot who could tell of meeting with the sex abuse victims and families abused by monks of his community – and also with the monks – this is no pious prattle.  He has learned and practiced this type of deep listening and learning as the path of wisdom when the body is wounded and nearly severed.   When we are lucky enough to hear from one who dwells where the wounds are most visible and tends to them, it is worthwhile to take the message to heart.

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  1. The difficulty of the stance of listening becomes more clear with the comments that come in. My friend who left the talk wrote to me saying, in part,

    “Expectations for change were brought into being and fanned by dissenters, during those fateful years between 1965 and 1968. If one reads HV itself, it is clear that Paul VI had “heard” the case for contraception. He states it there. He had a commission to advise him, and he had expanded it. JPII’s Theology of the Body, if it is anything, is a painstaking explanation of the reasonableness of the traditional teaching. … What more is there to “listen” to? Couples can tell the pope about difficulties in observing the church’s teaching. Everybody knows that. But they cannot tell him whether contraception is intrinsically evil or only evil under certain circumstances. That’s what we have a pope for. I think we both know that these people will not feel “listened to” until the pope gives them what they want. They’re like a teenager who can’t see why he has to come home by midnight no matter how much reasoning the parents do. ”

    The two people making comments are doing so on issues that are quite different – legally, morally, and theologically. The common denominator is a sense of “there’s been enough listening already!”

  2. I was a member of an External Review Board that was created as part of a settlement with victims and St. John’s Abbey. Abbot John Klassen met with the Board on a monthly basis. The Abbot listens but fails hear – or to be proactive.

    The Abbot and Abbey have a long history of saying the right thing. It seems, however, that they do the right thing only when negative PR is on the way.

    Since victims are often reluctant to come forward against such an esteemed institution, many perpetrators at the Abbey continue to work in leadership positions, lead parishes in nearby towns, and travel the world.

    This Abbot has repeatedly failed the victim community. His ”Scarred Church” lecture is a slap in the face to those who know the truth about the Abbey. The Abbot’s role in the cover-up disgusts many who want full disclosure. Real healing cannot begin until the Abbey and Abbot fully disclose.

    • I moderate comments on this blog, not so that I can publish those I agree with and ignore those with which I disagree, but to maintain my own focus and perspective. In this instance, my primary interest is in reporting events on campus and the message I took away from them.

      I appreciate Pat’s inclusion of a link to the relevant blog – if you click on the name, you will be taken to that website. While I have a general knowledge of the point of view that Pat states, from the media and from that blog, I don’t have any independent knowledge to either support or refute the claims. Because of that, the blog that Pat listed is the appropriate place for further discussion of that perspective. Sister Edith

  3. […] Abbot John unpacked the metaphor of scars and scarring – long after the original injury, even if the healing is functionally complete, the scar remains. With considerable openness and honesty, Abbot John proposed to look at episodes of recent history that are wounds in the Body of Christ, the Church. His perspective is a valuable one: he has dealt with many painful and difficult wounds in the Church, in society, and within his community in the  decade since he was elected abbot in 2000.   (There’s a longer report on Abbot John’s talk on Monastic Musings Too.) […]

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