By Drew Dillingham
Catholic News Service
(Eleventh in a series)
ROME — Time has flown since I arrived in Rome almost three months ago. As my studies at the Gregorian move into weeks 9 and 10, classes have begun to place an even greater emphasis on the theological aspect of child protection and healing. For example, the title of a couple of my seminars this week were “Images of God” and “Jesus and the Children.” One of my favorite quotes from Pope Francis easily ties into these subjects.
In an interview published in America magazine in 2013, Pope Francis was asked: “What does the church need most at this historic moment?” His Holiness replied:
“The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”
To me, what is most interesting about Pope Francis’ answer was his emphasis on healing from the “ground up.” How can the church heal itself and others from the “ground up” especially in terms of protecting children and healing victims/survivors?
One way to build from the “ground up” is through a deeper understanding of Christ’s teachings concerning children. Throughout the Gospel there are extensive accounts of Jesus’ love and concern for children. This deep love and concern for children can provide the basis for our efforts to protect children and heal victims/survivors of child sexual abuse.
Jesus’ attitude toward children was revolutionary for his time: even his disciples rebuked the children who were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. Jesus, however, invites the children to come to him (Mt 19:13-14). He insisted children be removed from the peripheries of society and instead be placed directly in its midst (Mt 18:2). He chose to place children at the center of the room so that they could be loved and protected, rather than out of sight and out of mind. In an era where children were seen but not heard, Jesus sent a clear message about the inherent dignity of children and their value to society and the church.
Jesus was not naive; he was mindful of the existence of those who wished to harm others. In John 10, Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn 10:14-15). Throughout the Gospel, Jesus makes reference to the wolves who must be kept from the flock (Mt 10:16). He describes himself as the Good Shepherd who defends his people from the wolves in their midst.
Jesus shows us that to fall short of our responsibility to protect children from those “wolves” is to damage our relationship with him. According to Bishop Robert Barron, “When the disciples disputed about which of them is greatest, Jesus said, ‘If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all’ (Mk 9:35-37). Then he took a child and in a gesture of irresistible poignancy, he placed his arms around him, simultaneously embracing, protecting and offering him as an example. The clear implication is that the failure to accept, protect and love a child, or what is worse, the active harming of a child, would preclude real contact with Jesus. Perhaps this is why Jesus warns that for whoever leads a child astray, it would be better “for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Lk 17:2).
Another major part of Christ’s ministry was his mission to bring mercy and healing to all he encountered. Jesus healed the wounded, comforted the suffering and brought mercy to those who most needed it. Based on the accounts of Jesus’ extensive advocacy for children in the Gospels, it is no surprise that many of those he healed were children: the daughter of Jairus (Mt 9:18-19; 23-26; Mk 5:22-24; 35-43; Lk 8:40-42; 49-56); the son of a royal official in Capernaum (Jn 4:46-54); and the daughter of a Canaanite woman (Mt 15:21-28; Mk 7:24-30).
Through prayer and reflection on the Gospel, we can understand what it means to love, protect and heal. This understanding will lead us to consider the well-being of children as a top priority. We can use our faith to build from the “ground up” and create a culture in the church in which beliefs, attitudes and behaviors are reflective of Christ’s, and that means being deeply concerned about the safety of children and the care of those who have been abused.
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Drew Dillingham is the Coordinator for Resources and Special Projects with the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. He is attending Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University’s interdisciplinary program for a diploma in safeguarding minors. He is an avid reader of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and shares his April 26th birthday. Dillingham also dabbles in the works of Bishop Robert Barron, thanks to the ongoing encouragement of his wife, Kim.