American Bishops Have a Chance to Show the World What Repentance Looks Like

The Church's sex scandals could serve as a witness to the power of humility.

By Joshua Charles Published on August 16, 2018

I recently became Catholic after a lifetime as a Protestant.

One of the things that brought me into the Church were the many amazing stories of its saints. In particular, the public repentance of some of its greatest sons and daughters struck me.

One of the best of these stories is that of Emperor Theodosius on his knees, repenting before Bishop Ambrose for slaying Roman civilians in the city of Thessalonica.

An Emperor Humbles Himself

In AD 390, a mob in the city of Thessalonica murdered some of the officers of the Roman garrison. Rather than seek out the guilty, Emperor Theodosius, according to Church historian Theodoret, “broke the bonds and yoke of reason, unsheathed swords of injustice right and left without distinction, and slew innocent and guilty together.” There were no trials. The populace was simply slaughtered by the thousands.

At the time, the administrative capital of the western Roman Empire was Milan. Upon his return, the Emperor sought to enter the cathedral. But the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose, blocked his way. (Ambrose had played an instrumental role in the conversion of Augustine of Hippo. Both would go on to be declared Doctors of the Church.) Ambrose refused the Emperor access to the Cathedral, as well as to the Eucharist. Church historian Theodoret reports Ambrose’s words as follows:

With what eyes then will you look on the temple of our common Lord — with what feet will you tread that holy threshold, how will you stretch forth your hands still dripping with the blood of unjust slaughter? How in such hands will you receive the all holy Body of the Lord? How will you who in your rage unrighteously poured forth so much blood lift to your lips the precious Blood? Begone.

In a letter to the Emperor, Ambrose declared, “If the priest speak not to him that erreth, he who errs shall die in his sin, and the priest shall be liable to the penalty because he warned not the erring.”

He commended the example of King David to Theodosius. By “[David’s] humbling of himself he became more acceptable to God,” he noted, “for it is no matter of wonder that a man should sin, but this is reprehensible, if he does not recognize that he has erred, and humble himself before God. … Sin is not done away but by tears and penitence. Neither angel can do it, nor archangel. The Lord himself, who alone can say, ‘I am with you,’ if we have sinned, does not forgive any but those who repent.”

Ambrose concluded by affirming his refusal to offer the Eucharist to the Emperor:

I dare not offer the sacrifice if you intend to be present. Is that which is not allowed after shedding the blood of one innocent person allowed after shedding the blood of many? I do not think so.

Public Repentance

Theodoret records the Emperor’s reaction: “Theodosius knew clearly what belonged to priests and what to emperors. He therefore bowed to the rebuke of Ambrose, and retired sighing and weeping to the palace.”

Did the Emperor murder the bishop? You might expect that. In fact, after a while he came to the Church and offered prayers of repentance — not on his feet, and not even on his knees. Rather, he was lying down on his face, with the words of David in his mouth: “My soul cleaves unto the dust, quicken thou me according to your word.” [Ps. 119:25]

Even when not in Milan, the Emperor obeyed Ambrose by not receiving the Eucharist even when he was not under the Bishop’s eye. So obvious and moving was the Emperor’s penance that the Bishop of Constantinople asked him why he would not receive the Eucharist. The Emperor replied, “It is not easy to find a man capable of teaching me the truth. Ambrose alone deserves the title of Bishop.”

There are countless such stories from throughout the 2,000-year history of the Church.

Time to Publicly Repent

In light of the horrifying scandals, first with Cardinal McCarrick, and now with the disgusting news out of Pennsylvania, it is my humble suggestion that the American Church follow Saint Ambrose’s example — but in reverse. The Bishops who have been implicated should do public penance before the world. They should repent before the victims they have so callously scorned, and before the flocks whose trust they have so viciously violated.

Pope Francis should come to America, and with the various American Bishops who have been played a part in recent scandals, publicly defrock them, administer public admonishment and penance, and have each of them on their knees and faces begging for the forgiveness of their flocks, in a public arena, before the eyes of the entire world.

If the salt loses its saltiness, it should be thrown out and trampled under the people’s feet. It was good enough for a Roman Emperor. So it should be good enough for the successors of the Apostles.

The Catholic Church in America has a lot of repenting to do. And while this is a dark chapter, to repent in such a truly Catholic way before the gaze of the world would set a powerful example.

A Unique Opportunity

The words of Ambrose in his letter to the Emperor should ring in the ears of the American hierarchy. “Are they not, then, rather Christians in truth who condemn their own sin, than they who think to defend it?”

Coverups and lack of transparency, no matter the vats of ink that are spilled in remorseful words, amount to a defense of sin.

Members of the hierarchy have been protecting and defending sin for far too long. And now, the time for public sackcloth and ashes has come.

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The Church has a powerful, moving, and humbling doctrine of repentance. Both it and its children have lived out this doctrine many times.

It is time to do so now, before the world loses all faith in the Church’s ability to be the light it claims to be. It’s time to show the world what the love and grace of Christ actually compels sinners to do — what true humility and repentance looks like.

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