Education day aims to equip clergy, lay staff to answer ‘call to ministry’ in difficult times

| February 25, 2014 | 0 Comments

After five months of news stories about past clergy sexual misconduct, many Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis are feeling a mix of emotions: sadness, grief and anger among them.

Clergy members and parish and archdiocesan staff feel the strain daily, frequently dealing with these feelings in their parishes and pastoral relationships.

But by acknowledging these emotions, supporting one another and letting their best selves shine forth, clergy and lay ministers can work through the current challenges in healthy and effective ways that enhance their ministry while keeping victims and other vulnerable people at the center of it, said Paul Ashton, an expert in child sexual abuse prevention and healing who presents workshops and training seminars across the United States.

He spoke Feb. 19 to archdiocesan clergy at St. John Neumann in Eagan and Feb. 20 to parish and archdiocesan staff members at St. Peter in Mendota.

The sessions were conducted within a scriptural framework. They included prayer and a refresher on the VIRTUS safe environment training undergone by all archdiocesan clergy, Church and Catholic school employees, and volunteers who have contact with minors.

Joseph Kueppers, archdiocesan chancellor for civil affairs, also spoke about laws and procedures for reporting suspected child abuse.

Transforming loss

Ashton, a sexual abuse survivor who is a consultant to VIRTUS, acknowledged the grief and loss that many feel in light of recent media reports.

He spoke about his own grief when his mother, brother and grandmother died within a year of each other. He cried while watching sad movies, accessing his own grief and sense of overwhelming loss.

One day, while watching a cooking show host go through a process of slowly folding one ingredient into another, he had a revelation about how to handle his grief.

“Instead of fighting grief, I folded it into my life,” Ashton said. “It was all a part of me. [Grief] makes us stronger. You don’t fight it, you don’t push it away, you walk right through it.”

Grief accumulates over a lifetime, and how a person deals with it is crucial, he said. In the archdiocese, every newspaper article or TV news story about clergy sexual misconduct is a source of grief and loss.

“The archdiocese will experience this loss, but you’re coming together [today] and then you’re going to transform this loss,” Ashton said. “Don’t let it overpower you. It will get better down the road. Programs will be better. The people who are drawn to you will be better and better-intentioned.”

Becoming vulnerable

A key to transforming the grief and loss to effectively reach out to abuse victims and others who are vulnerable is to become vulnerable oneself, just as Jesus did, he said.

“Being vulnerable isn’t about being weak; it’s about harnessing the necessary strength to be open and authentic,” Ashton said, citing a definition of the word he once read. “When we are vulnerable, we are able to access our strengths and access our light and let that light show — sometimes not so much in words, but in our actions, being present and listening.”

“You can’t help [the vulnerable] unless you become like them or acknowledge that you are them,” he said. “You can’t do it unless you show who you really are. When you’re truthful and honest, and you’re sincere, it’s real.

“Real,” in the way that Pope Francis is “real” — being down to earth, accepting people where they are, and listening to them, Ashton said.

Victims need to be listened to, he said.

“Victims advocates and all the people in the Church we have interfacing with victims do this well,” Ashton said. “Sometimes [victims’] pain is so overwhelming, they don’t see that. We’re always looking for ways to improve our outreach, but it starts person by person.

“The way you’re going to fix this problem in this archdiocese is person by person, showing your light,” he said.

“Each of you must show joy despite the sorrow,” Ashton said. “Each of you should present yourself as vulnerable people open to whatever comes your way. And, in any way possible, be present to those who are angry or upset or trapped in whatever emotion they find themselves. This is the call to ministry.”

Healthy approach

“We all need to be vigilant,” said Leon Axtman, parish business administrator at Holy Cross in Minneapolis who attended the Feb. 20 gathering. “These kinds of sessions help us get a better idea of what we should be doing.”

“Today has been really good,” added Sharon Wilson, respect life coordinator for the archdiocesan Office of Marriage, Family and Life, who also attended the session.

“As a community of people who work for the Church, we’re dealing with this every day,” she said. “It all feels personal. You can get a fatigue, and you don’t want to be numb from it. Giving us permission to be able to process it and talk about it is really good and really healthy.”

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