Embracing the Cross, Another Way

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 2014 – also Racial Justice Sunday.

Woman with head bowed and arms foldedUnusually, I would like today’s sermon to begin with a woman’s voice.

In the beginning, I was young . . . he was handsome. He said I was beautiful, smart, worthy of love . . . made me feel that way. And so we were married, walking joyfully together down a church aisle, our union blessed by God.

Then came the angry words . . . the verbal tearing apart. . . . Now I was made to feel ugly, unintelligent, unworthy of any love, God’s or man’s.

Next came the beatings . . . unrelenting violence . . . unceasing pain. I shouldn’t stay, but this is my husband . . . promised forever. He says I deserve it . . . maybe I do . . . if I could just be good. I feel so alone . . . doesn’t God hear me when I cry out silently as I lie in bed each night?

Finally came the release, the realization. It’s not me . . . it’s him. . . . I am worthy of love, God’s and man’s. One spring morning, my heart was filled with hope and with fear now only of starting over on my own. And so again I walked . . . down the hallway of our apartment building . . . never again to be silent . . . never again to live with that kind of violence, to suffer that kind of pain.

Today, I’d like to mention an uncomfortable subject. What you have just heard a wife describe is domestic abuse.

Sometimes, within our family homes, relationships go badly wrong. One adult starts hurting another one – sometimes with their hands, other times with their words. When this does happen, we can easily fall into the trap of limiting our options because we misunderstand the Church’s teaching.

Part of the trap is the attitude set out in today’s Second Reading: Jesus was humble, and accepted death on a Cross. At the heart of our Catholic religion is the agony of Christ. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he imagines walking away from the abuse which the Romans were about to inflict on him. But he knows he has a God-given mission to suffer, because this was the only way he could open for us the gates of heaven. So he allows himself to be arrested, scourged, mocked, and nailed to a cross of wood.

Jesus freely accepted suffering – and so part of our Catholic way of doing things is that when difficult circumstances come along, we “offer it up”. Love is patient, love is kind, love bears no record of wrongs but endures whatever comes. We are to love our enemies, and do good to those who persecute us, Put all these things together, and we have a recipe which seems to say ‘grin and bear it’. Add to that the fact that Jesus said ‘I do not permit you to divorce’, and you could easily fall into the trap of thinking that abused Catholic wives – or husbands – have no option other than to put up with the treatment they receive at home, on pain of sin.

What I am going to say next may surprise you, but it has the full authority of the church. You can look it up in paragraph 2383 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

If it is not safe for a wife, or a husband, to remain in the family home, they can leave their spouse.

If the relationship has broken down permanently, and a civil divorce would protect the financial affairs of the separated partner, it is even permissible for a Catholic to file for divorce. This does not stop them from being able to receive Holy Communion.

In such a case, the lifelong vows of marriage mean that the separated spouse should continue to be faithful to their partner by praying for their well-being, not seeking a new relationship, and not making things needlessly difficult when the other partner wants to negotiate over financial matters or custody of the children. The Gospel does require us to act with goodwill towards someone who has hurt us, not to punish them for their actions.

In last week’s Gospel reading, Our Lord spoke of the need to correct someone who sins against you. When a husband or wife resorts to physical violence or emotional manipulation to get their own way, this is a sin. If it is safe to challenge your spouse’s behaviour, you have a Christian duty to do so! If this is too difficult to do alone, there is help available for married couples in the form of couple-counselling or various kinds of retreats for couples in which they can re-examine their relationship.

The message I hope you will take home today is that in a difficult relationship, you are free to make hard choices. It’s a cliché, but often enough a partner will choose to stay in a strained relationship “for the sake of the children”. A person deeply in love with an abusive partner can fall into a false optimism – “I excuse what they did today, they won’t do it again.” But they will. There’s a saying that insanity is doing the same thing again and expecting a different outcome. Chances are, in such a strained relationship one partner will continue to abuse the other, and the other will continue to hope for the best.

Now it’s true, that part of what we believe as Christians is that love does invite us to “put up and shut up”. Today’s Second Reading does invite us to be humble and gracious without limit. Today’s Feast, the Triumph of the Cross, does remind us that there are times we will choose to embrace suffering, trusting that God will bring great good out of it. But any Christian who chooses to stay in an abusive relationship should do so from a position of mental strength, recognising that their partner is not going to change, and freely deciding, for Christ’s sake, to endure what is bound to come. As soon as the relationship is stretched beyond the point where God gives the strength to endure, or as soon as children are at risk from violent behaviour, it’s time to exercise one of the other choices I have just described.

Today is also the day in the year when our Church leaders ask us to consider issues of racial justice. In recent weeks, our news headlines have been full of what happened in Rotherham, where teenage girls, mostly white, were systematically groomed by men who were mostly from Pakistan. This has caused a lot of discussion on news programmes about different attitudes to marriage and other relationships in different national cultures.

Any marriage, any extended family, any household is sacred ground where an outsider, even a priest, cannot dictate how things should be. But this I will say: in any Catholic family, of whatever nationality, it is a sin for one spouse to physically harm the other. It is a sin for one spouse to belittle the other with insulting words. But it is never a sin for a spouse to leave the home when they fear for their own safety, or for their children’s.

Because this is a message which could be so easily misunderstood, I am going to ask a few questions to ensure I have made myself clear:

Does leaving the family home for your own safety, or your children’s, bar you from Holy Communion? NO.

Does filing for divorce in these circumstances, bar you from Holy Communion? NO.

Is using physical violence towards your partner the kind of serious sin that requires confession and repentance before coming to Holy Communion? YES.

Is deliberate and pre-planned emotional manipulation of a partner also the kind sin that bars a person from Holy Communion? YES.

Finally, I’d like to speak a word to children present this morning. Please don’t feel worried by the difficult things I have just talked about. Yes, it’s true there are some families where grown-ups hurt each other. But if you haven’t seen this happening in your own family, relax! Your parents are not suddenly going to start hurting each other because of a sermon in church! So don’t be afraid.

Sadly, some children already know that grown-ups can hurt each other because they see it happening at home, or because you might have friends who tell you about sad things that happen in their family. If that’s you, I want you to know that it’s always OK to talk to a grown-up you trust about these things. Your class teacher in school is probably the best person, or another teacher in school you really trust, or you can even talk to Deacon Steve or myself. And if someone at home has told you that you must never talk to anyone about something they’ve done, they are wrong!

Listen carefully: It is ALWAYS OK to talk to a grown-up you trust about something that’s worrying you. No-one is allowed to tell you that something horrible must be your secret forever and always. Today we are celebrating that Jesus died on the Cross for us so that we could be happy. If there’s something making you unhappy, it’s good to talk about it – to Jesus in your prayers, and to one of his friends who can help you.

Useful web links:

CEDAR – Catholics Experiencing Domestic Abuse Resources (England & Wales)

Podcasts on Domestic Abuse from the Catholic Church in England & Wales

When I Call For Help – US Bishops’ Message on Domestic Abuse