Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI: “Children of Our God – and of Our Elders”

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Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Faith-wise, I was lucky and drew a long straw. My parents and the significant elders in my youth, while not perfect, walked their talk, at least essentially so. They raised me and my siblings to believe in God and in the church and then, by the way they lived their lives and treated us, gave us reason enough to believe that the trust they asked of us, towards God and church, was well placed. They made God and church credible.

How did they do this? By never essentially betraying us, their children. Their love was never perfect, nor unconditional, nor even adequate – nobody, save God, can do that, but neither did they betray us, or themselves, in so deep a way that it cast doubt upon the essential trust they asked of us. Today, I have faith in God and in the church, largely, because of that. My elders didn’t betray me.

I share this here not because it is significant or deep, or even typical, but for the opposite reasons. Many, many, persons have had exactly the opposite experience with a corresponding consequence. In their case, the parents and elders to whom they were entrusted and who tried to teach them to believe in God and church, themselves so betrayed that trust so as to leave their children, this side of eternity, in a situation wherein they will never be able to believe in God, and especially in the church, without a constant struggle with anger, bitterness, and suspicion.

For them, there was the prescribed talk about religion, God and church, but there were other things too, in the home and in the larger environment, which belied the trust that religion asked of them. Disrespect, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, alcoholism, marital infidelity, or simply a parent who never grew up, these things, from a parent or a significant elder, uncut the trust that religion asked. Anyone who has been wounded in some deep way by the betrayal of a significant adult in his or her childhood will find it very difficult not to go through adult life without a lot of anger and doubt towards the church and its ministers.

Simply stated: If I have been deeply betrayed as a child, why trust now? If the words of my parents or a significant elder were essentially dishonest, why should I not suspect that this is the case with all authority, church or civil? If the religious talk and actions of my elders was more appearance than reality, why shouldn’t I think that all religious talk and action is simple appearance? Why should I not be suspicious of a dark confessional box when I will spend my life trying to get over what happened to me in some other dark place? And why shouldn’t I suspect that all authority, in the end, is self-serving, lying, and exploitive if that has been my primal experience? Why shouldn’t I believe that, ultimately, all human authority is dishonest and untrustworthy?

There is a Neo-Freudian axiom which suggests that most anger directed at institutionalized religion is ultimately anger directed at your own father. The reverse suggests that we are about as comfortable with institutionalized religion as we are with our own fathers. With a few exceptions, in my experience, this has shown itself to be true. If my dad was an alcoholic who only came home and dealt with me only when he wanted something, is it any wonder that I am habitually suspicious of the motives of virtually every authority figure, especially in the church?

Faith, especially faith in the church, is mediated by our parents and our significant elders. If they betray us when we are little, it will always be hard for us to have faith since faith, after all, is about trust – and trust once betrayed, betrayed at a primal level, is not easily restored, as any victim of sexual abuse will testify to. It is a whole lot easier to believe, without bitterness, if those entrusted with protecting and nurturing me as a child never fundamentally betrayed me. Conversely, if those whom I was supposed to trust, and who were supposed to protect me, abused me instead, I will carry more than my share of anger and suspicion, especially towards the church.

It is important to know that we come to the church with very different experiences and we have to be sensitive to each other because of this. For some of us, it didn’t hurt to be child and the blind trust we gave our parents and the church was a good investment. For others, though, too much of what church and church authority stand for can only seem like a big lie. If our parents or elders were immature, neglectful, self-interested, or, worse yet, positively abusive, that is the way the church and its leaders will also appear to us. Understanding this can be helpful in gestating compassion, on all sides.