The Challenge to be Grateful: A Personal Perspective


Pennsylvania was to most of us Canadian Catholics just one among 50 states and several territories, until the horrors unveiled last August. It then became more a crime scene, reeking of the shame of perpetrators who are our incomprehensible brothers within a wounded family, and pulsating with the pain of so many innocents, forever changed by the evil inflicted upon them.

And since then, countless stories emanating from around the world of inconceivable episodes of abuse upon abuse, betrayal upon betrayal, committed by the ones among us who had been given trust of the deepest and most sacred kind.

These landscapes are for many of us Catholics places from which we assume a sense of corporate and vicarious shame, as well; of some kind of collective guilt well-known to millions of good German people in the wake of the holocaust.

At our best we as Catholic Christians try to reach beyond the paralysis of our revulsion, don’t we, by reaching out to one another – particularly to those within our own communities whom we know were themselves victimized by someone at some point in their own lives; clients, for those whose work is in a clinical or spiritual practice; or perhaps a friend who has entrusted to us some painful event in their own sacred story; or a priest, himself abused as a vulnerable youth; or even a relative similarly harmed.

Such darkness as is reflected in the Pennsylvania report, or even in the controversy around the recent Vatican synod, cannot fail but stir memories and deep emotions for these in ways more painful than for most.

In the wake of all of this how, then, do we reach for the virtue which Ignatius held highest…the virtue of gratitude? For what can we Catholics possibly be grateful, as we seek meaning in the midst of such evil and struggle to move beyond our own revulsion and rage to a more life-giving gratitude within which redemption, healing, transformation and mutual care are possible? Where can hope possibly be drawn out of this chaos?

What Fr. Greg Boyle S.J. likes to call “kinship” begins to take us there, I suppose. At times such  as this we in this broken Catholic family at our best remember that when we open our arms to compassionately embrace another, we are by definition opening to receive another’s embrace as well- it’s the same gesture, the same posture.

A posture of love, hope, oneness (ut unum sint) and solidarity. Many of us long, in this moment, to extend this gesture to the victims where we can – to the victims most of all – and then to one another also.

Yet even here we must be tentative, thoughtful, since with victim/survivors physical touch can hold within itself dark meaning, and can provoke their sense of fear and vulnerability Now more than ever, we have a responsibility to move forward with sensitivity and humility, opening ourselves to offering healthy restorative connection to those whose trust has been so profoundly betrayed, and also to each other.

I think we Catholics who are neither abusers nor abused know vicarious shame today, though we may take care not to let this distract us from our determination to lovingly care for victim/survivors and to support Pope Francis as well, as he struggles to reform this church of ours in order to ensure that all are equally empowered, protected, respected…loved.

Even as we challenge our church to change – and change it must, in oh so many ways – there is an inevitable period of liminality between the old wineskin and the new, during which we might do well to encourage the best among our priests who have known how to be servant-leaders; who have cared respectfully for us all and especially for the vulnerable among us.

After the victims and their families, it is these who now have been given a particular burden to bear in a darkness such as this – the recipients more than most of us of this secondary victimhood, with a corresponding sense of vicarious shame not of their own doing.

My own reflections have brought me unexpectedly to a deep gratitude for these priests in my own graced history, and a desire to find a way to convey that gratitude to them. To send them a long-overdue ’thank you’ note or, even more, a letter of love in Christ.

When confronted again and again with the twisted reality of the abusers, and those ecclesiastical conspirators who have protected them, can we not find a ground of consolation by calling to mind – those of us fortunate enough to have known them – the priests who have been faithful to a call to relationships of respectful and loving mutuality and equality, in Christ.

In this spirit, and as a way of coping with the alternating rage, revulsion and deep sadness that rose up in my own personal reflections, I was carried to a moment years ago when I visited a little monument just east of Quebec City, which commemorated an ancestor of mine, and his immigrant neighbours, who had come to New France from Normandy in the mid-17th century.

I was attending a conference at Laval University and had gone a day early to join with the locals at mass in a nearby village, and then to find this little ancestral landmark which commemorated the “Mass of the Guardian Angels” celebrated there in 1640 with “les premiers colons” – “the first settlers” (the language reflecting the ongoing cultural and racial hubris, of course, which overlooked the Indigenous Peoples whose home this already was).

The occasion of my visit to this little monument happened to be Father’s Day, and I had brought with me a picture of my own dear father standing at that very site years prior with two of his grandsons.

As I thought about my Dad, and of his Dad – men who were a beautiful interweaving of anima and animus; of archetypal masculine strength and feminine kindness and nurturance – I sat with Jesus in gratitude.

I found myself propelled through time to the unknown men (and the women equally, but this was a Father’s Day reflection) who had preceded my grand-father and my Dad, right back to a community of French immigrants celebrating that mass in that sacred place almost 400 years previous.

But this took me also to the one who had presided at that mass – the priest who ministered alongside these simple people. Who cared for them and advocated or them, as well as for the First Nations people whose land this was.

It’s recorded in ”The Jesuit Relations” that my ancestor, Thomas Hayot, worked for the Jesuits as a share cropper…the first of many in my family in this country to be formed and supported, loved and challenged (no doubt!) by the men who were themselves ultimately formed by Ignatius, only a century before.

How could I not, then, be carried in my own prayer of gratitude to the Jesuits who had given everything to educate and form the likes of me, from St. Ignatius Parish in 1950s Winnipeg, to St. John Brebeuf School, St. Paul’s High School and College, all on the Canadian Prairie, Ignatius College at Guelph, a First Nations community at Thunder Bay, Regina, Gonzaga, Seattle U., and Los Altos.

There are too many grand teachers and faithful spiritual mentors to mention all, but each holding a place still in the memory of my own heart;

Men such as Fr. C. Hinphy S.J., whom I would see at prayer out of the corner of my eye, as a 10 year old pre-conciliar altar boy arranging the altar for mass before school.

Fr. Hinphy who, after he thanked me for my “service”, would return to prayer after mass as I (influenced to this day by his example) went to class;

or Fr. St. Clair Monaghan S.J., who could effectively control 400 hyper-active adolescent boys in a gymnasium assembly with a wordless but respectful gesture of his right hand, and who modelled discipline grounded in loving kindness;

Fr. Bill Maurice S.J., made an honorary chief by the First Nations people of Ft. William, Ontario, whom he lovingly served so well for so long;

Fr. John English S.J., who helped make the Spiritual Exercises accessible to generations of people, within and beyond the Catholic family and who, after the death of my own father, was a loving grand-father to our own daughters, and who shared a deep personal friendship with my wife, Cammie;

Fr. Joe McArdle S.J., whose feisty humour and depth of insight made him the perfect spiritual director for anyone suspicious of anything smacking of pious sentimentalism;

Bro. Eugene McLaren S.J., who for decades exemplified for so many of us a constancy of authenticity, humility and generosity;

And countless other women and men religious who have risked everything to stand with the poorest and most marginalized, advocating for rights of socio-economic parity.

The line is long, and extends back through Ignatius to Christ – crucified, risen, and crucified still in the violence and injustices and abuses of today…and risen still. Risen!

I realize what a contrast my privileged experience is, with the experiences of those precious many victims acknowledged in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, and in the heartbreaking flood of disclosures since. With God’s grace we learn, don’t we, to hold within us the tension of gratitude tempered with anger and deep grief?

God is present “in our deepest longing”, as Ignatius teaches us, and there is no longing deeper than the longing to love and to be loved.

St. John of the Cross wrote:

“And I saw the river
over which every
soul must pass
to reach the
kingdom of
and the name
of that river was
and I saw the boat
which carries souls
across the river
and the name of
that boat was love.”

All of us who share in this broken Catholic family of ours find ourselves shaken to the very core by stories of abuses committed by masquerading priests who shielded themselves behind the culture of clericalism which we now know as sin, and which so many now recognize as the fertile ground in which this evil has flourished.

But we know that many priests of integrity join many of us, the laity, who see in our “state” not something to which one is “reduced”, but rather the potential landscape for living out a graced apostolic vocation; women and men both, my grand-daughters and nieces as much as my nephews.

This is the Church for which so many of us long, made healthier and infinitely more effective in enfleshing the Good News for all, through the shared and equal leadership of women and men, priest and prophet together. Please, God -women and men, both!

We are grateful for these priests, and for Pope Francis himself, as together we seek to reform this Church of ours, that we might better serve humanity and care for the poor and the powerless, and for this precious and vulnerable creation. This to me is a light in this time of such darkness, hope in the face of such widespread, consuming despair.

May those priests and bishops who have served us and served beside us, with integrity and with loving regard, be reminded of our deep love and gratitude for them, as they suffer in ways some of us might never know.

May they know that we invite them to stand firmly with us here…now…still… reaching out to victims together and together crossing this river of suffering in Christ’s own boat of love.

Gerry Ayotte is a retired Chaplain and Counsellor living in Abbotsford, BC. He practices Spiritual Direction, in association with the Jesuit Spirituality Apostolate of Vancouver (founded by the late Jim Webb, SJ).

  • Fr. Bill Robins, S.J.
    Posted at 07:14h, 23 May Reply

    Thanks to Gerry for the wonderful reflections on the present at past! We go ahead blessed! Fr. Bill Robins, S.J., St. Ignatius Parish 1943-1960. St. Ignatius School 1948-1957, St. Paul’s High School 1957-60

    • Gerry Ayotte
      Posted at 22:25h, 23 May Reply

      Thank you, Fr. Bill. You are among the unnamed many for whose pastoral care I am grateful.

  • Ada MacDonald
    Posted at 08:37h, 23 May Reply

    Yes. I feel gratitude and admiration for many priests.

  • John Montague
    Posted at 08:54h, 23 May Reply

    I appreciated your comment “With God’s grace we learn to hold the tension within us of gratitude tempered with anger and deep grief.” That is certainly my experience having gone to an all boys catholic high school where because I was not athletic and from a poor family, I felt completely ignored and unsupported. Also being a gay catholic brings me closer to Jesus, because I live in the tension of being on the margin. John of the Cross’s poem is relevant to our church community in this twenty first century. At 73 years of age, I am beginning to understand what Jesus meant when He said: “love your enemies.”

    • Gerry Ayotte
      Posted at 22:24h, 23 May Reply

      Thank you, John. I pray that you now know yourself as a beloved brother within this broken body which we all struggle to bring into the fullness of God’s own love. I am blessed to think that somehow we are in this boat together.

  • richard grover
    Posted at 10:12h, 23 May Reply

    Thanks for your reflection on faith, gratitude, perspective, and leadership Gerry. In these times of great change you reminded us that when we stop and pray , we realize that in spite of evil, God has the power and glory, ….and that His kingdom triumphs.

  • Larry Martell
    Posted at 15:47h, 23 May Reply

    Thank you Gerry for helping me deal with an issue that has brought me closer to despair in our Church than anything I have experienced. On the positive side it is nice also to remember Fathers English and Monaghan who had such a positive effect on my spiritual journey. I would also like to add Fr. J.J. Toppings s.j. to the list.

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