I remember being bullied. It happened a few times in my childhood, and in particular in middle school. Perhaps it didn’t happen as many times as I think it did, but maybe the few that I can remember were so severe that they overshadowed a lot of those years.
There was an experience I remember for which I still feel guilty. It happened at that moment at which you see the bullying shift in the direction of someone else, and you feel safe or relieved because it isn’t you this time. Some bullying happens when the person who is simply glad not to be the victim on this go around joins in the taunting. I joined in bullying someone else, and I need to say I’m sorry.
There was someone I helped to pick on, because it meant the blame wasn’t on me. Someone specific. She didn’t deserve it. She had faults, which everyone could see, things that she did to make herself awkward and inappropriate. But she didn’t deserve what we said about her. Who knows what was going on behind the scenes to make her the mess that she was, but we shouldn’t have made it worse by taunting her. And I need to apologize.
She is the Church. And there have been countless times that I have stood in front of a crowd and derided what I called “institutional religion,” because I knew other people would cheer me for saying it. I bullied her, because I knew for a moment it would put me in the “in” crowd, that no one would make fun of me for being a priest while I was busy picking on the Church. I even thought it would make people pay attention to what I had to say, because I was picking on someone that they liked to pick on.
She took the ridicule silently. She stood there like a would-be King in the hands of sadistic Roman centurions on Good Friday. She kept up her silent work of reforming character, inspiring the broken, converting the lost, and feeding the poor, while I made fun of her, while I capitalized on her failures and easy vulnerabilities.
It’s taken me half my life to actually realize what she is up to, what she means to accomplish. If there is yet to be redemption in American society, if we are to find value, if we are to dig through the sludge of materialism and vanity to find a bedrock of meaning and humility, it’s going to come through the work of the Church. I’m so sorry for picking on something which, I now believe, in the mind of God, is such a beautiful dream of what we might be. Perhaps she has endured the way I have treated her specifically because she realized what she could make of me. Like He did.