Fr. Larry Dowling, St. Agatha Church, Chicago
In my work over twenty-five years as a priest, with over 20 years in two parishes where I followed a priest-abuser, this is the question that will often be expressed from those abused. “Where was God when this was happening to me?” The question is especially poignant when the abuser is a priest, one supposedly called by God. It is often shared in anger – and rightly so.
I have had to wrestle myself with this question as I work in a community constantly plagued by gun violence and by physical, verbal and sometimes sexual abuse in many households. The constant flow of stories and the deep trauma inflicted by direct abuse and by systemic abuse raise the same question: “Where was God?” and even “Where is God?”
The following reflection is my attempt to understand where God was and where God is. I do this not to help bring people back to the Church or to church, but to perhaps reclaim and bolster a faith that I believe is so important in the healing process, both for those abused and for those who walk with them.
For me understanding where God was is captured in two words from the Gospel of John: “Jesus wept.” (Jn 11:35) It comes from the story of the Raising of Lazarus. It is Jesus’ 7th miracle in this particular Gospel and the story is about loss and participating in resurrection.
“Jesus wept.” For so many reasons these two words have taken on greater significance for me as I continue to have the privilege to walk with people as they deal with horrible things that were done to them by other people.
So my answer to the question of “Where was God?’ is this: God gives everyone free will, and God does not intervene directly in human affairs, even when horrible things are happening to others. Sometimes we wish God would, yet if God did this every time God saw any of us doing anything hurtful to others, we would lose any sense of autonomy and personal freedom.
So here is what I believe God is doing when horrible things are being done to innocent children, youth and adults: God is weeping. The God I believe in is not an unfeeling God, sitting passively by as things are happening. I can only relate to a God who weeps at the atrocity and sinfulness of our world. I can only relate to a God who longs in those moments that someone would exercise their free will to intervene and stop the madness. But all too often there was no one.
But the story of Jesus going to the tomb of Lazarus does not stop with his weeping. The fact that Jesus wept tells us that Jesus was in tune with two realities: His deep and prayerful relationship with the God he called Abba/Daddy/Mommy, and the relationship he had with Lazarus and his sisters.
“Jesus wept.” Does that acknowledgment alone help? Of course not. Which is why the continuation of the story of the Raising of Lazarus is so important for us to reflect upon.
Jesus is clearly distraught as he seeks to comfort Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha. Yet he is also distraught because Lazarus has been a dear friend of his. Yes, Jesus weeps. But then he acts, but not alone.
As he approaches the tomb, Jesus engages those gathered, “Roll away the stone!” Then he prays to the Father, asking the Father to help him draw his friend Lazarus from the darkness of death into the light of new life. And Lazarus comes forth. And then again Jesus engages those gathered, “Unbind him!” Remove whatever binds him in death and darkness in order that he may live in light.
The key in all of this is that, despite the horrible things that can happen to others, the presence of Jesus Christ or the Spirit or God (depending on our faith traditions) in us invites us to use our free will to help those who have been harmed, who dwell in the darkness of addiction, past abuse, and other things that have devastated and entombed their spirits.
Those who claim to be disciples of Jesus today need to be ready and willing at all times to be those whom Jesus seeks to engage to roll away the obstacles that keep those who feel dead inside in order that they may be drawn into the light of healing and new life. We need to be ready when Jesus asks us, to unbind others from their past abuses and trauma, their doubts and fears and despair, and their addictions. We need to be ready to be Jesus’ instruments of love and compassion for others to participate in resurrection with victims.
I commend all of those who have used their free will to be instruments of healing to those who have suffered past abuse as a child or youth by a trusted adult. Counselors, teachers, parents, husbands, wives, friends, ministers, victim advocates, child protection staff and others are all stone movers and spirit and soul unbinders who have used their God-given free will to exercise the gifts of compassion, patience, constancy, and unrelenting hope to those who continue the walk of healing from victim to survivor to thriving again in life.
I cannot do this work, this accompaniment, without the gift of tears: tears at what happened many years ago, tears at the reality that individuals have had to carry this burden alone for so long, tears that I know God also sheds with me, yet who, out of those tears, empowers me and others who seek to accompany those individuals who have been victims on their journey to healing.
One final note: If you are one of those people caught up in despair and fear and the harm of past abuse, please realize that there are people, willing human instruments of God, desiring to respond out of our own free will to help in healing and restoration of lives. God may not have been able to intervene then, but God has so touched the lives of other good people who desire to use our free will to assist God in bringing healing into your life.
I share this poem that I wrote many years ago when I was emerging from a place of deep pain in my own life. Hopefully it will bring hope and comfort to others.
By Fr. Larry Dowling
My prayers these days are like shallow waves
Lighting upon heaven’s shore
Their voice a whispered echo
Of inner longing’s plaintive, restless roar.
I yearn that my soul once again be moved,
As a sailboat propelled by that wind
That brushes across my care-worn face
Urging the Spirit’s revival from within.
Gulls at midday skim the surface
Of lake waters, serene and calm
Searching for the day’s sustenance
As I hunger for a healing balm.
At dusk I lie on a storm-beaten shore
Its texture soft and coarse
Awaiting the day when new life emerges
And pains of the past lose their force.
Sun melts slowly into depths of night
Mind and spirit seek to fathom
The path on which God will heal and lead me
To fill my soul’s deep, dark chasm.
My being is drawn to surrender
To the warmth of the Lord’s tender embrace.
Our hearts conjoin in life-giving passion.
Spirits commingling in this holy place.
Reclined at the table of my Beloved’s heart
Fed by life broken open, by passion outpoured
Betrayals are dismissed, fears wiped away,
Heart starts to heal, vision’s center’s restored.
Darkness fades, soft dawn sun emerges
Hope’s promise breaks at horizon’s line
My being delights in growing strength
The passion of God has again become mine.
Fr. Larry Dowling, has been a priest since 1991, served as pastor at St. Denis Parish on the southwest side of Chicago for 10 years and now has been serving at St. Agatha for nine years, each time following a pastor who had been abusing children and youth. He served on the Archdiocesan Review Board for 7 years and currently serves on the Archdiocesan Healing Garden Committee. Fr. Dowling has also written The Call and Privilege of Ministry to and with Survivors,
This article appeared in the May 2017 issue of The Healing Voices Magazine.