In exile, Daniel prayed a penitential prayer for his whole people, accepting the consequences of sin and rebellion against God, even though Daniel himself was holy, a prophet sent by God. Even though it comes from a very different crisis in the long history of God’s people, this prayer could well and profitably be prayed “in sackcloth and ashes” by all of us in the American Catholic Church, indeed the worldwide church, today, as it finally faces (we hope) and redresses the pattern of clergy sexual abuse that has been allowed to persist and poison the efforts of those clergy and laity who truly strive to honor God and his commandments, follow Christ, and spread his Gospel. Here is part of the prayer:
And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes:
And I prayed unto the Lord my God, and made my confession, and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God, keeping the covenant and mercy to them that love him, and to them that keep his commandments; We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments: Neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets, which spake in thy name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of faces, as at this day; to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and unto all Israel, that are near, and that are far off, through all the countries whither thou hast driven them, because of their trespass that they have trespassed against thee. O Lord, to us belongeth confusion of face, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against thee. To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses, though we have rebelled against him; Neither have we obeyed the voice of the Lord our God, to walk in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets. (Daniel 9:3-10; KJV)
He concludes, in part, with this:
O my God, incline thine ear, and hear; open thine eyes, and behold our desolations, and the city which is called by thy name: for we do not present our supplications before thee for our righteousnesses, but for thy great mercies. (Daniel 9:18; KJV)
Before, during, and after the necessary actions are taken to investigate fully, to stop further abuse, and to minister and compensate victims, it will be our task to pray and fast, as many in the church have faithfully and humbly called upon us to do. Indeed it was the prophet Daniel’s faith and humility that became an occasion for God’s prerogative of mercy to be displayed. As Daniel acknowledges, to us belongs “confusion of face” and unrighteousness; mercy belongs to God–he is its Source. We can never deserve mercy. Rather, it is the free gift of God who loves us because he made us in his image and likeness; he wants to restore our beauty and reunite with all his children. But he made us in freedom and waits, with a patience that only God can muster, for us to repent and turn back to him in truth, accept his offer of unfathomable mercy and love, and live in union with him forever. In that context, our own actions of justice and mercy may recover their true meaning.