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Ask A Franciscan: Dealing With A Father’s Abuse

(c) jmpaget fotosearch.com
(c) jmpaget fotosearch.com

Dealing with a Father’s Abuse

Q: I am the youngest in a large family. Many of my siblings suffered physical or verbal abuse from our father when we were growing up. Although he has abused our mother verbally and continues to do so, she has stayed with him all these years. They are now in their 80s.

If my father’s physical abuse had happened in the 1980s or ’90s, I think he would have been arrested for child abuse. I think this abuse has contributed to alcoholism and other addictions suffered by my siblings. I was more neglected than physically abused. My mother does not remember the beatings with a belt that my one sister endured. I suspect my father doesn’t either.

On the outside, we appear to be a happy, Catholic family. My father always wears a scapular and says that this will get him into heaven. I know that he cannot ask forgiveness for things that he doesn’t remember.

Can he go to heaven without seeking forgiveness for what he has done to my siblings? How can heaven be promised to someone who simply wears a scapular?

A: I consulted a friend with firsthand knowledge of abuse within a family. He responds: “God is our only judge! All of us will come to this awareness—some only just before we face God. In the case of your father, he has done wrong to you and to your family. Whether he wears a scapular or not, the question is really: What has he learned from his mistake?”

People who have been abused sometimes wonder if they are somehow at fault. They aren’t; you, your mother, and your siblings weren’t. According to the Book of Genesis, one of the first consequences of sin was a flight from responsibility. If your father cannot or will not accept responsibility for his actions, no one else can step in and do that for him.

Wearing a scapular or a certain medal or reciting certain prayers—these are all fine as long as they lead us deeper into being disciples of Jesus. None of these can put God “over a barrel,” so to speak. God’s grace touches every part of our lives that we open up to that grace. Conversion opens up new areas to God’s grace. Your father may die in denial about the abuse that he has inflicted on your family. Or he may come to admit his responsibility.

None of these facts changes the past that you have so painfully experienced. Unfortunately, you cannot guarantee how your mother or your siblings choose to deal with the verbal or physical abuse that they have received. You can encourage them to tell the truth—at least to themselves.

You have options, too. Which ones have you tried? With what results? What keeps you from trying other options? Would some of them be less painful than what you are experiencing now? Is there a way to forgive for your own peace of mind?

Your mother and your siblings can seek counseling to deal with issues that they may not yet recognize as linked to the abuse that they experienced. Support groups near you may offer help in dealing with family abuse.

No one can change his or her past. But we all have some power to decide how that past will (or will not) affect our present and our future. May the Lord be your strength and your guide as you deal with this very real abuse.

Options Regarding Erectile Dysfunction

Q: I am in my 60s, married, and we have two adult children. I also have erectile dysfunction. Two confessors have told me that it was OK for my wife and me to continue having sexual intercourse. Various medications have not worked for me.

A: A medical condition is not a sin. Perhaps there is a medication that can correct this. Perhaps surgery or a lifestyle change could help. What does your doctor say?

I think your confessors gave good moral advice. The moral issue here also involves your wife’s opinion.

Did the Church Make Up Purgatory?

Q: My middle-aged daughter recently told me that there is no purgatory, that the Catholic Church made that up.

Also, another daughter committed suicide in her 20s. I miss her very much. Only one of our other five children goes to Mass regularly.

A: I am sorry to learn of your daughter’s suicide. God alone knows the whole situation and judges accordingly.

The Catholic Church’s teaching about purgatory evolved over time, based primarily on two facts: 1) Christians have long prayed for deceased persons, and 2) a sin that has been confessed and forgiven still has lingering negative effects. For example, a murderer’s confession, absolution, and penance will not restore a murdered person to life.

The Catholic Church has used the expression “temporal punishment due to sin.” To give a less dramatic example: if I met you for the first time on Tuesday, told a lie about you on Thursday, and confessed that as a sin on Saturday, the lie would have some negative lingering effects. I could try to offset those by telling the truth about you to all the people to whom I told the lie. I could ask them to do the same. There is, however, no guarantee that all of them will do that. Even if they did, your reputation has suffered in the meantime, and my lie may have encouraged
other people to tell lies.

Purgatory is only for people going to heaven eventually. What if, at the moment of death, those people got a glimpse of the heavenly banquet but objected to sitting next to or across from someone with a nose ring or a tattoo? Would that new person be ready to be in God’s presence?

Purgatory is a time of cleansing, of allowing God’s values to permeate the nooks and crannies of a person’s life where God’s ways had not yet been fully accepted.

Your middle-aged daughter is now largely responsible for her own faith journey. You can explain what you believe, but there is no guarantee that she will accept that. People often speak of “time” spent in purgatory, but we must avoid imposing such language upon God.

Where Should the Tabernacle Go?

Q: Most members of our large Catholic community have been trying to rescue Our Lord from a tabernacle on a side altar. Some churches have kept the tabernacle where it belongs: in the center of the main altar.

Bishops, priests, and the Vatican seem to make all the decisions about how we worship. I’ve been a Catholic for 70 years and may soon prefer to watch a Mass on TV and receive holy Communion from a eucharistic minister. Reverence seems to be disappearing.

A: According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), the tabernacle should be in a part of the church “that is truly prominent, distinguished, readily visible, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer” (314).

GIRM continues: “It is more in keeping with the meaning of the sign that the tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved not be on an altar on which Mass is celebrated. Consequently, it is preferable that the tabernacle be located, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop: a) either in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration, in a form and place more appropriate, not excluding on an old altar no longer used for celebration; b) or likewise, in some chapel suitable for private adoration and prayer of the faithful, which should be organically connected to the church and readily visible to the Christian faithful” (315).

If you could attend in person, would watching Mass on TV really show greater reverence?