The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Stop ignoring abuse in our lives, and the Church
Before our lips proclaim the Gospel on September 14, we say or sing, ‘’Alleluia. We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your Cross you have redeemed the world.” My lips quiver giving these words life from my own human breath. I stand in awe, again on this feast, lifting high the reality of the Cross of Christ. In the middle of September, the Church celebrates a feast reflecting the meaning of Good Friday.
Just before the shutdown of COVID-19, I was commissioned to illustrate a version of the Stations of the Cross. This text, written by Father Paul Turner, conveyed the pastoral healing around the sex abuse issues of the clergy. I felt ill-equipped. I felt repulsed by such a task. The editor believed I had something to say in acrylic. I kept coming back to the title of the book, “The Stations of the Cross in Atonement for Abuse and for the Healing of All.” I was dazed, feeling a great responsibility to offer healing through art.
The editor asked two priests, Father Paul Turner and me, to use our art to help heal the Church. I agreed to do the commission. I assembled the materials, paints and canvases. I stood before the empty white canvas. I played with images. I spent a week just experimenting. Suddenly, I stood before an image I had produced. I began weeping. I cried and could not stop. I realized that I was trying to control the image. I was using the same control as we have all done ignoring abuse in our lives and in the Church.
I put paint on the canvas with my hands, a brush and a paper towel. I stood back. Suddenly, I noticed the eyes of Jesus emerge in the chaos. I started teasing out the eyes of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Again, I wept at Jesus’ presence. I realized at that moment; chaos also needed to be a main character in this version of the Stations of the Cross. I could not paint over, or smooth away, or ignore, the underlying chaos of Jesus’ passion, nor the chaos of the issues of abuse.
After the book was published, parishioners arranged for an art gallery to host an exhibit of my 14 originals. So, in the public square, art, faith and abuse were all on display. People from all walks of life responded thoughtfully, lovingly and with intention. During the monthlong exhibit, many people confided in me that they had been abused, many by family members. More than 900 people viewed my first professional art show.
I hosted a parish gathering at the public gallery. Over 100 people listened to the story of my art. I also shared with them that I had been abused by a priest. I put the pieces of my abuse together only through creating the art. I had never admitted it before in public. It took me nearly 50 years to put it all together in my heart and mind. I needed to see the eyes of Jesus within my own experiences as much as I longed for his eyes to speak to others through the chaos of my paintings. I know the weight of the Cross. I also understand the beauty of the face of Jesus Christ.
As we celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we do not know the pain that needs redemption in the lives of our people. Most especially, as priests, we often hide our real lives from the love God has for us. We grow used to hiding our pain. We cover hurt with devotion. We ignore the tenderness of Jesus who died for us and rose from the dead. As I learned in this most incredible exercise of illustration, the ways we need God are often hidden within us. The Cross of Jesus Christ is our victory and our love.
As I continue to reflect on these events, one of the most beautiful aspects of aging is that God is still offering me new life and a new imagination. The older I get, the more lovingly, the pieces of my life fit together. Now, I realize the reason I picked up a paintbrush only in recent years. I had to find the Cross of Jesus Christ in a new way, through art and faith, in the assembly of God’s people. … because by your Cross you have redeemed the world.
FATHER RONALD PATRICK RAAB, CSC, is the former pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado.