Book Review: Letter to a Suffering Church, by Bishop Robert Barron

Letter to a Suffering Church Barron

***I received an electronic copy of “Letter to a Suffering Church” in exchange for an honest review.***

When I saw the marketing email last Monday from Word on Fire advertising the new book Letter to a Suffering Church – a book about the sex abuse crisis plaguing every level of the Church – I stopped in my tracks. Was it possible, with his signature wit and wisdom, Bishop Barron could address wounded Catholics in a way that would begin to soothe the hearts of a devastated flock heartbroken over last summer’s explosive revelations and fallout?

In Letter to a Suffering Church, I believe he does.

Bishop Robert Barron

In the introduction, Bishop Barron introduces his writing as the viewpoint of Catholic, priest, and bishop, but unequivocally states the book is not an official statement on behalf of the Catholic Church. Encouraged by this, immediately I sensed what was to follow was going to be more than carefully curated, PR-friendly words, and I’m pleased to report my suspicions were correct. Additionally, he shares that he is addressing this book primarily to rank-and-file Catholics. While those of other denominations and religions will certainly find goodness within these pages, they are written as a cry from the heart of a fellow Catholic and are best understood within that context.

Chapter one, The Devil’s Masterpiece, describes the landscape of the Church today, giving an overview and timeline of the sexual abuse crisis and ensuing scandal. Pulling no punches, Barron skewers the guilty and those responsible for shuffling and hiding the abusers. He is no less transparent when discussing the details of the former Cardinal McCarrick’s revolting liasions. The most encouraging aspect of this chapter is that Bishop Barron truly seems to comprehend why people are so upset – the abuse, yes – but just as much or moreso the shuffling and lying and keeping secrets in the dark. He gets it, and he’s clear that he’s disgusted. Barron addresses early on that the sexual abuse scandal of the past 60 or so years is a highly orchestrated, diabolically designed strategy. Far from blaming the scandal on Satan, he reminds us that Satan can only gain power if humans cooperate with him in perpetuating evil. The bishop places blame squarely on the shoulders of the clergy that cooperated with the Evil One in any manner, either by committing the abuse personally, or covering for those who did.

Light From Scripture, the second chapter, outlines the numerous times in Scripture that similar situations occurred. One thing I appreciate about Bishop Barron’s teaching style is his tendency to provide scriptural and historical context for the subject he’s preaching on, and he devotes a whole chapter to that strategy here. Until I saw these stories compared side by side and in the context of salvation history, I didn’t realize there was quite so much Biblical evidence that God’s people have experienced these horrors often before. While brief, this chapter illustrates the temporal and eternal consequences of sexual sin, especially the consequences of abusing children.

We’ve Been Here Before, chapter three, gives an eye-popping historical account of what the Church has endured by way of awful popes, sexually active heterosexual and homosexual priests, and even precedent for clergy abusing those who trusted them implicitly. Personally, I found the part about St. Peter Damian particularly interesting. In the 10th century, he wrote to the pope condemning the severity of the clerical sexual depravity at the time. In his letter he communicated his disgust, eloquently describing how clergy who betrayed the trust of their spiritual children are essentially guilty of committing “spiritual incest.” The full passage describing the saint’s exhortation is one I’d like hand-delivered to every priest, bishop, and seminary rector in the world. Barron goes on to say he is by no means presenting the sordid historical record as an excuse for today’s crisis, but rather as a sign of hopeful reassurance that the Church has survived this kind of sickening destruction before.

The final two chapters – Why Should We Stay? and The Way Forward – are a call to stay and fight. Why? Because, as St. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “…we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” Barron reminds readers that no matter how broken the vessels are – the members of the Church – the treasure is still ours. Jesus is still present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. As he concludes his remarks, the bishop gives a few concrete ways to effect change in the Church – write letters, voice concerns, report abusers, and more – but his clarion call encourages personal holiness. He acknowledges that the clergy has failed to feed the sheep with solid catechesis, and this fundamental lack of knowledge of the faith means they aren’t equipped to stay and fight. Barron provides numerous examples about ecclesial reformers throughout history, suggesting we as members of the Mystical Body of Christ are called to radical reform via personal holiness.

Personally, I feel Bishop Barron’s conclusions are solid. Faithful, Mass-going Catholics are the exception, not the rule, and I suppose it’s really difficult to address a battle cry to an army who is split between being spiritually fit and spiritually out of shape. It is my prayer that those who read this book will find the fortitude and strength to draw close to Christ as they dive deeper into a radical quest for holiness.

Word on Fire is seeking to get a copy of this book into the hands of every Catholic, so copies are available at https://www.sufferingchurchbook.com/ for $1 a copy (you cover S&H.) All proceeds from sales of the book go to charities that support abuse victims, so be assured that neither Word on Fire nor Bishop Barron are profiting from these sales. Preorders are being taken now, and the book will ship in mid-July. This book lends itself well to small group study or parish-wide, town hall style discussion. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in a path forward from the wreckage of sin and destruction present in the Church.