Hope is a powerful force. In the midst of darkness, adversity, and the challenging circumstances of life, hope can provide the impetus for resilience and endurance – the breaking light of better days ahead. I think of the hope that must be in the souls and hearts of our Ukrainian sisters and brothers as they do everything that is in their power to hold onto life and freedom. The privation of hope can be crippling for individuals and communities. Often for those who take their life by suicide, an utter lack of hope darkens the future – snuffing out the possibility of light and new life.
A retired Minneapolis police office powerfully conveyed that the lack of hope in some minority neighborhoods can lead to despair, crime, and violence – as some believe there is nothing to be gained and thus nothing to loose. In the Catholic tradition, hope is a gift from God – a theological virtue that is given through grace – accompanying believers on their journey of faith. People of faith and secular scholars find common ground in the belief that hope leads to health and flourishing and can provide the lifeblood for healing. Restorative justice practitioners have discovered, as the story below attests, that accompanying those who have been harmed in and through their pain and trauma can be a source of great hope on the journey toward healing.
In January of 2020, I began a four month sabbatical to delve more deeply into restorative justice. I was happily situated on a remote ranch in the Hill Country of South Texas. While most of my sabbatical entailed prayer, research, reading, and some writing, a group of colleagues and I were invited to lead a restorative justice process in Wheeling West Virginia, a diocese that had become a “ground zero” location, as its former bishop had been accused of a trifecta of misconduct: abuse of seminarians, financial malfeasance, and corruption – much of which was exposed through detailed reporting in the Washington Post.
I could think of many reasons why I could stay in my peaceful and warm South Texas abode and not travel to West Virginia in late February. I chose to make the trip for two reasons – because I witnessed the effectiveness of restorative justice in response to the harm of clergy abuse in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and because restorative justice is not primarily about reading and research but is about entering in – into the wound – into the pain and trauma to accompany others as they seek healing wholeness.
We arrived in Wheeling, WV via the Pittsburgh airport and the weather was foul. We had planned for a two day process – evening talks and healing circles followed by a similar process the next day, which would also include a victim-survivor testimonial. The weather worsened as the evening came and I assumed that we would have a modest turnout. I was moved as the people kept coming – despite the adverse conditions. They were coming because they needed to be heard – they needed justice and healing. To a full room, we spoke about the power of restorative justice to name harm and to foster accountability and healing.
One man memorably said about the former bishop, in a voice that conveyed both anger and dismay – “they knew that it was no saint they were sending here from Washington D.C. – they knew.” What added to the power of that evening was the fact that it was also Ash Wednesday – many of the folks attending wore pronounced crosses on their foreheads. Among those present for the restorative justice process, were mothers of seminarians whose sons had accused the former bishop of abuse and misconduct. One mother texted her son during the evening, wishing he was there and hoping he could experience healing. Another mother said in response to the evening, “we finally have hope.”
In reflecting on this powerful experience in West Virginia and having celebrated twenty years of priesthood last month, two things come powerfully home to me: the consistent effectiveness of restorative justice to help heal pain and trauma – to provide hope amidst suffering and how close this work is to Christ and the essence of his Gospel.