People of profound faith experience moments of transcendence on a regular basis. I have a glimmer of how they feel thanks to a priest named Tom Morrissey. He organized us altar boys with military precision and yet conveyed a sense of reverence that I have only occasionally reached in my adult life.
No, this Catholic story doesn't end badly. On the contrary, I always think of Father Morrissey at Christmas, and also at Easter. I'm still amazed that he took a bunch of 10- or 12-year-olds whose minds were mostly elsewhere and helped us share in the mystery, majesty and pageantry that is great liturgy. For a moment, many of us really felt we were near a manger or at the foot of the cross. It's a gift that has never quite left me.
The religious come in many kinds. They range from the deeply pious and devout to those who cling to faith despite serious doubts. There are loyalists and rebels, church-shoppers and lifers, mystics and rationalists, those who seek the strength of community and those for whom religious moments are necessarily solitary. And these often-overlapping categories do not come close to exhausting the varieties of religious experience.
But most religious people share a sense that they have an appointment with the transcendent. They see a purely material understanding of life as inadequate. Tolstoy wrote: "Whatever answers any kind of faith ever gives to anyone, every one of these answers gives an infinite meaning to the finite life of man, a meaning that is not destroyed by suffering, privation and death."
An agnostic or an atheist can argue plausibly that Tolstoy's vision is an illusion. Still, Tolstoy offers an interesting counter when he asserts that "if a man lives, he believes in something."
A belief in God can be accompanied by all manner of foolishness, including foolishness of a very dangerous sort. But the advantage of what the great theologian H. Richard Niebuhr called "radical monotheism" is that a belief in one God as the ground of being promotes a sensible skepticism about everything else.
"Radical monotheism," Niebuhr wrote, "dethrones all absolutes short of the principle of being itself." Oddly, believers may be less credulous and naive than unbelievers when it comes to worldly institutions and systems of thought.
In principle, the believer always regards this world's institutions and systems as inadequate. In principle, the believer should be an active critic of what is, not a passive follower of whatever might be in vogue. It doesn't always happen this way, because believers can lose their vocation as critics when power and privilege come their way. They discover that they can dethrone all absolutes except the ones that benefit themselves.
This is why there is such outrage when religious leaders -- priests, bishops, ministers, rabbis and imams -- are seen as abusing the power their connection to the transcendent affords them. It is bad enough to abuse power, worse still to abuse the sacred. And to abuse the power of the sacred to abuse others is blasphemy.
In the case of my own church, there is a tendency to see the intense focus of the media on pedophilic priests as a form of anti-Catholicism -- just as evangelical Christians saw the attention given the sins of errant television preachers as an attack on their beliefs.
Yes, there is enough anti-religious sentiment to go around. But to recoil at the abuse of the sacred is the opposite of being anti-religious. It is a form of respect for what the sacred demands.
For Christians, this is the season of good news. For Catholics, the good news is that the recent resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as archbishop of Boston resulted from the demands of not just the laity but also the good priests.
The good priests rebelled at the staining of their vocations by the failure of their leaders to understand the obligation to the sacred. They were outraged at actions that might lead readers of a column such as this to assume that bringing up one's time as an altar boy automatically meant describing a horrific thing. What an affront this is to inspiring priests like my friend Father Morrissey.
To reach for the transcendent is hard enough in our time. Those who help us try -- and do so without ever misusing their authority or exploiting their influence -- deserve our gratitude, perhaps especially at this time of year. And the Catholics among them deserve better than they have gotten from their leaders and from their errant colleagues.