As many of you have probably heard, an auxiliary bishop of Newark was assaulted at a Mass offered for Roberto Clemente (this is apparently a thing in New Jersey). If you haven’t seen the video or read any accounts, it’s pretty shocking. Basically, a very loudly dressed man steps into the sanctuary, walks up to the bishop, and punches him right in the face. With the abundance of indestructible TV and movie characters who can take dozens of punches and keep moving, it’s easy to forget how visceral and painful a blow to the face can be. It’s really the most basic and primal act of violence that one can perform. What makes the scene even more bizarre is the fact that assailant apparently walked straight out of a Flannery O’Connor short story. Seriously, read about this guy’s background. Crazy.
But I don’t want to focus too much on the assault itself. I think it’s sufficient to say that it’s a startling reminder that we live in a broken world and that the forces of evil haven’t gone away on vacation (like we needed more confirmation of that). What I do want to highlight are two aspects of the event that caught my attention. The first is the timing of the incident. Bishop Cruz had just finished the penitential rite when the man steps in front of him, poised to strike. The bishop has literally just finished praying that God have mercy on us and forgive us our sins and in the next moment he is laid out by a very angry man. I don’t think that I could imagine a more fitting illustration of humiliation (which, in essence, is the action of being humbled). Mere moments after confessing that he - along with all of us - is weak and sinful and desperately in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness, the bishop has this notion confirmed in a very real way. I am by no way insinuating that the bishop deserved being attacked or that it was because he was a sinner. What I mean is that here we see what it means to be made low. It’s painful and embarrassing and wholly unpleasant, but it’s what we open ourselves up to when we cling to Christ. After all, what we see as the ultimate victory, the cross, is viewed by the rest of the world as nothing more than a failure, the death of one leader among many. When you think about it, the image of a bishop lying on the ground, struck down while in the process of praying for himself and his flock, rings more true than many other contemporary depictions of the faith.
Lest I get too gloomy (let’s all pray for more suffering!) let me move on to the second facet of the attack that I noticed. For me, this is the most significant part of the whole ordeal and the one on which I think we all need to focus. After the bishop is knocked back and falls to the ground, the camera pans to the left to show several police officers tackling and restraining the attacker. But in the bottom right corner of the screen, you can see the altar server cradling the bishop’s head in his lap and seemingly trying to comfort him.
This seriously almost makes me cry every time I see it. It is such a candid and spontaneous gesture of love and compassion. I don’t know if the altar server knew the bishop personally or not, but regardless, here is a young man doing what he can to relieve a spiritual father’s suffering and protect him from further harm. And that’s what the Church is! We are all sinners and every so often we are made to know just how lowly and vulnerable we are. And when that happens, we can count on the loving embrace of our Lord and each other to raise us back up. Yes, we suffer, but we suffer together. When one part of the Body of Christ is harmed, we all feel it. And we know that this is not done in vain, but rather we find solace and fulfilment in uniting our suffering to Christ’s and to His Body.
There are probably many other lessons that can be extracted from this occurrence, but I hope others will take some time to think about the ones I’ve mentioned. We all need a reminder to follow St. John the Baptist and declare, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” We need to remember to let go of haughty notions of ourselves, to be prepared to be made low. But at the same time, we can also rely on the healing love of Christ to grow with us, fostered and sustained by encountering His Body.