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A Song for the Suffering Body of Christ

October 12, 2018


In the middle of the horrific revelations this summer of sexual abuse and cover-up in the Catholic Church, singer-songwriter Kevin Heider added his voice to the throngs of lay Catholics online trying to understand and come to grips with it all. 

But rather than approach the issue through various moral, doctrinal, or institutional lenses, Heider followed the more mystical tack of a Catholic artist trying to reconcile these events with his deep love for the Body of Christ—and of a father trying to reconcile all this ugliness with the beauty of his newborn child:

“My son was born last week. He’s beautiful….As we snuggled and stared and held our son close for two days in the hospital, our minds were split between the joy of this new life and the shame and sorrow wrought by recent revelations of the extent of the suffering our church has brought to so many of the men, women, and children she was supposed to shelter—not abandon.

This tragic reality dominated our conversations during our stay in the hospital. We kept trying to talk about other things, to steer the conversation to lighter fare, to climb out of the depraved rabbit hole. But we kept coming back to the sins of our church: decades of abuse, cover-ups, sexual perversion and predation by clergy, and so on. (And that’s just the 20th century.)

We couldn’t stop talking about it, in part, because we couldn’t find the words. How does one find the words to make sense of such corruption? To pray?”

St. Augustine is said to have written: “He who sings, prays twice.” Some have clarified that the original quotation is actually: “Singing belongs to one who loves.” Regardless, the words Heider finally found express both truths: “The Body,” a demo-quality home recording that feels at once like a protest song and a prayer, is an expression of great love for God’s suffering people.

The song begins: 

There is cancer in my bones
from the poison I’ve accepted.
There is blood on my hands
from the work they have neglected.
And this hole beside my heart
this is Love rejected.
These weakened muscles—
this is my body.

This pattern continues throughout the song, as Heider contemplates both the gaping wounds in the life of the Church and the grave sins of those leaders who inflicted them. He doesn’t hold anything back, decrying the “corruption,” “sick and twisted violence,” and “criminal ambitions” of the “thieves and vandals” and shepherds “sworn to silence” who have spread “abuses” and “scandals” that “choke” the Church and mar it with “lacerations” and “lesions.” At one point he sings: “Their skulls, they line this road, haunted by an ancient chorus”—an apparent reference to St. John Chrysostom’s declaration that “the road to hell is paved with the skulls of priests.”

And yet, again and again, Heider reaches the same mournful conclusion: “This is my body.” In other words, despite all of the marauders down the ages who have seized the Ark of the Church—that precious vessel carrying the treasures of Scripture, tradition, and the sacraments—and used it for their own egotistic and evil purposes, the Catholic Church remains the beloved body of Christ, instituted by God himself to bring humanity home.

Such faith may seem like the height of paradox—or perhaps even delusion. But as Heider explains, things look differently in the light of Christ crucified:

“Many Christian denominations hang corpse-less crosses in their sanctuaries. They worship around an empty cross so that their faith is always focused on the hope of the resurrected Christ rather than on the tragic necessity of his suffering and death. And I get that. It makes sense to me.

But I’ve come to realize that, far more often than not, the body of Christ, that is, the Church as a human institution, looks more like the suffering body of Christ: it’s filthy. It’s covered in blood, scars, sweat, and dirt. Its skin is scourged and stained by the sins of its members.”

The same difficult conclusion was reached by the writer Flannery O’Connor in one of her letters: “Christ was crucified on earth and the Church is crucified in time, and the Church is crucified by all of us, by her members most particularly because she is a Church of sinners.” This is not an easy pill to swallow and stomach; the truth rarely is.

But Heider’s purpose is clearly not apologetical. Instead, it’s a much-needed lament from and for this body writhing collectively in unspeakable anguish. It’s a call for that “refining fire” that will cleanse and restore the Church. And above all, it’s a prayerful expression of solidarity—with and through and in the spotless Victim—with those members bearing the unfathomable weight of abuse and betrayal. “To every soul my Church has forsaken,” Heider ends his letter, “to every beautiful body one of her members has ever perversely desecrated: I do not have the words to tell you how sorry I am.”