For the last five weeks, the Sunday gospels have focused on readings from the sixth chapter of John, which focuses on Jesus offering the bread of life and the gift of faith to his followers.
Not all of them were up to the arduous journey of faith and love to which Jesus called them. As a result, John writes, "Many of His disciples returned to their former way of life."
Their desertion rattled the faith of the few who remained.
"Do you also want to leave?" Jesus asked them.
The question stunned Simon Peter, one of the Lord's most beloved followers.
"Master, to whom shall we go?" he asked, bewildered. "You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God!"
Peter's crisis was that he could not return to his former life, yet his faith had been shaken to its core.
In a very real way, this is where so many Catholics are in the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report of sex abuse in six of the state's dioceses.
Worse, I believe our faith will continue to be shaken as more grand juries launch more investigations – state by state, county by county, diocese by diocese.
Each will further expose the systemic failures of the institutional church and its bishops. As a result, many Catholics will abandon Catholicism. Others will remain, but they will be as devastated as Simon Peter was by the crisis in the church they love.
What we need to ask in the midst of our pain and anger is "Why did this happen?"
I believe the seed of the crisis is planted anew at every priest's ordination, when the bishop asks him, "Do you promise obedience to me and my successors?"
If you want to be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church, the only correct answer to that question is "Yes!"
A former secretary of the clergy made this clear during his trial on charges that he led a cover-up of sexual abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
"Priests are trained to respect and obey their bishops," he testified. "When a bishop tells you to do something, you do it."
Think how differently the lives of priests and parishioners would unfold if at ordination, the bishops asked a better question:
"Do you promise to assist me and my successors, to the very best of your human abilities, in ministering to all people of God in accordance with the gospel of Jesus Christ?"
And while we're at it, let's toss into the dustbin of history the "theology of the priesthood," which teaches that, once ordained, a priest is ontologically different from the laity.
Priests are not different from anyone else. We are human beings who happen to be priests, not priests who happen to be human beings.
Teaching otherwise breeds the kind of clericalism, power, and control that create crises like the one we're in. It promotes religion over faith, when only faith can sustain us. It holds that rituals, rites, and ceremonies are more important than community, even though community is where we find God.
Perhaps this is what Pope Francis had in mind when he said that priests should "be shepherds with the smell of sheep."
Maybe he meant we should support, care, and accompany all on this earthly journey – saint and sinner; rich and poor; friend and enemy; the marginalized and abused; those who are married, single, divorced, or remarried; those of every nationality, culture, tradition, and faith.
And we must understand and respect the mystery of human sexuality, from heterosexuality to homosexuality and all along the continuum between them.
John's gospel tells us that when confronted with Jesus' difficult but redemptive call to follow him, "many of His disciples returned to their former way of life."
In this present crisis, the institutional church cannot return to its former way of life. It needs to follow Jesus, the Holy One of God, and find once again the faith, hope, and unconditional love in ministering to and walking with all of the people of God.
The Rev. Charles Noone has been a priest, pastor, and teacher in the Philadelphia Archdiocese for 52 years.