Chrissie Foster was a happily married Catholic mother of three girls when her whole world began to collapse, falling in on itself like a gaping wound had opened up beneath her and was swallowing everything she knew and loved.
Chrissie’s own personal hell began when two of her daughters, Emma and Katie, disclosed that they had been repeatedly raped by a priest while attending a Catholic primary school.
When Chrissie and her husband Anthony raised this matter with the church they were rebuffed. The then Cardinal of Melbourne George Pell met with them and showed a “sociopathic lack of empathy.” While stonewalling the Fosters, the cardinal challenged them, “If you don’t like what we are doing, take us to court”.
But after a decade-long court battle, their daughter Emma could bear the pain no longer. She committed suicide at the age of 26.
Shortly after, her sister Katie spiraled into alcohol abuse and was involved in an accident that left her severely disabled, requiring 24-hour care.
Devastated, Chrissie and Anthony gave their lives to advocating on behalf of the victims of child sexual abuse within the church. They have been relentless in their pursuit of a church hierarchy that seemed resolved to avoiding responsibility for what many of their priests were doing to children for decades.
Then last weekend, Chrissie’s husband, the man she called her soulmate, her one true source of strength, died suddenly of a stroke. He was 64-years-old.
Who could begin to imagine the pain Chrissie Foster has had to endure?
She reminds me of the unimaginable suffering of Naomi in the Old Testament Book of Ruth.
In the midst of a biting famine, Naomi’s husband’s faith in God crumbles, believing God to have broken his promise to always provide for his people. So he abandons the God of his forbears and the land of his father and drags his wife and two sons to Moab, a nearby nation where bread is more plentiful, but where the local god Molek demands human sacrifice.
And sure enough, all three male members of the family die on foreign soil, leaving Naomi alone and vulnerable. Indeed, as a single woman with no sons, well past the age of childbearing, she is more defenseless and exposed than we could imagine today.
Facing certain death, she resolves to undertake the incredibly hazardous journey back to Bethlehem, accompanied by her Moabitess daughter-in-law, Ruth.
When she arrives home, the women of Bethlehem receive her by her given name, Naomi, which means “pleasant, delightful, lovely.”
But she corrects them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, (which means bitter) for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” (Ruth 1:20)
Call me Mara.
She is a broken woman. And who could blame her? Forces beyond her control have conspired to heap blow after blow upon her until her fragile spirit was crushed.
Chrissie Foster’s name means “follower of Christ or female Christian”. But like Naomi her name no longer reflects her identity.
In 2010 she wrote, “I don’t go to church anymore; I refuse to bow down before men who claim to represent God. The Catholic Church has taken two of our daughters from us… The church doesn’t possess love. It claims it does… but it has no idea.”
Naomi’s response to her own loss was to conspire with her daughter-in-law Ruth to force the hand of her distant relative to fulfil his responsibility to care for them. Powerless in every other way, she resorts to subterfuge. It’s either that or starve.
The Fosters, powerless to influence the church, resorted to legal action, advocacy, and activism, to highlight the corruption and abuse that lay at the heart of so much Catholic church practice for so long. In response the church offered only silence, lies, denials and threats.
Now, even Chrissie’s “Ruth”, her trusted and loyal companion, Anthony is dead.
Where is God in the midst of such searing loss? How much can one woman bear?
Call me Mara!
I don’t know Chrissie Foster, so I can’t reflect on her personal faith here, but Naomi’s cry, “Call me Mara”, is itself a cry of faith.
When she announces, “Call me bitter, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me,” it isn’t a renunciation of faith. It is a declaration of disappointment with God. And that takes faith of a certain kind. Life has not been fair to her. But instead of experiencing life’s unfairness and declaring, “There is no God,” her assumption that life should be fair reveals her faith, no matter how bruised.
Where do any of us get our sense of what is and isn’t fair? Why are we outraged at what has happened to Chrissie Foster, and where does our instinctive response of sympathy toward her come from?
Don’t we get these things from God? Doesn’t God plant in each of us a bit of his own divine outrage at injustice and oppression? Isn’t my feeling of compassion for the afflicted proof of the fingerprints of God in my life?
Our instinctual response to life’s unfairness is sympathy and righteous indignation. These are expressions of God’s compassion and God’s anger and may be the surest evidence of God’s existence.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose 14-year-old son died tragically of an incurable genetic disease, wrote movingly about “once born” and “twice born” people (borrowing the idea from William James).
Once-born people, he said, sail through life never experiencing anything that shakes the simple faith they adopted as a child. But twice-born people are those who experience pain and lose their faith but then regain it, only their new faith is of a different order to the faith they lost. He describes them this way,
“Instead of seeing a world flooded with sunshine, as the once-born always do, they see a world where the sun struggles to come out after the storm but always manages to reappear. Theirs is a less cheerful, less confident, more realistic outlook. God is no longer the parent who keeps them safe and dry; He is the power that enables them to keep going in a stormy and dangerous world. And like the bone that breaks and heals stronger at the broken place, like the string that is stronger where it broke and was knotted, it is a stronger faith than it was before, because it has learned it can survive the loss of faith.”
I can only hope and pray that such a faith struggles to grow and bloom in the bitter soil of heartbreak and loss for dear, dear Chrissie Foster.