Deacons: Myths and Misperceptions

reeseHeadshotWebJesuit Father Thomas Reese has published an interesting piece over at NCRonline entitled “Women Deacons? Yes.  Deacons?  Maybe.”  I have a lot of respect for Fr. Tom, and I thank him for taking the time to highlight the diaconate at this most interesting time.  As the apostolic Commission prepares to assemble to discuss the question of the history of women in diaconal ministry, it is good for all to remember that none of this is happening in a vacuum.  IF women are eventually ordained as deacons in the contemporary Church, then they will be joining an Order of ministry that has developed much over the last fifty years.  Consider one simple fact: In January 1967 there were zero (0) “permanent” deacons in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church (the last two lived and died in the 19th Century).  Today there are well over 40,000 deacons serving worldwide.  By any numerical measure, this has to be seen as one of the great success stories of the Second Vatican Council.  Over the last fifty years, then, the Church has learned much about the nature of this renewed order, its exercise, formation, assignment and utilization.  The current question, therefore, rests upon a foundation of considerable depth, while admitting that much more needs to be done.

However, Father Reese’s column rests on some commonly-held misperceptions and errors of fact regarding the renewal of the diaconate.  Since these errors are often repeated without challenge or correction, I think we need to make sure this foundation is solid lest we build a building that is doomed to fall down.  So, I will address some of these fault lines in the order presented:

  1.  The“Disappearance” of Male Deacons  

exsultet1Father states that “[Women deacons] disappeared in the West around the same time as male deacons.”  On the contrary, male deacons remained a distinct order of ministry (and one not automatically destined for the presbyterate) until at least the 9th Century in the West.  This is attested to by a variety of sources.  Certainly, throughout these centuries, many deacons — the prime assistants to bishops — were elected to succeed their bishops.  Later in this period, as the Roman cursus honorum took hold more definitively, deacons were often ordained to the presbyterate, leading to what is incorrectly referred to as the “transitional” diaconate.  However, both in a “permanent” sense and a “transitional” sense, male deacons never disappeared.

  1.  The Renewal of Diaconate as Third World Proposal

1115_p12b500Father Tom writes that his hesitancy concerning the diaconate itself “is not with women deacons, but with the whole idea of deacons as currently practiced in the United States.” (I would suggest that this narrow focus misses the richness of the diaconate worldwide.)  He then turns to the Council to provide a foundation for what follows.  He writes, “The renewal of the diaconate was proposed at the Second Vatican Council as a solution to the shortage of native priests in missionary territories. In fact, the bishops of Africa said, no thank you. They preferred to use lay catechists rather than deacons.”  This statement simply is not true and does not reflect the history leading up to the Council or the discussions that took place during the Council on the question of the diaconate.

LocalsRebuildDresdenAs I and others have written extensively, the origins of the contemporary diaconate lie in the early 19th Century, especially in Germany and France.  In fact there is considerable linkage between the early liturgical movement (such as the Benedictine liturgical reforms at Solesmes) and the early discussions about a renewed diaconate: both stemmed from a desire to increase participation of the faithful in the life of the Church, both at liturgy and in life.  In Germany, frequent allusion was made to the gulf that existed between priests and bishops and their people.  Deacons were discussed as early as 1840 as a possible way to reconnect people with their pastoral leadership.  This discussion continued throughout the 19th Century and into the 20th.  It became a common topic of the Deutschercaritasberband (the German Caritas organization) before and during the early years of the Nazi regime, and it would recur in the conversations held by priest-prisoners in Dachau.  Following the war, these survivors wrote articles and books on the need for a renewed diaconate — NOT because of a priest shortage, but because of a desire to present a more complete image of Christ to the world: not only Christ the High Priest, but the kenotic Christ the Servant as well.  As Father Joseph Komonchak famously quipped, “Vatican II did not restore the diaconate because of a shortage of priests but because of a shortage of deacons.”

Vatican IICertainly, there was some modest interest in this question by missionary bishops before the Council.  But it remained largely a European proposal.  Consider some statistics.  During the antepreparatory stage leading up to the Council (1960-1961), during which time close to 9,000 proposals were presented from the world’s bishops, deans of schools of theology, and heads of men’s religious congregations, 101 proposals concerned the possible renewal of the diaconate.  Eleven of these proposals were against the idea of having the diaconate (either as a transitional or as a permanent order), while 90 were in favor of a renewed, stable (“permanent”) diaconate.  Nearly 500 bishops from around the world supported some form of these 90 proposals, with only about 100 of them from Latin America and Africa.  Nearly 400 bishops, almost entirely from both Western and Eastern Europe, were the principal proponents of a renewed diaconate (by the way, the bishops of the United States, who had not had the benefit of the century-long conversation about the diaconate, were largely silent on the matter, and the handful who spoke were generally against the idea).  Notice how these statistics relate to Father Tom’s observation.  First, the renewed diaconate was largely a European proposal, not surprising given the history I’ve outlined above.  Second, notice that despite this fact, it is also wrong to say that “the African bishops said no thank you” to the idea.  Large numbers of them wanted a renewed diaconate, and even today, the diaconate has been renewed in a growing number of African dioceses.

One other observation on this point needs to be made.  No bishop whose diocese is suffering from a shortage of priests would suggest that deacons would be a suitable strategy.  After all, as we all know, deacons do not celebrate Mass, hear confessions or anoint the sick.  If a diocese needed more priests, they would not have turned to the diaconate.  Yes, there was some discussion at the Council that deacons could be of assistance to priests, but the presumption was that there were already priests to hand.

In short, the myth that “the diaconate was a third world initiative due to a shortage of priests” simply has never held up, despite its longstanding popularity.

  1.  Deacons as Part-Time Ministers

Father cites national statistics that point out that deacons are largely unpaid, “most of whom make a living doing secular work.”  “Why,” he asks, “are we ordaining part-time ministers and not full-time ministers?”

shutterstock_137696915-660x350Let’s break this down.  First, there never has been, nor will there ever be, a “part-time deacon.”  We’re all full-time ministers.  Here’s the problem: Because the Catholic Church did not have the advantage of the extensive conversation on diaconate that was held in other parts of the world, we have not fully accepted the notion that ministry extends BEYOND the boundaries of the institutional church itself.  Some of the rationale behind the renewal of the diaconate in the 19th Century and forward has been to place the Church’s sacred ministers in places where the clergy had previously not been able to go!  Consider the “worker-priest” movement in France.  This was based on a similar desire to extend the reach of the Church’s official ministry outside of the parish and outside of the sanctuary.  However, if we can only envision “ministry” as something that takes place within the sanctuary or within the parish, then we miss a huge point of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and, I would suggest, the papal magisterium of Pope Francis.  The point of the diaconate is to extend the reach of the bishop into places the bishop can’t normally be present.  That means that no matter what the deacon is doing, no matter where the deacon is working or serving, the deacon is ministering to those around him.

We seem to understand this when we speak about priests, but not about deacons.  When a priest is serving in some specialized work such as president of a university, or teaching history or social studies or science at a high school, we would never suggest that he is a “part-time” minister.  Rather, we would correctly say that it is ALL ministry.  Deacons take that even further, ministering in our various workplaces and professions.  It was exactly this kind of societal and cultural leavening that the Council desired with regard to the laity and to the ordained ministry of the deacon.  The bottom line is that we have to expand our view of what we mean by the term “ministry”!

  1.  “Laypersons can do everything a deacon can do

Father writes, “But the truth is that a layperson can do everything that a deacon can do.”  He then offers some examples.  Not so fast.

ANSA-John23Hospital-255x318Not unlike the previous point, this is a common misperception.  However, it is only made if one reduces “being a deacon” to the functions one performs.  Let’s ponder that a moment.  We live in a sacramental Church.  This means that there’s more to things than outward appearances.  Consider the sacrament of matrimony.  Those of us who are married know that there is much, much more to “being married” than simply the sum of the functions associated with marriage.  Those who are priests or bishops know that there is more to who they are as priests and bishops than simply the sum of what they do.  So, why can’t they see that about deacons?  There is more to “being deacon” than simply the sum of what we do.  And, frankly, do we want priests to stop visiting the sick in hospitals or the incarcerated in prisons simply because a lay person can (and should!) be doing that?  Shall we have Father stop being a college professor because now we have lay people who can do that?  Shall we simply reduce Father to the sacraments over which he presides?  What a sacramentally arid Church we would become!

The fact is, there IS a difference when a person does something as an ordained person.  Thomas Aquinas observed that an ordained person acts in persona Christi et in nomine Ecclesiae — in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church.  There is a public and permanent dimension to all ordained ministry that provides the sacramental foundation for all that we try to do in the name of the Church.  We are more than the sum of our parts, we are more than the sum of our functions.

  1.  “We have deacons. . . because they get more respect”

francis-washing-feetWith all respect to a man I deeply admire, I expect that most deacons who read this part of the column are still chuckling.  Yes, I have been treated with great respect by most of the people with whom I’ve served, including laity, religious, priests and bishops.  On the other hand, the experience of most deacons does not sustain Father’s observation.  The fact is, most people, especially if they’re not used to the ministry of deacons, don’t associate deacons with ordination.  I can’t tell the number of times that I’ve been asked by someone, “When will you be ordained?” — meaning ordination to the priesthood.  They know I am a deacon, but, as some people will say, “but that one really doesn’t count, does it?”  I had another priest once tell me, “Being a deacon isn’t a real vocation like the priesthood.”  If it’s respect a person is after “beyond their competence” (to quote Father Reese), then it’s best to avoid the diaconate.

No, the truth is that we have deacons because the Church herself is called to be deacon to the world (cf. Paul VI).  Just as we are a priestly people who nonetheless have ministerial priests to help us actualize our priestly identity, so too we have ministerial deacons to help us actualize our ecclesial identity as servants to and in the world.  To suggest that we have deacons simply because of issues of “respect” simply misses the point of 150 years of theological and pastoral reflection on the nature of the Church and on the diaconate.

In all sincerity, I thank Father Reese for his column on the diaconate, and I look forward to the ongoing conversation about this exciting renewed order of ministry of our Church.

 

 

 

Pope Francis: Sitting on the Dock of the Bay

Pope WaveMany people around the world have begun talking about the so-called “Francis Effect”, which I suppose could best be described as the resurgence of interest and participation in the Catholic Church due to the influence of Pope Francis and his vision for the church.  Especially in Europe, church leaders have noted a demonstrable increase in church attendance, and certainly the Pope’s weekly Wednesday audiences have nearly trebled in size since his election.  Here in the United States, recent studies have not yet documented such a radical increase, although a lot of us serving in parishes have certainly seen a notable increase in interest and enthusiasm.  Last night, I saw first-hand the “Francis Effect” in action, right here at a bar on Fisherman’s Wharf on Monterey Bay.

“Theology on Tap” is a program that’s been around quite a while now across the country, and it’s proved a durable and popular way to Theology on Taptalk about the faith and to answer questions and concerns people have.  That has certainly been the case in the Diocese of Monterey, where for more than four years, Deacon Warren Hoy has been coordinating monthly meetings on topics ranging from a variety of social justice issues, to discussions on exorcisms, just war theory, and so on.  There is a solid core of attendees, and always fresh faces drawn by a particular topic.  In a conversation with Warren a month or so ago, he shared some frustration at finding a topic and speaker for the January gathering, and in desperation, he asked me to be the speaker.  “Talk about whatever you want to,” he said.  I suggested having a conversation about Pope Francis.  That was it.  No further details, no dramatic and sexy topic: just, “let’s talk about Pope Francis.”  That’s how the announcements went out.

Last night, there on the dock of the Bay, a record number of folks turned out.  Estimates ranged between 60-80 people, which for this area, is HUGE.  I have addressed this gathering before, and while there is always good interest, last night there was a palpable difference.  There was great energy and enthusiasm about the pope and what he’s trying to do.  We talked about the nature of reform in the Church, whether that applies to the Roman Curia itself, or just a reform in pastoral approaches.  Some folks came up later to tell me that they weren’t Catholic, but that they too found great hope in the Pope’s approach and were interested in finding out more about how they might get involved and perhaps even become Catholic!  The lifelong Catholics shared how wonderful it was to be focused on POSITIVE issues in the Church these days, and to have a sense of re-commitment to their own involvement in the Church.

So, cue Otis Redding: Sitting on the dock of the bay, here in Monterey, Pope Francis is having a profound effect.

And, as if to underscore that point: next month, a new Theology on Tap venue is opening up down the road in the Salinas.  The word is spreading.

CA583-Monterey Bay At Sunrise -leveled

Priest to Deacon: “Being a deacon is not a REAL vocation.”

laying on of handsFrom the inbox comes a note from a very concerned brother deacon.  A priest recently told him that there was no real sacramental significance to being a deacon, unlike the ordinations of presbyters or bishops, which change a person at the very core of their being.  As another deacon once remarked to me after a Conference, a priest once told him that “being a deacon is not a REAL vocation, like being a priest or a religious.”  I have heard both of these observations before, and want to reassure my brother deacons that, contrary to the mistaken opinions of some of the priests involved (and others, of course): being a deacon IS a real vocation, and our ordination is just as “sacramentally effective and significant” as any other ordination to the other orders that make up the Sacrament of Holy Orders!

What’s going on here?  Why is there such confusion about this?  Let me suggest a few answers.  Perhaps this could be part of a conversation and ongoing formation offered to our seminarians and priests (and it wouldn’t hurt for deacons and lay folks to remember it, too!).

1) A “theology of the diaconate” is only just now being developed.  This may seem surprising, but when you think about it, it makes sense.  For about a millennium or so, “being ordained” was usually summed up in (reduced to?)  reflections on “being a priest.”  That was the order that mattered the most, since this was the order (of presbyters) who “confected the Eucharist”, and all other orders were preliminary to, and led to, the presbyterate.  For quite a while, even being a bishop was understood primarily through the lens of the priesthood, with the responsibilities of being a bishop understood primarily as a matter of jurisdiction, not sacramental significance.  This point of view was overturned at the Second Vatican Council, which restored a more ancient understanding of Orders, first by reclaiming the more ancient theological understandings of the episcopate (see Lumen gentium, ##18-27), returning the diaconate to an order to be exercised permanently, and by authorizing the restructuring of the entire Sacrament of Holy Orders; Pope Paul VI implemented those decisions between 1967 (when he adjusted canon law to permit the ordination of “permanent” deacons) and 1972 (when he suppressed, in the Latin Church, first tonsure, the minor orders of porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte, and the subdiaconate; he concurrently authorized LAY ministries of lector and acolyte, no longer to be ordinations, but lay institutions).  This means, vis-a-vis the diaconate, that for the first time in more than a millennium, a person could be ordained to a major and permanent order of the ministry (the diaconate) without eventually seeking ordination to the presbyterate.  Therefore, given the large scale absence of “permanent” deacons for so long, there was no proper theology of the diaconate-qua-diaconate.

The Holy See recognized this in a 1998 document from the Congregation for Catholic Education (#3):Ratio et Directorium

The almost total disappearance of the permanent diaconate from the Church of the West for more than a millennium has certainly made it more difficult to understand the profound reality of this ministry. However, it cannot be said for that reason that the theology of the diaconate has no authoritative points of reference, completely at the mercy of different theological opinions. There are points of reference, and they are very clear, even if they need to be developed and deepened.

So, what are these “points of reference” offered by the Holy See?

A.  First of all we must consider the diaconate, like every other Christian identity, from within the Church which is understood as a mystery of Trinitarian communion in missionary tension. This is a necessary, even if not the first, reference in the definition of the identity of every ordained minister insofar as its full truth consists in being a specific participation in and representation of the ministry of Christ. This is why the deacon receives the laying on of hands and is sustained by a specific sacramental grace which inserts him into the sacrament of Orders.

B. The diaconate is conferred through a special outpouring of the Spirit (ordination), which brings about in the one who receives it a specific conformation to Christ, Lord and servant of all. Quoting a text of the Constitutiones Ecclesiae Aegypticae, Lumen gentium (n. 29) defines the laying on of hands on the deacon as being not “ad sacerdotium sed ad ministerium”,(6) that is, not for the celebration of the eucharist, but for service. This indication, together with the admonition of Saint Polycarp, also taken up again by Lumen gentium, n. 29,(7) outlines the specific theological identity of the deacon: as a participation in the one ecclesiastical ministry, he is a specific sacramental sign, in the Church, of Christ the servant. His role is to “express the needs and desires of the Christian communities” and to be “a driving force for service, or diakonia”, which is an essential part of the mission of the Church.

C.  The matter of diaconal ordination is the laying on of the hands of the Bishop; the form is constituted by the words of the prayer of ordination, which is expressed in the three moments of anamnesis, epiclesis and intercession. . . .  [NOTE: The matter and form of the diaconate, presbyterate and episcopate were clarified and promulgated by Pope Pius XII in his 1947 Sacramentum Ordinis.   One would hope that by now this document would have found its way into seminary curricula! ]

holyorders2D. Insofar as it is a grade of holy orders, the diaconate imprints a character and communicates a specific sacramental grace. The diaconal character is the configurative and distinguishing sign indelibly impressed in the soul, which configures the one ordained to Christ, who made himself the deacon or servant of all. It brings with it a specific sacramental grace, which is strength, vigor specialis, a gift for living the new reality wrought by the sacrament. “With regard to deacons, ‘strengthened by sacramental grace they are dedicated to the People of God, in conjunction with the bishop and his body of priests, in the service (diakonia) of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity’”.  Just as in all sacraments which imprint character, grace has a permanent virtuality [The Latin original has: Sicut in omnibus sacramentis characterem imprimentibus, gratia permanentem virtualem vim continet]. It flowers again and again in the same measure in which it is received and accepted again and again in faith.

E. In the exercise of their power, deacons, since they share in a lower grade of ecclesiastical ministry, necessarily depend on the Bishops, who have the fullness of the sacrament of orders. In addition, they are placed in a special relationship with the priests, in communion with whom they are called to serve the People of God.

F. From the point of view of discipline, with diaconal ordination, the deacon is incardinated into a particular Church or personal prelature to whose service he has been admitted, or else, as a cleric, into a religious institute of consecrated life or a clerical society of apostolic life.(13) Incardination does not represent something which is more or less accidental, but is characteristically a constant bond of service to a concrete portion of the People of God. This entails ecclesial membership at the juridical, affective and spiritual level and the obligation of ministerial service.

jpii2.  If this were not enough to demonstrate the proper character of a vocation to the diaconate, consider the words of soon-to-be Saint John Paul II, who offered a series of catecheses on the diaconate in 1993.  He observed with great clarity a theme he would make several times during his papacy:

The exercise of the diaconal ministry—like that of other ministries in the Church—requires per se of all deacons, celibate or married, a spiritual attitude of total dedication.  Although in certain cases it is necessary to make the ministry of the diaconate compatible with other obligations, to think of oneself and to act in practice as a ‘part-time deacon’ would make no sense. The deacon is not a part-time employee or ecclesiastical official, but a minister of the Church. His is not a profession, but a mission!  

So, why does any confusion persist on this matter?  Let me offer a couple of suggestions.

3.  The sacramental question of HOW the deacon participates in the one Sacrament of Holy Orders has developed since the release of the documents on the diaconate in 1998.  Following some initial changes to the Latin editio typica of the Catechism of the Catholic Church back in 1994, Pope Benedict in 2009 issued motu proprio Omnium et Mentem.  In this document, canon law (specifically cc. 1008 and 1009) was changed to reflect that only presbyters and bishops act in persona Christi Capitis (“in the person of Christ, the Head of the Church”), while deacons serve in a ministry of word, sacrament and charity.  This distinction, however, does not — and should not — be taken to suggest that deacons are no less ORDAINED into sacred ministry (which is the point of the canons on this point!) or that our ordination is no less sacramentally significant.  The canons simply reflect a theological position that there are two modalities of participation in the ONE Sacrament of Holy Orders. [Here’s an interesting side note: the change to canon law only affected the Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church; the Code of Canons for the Eastern Catholic Churches does not use the language of in persona Christi Capitis, so the distinction did not need to be made there.]

4.  I think that, since the Council, there has been legitimate concern on the part of many presbyters that the specific nature of the presbyterate has been under assault.  One bishop who participated in all four sessions of the Council as a young bishop, once remarked to me that he considered it a great shortcoming of the Council that they did not spend more time on the nature of the priesthood itself.  “After all,” this bishop said, “We spent considerable time talking about the sacramental nature of the episcopate, and we developed wonderful texts on the nature and role of the laity.  We even renewed the diaconate!  But we did not take into proper account the profound impact all of that would have on the presbyterate itself.”  As a result, many of the functions which had become part of the presbyterate prior to the Council now began to be disbursed to other ministers, both lay and, now, deacons.  This means that there is a certain concern that the presbyterate itself is being somehow “eroded” as others assume their own rightful and legitimate places in ministry, both within the Church and in the world.

But the bottom line remains:vocation

Deacons are ordained, and are permanently changed in the core of our being by that ordination (what we used to call in days gone by as “ontologically changed”).  We are always and everywhere full-time ministers, as St. John Paul II so passionately proclaimed, even when that ministry occurs outside the normal institutional structures of the Church.  During those same catecheses in 1993, John Paul II also reminded people that “a deeply felt need in the decision to re-establish the permanent diaconate was and is that of greater and more direct presence of Church ministers in the various spheres of the family, work, school, etc., in addition to existing pastoral structures.”  The diaconate is a sacrament and a proper vocation.  It is perhaps also a useful reminder to many of our sisters and brothers that we are all gifted with many “proper vocations” — calls from God! — in our lifetimes.  Our baptisms themselves constitute our primal vocation, before all others, for example!  Some of us are called to religious life, some are called to matrimony, some are called to Orders, and some of us are called to several of these at the same time!  Our God is a most generous God, and attempts to characterize one vocation over against another is to deny that divine generosity and to misunderstand the nature of vocation in the first place.

Now,  let us all go out and serve one another!

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Monsignors and Serving the People of God UPDATED

monsignors

A Ceremony “Robing” New Monsignori

Big “insider baseball” church news was the decision of Pope Francis to eliminate all but the lowest “rank” of Monsignor, and then to restrict even that form to diocesan priests over 65.  There have been all kinds of interesting reactions to this news!  One one side of the spectrum are those who find the move refreshing and a good first step at eliminating a sense of medieval-ism and careerism within the clergy; on the other, heads are exploding over this smack to the side of the clerical heads of those who found becoming a monsignor an affirmation of their personal and ecclesial worth.  One priest-blogger criticized that this decision was not made by the Pope in any kind of consultative manner and that perhaps it would be best for such matters to be dealt with on a local (diocesan) level.  Sorry, Father, it couldn’t work that way: “Being a monsignor” was always a PAPAL prerogative; it was his “gift”, although bishops would nominate men for the honor.  As the maxim has it, “he who gives, takes away.”  Furthermore, the pope DID consult on this decision.  He put a months-long moratorium on making any new monsignors, and I think it’s safe to assume he discussed this with his special group of Cardinal-advisors at their recent meeting.  This shouldn’t have surprised anyone at all!

For those new to this kind of thing, what are we talking about here?

First, Christ didn’t name “monsignors” (monsignori if you want to sound like Father Z).  This was a creation by church leadership as the “course of honors” (cursus honorum) developed through the post-Constantinian marriage of church and state which lasted until the American Revolution.  Just as secular honorifics and structures were created, they were paralleled in church honorifics and structures.  The word itself simply means “my lord”, and in some countries, it is actually a title used for a bishop.  It has absolutely NO connection to the sacrament of Holy Orders, although it is restricted to men who are in the Order of Presbyters.  As a deacon, of course, I never had any hopes of ever being a Monsignor anyway!  But people should understand that if their pastor went from being called “Father” to “Monsignor”, it didn’t mean that he had any more “sacred power” than a simple priest.  It was purely an honorific, usually given to two broad categories of priests: those who were younger and being signaled as those who might someday become bishops, and on those older men whom the bishop wanted to thank for a ministry well served.  As one priest-friend put it when he became a Monsignor, “I asked the bishop why he had done this.  He told me he wanted to thank me.  I asked him, ‘Why not just take me to dinner?’ I can’t even spell ‘Monsignor’!”  Later, my friend was named a bishop.  After his episcopal ordination, he e-mailed me that “at least I can spell ‘bishop.'”

Second, a bit of contemporary perspective.  As I’ve written about before, I’ve been around church and ministry for my whole life, and was in the seminary myself for high school and college (1963-1971).  Even before that time, the majority of the priests I knew in my diocese detested the idea of becoming a Monsignor.  On the one hand, we had a great Monsignor in our parish, and we all loved him.  He was Monsignor Patrick O’Connor Culleton, ordained in Dublin in 1901, came to our Diocese in Illinois early on, and became pastor at our parish in 1920; he remained pastor there until his death in the late 1950’s.  He was the pastor when a young newly-ordained priest named Fulton Sheen came to the parish for his first assignment.  Sheen always said that the Monsignor was the holiest priest he’d ever known.  But the younger priests — most of them anyway — wanted nothing to do with this kind of honorific, claiming that it was a relic of a time gone by that had no relevance whatsoever in the Church serving in the modern world.  It made no difference at all when one was marching for civil rights, or visiting people in an inner city slum.  In short, monsignori were seen as belonging to a different era in the life of the church.

The bishops at the Second Vatican Council agreed.  They were dead set against retaining structures and processes that no longer served any practical, pastoral use in the life of the church, and they directed the Holy Father to streamline things.  Pope Paul VI took this task on, and in 1972, the whole sacrament of Holy Orders was restructured, eliminating in the Latin Church the Rite of First Tonsure, the four minor orders and the major order of the Subdiaconate.  The diaconate was now to be exercised permanently and could be opened to both celibate and married men.  The same pope also reduced the number of “classes” or “ranks” of monsignori.  No one really knows just how many classes there were!  Some sources tally fifteen different classes of monsignor, others have twelve or thirteen.  Popeprotonotarios_zpsc9e4a1b2 Paul reduced them to three only.  Now, Pope Francis has reduced this list to one, and then only for diocesan priests over the age of 65.

What difference will this make?

1) On a practical level, absolutely none.  A priest is a priest is a priest.  That’s always been the case, sacramentally.  This doesn’t change that.  The best news is that priests don’t have to go out and buy all the fancy rig that was associated with being a monsignor.

2) For those men who actually wanted to be monsignori (and, at least in my humble experience, that’s been thankfully a very small number!), it will mean that they can now refocus their efforts on being the best priests they can be without waiting for a title or new clothes.  In honor of their non-selection as monsignori, perhaps these men could join their deacons and lay folks in paying an extra visit to a homeless shelter or in lobbying for a change in unjust laws or for immigration reform.  I’m not saying that these men are not doing good things already; but if they’re not going to have to worry about being a monsignor, they’ll be free to focus on other things.  Like getting the smell of the sheep on their clothes.

Cassock_purpled_zpsc36574403) There IS a negative side to this.  Our good priests DO deserve some kind of recognition and support for their ministry; all people who serve do!  We do need to support our priests and acknowledge their service and commitment.  Some bishops, out of a lack of any other ideas, thought that at least by getting the pope to name a priest a monsignor, this could be a small way of doing that.  But here’s a chance for some grass-roots creativity and initiative!  Being a monsignor was no way to recognize anyone, and in some men it just created more difficulties that it was worth.  What CAN we do, in a positive way, to acknowledge someone’s service?  No one who serves AS CHRIST SERVED needs or wants recognition.  The only human recognition Christ got was to be nailed to a cross, after all.  Still, as human beings, it’s nice to know when something we’ve done has been effective.  What can we do, what can YOU do, to show appreciation to ALL who serve in the name of Christ and in the name of the Church?

UPDATE

As I continue to follow the various blog responses to this issue, I was struck by something.  It seems to me, anecdotally and not based on any scientific analysis, that most of the folks OBJECTING to the loss of new monsignors are people who are converts to Catholicism.  By and large, so-called “cradle Catholics” like myself are all in favor of it; those who have come later to the Church seem to be suffering the loss.  File in the “interesting, for what it’s worth” categories.

Happy New Year!

“O Emmanuel”: God with All of Us

23 Dec O EmmanuelFrom Vespers, 23 December:

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Savior:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

While the original texts of most of the “O Antiphons” were in Latin, here’s one that’s even more ancient (although Latin appropriated it later!).  “Emmanuel” is a Hebrew word taken directly from the original text of Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).

As a teenager and young adult, I studied for eight years (high school and college)  in the seminary, discerning a possible vocation to the priesthood.  When I left the seminary after college, the military draft was still in place, and I was due to be drafted.  Believing that I might have more control over matters if I simply enlisted before I could be drafted, I joined the Navy.  No guarantees were made, and I had no idea where I might be sent after the conclusion of Basic Training. I was stunned and thrilled to find out that my first orders after boot camp were to go to Hebrew language school for a year; I was blessed to serve as a Hebrew linguist for the first couple of years in the Navy, largely on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean.immanuel1 (2)

In language school, all of our instructors were native-born Israelis, known as sabra.  They quickly got us chatting away in modern Hebrew, and one of the topics they would ask involved answering the question, “What did you study in school?” (“Ma lamadita bevet sefer?”)   When I responded that I had studied Philosophy, they asked why.  I answered that I had been studying to become a priest.  From that moment on, every afternoon for at least one full hour, we began reading Biblical Hebrew.  What a great joy it was to be able to read the Hebrew scriptures in their original language!  One particular text we read was the prophet Isaiah, including the verse given above.  “Im [“with”] + “anu” [“us”] + “El” [“God”]: God with us!  (The Latin and English sometimes interchange the “I” for an “E”, so either “Immanuel” or “Emmanuel” is acceptable.) The original word order is somewhat interesting, with the word for God coming at the END of the phrase.  While word order is of differing significance in different languages, the fact that God is at the end of the phrase underscores the foundational importance of God to all that goes before.  We see the same thing in many Hebrew names: for example, Michael is “mi” [“who”] + “cha” [“like”] + “El” [“God”].  So, “Immanuel” becomes almost a cry of stunned realization: “With us, GOD!”

At the beginning of the third chapter of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis turns his attention to the nature of the Church. “The Church, as the agent of evangelization, is more than an organic and hierarchical institution; she is first and foremost a people advancing on its pilgrim way toward God.  She is certainly a mystery rooted in the Trinity, yet she exists concretely in history as a people of pilgrims and evangelizers, transcending any institutional expression, however necessary” (#111).  The relationship of the People with God always begins in God’s own initiative: “God, by his sheer grace, draws us to himself and makes us one with him” (#112).  So, the fact that we proclaim that God is with us flows from our realization that God has CHOSEN to be with us in every human condition and need.  We have not earned God’s presence, we have not somehow bargained God int it!  The covenant is always God’s initiative; as Love itself, God extends and provides for all creation.  “The salvation which God has wrought, and the Church joyfully proclaims, is for everyone.  God has found a way to unite himself to every human being in every age” (#113).

Francis-feet-drugs-poor-EPAThe implications of With-us-GOD are profound!  As we know, “possessing God” and then waiting for the rapture at the end of time are not Catholic concepts!  On the contrary, With-us-God “means that we are to be God’s leaven in the midst of humanity. . . .  The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel” (#114).

ADVENT REFLECTION

One this final evening before the Vigil of Christmas, what is the practical, pastoral impact of the realization in our own lives that God has truly come to us and remains with us?  Am I, as an individual believer, and are we, as Church, a place where all people can find “mercy freely given”, universal welcome, love, forgiveness and encouragement?  Or, am I — are we — perceived as people of rules and judgments who tend to exclude rather than include?  This Christmas, as we celebrate the union and universal gift of God-for-all, may we re-dedicate ourselves to the liberating power of the joy of the Gospel!

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“O Wisdom”: Mission Embodied Within Human Limits

osapientiaThe O Antiphon (O Sapientia, in Latin) for today, 17 December reads as follows:

O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet gentle care.  Come and show your people the way to salvation.

Providentially, the theme of divine Wisdom seems particularly appropriate as we pick up where we left off with the Pope Apostolic Exhortation; namely, with a section entitled: “A Mission embodied within human limits.”  We are a people constantly in seek of Wisdom, both as individuals and as a People of faith.  This is actually the pope’s starting point.  In paragraph #40, the pope refers to the entire Church as a missionary disciple, a disciple who “needs to grow in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of truth.”  It is interesting to think of the entire People of God in this way: as a singular disciple on mission.  Just as I, as an individual Christian disciple, need constantly to grow in understanding, so too does the entire Church.  The Pope reminds those of us who serve in the ministry of theology: “It is the task of exegetes and theologians to help ‘the judgment of the Church to mature.'”  This is a quote taken directly from the Second Vatican Council’s monumental Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum, #12).

Without specifying particular examples, the pope continues:

Within the Church countless issues are being studied and reflected upon with great freedom. Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of the help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word.  For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion.  But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.

This call for a broad and diverse search for wisdom, as we shall see in a moment, once again calls upon the wisdom of the whole Tradition of the Church, with PopeJohnXXIIIathis particular section supported by an extensive reference to St. Thomas Aquinas; shortly, Pope Francis will call to mind the example of St. John XXIII who says essentially the same thing!  Wisdom, in short, is not “monolithic”, nor is it a hoard of theological propositions known in fullness and waiting only to be transmitted verbatim and intact to succeeding generations, cultures and peoples.  The pope writes, in #41: “Today’s vast and rapid cultural changes demand that we constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness. ‘The deposit of the faith is one thing, the way it is expressed is another.'”  That is the voice of St. John XXIII, exhorting the world’s bishops at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council.  Pope Francis cautions that when some people “hold fast to a formulation [which] fails to convey its substance,” we can — with every good intention — “sometimes give them a false god or a human ideal which is not really Christian.”  He then cites St. John Paul II, who wrote that “the expression of truth can take different forms.  The renewal of these forms of expression becomes necessary for the sake of transmitting to the people of today the Gospel message in its unchanging meaning.”

This quest for expressing eternal truth in various ways in order to communicate, not only the words but the meaning of truth, continues  when considering the various customs and practices of the Church, as a missionary disciple.

In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated.  Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel.  We should not be afraid to re-examine them. . . .  St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God “are very few”.  Citing Saint Augustine, he noted that the precepts subsequently enjoined by the Church should be insisted upon with moderation “so as  not to burden the lives of the faithful” and make our religion of form of servitude, whereas “God’s mercy has willed that should be free.”  This warning, issued many centuries ago, is most timely today.  It ought to be one f the criteria to be taken into account in considering a reform of the Church her preaching would would enable it to reach everyone.

We have already seen in earlier sections of the document that the pope is committed to helping the Church recover her missionary purpose, and that this mission is not only to reach everyone in a general way, but in very concrete ways which are understandable to all people today, regardless of culture or history or age.  Past ages found beautiful and creative ways of expressing eternal truths in their own day and time; we must not do the same for our own, and not merely try to repeat the brilliant work of the past which may no longer be capable of communicating truth as it once did.

ADVENT REFLECTION

As we move more intently into our final preparations for celebrating the coming of Christ anew into our lives, how well do I express my faith to others in ways that are full of meaning, promise and hope?  What about our parish: What customs do we continue to hold onto which — if we were truly honest with each other — no long seem to be capable of expressing the truth of our relationship with Christ and our responsibility to the world around us.  Honestly review our lives as individuals and as parish, and then reflect: Do we unduly “burden” those around us?  Do we have the courage to let go and to let God inspire us with Divine Wisdom in finding new ways to proclaim the Christ to the world. For those of us who serve as deacons, do we continue to grow, not only as disciples, but in our ministerial competence?  Are we open to new ideas, even when those ideas may be challenging to our former ways of thought?   “O Wisdom” is a title given to Christ today; may our own relationship with Wisdom give us the freedom and courage to find new ways of sharing God’s truth.

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An Advent Remembrance: War and Peace

colour-smoke_2076773i7 December 1941.  Seventy-two years since that particular “Day of Infamy.”  World War II had, of course, begun years earlier.  By the time it ended, at least 70 million people were dead.  Pope John Paul II, in his 2004 Message for the World Day of Peace, referred to the Second World War as “an abyss of violence, destruction and death unlike anything previously known.”  How does a world recover from such madness?  For those of us who were born following the War, we have lived with its effects our whole lives, even though specific memories of the War continue to fade with the passing of the World War II generation.

For Catholics, I believe it is important to understand the Second Vatican Council as the Catholic Church’s response to World War II: the conditions that led to the War and the world that emerged after it.  Pope John XXIII announced his plans for the Council only fourteen years following the end of War.  Opening the Council, he observed:

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We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.  In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.

How do we cooperate with Divine Providence in attaining this “new order of human relations”?  The bishops of the Council were not seeking simple superficial updating of the Church; they were setting out to create a new understanding of the Church in a world already gone mad and in need of the “soul and leaven” a renewed Church might provide.  Pope Paul VI, in his famous speech at the General Assembly of the United Stations in October 1965, famously proclaimed:

paulvi_at_un2

Paul VI at the United Nations

And now We come to the high point of Our message: Negatively, first: the words which you expect from Us and which We cannot pronounce without full awareness of their gravity and solemnity: Never one against the other, never, never again.  Was it not principally for this purpose that the United Nations came into being: against war and for peace?  Listen to the clear words of a great man, the late John Kennedy [himself a veteran of World War II], who declared four years ago: “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.”  Long discourses are not necessary to proclaim the supreme goal of your institution.  It is enough to remember that the blood of millions of men, numberless and unprecedented sufferings, useless slaughter and frightful ruin are the sanction of the covenant which unites you, in a solemn pledge which must change the future history of the world No more war, war never again.  It is peace, peace which must guide the destinies of peoples and of all mankind.

What is particularly telling is the fact that when Pope Paul returned to Rome from this trip, he went immediately to the St. Peter’s and shared his insights with the assembled Council Fathers who, in their own turn, adopted the pope’s message as their own.  They were in the midst of their own work on their capstone document, Gaudium et spes, “The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.  In particular, they began working on the section dealing with war and peace, incorporating the insights of Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris and Pope Paul’s speech to the UN.

No more war, war never again!

As we remember the personal, national and global tragedies of the Second World War, may we this Advent renew our commitment and preparation for the new order of human relations foreseen by Pope John.  May we, like Mary pregnant with the Christ, work to bring Christ and his Gospel to the world in the real, concrete terms envisioned by the Council and now renewed for us again by the words and deeds of Pope Francis.

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