The Word Matters: Being Christ-like in the Age of Trump

christ_the_pantocratorINTRODUCTION: “Quod tibi videtur?”

“How does it seem to you?”

It seems to me that since 20 January 2017 everyone is still trying to sort out what exactly has happened.  For people who supported the candidacy and election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States, they are full of hope that he will deliver on his various and varied campaign promises, feeling that they have been overlooked by the “professional politician” class and the “elites” in the media and academia.  Those who opposed his candidacy and election are full of concern that he will cause irreparable damage to the office and the country through ineptitude or worse.  It is quite one thing to run on a platform that is “anti-Washington”; it is quite another to master the inherent complexities of governance.  So it seems to me that everyone is to some degree unsettled about the future.

But for me, of all the claims and counterclaims made over the last month, one that troubles me most deeply is the repeated assertion (made in various words and contexts) that boils down to this.  “We don’t care that the president lies; his words don’t matter; it will be his actions that matter.”  As more than one observer noted, the new president is supposed to be “taken seriously but not literally.”  And, of course, there are all of the “alternative facts” to be considered!

Youth-PossibilityBut words do matter.  Especially for Catholics.  Imagine a baptism celebrated without words, especially the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”!  Imagine an ordination without the prayer of consecration over those being ordained.  Imagine the Eucharist without a Eucharistic Prayer of consecration.  In all of these examples, we would conclude that a sacrament has not taken place.  Words matter to us.  They matter a lot.  And of course, fundamental to all of that is the understanding that the Christ is, in fact, the Word of God!

How, then are we to respond to our current political situation, not simply as citizens, but as Catholics, as Christians?

church-and-stateWhether one supported or opposed the candidacy and election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States is now on a practical level irrelevant.  The overall turmoil it has caused, however, is not.  His supporters fervently believe that he will take significant actions to ameliorate their concerns.  His opponents just as fervently believe that his actions are a danger to the Republic and to our society at large.  The polarity that has afflicted our discourse for so long has, if possible, descended to new levels.

Political campaigns built on fear only serve to increase that fear.  When we are afraid we want to find the cause of that fear and remove it. If social media are any indication, at least some people find it easy to associate other people with their fear, and the vitriol only increases, and the lines keeping us apart become only sharper and more painful.

Take just one example: when protesters took to the streets following this election, they were called “snowflakes” by many commentators on the right.  Why?  Apparently, this was a characterization based on the assumption that these were spoiled, wealthy, pampered “college kids” who were just scared of their own shadows.  Speaking as a professor working with both undergraduate and graduate students at several universities, I can attest that such a characterization is simply untrue.  Some of my students are some of the strongest folks I know, who are hard working (often working several jobs while raising families and still going to school!) and dedicated — and worried.  Words matter.

Similarly, it is unfair to characterize all Trump supporters as being some kind of monolithic group of “deplorables.”  There are many who support the new president because they feel that they have been overlooked in recent years and that their own concerns have not been heard or responded to.  Words matter.

These are our family members.  These are our friends.  These are our parishioners.

altar-at-vatican-ii1BACKGROUND: “Quid nunc?”

“What now?”

This blog is focused on Catholic ministry, especially the ministry of Catholic deacons.  However, I hope that what follows might be helpful not only to brother deacons but to other people of good will as well.  Specifically, it seems to me, the fundamental question remains: “How does a Christian behave?” For those of us who are “Heralds of Christ,” publicly and solemnly charged to “believe what we read, teach what we believe and practice what we teach,” the challenge is particularly acute.

Back in 1965, the world’s bishops gathered in Rome at the Second Vatican Council spoke words of hope and challenge.  In its capstone document, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes) the bishops had

this to say (in paragraph #3):

Though humankind is stricken with wonder at its own discoveries and its power, it often raises anxious questions about the current trend of the world, about the place and role of the human person in the universe, about the meaning of its individual and collective striving, and about the ultimate destiny of reality and of humanity. Hence, . . . this council can provide no more eloquent proof of its solidarity with, as well as its respect and love for the entire human family with which it is bound up, than by engaging with it in conversation about these various problems. . . .  For the human person deserves to be preserved; human society deserves to be renewed.

So, the first point for our reflection must be that we have a responsibility to be active participants in the world around us; we cannot allow ourselves the luxury, however tempting, of withdrawing from the world so as to avoid the often unpleasant and distasteful conflicts  which so often permeate contemporary life.  Gaudium et spes famously describes this responsibility when it teaches that the Church “serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God’s family” (#40).  The challenge for us is to figure out how we — individually and collectively — may serve as leaven in the messy dough of today’s world.

Once again we turn to the Council, which speaks of the “single goal” of the People of God:

to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served. To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics. (GS ##3-4)

This paragraph offers so much!

  1. Be involved
  2. Be Christ-like: to be witness, to rescue, to not sit in judgment, to serve
  3. Scrutinize and interpret the signs of the times in light of the Gospel
  4. Find language that is meaningful to each generation (and culture)
  5. Respond to perennial questions asked by ALL people
  6. Recognize and understand our world: explanations, longings, dramatic characteristics.

When we turn to the specific question of our involvement in the political life of the nation, we must remember always the purpose of political life in general. Politics involves “the rights and duties of all in the exercise of civil freedom and in the attainment of the common good” (GS #73).  Specifically, the bishops offer this concise description:

The political community exists, consequently, for the sake of the common good, in which it finds its full justification and significance, and the source of its inherent legitimacy. Indeed, the common good embraces the sum of those conditions of the social life whereby men, families and associations more adequately and readily may attain their own perfection (#74).

The bishops speak of the growing need to give better protection to human rights, including “the right freely to meet and form associations, the right to express one’s own opinion and to profess one’s religion both publicly and privately. The protection of the rights of a person is indeed a necessary condition so that citizens, individually or collectively, can take an active part in the life and government of the state.”  Furthermore:

In the conscience of many arises an increasing concern that the rights of minorities be recognized, without any neglect for their duties toward the political community. In addition, there is a steadily growing respect for men of other opinions or other religions. At the same time, there is wider cooperation to guarantee the actual exercise of personal rights to all citizens, and not only to a few privileged individuals.

The bishops also take to task those who would pervert the political process to their own ends:

However, those political systems. . . are to be reproved which hamper civic or religious freedom, victimize large numbers through avarice and political crimes, and divert the exercise of authority from the service of the common good to the interests of one or another faction or of the rulers themselves (#73).

How do we deal with differing opinions within our societies on how to achieve these goals?

If the political community is not to be torn apart while everyone follows his own opinion, there must be an authority to direct the energies of all citizens toward the common good, not in a mechanical or despotic fashion, but by acting above all as a moral force which appeals to each one’s freedom and sense of responsibility.

It follows also that political authority, both in the community as such and in the representative bodies of the state, must always be exercised within the limits of the moral order and directed toward the common good—with a dynamic concept of that good. . . . But where citizens are oppressed by a public authority overstepping its competence, they should not protest against those things which are objectively required for the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and the rights of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority, while keeping within those limits drawn by the natural law and the Gospels.

Finally, the bishops speak specifically to the role of Christians:

All Christians must be aware of their own specific vocation within the political community. It is for them to give an example by their sense of responsibility and their service of the common good. In this way they are to demonstrate concretely how authority can be compatible with freedom, personal initiative with the solidarity of the whole social organism, and the advantages of unity with fruitful diversity. They must recognize the legitimacy of different opinions with regard to temporal solutions, and respect citizens, who, even as a group, defend their points of view by honest methods.

gaudiumconfweb-171x200MOVING FORWARD: Bringing the Word to the words

  1. Remember our fundamental relationship: with Christ.  That’s the point here.  Christian.  For the moment, not American, not French, not Iranian, not German — and certainly not Republican or Democrat.  For those who claim to be disciples of Christ, the Messiah of the living God, Christianity is a way of life.  It is not simply a collection of teachings, liturgical rites or even a moral code.  It is all of those things, but so much more.  “Being  Christian” means being in a relationship with Christ, and just like any relationship, our lives are to be lived accordingly.
  2. The Word of God, Christ, called us all to serve the common good of all.  He gave his life to that end; it must be our end as well.  How do we constantly and consistently serve the common good of all?
  3. In serving the common good, we must first be involved in the life of our communities.  Just as Christ emptied himself into our human condition, we too should follow the same path, pouring ourselves out for others.  This means we cannot hide away from society, or act as if contemporary issues really don’t matter to us since we’re focused on heaven!  The incarnation of Christ demands that we too are co-responsible for this world and not only the next.
  4. We must be like Christ in other ways, too, as the bishops reminded us decades ago: that we must witness to the Truth always, that we are involved in order to rescue others while not sitting in judgment of them, to serve others where they are and not asking to be served.
  5. We have a responsibility to examine and interpret the signs of our contemporary times in light of the Gospel.  The world of 2017 is a different place than the world of 1965, or the world of 1945 or the world of 325.  The Council reminds us that we must not only critique the times, we must interpret the signs we see in light of the Gospel of God’s love and Truth.
  6. Words matter: we must find “language that is meaningful” to each and every generation and culture.  Do the words we use hurt, demean, insult?  Or do the words we use build up, nurture, heal?  (Do calling fearful people “snowflakes” tear down or build up?)
  7. Before speaking, we should find out what people’s questions are, and attempt to answer them!  As Pope Francis reminds us constantly: answer people’s questions; don’t spend time on questions that have never been asked!
  8. blue-heaven-leaven-bread-dough-e1443546998297We must be engaged and knowledgeable about our world today.  If we are to be the yeast in that messy lump of dough, if we would attempt to make a difference, we have to get ourselves involved with it.  We should be critical of society when necessary, and supportive of reasonable attempts when possible.  The leaven doesn’t take over the dough, it helps it rise!
  9. Focus on your particular community: what are the concerns being raised by all persons in that community?  How do our words and our actions address the needs of all of them, and not merely to one side or another?  We are called to serve them all
  10. Before, during and after each and every thing we say and do, PRAY!  Above all, PRAY!  Remember that Christ, the WORD is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all human longing.  We begin with the Word, we end with the Word.

alpha-omega

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.

 

 

 

Terrorism, Dachau and Diaconate: Perspectives and PBS

INTRODUCTION

12172xlAs I write this, reports are coming in from Baton Rouge about yet another attack with multiple casualties.  The world is reeling from the endless chain of violence and death of recent months.  On Friday, the PBS series Religion and Ethics Newsweekly ran a program on the Order of Deacons in the Catholic Church.  Given the state of the world, one might think this an odd or even irrelevant topic.   Upon reflection, however, I believe that there are some important dots to connect.  It is precisely because of the current state of violent death, destruction and havoc that the diaconate — properly understood — might offer a glimmer of hope.  After all, it was precisely because of the “abyss of violence, destruction and death unlike anything previously known” (John Paul II, referring to World Word II) that the Order of Deacons was renewed in the first place; we’re here to help do something about it. So we shall review the PBS story against that critical backdrop.

47e73934-588c-4a95-985f-3ddac791ede4.png.resize.298x135THE PBS PROGRAM: Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

First, watch the program or read the transcript for yourself; you may find both of them here.  The diaconate is not often covered in the media, so this could have been a wonderful opportunity to spread the word about a remarkable ministry.  Unfortunately, despite very obvious good intentions, the program was full of errors ranging from simple errors of fact to more serious, even egregious, errors of history and theology.  Furthermore, a wonderful opportunity was missed to connect the “concrete consequences” which the diaconate might offer a hurting world.

The Mistakes

Why focus on some of the errors made in the program?  First, simply to get them identified and out of the way.  Second and more important, it is crucial to dispel such errors because they can distort the meaning of the diaconate and distract the audience from its proper potential.

  1. “He’s a married layman.” This simple error of fact is made twice at the very beginning of the report.  Of course this is simply not true.  Deacons are clergy and not laymen.  For those of us who live and teach about the diaconate, this is usually the first red flag that the rest of the discussion is not going to go well.  Why is this distinction important?  Back to that in a moment.
  2. “Celebrating Mass is a function reserved only for priests who are considered heirs to the original apostles.” In Catholic theology, of course, the “heirs” or “successors” of the apostles are bishops, not priests.
  3. “[The deacon] did have to step in recently to speak the words of consecration at communion – for Catholics the most sacred part of the Mass. That’s because his pastor is on leave, and the priest filling in doesn’t speak English.” This is terribly wrong on several levels.  First, the deacon can be seen and heard praying part of the Eucharistic Prayer, which is absolutely reserved to priests alone.  The priest in question should have just said the prayer in his native language, whatever it is.  For years, Catholics of the Latin Rite celebrated Mass in Latin: no one stood next to the priest to translate the Latin for us.  Not only did the deacon not “have to step in” to do such a thing, church law expressly forbids it.  Canon 907 states: “In the eucharistic celebration deacons and lay persons are not permitted to offer prayers, especially the eucharistic prayer, or to perform actions which are proper to the celebrating priest.” My guess is that every deacon who saw that part of the segment is still cringing!  (The other cringe-worthy tidbit was seeing the deacon improperly vested, wearing his stole on the outside of his dalmatic. How cringe-worthy ?  Think wearing underclothing over your pants).
  4. VaticanII“In the Middle Ages the role of deacons began to fade as the power of priests and bishops grew. In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council restored the role of deacons – but only for men.” The evolving role of deacons throughout history is far more complicated than that, and overlooks the fact that the diaconate never completely disappeared, but became primarily a stepping stone to the priesthood.  I fully acknowledge that the history of the diaconate in all of its complexity goes far beyond what can be covered in such a brief program, but still: the broad brush strokes of the history could have been recognized and acknowledged.  This is also when the program shifts to the question of the possibility of ordaining women as deacons.  I will deal with that question below.
  5. “Until recently, the wives of deacons were required to take the same classes over four years as their husbands did to prepare for the diaconate.” Here the reporter falls victim to a common danger when discussing the diaconate: extrapolation.  There are nearly 200 Catholic dioceses in the United States, and the procedures and processes of formation vary greatly from place to place.  National standards established by the US Bishops do not mandate such a requirement, although wives are definitely encouraged to participate to the extent possible so that the couple grows together throughout the formation process.  Even the “until recently” is confusing: perhaps in that particular diocese something has changed, but not in all.  Not every wife of every deacon candidate is required to write papers or attend classes. Like many things in the renewed diaconate, it varies by location and bishop. But even more important — and completely left out of the piece — is the question of vocation.  Preparing for ordination is far more than taking classes, writing papers, and giving practice homilies.  At the heart of formation is the crucible of discerning God’s will: is God calling a person to ordained ministry?  Becoming a deacon is not simply “signing up”, taking a few courses, and putting on the vestments.  This is a life-altering process which at the moment is only engaged in by men.  Whether that changes in the future remains to be seen.  And, if it does, and women enter formation, they too will then go through that crucible of formation — as well as the papers, the courses and the homilies.
  6. “After increasing for several decades, the number of men entering the permanent diaconate has begun to decline, despite a growing need.”  It is worth noting that the diaconate is the only vocation that is growing in the United States—outpacing the priesthood, sisters and religious life. In my own research on the diaconate, I would question again the extrapolation going on: perhaps in some areas or in some dioceses, the number of deacons is going down, but that is simply not the case throughout the country and the rest of the world.  The diaconate has been growing steadily for decades and continues to do so.  The diaconate worldwide has the potential to be one of the great success stories of the Second Vatican Council.

13-2-600x450Now, on the PLUS side:

One exceptionally brief section of the program was a bright spot, and captured the characteristic identity of the deacon.  Several deacons were shown installing a laundry room in a home for women emerging from crisis.  The reporter describes this group as “a ministry that responds to crises. . . .”  One of the deacons involved points out that “besides doing liturgical functions, we’re also called to serve the poor and serve the people of God.”  There it is: the role of the deacon is to respond to crises, to serve those most in need.  The identity of the deacon is expressed in many ways, but most characteristic is this focus on the needs of others: while we are called to exercise our ministries of Word, Sacrament, and Charity in a balanced way, all of it finds its most significant expression in the servant-leadership of the community in service.  If the program had focused on these dimensions — on the very heart of the diaconate itself — it might have avoided the problematic areas which they got largely wrong.

POPE WAVES AS HE ARRIVES FOR GENERAL AUDIENCE AT VATICAN

Diaconate and Diakonia: An Essential Element of the Church

The entire Church is called to be a servant-church, a diaconal church.  Pope Paul VI repeatedly taught that deacons are to be “the animators of the Church’s service,” and St. John Paul II carried it a step further when he referred to the diaconate as “the Church’s service sacramentalized.”  These popes were echoing the teaching and the decisions of the the bishops of the Second Vatican Council when they determined that the Church’s diakonia should be a permanent part of the sacramental life of the Church.  Being a deacon is not simply some activity which a person takes on themselves, at their own initiative; rather, it is believed to be a call from God as discerned through the help of the broader Church.

Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est, citing St. Luke:

20. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-5). . . .  As the Church grew, this radical form of material communion could not in fact be preserved. But its essential core remained: within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life.

21. A decisive step in the difficult search for ways of putting this fundamental ecclesial principle into practice is illustrated in the choice of the seven, which marked the origin of the diaconal office (cf. Acts 6:5-6). . . .  Nor was this group to carry out a purely mechanical work of distribution: they were to be men “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (cf. Acts 6:1-6). In other words, the social service which they were meant to provide was absolutely concrete, yet at the same time it was also a spiritual service; theirs was a truly spiritual office which carried out an essential responsibility of the Church, namely a well-ordered love of neighbor. With the formation of this group of seven, “diaconia”—the ministry of charity exercised in a communitarian, orderly way—became part of the fundamental structure of the Church.

It is time now to bring all of this together: in the light of Baton Rouge, Nice, Dallas, “Black Lives Matter,” terrorist acts and wounded communities all around the world: why should we care about an order of ministry within the Church?

THE DIACONATE IN CONTEMPORARY CONTEXT: WHY?

DachauBunkBedsSo, what is the connection?  How can the diaconate be understood against that much larger and violent backdrop?  The most important question of all is perhaps, why do we have deacons in the first place?

  1. We have deacons because the church and the world needed ministers to link the needs of people with the providence, mercy and love of God.  This is why deacons have always been described as being associated with the ministry of the bishop and with having the skills to administer “the goods of the Church” for the good of people.
  2. Deacons have historically not been exclusively associated with parish ministry.  For the bulk of church history, deacons served as the principle assistants to their bishops, often representing them in councils and as legates, in catechesis (consider Deacon Deogratias of Carthage), in homiletics (Deacon Quodvultdeus, also of Carthage) and by extending the reach of their bishops, such as Deacon Lawrence of Rome.  Over time, deacons became subordinate to presbyters as well as bishops, and increasingly involved in what we would recognize as parish ministry.  To this very day, deacons are ordained solely by their bishop, for service to him and under his authority: where the bishop is, so should be his deacon.
  3. dachau_collIn our time, as I’ve written about extensively, the Second Vatican Council decided overwhelmingly that the diaconate should be renewed as a permanent ministry in the church once again, even to the extent of opening ordination to married as well as celibate men.  The bishops in Council did this largely because of the insights gleaned from the priest-survivors of Dachau Concentration Camp.  Following the war, these survivors wrote of how the Church would have to adapt itself to better meet the needs of the contemporary world if the horrors of the first half of the 20th Century were to be avoided in the future.  Deacons were seen as a critical component of that strategy of ecclesial renewal.  Why?  Because deacons were understood as being grounded in their communities in practical and substantial ways, while priests and bishops had gradually become perceived as being too distant and remote from the people they were there to serve.

    In short, the diaconate was renewed in order to deal more effectively with the horrors of the contemporary world, not simply to function as parish ministers.

    As I frequently challenge myself and other deacons: is the energy I’m expending as a deacon helping to create the conditions in the world in which another “Dachau” could not exist?  Or am I involving myself in things that are superficial, contingent, and relatively inconsequential?

  4. light_christThe diaconate today, fifty years after the Council, has matured greatly.  Those who would talk intelligently about the diaconate need to keep that in mind.  Over the past fifty years, formation standards have evolved to better equip deacons for our myriad responsibilities, for example.  The diaconate has, at least in those dioceses which have had deacons for several generations, become part of the ecclesial imagination.  In some dioceses we have brothers who are deacons, fathers-in-law and sons-in-law who are deacons, fathers and sons who are deacons.  In one archdiocese, an auxiliary bishop is the son of that archdiocese’s long-time director of the diaconate.  As I mentioned above, the diaconate looks and feels different from one diocese to another and while it is tempting to generalize whenever possible, it is particularly dangerous.
  5. Let me briefly address the question of women and the diaconate.  This is a question demanding serious conversation, just as the Holy Father has indicated.  He is not alone, nor is he the first pope to think so.  Pope Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict (both before his ascension to the papacy and after), and now Pope Francis have all been interested in the question.  The 2002 study document of the International Theological Commission (ITC), convened by the authority of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, concluded that it remained for the Church’s “ministry of discernment” to work toward a resolution of the question.  But the main thing at this point is to have the conversation.  And that conversation will need to take place within the broader context of the lived diaconate, the diaconate whose pastoral praxis and theological reflection has deepened over the past fifty years.  Many who opine about women and the diaconate do so from a dated or inadequate understanding of the order.  If this conversation is going to be done, it must be done well.  In short, to understand the possibilities of women in diakonia, one must first understand the diaconate itself.

violenceHere is my point: If we deacons were restored in response to Dachau and similar world shattering violence, translate “Dachau” to Baton Rouge.  “Dachau” to Nice.  “Dachau” to “Black Lives Matter”.  “Dachau” to 9/11.  “Dachau” to every act of senseless terror and random  violence.  What are we doing to confront these tragedies?  What are we doing to work toward a world in which THEY can no longer exist?  This is so much more than who gets to exercise “governance” (a technical canonical term) in the Church, or who gets to proclaim the Gospel in the midst of the community of disciples.  Like the bishops of the Second Vatican Council, we must ask ourselves how we must evolve and adapt to the new violent conditions of our own age.  How can they best be addressed in the interest of the millions of suffering people — here at home and abroad — whose needs we are called to serve?  We deacons must, like our “founders” at Vatican II, look beyond the normal categories of parish and issues of “insider baseball.”

Paul-VII hope that there will be more media programs on the diaconate.  I hope that not only will they be done accurately, but that they will also be done with a sense of the vision and potential of the diaconate.

As Pope Paul VI said of us, we are to be “the animators” of the Church’s service: May we give our lives to change the world.

 

 

“O Adonai”: Freedom through God’s Strength and Mercy

“O Adonai”: O Sacred Lord of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

18 Dec O AdonaiThe “O Antiphons” are titles to be associated with the Messiah, the Anointed One; on 18 December, the Messiah is linked to the Lord of Israel who saved Israel.  The connection continues through the allusion to Moses, called to lead the people to freedom in God’s name, and to whom God would give the Torah on Sinai.  Although in English we tend to interpret “law” in a sense of “rules”, that is not the way it is understood in Hebrew and the Jewish tradition.  Torah refers to instruction or teaching.  In the covenant relationship with God, these instructions describe the practical nature of how the covenant is to be lived.

adonai_10God’s part of the covenant is to rescue us.  When Pope Francis promulgated Misericordiae Vultus announcing the Extraordinary Year of Mercy, he chose to evoke this scene of the all-powerful God with Moses:

1. Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him. The Father, “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4), after having revealed his name to Moses as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex34:6), has never ceased to show, in various ways throughout history, his divine nature.  . . .  Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father (cf. Jn 14:9). Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions, and his entire person reveals the mercy of God.

Pope Francis hears confession during penitential liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica at Vatican

Our relationship with God is not about law enforcement but about faithfulness and compassion in the relationship.  Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium #44) reminds pastors and others who serve in ministry that, “without detracting from the evangelical ideal, they need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively occur.”

I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best.  A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.

handsThe Church, the pope reminds his readers, is always open because God is always open to all.  “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open” (#47).  In addressing the pastoral consequences of this radical openness, the pope tackles a current issue head on:

The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.  These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness.  Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators.  But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.

The pope concludes the chapter by recalling his frequent exhortation that he prefers “a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.  I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.”  In his opening of the Holy Door at Saint Peter’s, he challenged us all to be mindful of the Spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the Spirit of the Samaritan.

The God of Israel, Adonai, is the God of all.

ADVENT REFLECTION

In serving others, do we accept the challenge to be missionary, to be constantly reaching out to others rather than sitting in our churches waiting for people to come to us?  Do we act as “arbiters of grace” or “facilitators of grace”?  Are we guilty of treating the Eucharist as a “prize for the perfect” or do we understand Eucharist as Adonai reaching out to all in mercy?  Adonai, the Lord God of Israel, comes to set us all free, and we who serve in any way, are challenged to be instruments of that freedom.

Image

 

Connecting the Dots: Mary, Vatican II and the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy

Pope_Francis_before_the_Holy_Door_of_St_Peters_Basilica_during_the_convocation_of_the_Jubilee_of_Mercy_April_11_2015_Credit_LOsservatore_Romano-255x255The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, proclaimed by Pope Francis today in Rome, actually began fifty years ago with the solemn closing of the Second Vatican Council on 8 December 1965.  When dealing with the Catholic Church it is always good to step back and take a long view on what is going on, and today’s events in Rome are no exception.  Let’s connect some dots.

MARY AND THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION

The first dot is Mary, under her title of the Immaculate Conception.  Celebrated in one form or another from the 7th Century, this Feast was established for the entire Church in 1708 by Pope Clement XI.  Fifty years ago, this date was deliberately chosen for the solemn closing of the Second Vatican Council.  6a00d834516bb169e201b8d0bcba63970c-250wiThe Church’s teaching about Mary was originally crafted as a separate document by the curia before the Council began.  However, the world’s bishops rejected this arrangement, rightly including Mary at the heart and climax of its dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium.  Mary, our sister and our mother, the first disciple of the Christ, is held up to all as the model of Christian discipleship.   Fifty years ago, therefore, standing on the same spot where Pope Francis stood earlier this morning, Pope Paul VI ended his homily with the following observation:

While we close the ecumenical council we are honoring Mary Most Holy, the mother of Christ and consequently. . . the mother of God and our spiritual mother. . . . She is the woman, the true woman who is both ideal and real, the creature in whom the image of God is reflected with absolute clarity. . . .

Is it not perhaps in directing our gaze on this woman who is our humble sister and at the same time our heavenly mother and queen, the spotless and sacred mirror of infinite beauty, that we can terminate the spiritual ascent of the council and our final greeting?  Is it not here that our post-conciliar work can begin?  Does not the beauty of Mary Immaculate become for us an inspiring model, a comforting hope?  Oh, brothers, sons and all who are listening to us, we think it is so for and for you.  And this is our most exalted and, God willing, our most valuable greeting.

VATICAN II

1115_p12b500Vatican II is a gift that keeps on giving.  The great historian of the Church, Hubert Jedin, once observed that it takes at least a century to implement the teachings and decisions of a general Council.  If he is correct, and I believe he is, we have only now just reached the fifty yard line as we say in American football.  For all the progress made, much more remains to be done.  Let’s take a closer look at those closing ceremonies to the Council, because there are some significant elements there that point the way to what happened earlier today.

THE SERVANT CHURCH

First, on 7 December 1965, Pope Paul celebrated Mass with the Council Fathers.  This was the last general assembly of the Council and the day before the Solemn Closing.  In his speech to the Fathers, Paul summarized the four year work of the Council:

deacon-feetAnother point we must stress is this: all this rich teaching is channeled in one direction, the service of mankind, of every condition, in every weakness and need. The Church has, so to say, declared herself the servant of humanity, at the very time when her teaching role and her pastoral government have, by reason of the council’s solemnity, assumed greater splendor and vigor: the idea of service has been central.

Later, Pope Paul referred to this service in a particular way when he spoke of the service of the Good Samaritan as the role of the Church in the modern world.  But I’m getting ahead of myself!  More about the Samaritan a little later.  For now, this identification of the Church as servant can serve as a valuable hermeneutic when studying the work of the Council as well as the efforts of our leaders ever since.  In particular, this can be a profound insight into the way in which Pope Francis exercising the Petrine ministry — and in a most special way — his declaration of an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.

UNIVERSALITY

In his homily fifty years ago, Paul VI begins by proclaiming that his greeting, his message, and indeed the message of the entire Council is universal.  He refers to his brother bishops, to the representatives of nations who were in attendance, to the entire People of God, “and it is extended and broadened to the entire world.  How could it be otherwise if this council was said to be and is ecumenical, that is to say, universal?”

Paul-VIPope Paul digs deeper, using the image of a bell:

Just as the sound of the bell goes out through the skies. . . so at this moment does our greeting go out to each and every one of you.  To those who receive it and to those who do not, it resounds pleadingly in the ear of every person. . . . No one, in principle, is unreachable; in principle, all can and must be reached.  For the Catholic Church, no one is a stranger, no one is excluded, no one is far away. . . .  This is the language of the heart of one who loves.

After greeting specific groups of people, especially those who are ill and imprisoned and suffering, he continues:

Lastly, our universal greeting goes out to you who do not know us, who do not understand us, who do not regard us as useful, necessary or friendly.  This greeting goes also to you who, while perhaps thinking they are doing good, are opposed to us. . . . Ours is a greeting, not of farewell which separates, but of friendship which remains and which, if so demanded, wishes to be born. . . .  May it rise as a new spark of divine charity in our hearts, a spark which may enkindle the principles, doctrine and proposals which the council has organized and which, thus inflamed by charity, may really produce in the Church and in the world that renewal of thoughts, activities, conduct, moral force and hope and joy which was the very scope of the council.

people-out-perspFinally, at the end of the Mass closing the Council, a remarkable thing happened.  Most people today are unaware that it even took place, and that is a real tragedy, for it sheds a light on the whole proceedings, and points the way to our contemporary Jubilee.  A series of messages from the Council Fathers was read to the world.  The bishops of the Council prepared these messages because they wanted the world to realize that the Council had not been simply an exercise of ecclesiastical navel-gazing; rather, the work of the Council was focused outward, to the very real needs of the people and the world.  In the introduction to the messages, the bishops write:

We seem to hear from every corner of the world an immense and confused voice, the questions of all those who look toward the council and ask us anxiously: “Have you not a word for us?”  For us rulers?  For us intellectuals, workers, artists?  And for us women?  For us of the younger generation, for us the sick and the poor?

These pleading voices will not remain unheeded.  It is for all of these categories of people that the council has been working for four years.  It is for them that there has been prepared this Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, which we promulgated yesterday amidst the enthusiastic applause of your assembly. . . .

Before departing, the council wishes to fulfill this prophetic function and to translate into brief messages and in a language accessible to all, the “good news” which it has for the world. . . .

Then, dramatically, a number of the bishops stood up, and in a variety of languages, read out the messages.  To each group, support and encouragement was offered, as well as the challenges within each area to benefit the entire human race.  The seven messages were addressed:

  1. To the Rulers of the World: Those Who Hold Temporal Power
  2. To People of Thought and Science
  3. To Artists
  4. To Women
  5. To the Poor, the Sick and the Suffering
  6. To Workers
  7. To Youth

It is important to recognize that in every Holy Year celebrated since the Council, there have been particular celebrations during the Year for various groups of persons, which extends this pastoral outreach first demonstrated here at the end of the Council.  This is true of the Extraordinary Jubilee just begun.

MERCY

And so we connect the final dot.

Again we find ourselves assembled in honor of Mary, and Pope Francis reminds us that the “fullness of grace” such as that we recognize in Mary, “can transform the human heart and enable it to do something so great as to change the course of human history.”  In Mary we see the love of God, along with a realization that “the beginning of the history of sin in the Garden of Eden yields to a plan of saving love.”

Yet the history of sin can only be understood in the light of God’s love and forgiveness.  Sin can only be understood in this light.  Were sin the only thing that mattered, we would be the most desperate of creatures.  But the promised triumph of Christ’s love enfolds everything in the Father’s mercy.

In speaking of the Council, Pope Francis recalls and connects the dots for us:

Pope_Francis_prays_after_opening_the_Holy_Door_in_St_Peters_Basilica_Dec_8_2015_launching_the_extraordinary_jubilee_of_mercy_Credit_LOsservatore_Romano_CNAToday, here in Rome and in all the dioceses of the world, as we pass through the Holy Door, we also want to remember another door, which fifty years ago the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council opened to the world.  This anniversary cannot be remembered only for the legacy of the Council’s documents, which testify to a great advance in faith.  Before all else the Council was an encounter.  A genuine encounter between the Church and the men and women of our time.  An encounter marked by the power of the Spirit, who impelled the Church to emerge from the shoals which for years had kept her self-enclosed so as to set out once again, with enthusiasm, on her missionary journey. . . Wherever there are people, the Church is called to reach out to them and to bring the joy of the Gospel, ,and the mercy and forgiveness of God.  After these decades, we again take up this missionary drive with the same power and enthusiasm.  The Jubilee challenges us to this openness, and demands that we not neglect the spirit which emerged from Vatican II, the spirit of the Samaritan, as Blessed Paul VI expressed it at the conclusion of the Council.  May our passing through the Holy Door today commit us to making our own the mercy of the Good Samaritan.

May this Jubilee be a celebration of this spirit of the Samaritan in each and every one of our own relationships and encounters.kindness2

Synod 2014: Lessons on the Process from Vatican II

Pope at SynodSo much hyperventilation!  Bishops fighting bishops!  “The press is out of control!”  “Translations are all messed up!”  “Release the information!”  “Don’t release the information!”  “This is bringing scandal to the world!”

After more than a week of living in the breathless world of exclamation points, it’s past time for everyone to just calm down.  In terms of the process, there is absolutely nothing new here.  This is how these things work, and we just need to take a deep breath (as I suggested yesterday) and exhale slowly.

During Vatican II, we saw analogous happenings.

  • The Roman Curia had announced that the working language for the Council would be Latin.  Therefore, the CardinalArchbishop of Los Angeles at the time, James McIntyre, offered to provide a simultaneous translation system for the Council. (Some sources maintain that the offer was made by Cardinal Cushing, but several bishop-participants later reported that it was McIntyre, with his Hollywood connections, who offered first.) Regardless, the offer was refused by the curia because the General Sessions of the Council were to be secret and there was concern that word would leak out. Did the sessions remain “secret”?  Of course not!
  • Vatican II Presser

    Vatican II Presser

    Many countries held daily press briefings, in addition to the official Vatican briefings.  For the United States, these were often held at the Pontifical North American College.  Other countries held frequent press briefings, just not on a daily basis.  Frequently these “pressers” contained information that was at odds with the official press offering, or they provided additional details.

  • Early on, the US bishops’ conference (then known as the National Catholic Welfare Conference), began assembling daily summaries of key events, interviews and interventions (speeches) from the day’s activities.  These were eventually put together as “Council Daybooks” and were published by the NCWC.  The Foreword gives some insight into the process.  I apologize in advance for the length of the quote, but read this in light of current events at the Synod,  I’ve highlighted certain interesting passages:

Council DaybookFrom various sources requests have come to the NCWC to gather as soon as possible into one volume whatever information is available covering the day-to-day proceedings of the Second Vatican Council.  One of the distinctive features of the present council in contrast to all preceding ones was the prompt reporting of each day’s activities, including a summary statement of each speech delivered in the aula of St. Peter’s.  The correspondents of the NCWC News Service had access to the official press releases each day by early afternoon, and were able to supplement the record by the discussions which took place at the meeting of the daily press panel.  The representatives of the various international news media, especially those from the United States, queried the “periti” or experts who had been present at the morning congregations of the council, and were in consequence able to fill in any lacunae which might have occurred and also to clear up any obscurities in the official releases.

The bishops of the United States had the benefit of receiving each evening or early the next morning a mimeographed copy of these reports.  It was the general, one might say even the unanimous judgment of the United States hierarchy that this was an invaluable service.  It enabled the bishops to review in substance the speeches or the interventions made each day, with more leisure to evaluate the various contributions made to the subject under debate. . . .

I would also point out that in interviews I conducted with several bishops who attended the sessions of the Council, they remarked that almost no Council Father from any country knew Latin sufficiently to follow the actual Latin interventions as they were being given.  The bishops noted that they knew Latin well enough to celebrate Mass and the sacraments, but not well enough to follow particular speeches in real time, especially when the Latin was spoken in such a variety of different accents from around the world!  Therefore, these daily working translations and summaries were invaluable.

  • Bishops disagreed frequently and in public on the matters under discussion.  This was helpful in sorting out the nuances of every position being taken.  It was unusual to see such things, but I don’t recall anyone being scandalized by it.  As I’ve blogged before, the almost violent disagreements that most of the world’s bishops had with the way Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani was running the Holy Office (the precursor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) were quite open and frank.  They were not unlike the public disagreements now seen between Cardinals Burke and Kasper.
  • John in TimeLong debates were held, often in public, over the meaning of specific words and passages in the the draft documents, and sometimes parts of those drafts were available to the public.  Robert Blair Kaiser, the Rome bureau chief for Time Magazine during the Council, recounts the many cocktail and dinner parties he and his wife hosted in their apartment for the Council Fathers and the periti.  He loves to tell of the conversations groups of bishops would have, debating and arguing over the text they were considering, and sometimes even going into a room and finding a group of them drafting a revised text.
  • The speeches at the Council were only the tip of the information iceberg.  For more bishop submitted their own interventions and emendations to the draft documents in written form, and so just listening to the speeches alone would never give the full story.  That would only be known sometimes days later, when all of the written interventions had been studied.
  • Just as now, people around the world could not get enough news about the Council.  The fact that the Council had been called specifically to “update” the Church (St. John XXIII’s aggiornamento) was exciting in itself!  How would they do this?  What would they do?  Writing from Rome, an American professor of Moral Theology shared his behind-the-scenes experiences with family and friends back home.  They encouraged him to submit similar accounts to the The New Yorker, and they became regular columns known as “Letters from Vatican City.”  To protect himself and his family, he wrote under the nom-de-plume “Xavier Rynne”.  For years the real identity of Xavier Rynne was as much an exciting mystery as the identity of “Deep Throat” would be years later during the Watergate scandal (Many people who knew him, however, had little trouble figuring it out: Fr. Francis X. Murphy used his middle name Xavier and his mother’s maiden name Rynne.) Many figures at the Council, particularly among the curia, were not amused by his writing, since he pulled no punches about the inner workings of what was going on.

There are countless other examples, but these make my point: RELAX, people!  This is all part of the process, warts and all.  We have the “benefit” today of instantaneous communication via electronic media to a level unknown during the Council, and we have the “benefit” of so many “experts” who really are not, except in their own minds.  Everyone has opinions; few have the facts.  And what is most important: this is only the beginning of the end of Act One of the overall synodal process initiated by Pope Francis.

“Pace, pace”: Peace, my sisters and brothers, peace!

The Extraordinary Synod and Battling Cardinals: Perspectives from Vatican II

synod bishopsIt begins this Sunday, 5 October 2014: the Extraordinary Synod on the Family in the Context of Evangelization.  The media, religious and secular, have been all over it.  The topic itself is so broad that almost everyone can find issues affecting themselves or other members of their families, leading to the questions, “How will the assembled bishops respond?  How will this affect me and my family?”

kasper

Cardinal Walter Kasper

Much has been made of the very public debate going on between Cardinal Walter Kasper on the one hand and other Cardinals such as Raymond Burke and Gerhard Muller on the other.  “We can’t change church teaching!”, some cry,

Cardinal Raymond Burke

Cardinal Raymond Burke

“Mercy, mercy!” cry others.  “There will be no change to the teachings of the Church, because they are the teachings of Christ Himself,” report some; “we must find new ways of responding to the crises that face today’s families,” respond others.  And, at least according to some observers, all of this public debate by such high ranking prelates is simply unseemly, with fingers being pointed at the other side, saying, “Well, he started it!”

What shall we make of all this?  As the members of the Extraordinary Synod gather in preparation of the opening Mass of the Synod on Sunday, perhaps we can place all of this in some historical and ecclesiological context, using the Second Vatican Council as a guide.

Peter vs Paul_21) Kasper vs. Burke: “Cardinals shouldn’t fight in public; it’s just wrong!”  Well, prior to — and during — Vatican II, cardinals and other bishops often engaged in public debates, wrote letters, published opinion pieces and so on.  It was all part of the process, and this is no different.  Ever since St. Paul and St. Peter got into it over the question of who could become Christian, bishops have disagreed, sometimes publicly and loudly, to anyone who would listen.  Consider it part of the necessary public discourse for such important issues.  But I also invite people to avoid polarization!  When two people argue, one could be right and the other wrong, both could be right, or both could be wrong!  These issues, like life itself, are complex and demand rigorous, comprehensive argument, but no one is helped by a “white hat, black hat” mentality.

2) Even the fault lines of the arguments are similar to those surrounding the Council.  The Pope had called for an ecclesial aggiornamento (updating), and the response from some bishops was that you could NOT update the Church without weakening church teaching, giving the impression that what had gone before was wrong and now being corrected, or that God’s truth was somehow being compromised.  Other bishops responded that doctrine develops (certainly picking up cues from Cardinal Newman’s work in the 19th Century), and that the pastoral needs of the 20th Century demanded new and more pastorally effective approaches.  None of this was new THEN, nor is it new NOW.  This is what led St. John XXIII to teach, in his opening address to the Council:

John OpeningThe substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.

This seems to me to be precisely what Pope Francis is asking for, and what Cardinal Kasper is attempting to do: he is not questioning “the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith,” but rather “the way in which it is presented.”  Furthermore, the framework for both content and method must be “predominantly pastoral” in character.  The pope included all of this in his opening address precisely because there had been such vehement debate on these points during the antepreparatory and preparatory phases leading up to the Council itself.  Fifty-two years ago this month, St. John was concerned that the bishops of the world be clear on what he was asking for, and what he perceived the Church and the world needed most.

3) Keep the relationship of theology and law in proper perspective.  This is very important, especially in the current debates.  Theology precedes law; law is not a source for theology.  Law develops out of the theology which comes first.  It is because we believe certain things about God and ourselves that we then develop laws which reflect those prior realities.  Looked at another way, we don’t start with the law and then develop a theology — or at least we shouldn’t!  Why do I bring this up?  Because in some of the recent breathless exchanges on the issues surrounding the Synod, there have been appeals to what the law has to say, while the “other side” has been speaking theologically.  Yes, theology and law intersect, certainly!  But the law serves theology, not the other way around.  Consider a debate between a medical doctor and a lawyer over the nature of a particular disease.  The doctor is going to look at the disease from within her own framework of science: causes, methods of transmission, treatments.  The lawyer is going to look at the same disease from with his own framework of the law: actions, responsibilities, jurisprudential history.  Same disease, different ways of addressing it.

ottaviani

Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani

During Vatican II, especially during the often fiery first session, the Prefect of the Holy Office (now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) was not a theologian at all.  The Prefect was a respected canon lawyer, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani.  Think about that: a canonist responsible for guarding the church’s doctrinal office.  This led to some fiery exchanges during the First Session of the Council, as many of the world’s bishops took to the microphone to complain publicly about the way Cardinal Ottaviani and his curial staff was dealing with theologians around the world.  It led the aged Cardinal to respond passionately in defense; he refused to stand down at the end of his allotted time and eventually one of the Cardinal-Moderators simply unplugged his microphone.  Cardinal Ottaviani left the Council and did not return for a couple of weeks in protest.

But consider this.  As I wrote above, we need to avoid a “white hat, black hat” approach to these arguments.  During Vatican II’s debate on war and peace in 1964 and 1965, there was no stronger opponent of ALL warfare than Cardinal Ottaviani.  To read his interventions on the subject, you could easily hear the voice of any number of folks “on the left” who were arguing to outlaw all war.  On this issue at least, the canonical lion was more “liberal” than almost everyone in the “progressive” group of bishops.  Just like everyone else, bishops are complex human beings who defy easy characterization.

As I also said above, public debates between bishops is no new thing.  But it is also important, when assessing an argument, to discern the frame of reference being used by the respective participants.  Theologians such as Cardinal Kasper are speaking and evaluating things theologically; canonists such as Cardinal Burke are doing the same, but canonically.

This all goes back to St. John XXIII’s point, to paraphrase: Certain points of theology cannot change, perhaps; but the way they get enshrined in practice and in law can and sometimes must change.

Vatican II

Vatican II

4) Since we’re looking at the Council, what did those bishops have to say about the current question?  You can rest assured that whatever documentation emerges from the Synod, there will be multiple references to the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes), especially paragraphs 47 to 52, which focus on the nobility of the family. Read the whole document here.  Many of the challenges identified in the preparatory work for the Synod were already realities identified by those bishops five decades ago: these are not new challenges.  In many ways, the work of these two synods (this year’s and next’s) can be understood as an extension or a continuation of the Council’s work.

5) Keep your expectations reasonable, and follow closely; this is going to be fun!  On the one hand we should not expect too much from this year’s Extraordinary Synod.  Its purpose is to prepare for NEXT year’s ORDINARY Synod.  The debates this year will help refine the questions and procedures to be dealt with more formally next year.  Synods like this do not hold the magisterial weight of a General Council (such as Nicaea, Trent, Vatican I or Vatican II), but they will certainly lead to significant developments nonetheless.  I would expect that no papal document will result from this first, Extraordinary Synod.  Pope and BishopsFollowing the Ordinary Synod next year, however, there should be an Apostolic Exhortation from the Holy Father.  I would also hope that, following this Extraordinary Synod, there might be another opportunity for listening sessions around the world in which experiences and opinions are sought from a wide variety of people.  And, hopefully, sufficient time will be given for the process, unlike last year in which tight deadlines prevented many people from responding to the questionnaire set out from the Synod office.  Again, our model can be Vatican II.  In between the Council’s sessions, bishops went home and consulted with many of their own experts on matters they would be discussing in the following session.  It was a graced time of mutual exchange and shared learning and consultation.

May this synodal process over the next year or so be fruitful and benefit the common good of all!

Swiss Guards