Friday, September 16, 2011

Voices Past and Present

Bishop John Carroll, the first United States
Bishop and a model for bishops who can
think "outside the box" to effectively
evangelize in new and uncertain situations
I am on the road this weekend giving a workshop in the History of the Church in the United States and don’t have access to my library so  let’s do a divergence from our saga of the building of Saint Peter’s.  I had dinner the other evening with a group of seminarians—several Catholic and several Protestant.  Each was asked to introduce himself or herself and say something about their experience in seminary and how they realized their vocation.  One young man, an Episcopalian Seminarian from the (Episcopal) Diocese of South Carolina,  mentioned in his introduction that his bishop had identified him for “church planting and evangelization.”  “Church planting” is the process of establishing a new congregation in an area where there is no existing congregation of the particular denomination that is sponsoring the mission.  We Catholics begin plenty of new parishes—especially in the south and the west of the United States where the Catholic Church is growing;  not so much in the north-east and upper mid-west where the there are often more churches than are needed and we find parishes being closed or  amalgamated with other parishes.  But we Catholics don’t usually engage in “church planting.”  We simply divide the existing parish or parishes and split off a new parish.  Church planting is something different.  It really requires beginning a new parish or congregation “from scratch.” 
     What impressed me in this conversation with this seminarian is not that he is being prepared for this challenging and creative mission.  What impressed me is that his bishop is thinking so creatively about how to make the best use of his present and future clergy.  The bishop is “thinking outside the box,” seeing possibilities that do not yet exist.  There was a time in the history of the American Church when our bishops had that sort of creative leadership.   One of the seminarians present at the dinner, a Catholic, is a recent immigrant from Germany.  He asked a question about the “chapter” providing guidance for the bishop.  The other Americans, at least the Catholics in the group, all looked at him blankly.  “Chapter?” they asked, “what is a chapter?”  He was surprised when I explained that we don’t have chapters in the American Church.  The Chapter is composed of the canons of the cathedral and they have certain rights and duties in the election of the bishop and in advising the bishop in his ministry.  Chapters are—had have been for fifteen hundred years—standard operating procedure in European dioceses.  But when the American hierarchy was established with John Carroll’s appointment in 1790,  Carroll told Rome that chapters were not practicable in the United States.  We could not afford to tie up seven or eight priests to serve a cathedral when we needed every available priest to go out and “ride the circuit,” saying mass, hearing confessions, baptizing, blessing marriages, anointing the sick, preaching, and teaching catechism in the dozens and dozens of rural communities in Maryland, Pennsylvania, upstate New York and along the Canadian border where there were Catholic settlements.  Carroll and his priests found many creative ways of meeting the challenges of a small and minority denomination in a large and then rural society.    
      It would be interesting for today’s  American (Catholic) bishops  to think outside the box how to meet the pastoral challenges of an expanding Catholic population in some parts of the nation while it is shrinking in others.  It would be great to see them come up with some creative solutions to the vocation problem and how we can keep our Catholic communities tied to the Eucharist when we just don’t have enough priests to go around.  It would be wonderful to see them address the complex problems of a Church that is so heavily immigrant and non-English speaking before there are more Latino “evangelicals” than Catholics.  If only they could repair their moral credibility and speak with authority rather than from what has become a very shaky power.  This is the time to think creatively and try new solutions.  When you know the History of the Church, creativity is the Catholic response.  Just ask Augustine of Canterbury or Innocent III or Hildegarde of Bingen, or Bernard of Clairvaux, or Charles Borromeo, or Ignatius Loyola, or Mary Ward or Vincent DePaul, or Madeline Sophie Barat, or Catherine McAuley or Mary MacKillop.  These were creative thinkers.  We have been blessed in more recent times with people like Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, and Dom Helder Camara,  and Gino Baroni, and Joseph Bernardin, and  Monika Hellwig.  Today we have among us Elizabeth Johnson, and Richard Rohr, and Thomas Keating, and Joan Chittester, and Daniel Berrigan, and Tom Gumbleton, and Ronald Rohlheiser.  It isn’t that the Holy Spirit isn’t trying to open our eyes, our hearts, and our imagination to challenges of proclaiming the Kingdom of God.   It is just that the hearts of this people has grown dull.  Let us beg for the grace to listen to the Holy Spirit with the ear of our hearts. 

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