Friday, March 22, 2013

Francis, Rebuild My Church

Well, we are coming into Holy Week and the fuss of the papal inaugural is dying down.  We can move on from the anger at who went to communion and the sorrow over who didn’t wear a mozetta to the substantial issues at hand.  “Francis, rebuild my Church.”  As Christ spoke to Francis of Assisi from the Crucifix at San Damiano and the Holy Spirit spoke to the Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, the task of rebuilding is at hand. 
I think the clear signals of the reduced pomp and friendly smiles, as welcome as they are, are no more than the initial sweeping away of cobwebs.  They don’t address the issues, only let in some fresh air and much needed sunlight.  Over the past few days I had to read a doctoral thesis on the expanding role of lay ministry in the face of the growing clergy shortage.  Here I found several things to reflect on.  First, despite the implications to the contrary that the candidate kept reinforcing to my frustration, that the expansion of the laity’s role in the Church is not—or at least should not be—consequent to the decline in vocations to the religious life and priesthood.  The problem is, as he did point out, that over the centuries the rightful roles of the laity in the Church had been assumed by the clergy.  Today we need to restore the commitment to active apostolate to every baptized Christian.  The bishop, the priest, and the deacon each have specific ministries to which they must apply themselves, but the baptized have a wide variety of ministries that belong to them—teaching, healing, counseling, administering, raising funds, publishing, reading the lessons in the liturgy, serving at the altar, feeding the poor, spiritual and corporal works of mercy, caring for the material structure of the churches, sacred art, liturgical and catechetical music, ad infinitum.  The Church’s mission of bringing the Good News (Evangelion, Gospel) of God’s Kingdom into the whole world involves a complex network of ministries to which each and every Christian must be committed. 
This idea of a Church of ministers whose mission involves a complex of ministries helps us as a Church to move from the old model of Power to the new model of service. I have written in previous posts of Cardinal Dulles’ insight that as we move into the third millennium we, as Church, must move from a paradigm of power to service paradigm.  Pope Francis’ new style is pointing us in that direction but it is a model which we must all embrace.       
But returning to the earlier assertion that this expansion of lay ministry must be not a consequence of the shortage of vocations to the religious life and priesthood but a restoration of the rightful vocation of the laity, we must still face the fact that there is a dire need of ordained ministers to serve the ministries that are rightfully theirs—namely the preaching of the Gospel, the celebration of the Liturgy, and the administration of those sacraments proper to the Sacred Orders.  In order to attract vocations to the ordained ministries, we must restore the credibility of the clergy.
There is no doubt that the credibility of the clergy has suffered due to the sex abuse scandals and the way in which clerical sexual abuse has been handled.  The problem is much greater however.  Vocations were seriously falling off for over twenty years before the scandals hit.  Moreover, as the vocational crisis affects not only the ordained clergy and male religious but also female religious communities which have not, for the much greater part, been complicit in the sex abuse crisis, we need to look at the broader issue.
Fifty years ago the priest or religious was widely respected. In great part this was due not merely to the supposed (sometimes wrongly so) holiness of the priest or religious, but to their having a superior education to the laity.  The priest, the doctor, and the lawyer were the three educated men in the Catholic parish of the 1950’s.   Catholics, in general, were working class people with high-school education.  That changed after World War II and by the ‘60’s and ‘70’s Catholics were increasingly college educated and a decade later, had post-graduate degrees.  The laity had quickly surpassed the clergy in formal education.  Moreover, the inbred seminary systems—while providing better than high-school education—could not (and for the most part, still cannot) match the education provided by universities and colleges.  As a Catholic I have often been embarrassed by clergy whose provincialism and narrow views on a wide range of subjects show an inability to think critically.   No one expects the priest to be a renaissance man—indeed with the explosion of knowledge in our contemporary world renaissance men and women are increasingly hard to find—but we need clergy who have been thought to think critically and not merely swallow any shallow doctrine or silly notion proclaimed by someone higher up the ecclesiastical food-chain. 
But intellectual ability alone is not enough to restore credibility to the clergy.  We must strive for genuine holiness.  Piety is a beginning but piety is not to be confused with holiness.   Virtue is fundamental but virtue alone is not holiness. We need a spiritual rebirth in the clergy, among the religious, certainly among the hierarchy, and among the faithful.  Hopefully our new pope with his experience as a novice director in the Society of Jesus and his personal familiarity with the riches of Ignatian spirituality can help show the way.  I suspect the scaling down of pomp and ceremony are already signs of a deeper spiritual life on the “throne” of Peter.  Anyone who has given serious mediation to the Man of Sorrows would lose taste for scarlet capes and brocaded robes.   
No entries the next few days--back on Palm Sunday or Monday.

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