Discerning a Way – Pádraig McCarthy
Discerning a Way
The way where? How can we proceed in such a way that it will be clear that the life of the Church is based first of all on Baptism, not on Orders (in either sense)?
Pope St Pius X, in 1906, was concerned about new legislation in France severely changing the relationship between church and state, and wrote Vehementer Nos. He had no doubts about the strength of his scriptural and theological foundation when he wrote:
It follows that the Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body alone rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members towards that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.
He may have understood the word docile in its Latin source, meaning to be taught, but he is clear on the one duty of the multitude. It would not have been easy for him to imagine a church statement 58 years later:
They (the laity) are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church. When occasions arise, let this be done through the organs erected by the Church for this purpose. Let it always be done in truth, in courage and in prudence, with reverence and charity toward those who by reason of their sacred office represent the person of Christ.
(Lumen Gentium 37, 1964)
This is re-stated in Canon 212 #2. It is reinforced by Pope John Paul II in 2001 in Novo Millennio Ineunte 45:
We need to make our own the ancient pastoral wisdom which, without prejudice to their authority, encouraged Pastors to listen more widely to the entire People of God. Significant is Saint Benedict’s reminder to the Abbot of a monastery, inviting him to consult even the youngest members of the community: “By the Lord’s inspiration, it is often a younger person who knows what is best”. And Saint Paulinus of Nola urges: “Let us listen to what all the faithful say, because in every one of them the Spirit of God breathes”.
John Paul specified this further in September 2004, on the occasion of an ad limina visit by bishops from Pennsylvania and New Jersey:
While the Bishop himself remains responsible for the authoritative decisions which he is called to make in the exercise of his pastoral governance, ecclesial communion also “presupposes the participation of every category of the faithful, inasmuch as they share responsibility for the good of the particular Church which they themselves form” (Pastores Gregis 44). Within a sound ecclesiology of communion, a commitment to creating better structures of participation, consultation and shared responsibility should not be misunderstood as a concession to a secular “democratic” model of governance, but as an intrinsic requirement of the exercise of Episcopal authority and a necessary means of strengthening that authority.
It may be argued that my selection of quotations is unbalanced and out of context. Yet the meaning is clear, and we can ask how these challenges are embodied in our church today. There are certainly “better structures of participation, consultation and shared responsibility” today, but the experience is mixed. A striking instance in recent times is the apparent failure even of Episcopal Conferences of English-speaking countries to make an impression on the decisions of the Congregation for Divine Worship in relation to the translation of the Missal, despite having themselves already worked for many years to produce an improved translation.
There was a great spirit of energy in the church at the time of the Second Vatican Council, a council which is still a work in progress. In times when assembling a council was far more difficult, the question of such means of consultation and renewal was addressed by the Council of Constance in 1417:
A frequent celebration of general councils is an especial means for cultivating the field of the Lord and effecting the destruction of briars, thorns, and thistles, to wit, heresies, errors, and schism, and of bringing forth a most abundant harvest. The neglect to summon councils fosters and develops all these evils, as may be plainly seen from a recollection of the past and a consideration of existing conditions. Therefore, by a perpetual edict, we sanction, decree, establish and ordain that general councils shall be celebrated in the following manner, so that the next one shall follow the close of this present council at the end of five years. The second shall follow the close of that, at the end of seven years, and councils shall thereafter be celebrated every ten years in such places as the Pope shall be required to designate and assign, with the consent and approbation of the council, one month before the close of the council in question, or which, in his absence, the council itself shall designate.
During the “Counter-Reformation” after the Council of Trent (1545-1563), Ireland was going through difficult times. Previously, between the years 1101 and 1179, there were twelve national or provincial synods in Ireland. (The Transformation of the Irish Church in the Twelfth Century: Marie Therese Flanagan, Queen’s University, Belfast; Boydell Press 2010). One of those was the Synod of Rath Breasail of 1111. Great difficulties of the 1600s in Ireland included the Cromwellian conquest (1649-1653) and the Battle of the Boyne (1690). Yet, in the period 1600–1690, there were 67 Catholic Synods in Ireland, the records of 43 of which are available (The Catholic Synods in Ireland 1600-1690: Alison Forrestal: Four Courts Press 1998).
If this was desirable in very difficult times in Ireland, it is certainly possible today to for the renewal of the church in Ireland, and with a way to listen to “the entire People of God”, as Pope John Paul said (above) in Novo Millennio Ineunte 45.
In 2012 the International Eucharistic Congress takes place in Dublin in June. On 1st May, the Association of Catholic Priests is planning an assembly of the Irish church. The diocese of Down and Connor have a listening process for their Living Church Report. Other dioceses may have plans of their own. These can help generate an impetus.
There is the danger of achieving nothing more than a talking-shop, as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has pointed out. A “talking shop” is just one step of the way, but a necessary step. It would be nothing more, only if we lack the will and the courage and the spirit to go beyond it. The Second Vatican Council was certainly a fruitful talking shop, the full harvest of which is still pending. In 1962, when bishops assembled for the Council, they discovered in the midst of all the frustrations a new freedom and their creativity welled up. It can seem dangerous, but this is the kind of faithful creativity we need to rediscover – we who are created in the image of the Creator.
Our record in Ireland since Catholic Emancipation Ireland (1829) is not great. A national Synod of the Catholic hierarchy was in Thurles in 1850. Following that, four “Plenary Councils” were held in Maynooth, the latest being held in Maynooth in August 1956.
We need more than just structures for living out our Communion as the Body of Christ. We need cultural transformation. We need a new heart and a new spirit. We urgently need to grow beyond a parent-child model, which seems to be the model in the mind of Pope St Pius X above. It is pointed out frequently that clericalism is a root cause of many of our problems, and of the disaster of both the abuse of children and of the way the church failed to respond to it. There is a similar mindset in other professions.
What John Paul II said above is clear: better structures of participation, consultation and shared responsibility are “an intrinsic requirement of the exercise of Episcopal authority”. For all of the church, bishops and non-bishops, too narrow a focus can destroy rather than liberate. The church has been a narrow focus in the child abuse disasters. The church has been the focus of the media and of so many reports, that both we ourselves and our society may be in danger of failing to deal with that same tragedy in our wider society, which the church has sadly reflected.
If the foot-soldiers disregard the generals, tasks are compromised. Equally so, however, if the generals disregard the experience of the foot-soldiers. In the church, as in other organisations, if hierarchy of status takes precedence over hierarchy of values, hierarchy of truths, hierarchy of love, then the Mission of the church is compromised.
To be human is to have tunnel vision. We are always limited in our vision. If we think we have the full picture, if we refuse to acknowledge that there is more, if we fail to learn from our past, then indeed we are blind as we face the future. Milan Kundera, having previously been a supporter of the Czech Communist Party, wrote in Testaments Betrayed (Paths in the Fog):
Man proceeds in the fog. But when he looks back to judge people of the past, he sees no fog on their path. From his present, which was their faraway future, their path looks perfectly clear to him, good visibility all the way. Looking back, he sees the path, he sees the people proceeding, he sees their mistakes, but not the fog. And yet all of them–Heidegger, Mayakovsky, Aragon, Ezra Pound, Gorky, Gottfried Benn, St.-John Perse, Giono–all were walking in fog, and one might wonder: who is more blind? Mayakovsky, who as he wrote his poem on Lenin did not know where Leninism would lead? Or we, who judge him decades later and do not see the fog that enveloped him?
The church model is not immutable. We as a church have changed our modus operandi many times, right from the time the first official appointment of a replacement for Judas was agreed by drawing lots! (Our word “cleric” comes from this Greek word for lot, kleros.)
We are to be the Real Presence, the Communion of and in the Body of Christ, who is with us all days until the end of time, bread broken for the life of the world. For this, we need the Epiclesis, the gift of the Spirit. Pope John Paul II wrote in 1986 in Dominum et Vivicantem (66):
While it is an historical fact that the Church came forth from the Upper Room on the day of Pentecost, in a certain sense one can say that she has never left it. Spiritually the event of Pentecost does not belong only to the past: the Church is always in the Upper Room that she bears in her heart.
So how can we proceed in such a way that it will be clear that the life of the Church is based first of all on Baptism, not on Orders (in either sense)? To repeat St Paulinus of Nola: “Let us listen to what all the faithful say, because in every one of them the Spirit of God breathes”. Let us not quench the Spirit.