The news about the institutional dimension of the Catholic Church has been persistent and devastating. Crimes, cover-ups, accusations, bizarre and power-hungry behavior on the part of so many in positions of authority: it’s all been too much for so many. For people around the world, the Church has lost all credibility and moral authority. Why should anyone care what we have to say about anything? As Paulist Father Frank DeSiano observed in a recent column, we still have a mission “to evangelize in difficult times.” But who will listen?
People are done with words. Words have too often proven to be false. Words have too often proven to be hollow. Words have too often proven to be shadowy caverns of deceit.
It’s past time for action. Our collective examination of conscience must include thorough investigation, honest analysis, and concrete plans of action and reform. Pope Francis reminds us that all of our institutions, from parishes through the papacy, need to be reformed constantly so that our mission of spreading the “Joy of the Gospel” may be effective in our own day. Never has this call for radical reform been more obvious. Where to start?
Certainly, all of this must be done, and done immediately. We can’t go on like this.
We must get back to basics.
1. “Master, to whom shall we go?”
Last weekend’s scriptures focus on the fundamental relationship of the Christian with the Lord God. Joshua challenges the people to “decide today” which God they will follow, and a forlorn Jesus asks his own followers if they too will walk away from him, joining those who found his teaching on the bread of life “too hard to accept”. Peter, speaking for the rest of us, responds, “Master to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life!”
Today, we must concentrate on that fundamental relationship. The Profession of Faith states it unequivocally. “Credo” refers to the giving of one’s heart. “I give my heart to God, the Father Almighty. . . I give my heart to Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. . . I give my heart to the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life. . . .” Everything else builds on that; without it nothing else matters.
2. Build From the Bottom: The View of One Who Serves
We claim to follow Christ – and Christ emptied himself for others, challenging us to do the same. If our Lord came “not to be served but to serve” how can we do otherwise? St. Paul reminds the Philippians that they should “in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3) In Jewish theology, “humility” is the opposite of “pride”: the truly humble person would never exert abusive power over another. The Christian looks up from washing the feet of others into the eyes of Christ on the cross gazing back.
The reforms we need right now start from that perspective of humility, compassion, and service, and the Church must be one which is in a constant state of reform, renewal and conversion. The world’s bishops assembled at the Second Vatican Council taught:
Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on earth. The Church is always in need of this, in so far as she is an institution of human beings here on earth. Thus if, in various times and circumstances, there have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in church discipline, or even in the way that church teaching has been formulated — to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself — these can and should be set right at the opportune moment.
— Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio, #6
Now is the “opportune moment.” More than that: this is the essential moment.
3. Religion: Binding Ourselves to God
The word “religion” refers to binding ourselves to God. And the letter of James read this weekend should inspire us all in our reform: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Our religion should be known first and foremost for how we care for those most in need, not by our vestments, our grand churches, our rituals or the brilliance of our teaching. When people think of Christianity, may they come to think first of the thousands upon thousands of selfless people – laity, religious, and clergy – who pour their lives out in service at home and around the world. I have a dream that someday when a person googles images of “the Catholic Church” the first pictures shown will not be of St. Peter’s and the Vatican, but of advocates working humbly, tirelessly and fearlessly to meet the needs of others: teachers, medical professionals, volunteers, and yes, spouses and parents giving their all for each other and their children.
Christianity should be about the way we love God and others, about being a “sign and instrument” of intimate communion with God and with the whole human race (Lumen gentium 1). Clergy exist only to support, encourage, and serve the rest in doing that. As Bishop Augustine of Hippo preached so long ago, “For you I am a bishop, with you, after all, I am a Christian. The first is the name of an office undertaken, the second a name of grace; that one means danger, this one salvation.”
This is a “crisis” point for our Church: a turning point. Who are we as the People of God, the Mystical Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit? The choices we make now are as critical as those made by those holy women and men before us who faced their own challenges to reform the Church to respond the needs of their time.
What are you and I prepared to do about all of this? This isn’t about bishops, cardinals or even the Pope: we the Church are a communion of disciples, and our response must involve all of us.