Deacons and Synod 2015

Synod Press ConferenceAt a recent press conference (6 October 2015) held in Rome highlighting some of the points raised thus far in the Synod, Father Thomas Rosica summarized one particular area of special concern for deacons.  As phrased by Father Rosica, some Synodal Fathers were asking, “How can the permanent diaconate come to the aid of so many people who are in need of mercy?  Are there new ways of using the permanent diaconate and those who are permanent deacons to be real ministers and bearers of mercy?”

Here is a link to the full press conference.  Father Rosica’s brief questions on the diaconate begin at about 24:08.

Before going on, let me point out that by focusing on this particular issue I am not ignoring other and far more substantive matters before the Synod!  However, deacons are not often mentioned in a context such as this, so it seems important for those of us interested in the diaconate to stop and take a closer look.

thomas-rosicaFirst: this was a summary given by Father Rosica.  It suggests that the questions may have been present in the interventions by several bishops, but we don’t know any other details.  Therefore, the phrasing of the summary is Rosica’s alone and we want to be cautious not to read too much into it as we would if it were contained in some kind of magisterial document!

DurocherSecond: Although Father Rosica doesn’t allude to the intervention of Canadian Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec (who was also present at the press conference but remained silent on this point), I’m guessing that it was within the context of “how can permanent deacons be real ministers or bearers of mercy?” that the Archbishop may have offered his intervention that there should be a conversation about women deacons.  From what I’ve seen so far, however, there’s no way to confirm that.  So, I do not wish to sidetrack onto that specific question in any case, because I think that Rosica’s questions themselves have foundational importance to how we understand and employ the diaconate in general.

Third: Although the Synod is, of course, focused on the family, notice how the questions on the diaconate refer in a particular way to mercy itself, so these are very broad based questions that suggest important opportunities for the diaconate in general, not simply within the context of the family.

So, to the questions.

new way“How can the permanent diaconate come to the aid of so many people who are in need of mercy?”  My first reaction to this question was to think of all the ways deacons already are coming to the aid of so many people!  In fact, I admit to a bit of defensiveness: What did the bishops (or, perhaps this was Father Rosica’s misperception) think we were already doing?  But then I settled down and thought, “What more COULD we be doing?”  And, of course, “How effectively are we already doing this — or not?”

  1.  Are we truly ministers of mercy?  If yes, how precisely are we doing that, across the spectrum of Word, Sacrament, and Charity?  Am I full of mercy when I preach and teach?  Am I full of mercy when we celebrate baptisms and weddings and all the myriad liturgical and sacramental ministries we’re involved in?  Am I full of mercy when offering a helping hand to the sick, marginalized, and the dying?
  2. After this examination of conscience, are there specific ways — more intentional ways — of conveying God’s mercy to others.  What are the very concrete ways (the “concrete consequences” of the deacon’s ministry referred to by Herbert Vorgrimler) we can be better at this?  After all, if the bishops (or Father Rosica) don’t perceive that we’re already doing this, then that perception is problematic and we need to work to fix it.

The second way Father Rosica phrased the question was interesting, too:

“Are there new ways of using the permanent diaconate and those who are permanent deacons to be real ministers and bearers of mercy?”

Here I sense several significant opportunities:

First: Notice the distinction he makes between the diaconate itself and those of us who are deacons.  This suggests that there is interest in the very nature of the diaconate, the fundamental core of the Order.

Second: What are the possible “new ways” of using the diaconate?  Taking just one example: might there be a re-opening of the question of deacons anointing the sick under certain circumstances, perhaps?  Most of the ways we can be used are already included in our canon and liturgical law, so something “new” would seem to be suggesting a willingness to look at things not previously considered.  I am using Anointing of the Sick only as an example here; I am not promoting it or suggesting that this is what is being suggested at the Synod.  But if the bishops are open to looking at “new ways” of using deacons, what might come up in the discussions?

Pope-Feet-2_2522628bThird: When Father Rosica alludes to deacons becoming “real ministers and bearers of mercy,” the first thing I thought of was what is happening with our priests in this regard.  Remember that the Holy Father has found new ways for priests to extend the hand of God’s mercy through sacramental reconciliation, and that he’s even identifying priests to go around the world to offer reconciliation.  Again not wanting to read too much into Father Rosica’s words here, but what additional responsibilities — what “new ways” — might the bishops find for deacons to take on?  Again, I am not proposing anything, and in particular, I am not suggesting that we start hearing confessions!  However, the questions here are most intriguing, and it will be interesting to see what the bishops might discuss.

If for no other reason then, these questions give us much to pray over and to ponder in the days and weeks ahead.  How can we deepen and extend our existing activities even more to convey God’s mercy to all?

A Voice from Vatican II: “The Switches are Thrown!”

There is so much barbarism and tragedy in the world today.  Why, then, am I blogging again on the Second Vatican Council?  Simple.  Others far more competent and knowledgeable than I are already offering their own insights.  I also believe that the Council, fifty years on, continues to offer us a point of view — a hermeneutic, if you will — through which to confront today’s pastoral challenges.

br051205Konig_1With that in mind, I recently came across an interview given fifty years ago by the influential young Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Austria, Franz Cardinal Koenig.[1] Before turning to the interview itself, however, it will be helpful to know something about the man himself.

Franz Koenig was born in 1905 into a farming family, the eldest of five children.  At the age of fourteen he entered the seminary for the diocese of Sankt Pölten, Austria.  He studied ancient and modern languages, literature, philosophy and humanities; he drew and painted and wrote poetry and drama.  He continued his education in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he obtained a doctorate in philosophy in 1930.  He was ordained a priest in 1933 and earned another doctorate in theology in 1936. Throughout his time in the university he took courses on experimental psychology, biology, mineralogy, physics, chemistry and languages, but he wasn’t finished yet.  He continued post-doctoral studies at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome (old-Persian religion and languages) and then obtained a fellowship for two semesters at the Faculty of Sociology of the Catholic University of Lille, France, where he obtained a diploma. He spoke German, English, Italian, French, Spanish, Russian and Latin, and could understand Syriac, ancient Persian and Hebrew.  His language skills would later prove invaluable on his many missions as a papal representative.

tn_konig7_jpgIn 1937, he returned to his home diocese and took on a variety of pastoral ministries, often involving the youth of the diocese.  Due to the Nazi regime in Austria, Fr. Koenig’s activities in teaching youth in defiance of Nazi law, made him a target of the Gestapo.  After the war, he was sent back to school in preparation for an academic career.  In 1945, when the University of Vienna reopened and he took courses in law, finance and economics, statistics, political science, linguistics, Syriac texts, ancient and modern history, modern philosophy, comparative anatomy, methodology of botany, morphology of plants, and more. He served as Professor of religion at the College of Krems from 1945-1948. In 1947, he also became a lecturer on the Old Testament and on comparative theology at the University of Vienna. Finally, he taught moral theology at the University of Salzburg from 1948 until 1952, when he was ordained a bishop at the age of 47.  Within four years, at the age of 50, he became the Archbishop of Vienna and was one of the first Cardinals named by St. John XXIII in 1958.  When he died in 2004 at the age of 98, he was last remaining Cardinal made by Pope John.  Cardinal Koenig was a close friend of Pope John’s, and his duties as Cardinal involved outreach to non-Christians and to a variety of locales around the world.  He was a strong proponent of outreach to all peoples, once saying that “As chaplain in St Pölten, I learned that I have to go to the people, that they must know me before we can have any meaningful talk,” he said. “So when I came to Vienna, I had no great political strategy or concept. I simply felt that I wanted contact with people of every persuasion. . . .  I wanted a dialogue with all people, and that included the leading political figures.”

KONIG FRANZ (+2004)1In 1964, the Council was in its Third Session.  Cardinal Koenig granted an interview which focused on the work of the Council as it was beginning to see the final directions various issues were going to take.  The Constitution on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) had already been promulgated at the end of the previous session (1963), and work was nearing completion on the landmark Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium).  Much work remained, but the end was in sight, even if it would take a fourth and final session to complete everything.  And at the beginning of the interview, Koenig offered a wonderful insight about the work of the Council: “The switches are now thrown in the right direction.”  The metaphor is most apt, emphasizing that the impact of the Council itself will only truly be known in the decades following the event of the Council.  The Council was putting the institutional Church on a particular course, and only in the years to come would the results of those “thrown switches” be known.

He continued the image by saying, “We must appreciate the overall influence emanating from these deliberations, the impact resulting from them and we should realize that the gears certainly cannot be thrown into reverse anymore.”  Citing the work going on with dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium)and the document on the pastoral responsibilities of bishops (the Decree Christus Dominus), Koenig observed that “easily 80% of the council Fathers are fully behind the innovations now proposed, especially in regard to what has been called the collegial principle, which in practice implies a decentralization and internationalization of the Church.”  He was being very conservative in his estimates.  By the time the final voting on these documents took place, Lumen gentium was approved by a vote of 2,151 placet to 5 non placet, and Christus Dominus by a vote of 2,319 placet to 2 non placet.

koenig stampThroughout the interview, Cardinal Koenig keeps to his theme that the Council is only the beginning of reform.  Citing world hunger as one example, he says, “We should face [it] realistically by expressing our concern for it and thereby inaugurate the sort of collective initiatives which eventually lead to tangible results.”

For we who serve fifty years later, I suggest that this long-range view remains essential in our own approach to ministry and the terrible pastoral needs of the world today.  How practical and yet how humble is the attitude expressed by so many of the Council Fathers, as we see in this particular case.  They fully accepted that the problems of the world would be best served, not merely by trying to devise immediate, tactical responses, but rather to place the Church on a proper course and to “inaugurate” strategic initiatives which might only bear fruit years later.

As we serve today, focused on the immediate needs of our people, do we also allow ourselves to be long-range thinkers and dreamers?  How might we “throw switches in the right direction” so that parishioners fifty or one hundred years from now will benefit, long after we are gone?  What will be the long-range implications of what we do today?  Certainly there are matters that cannot be left for the future: barbarism, terror and violence demand immediate attention!  And yet, in addition to thinking tactically, how might we also plan strategically?

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[1] The full interview may be found at Placid Jordan, OSB, “Interview with Cardinal Koenig,” in Council Daybook: Vatican II: Session 3, September 14 to November 21, 1964 (Washington, DC: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1965), 181.  All quotations in this column are taken from that interview.

D-Day: A Personal Reflection

D-Day1I wasn’t at D-Day 70 years ago.  I wasn’t at Pearl Harbor 73 years ago.  I wasn’t in Poland 75 years ago.  But like everyone else alive today, my life has been given a context because of these events, the events which transformed the world.

The context is this: In the face of tyranny, good people rise up and take a stand and put their own lives and safety on the line in service of others.  The Polish citizens and their soldiers, most of whom were on foot or on horseback, trying valiantly to defend their homeland on 1 September 1939 against the Nazi juggernaut invading their country.  The sailors, Marines, soldiers and airmen — along with untold numbers of civilians, who found their world exploding literally around them on 7 December 1941 in Hawaii.  And the day we remember today — D-Day — 6 June 1944, men and women from all walks of life who had abandoned their “real lives” in order to support the war effort to overturn the Axis powers, took to the ships, landing craft, and aircraft to mount an Allied response to tyranny.

Uncle JoeAll of us have family members who took part.  In our family, two uncles served as paratroopers, and one of them was part of the 101st Airborne “Band of Brothers” who jumped behind the lines that day.  He wrote a letter a few weeks after D-Day to his brother, who had been injured in training, and that letter has become part of our family’s treasured tradition.  He describes in phenomenal detail his experiences of D-Day and the days immediately following.  When I first read that letter as a young boy in the 1950’s I thought it read like a movie and was too fantastic to believe.  It also changed forever how I viewed my uncle, because that letter revealed a young man I hadn’t met before.  When I read that letter today, as a man in my 60’s who was a career Navy officer, I see a young man like so many other young men and women who rolled up their sleeves, year after year, conflict after conflict, put their own lives on hold, and did what needed to be done without counting the cost.

In my own Navy career of 22 years, going from Seaman to Commander, every duty station I was ever assigned, every place we lived, every place I was sent on duty, was because of the events of 70 years ago.  Cyprus, Guam, Okinawa, Hawaii, Midway, Kwajelein Atoll, Singapore, and even the Stateside assignments — the context of our family’s life is found in the sacrifice of those men and women so many years ago.  And we must never forget.

In our own time, we too are called upon to serve without counting the cost.  How are we doing?  Will future generations look back at us and say, “They have given meaning to our lives”?

Well, are we?

D-Day2

Another Phenomenal Woman of Color: Sister Thea Bowman

thea3All of us have been touched and blessed by the life of Dr. Maya Angelou.  Her recent passing had all of us of a certain age reflecting on her life and impact on our own lives.  I re-read her wonderful poem “Phenomenal Woman” (read it here), and my mind wandered to the other phenomenal women I’ve known: ALL of the women in our family, for example, every one of them: my wife, mother, sisters, cousins, daughters!  And then, listening to the rhythms of Dr. Angelou reading some of her own poetry, I was reminded of still another phenomenal woman of color: the dynamic, brilliant, multi-talented, and courageous Sister Thea Bowman, who died of cancer at age 52 in 1990.  Born and raised in Mississippi, Thea was a religious sister, singer, actress, teacher, liturgist, dramatist, Ph.D. with a particular expertise on fellow Mississippian William Faulkner, and above all, a passionate evangelist.

thea2I remember first hearing of Sister Thea many years ago, shortly after leaving the seminary.  Many of us seminarians had been helping out in African-American communities as we could during the civil rights movement, and soon word began to spread about this fiery young sister who was appearing on the scene.  Although she had earned her Ph.D. in English at the Catholic University of America, and became known as an expert on Faulkner, she was never a stereotypical academic!  Her principal mission was to enable, empower, awaken and inspire people, and her influence both within and outside of the African-American community is incalculable.

Over the last few days, I’ve mentioned her name to several people and to my amazement they had never heard of Thea.  This must not be allowed to happen!  I’m going to put up two videos here.  First is a biography of Sister Thea produced. shortly after her death.  As you can see, she continued to inspire even after the cancer that was killing her had confined her to a wheelchair.

 

The second video is truly remarkable.  The quality of the recording is not very good, so let me explain what you will see.  The US Bishops meet in general assembly twice a year.  This video is from one of those meetings, in 1989.  The bishops, as you will hear from the late Bishop John Ricard, had formed a Committee to support Black Catholics, and Sr. Thea was one of the consultants to that committee.  Terminally ill, she was invited to address the bishops, and — well, you will see what happens.  Keep that in mind: from her wheelchair, a dying Thea brings the bishops to their feet.

How many other Theas and Mayas are out there, still finding their voices?

RIP, Dr. Angelou.  RIP, Dr. Bowman.

Pray for us.

UPDATE: I was just informed that Brother Mickey McGrath has recently published his own work on Sister Thea.  Here’s a link to Amazon.com in case you’re interested.  I haven’t had a chance to enjoy it yet, but can’t wait to do so!

“Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way!”

Thomas Paine This famous quote, generally attributed to Thomas Paine, but used (and abused!) by many has inspired leaders for a long time.  “Leadership” and its exercise, especially in the Church, is something that concerns us all in one way or another.  Some years ago, I reflected on ecclesial leadership while working on my doctoral dissertation, which dealt with the theological and canonical issues related to governance and deacons.  Although my degree is in Theology, not Canon Law, there was no way to address this issue without consulting extensively with canonists, and, in particular, the late and great American canonist, Fr. James H. Provost.  Jim became a good friend before his death, and his loss is still being felt by all who knew him.  Provost

I recently came across some notes I made from an article Jim wrote entitled,“Canonical Reflection on Selected Issues in Diocesan Governance” (in The Ministry of Governance, James K. Mallett, ed.).  I offer the following list, taken and adapted from Jim’s article, as a reflection on traits essential to servant-leadership in the Church today.  Jim wrote them specifically for his fellow canon lawyers, but I believe they have relevance for all pastoral ministers.  The categories are Jim’s; the brief commentary is mine.

1)      Be always vigilant for the spiritual purpose.

As we serve the People of God, this vigilance should be at the forefront.  Regardless of the issue we are helping people with, what is the ultimate spiritual purpose behind it?  Without this focus, ministry might become little more than social work.  Obviously, this is not to suggest that social work is a bad thing!  For the minister, however, we go beyond that task.  As canon law itself reminds us, “The salvation of souls is the highest law” (salus animarum suprema lex).  Keeping this principle in mind will help us keep our priorities straight.

2)      Think with the Church.

As Pope Francis has recently reminded us, to “think with the Church” does not simply mean knowing the teachings of the Church, as important as that is, but to have a sense of what all members of the Church are thinking, and what their needs are.  In other words,  the Church — as People of God, Mystical Body of Christ and Temple of the Holy Spirit — is not simply the hierarchy, nor is the “mind of the Church” (mens ecclesiae) reducible to a collection of dogmas and doctrines: it involves active and caring listening to all, attempting to discern the will of God, and then acting accordingly.  In short, when we consider this maxim, Pope Francis would remind us, “Think with the WHOLE Church.”

3)      Serve if you would lead.

Anyone who has ever led others quickly realizes the profound truth that “a good leader is first a good follower.”  However, it is equally true that the best leadership style is a servant-leadership, one that cares for the people serving with the leader.  This is true, no matter what the venue.  After leaving the seminary after eight years, I joined the Navy and wound up serving on active duty for twenty-two years, first as an enlisted linguist, and then — for the bulk of my career — as an officer.  I served for many leaders, and had the privilege of serving in leadership as well: and the BEST leaders were always servant leaders.  Such a leader was always concerned first with the needs of those he or she is leading so that they are then free to carry out the mission, whatever that happens to be.  If this is true even in ways of life outside the Church, how much more profoundly is it true of those who serve in leadership in the Church.  Servant leaders put others first, dream dreams, have visions, and inspire others to greatness in the eyes of God.

4)      Use the power you have.

Power is not a bad word, despite the negative connotations often associated with it.  Power is the first of the divine attributes, and power is imparted to us through the sacraments.  Power is the ability to act, to serve, to provide care: all of this is good.  Often people, even those who serve in ministry, will bemoan the apparent fact that they “don’t have the power to change” something.  Still, all of us, through the grace of sacramental initiation and, for some, ordination, have a measure of “power” which must be used in service of others.  Instead of worrying about what we cannot do, we need to focus on what we can do!

servant-leadership-mountain2-e12788128583935)      Empower the Church.

Speaking of power, it is meant to be shared.  When Christ heals Peter’s mother-in-law, she immediately gets up to serve.  That’s a good lesson for us in ministry: We are called not only to help others, we are called to help them UP.  We are to give them the power they need to serve others and continue that mission.  Power is meant to be used and shared.

6)      Promote and protect rights.

The theology of the Church, as expressed through the law of the Church, focuses not only the responsibilities we have under the law, but on the rights we have: rights that come from God, and rights that are extended through the ministry and authority of the Church.  Jim’s advice here, to focus on rights, puts the correct emphasis on ministries.  The responsibilities we have flow from those rights: the responsibility for parents to be the prime educators of their children in faith, for example, flows first from their RIGHT to do so!  In other words, we are encouraged not only to react to our responsibilities but to act first out of our rights; to be ACTIVE, not merely REACTIVE.

7)      Consult when making decisions.

Fr. Provost was reminding canonists that the law often requires prior consultation in decision-making, but his advice is helpful to all of us.  The Church, from its earliest days, has valued collegiality, collaboration and consultation.  Consider, as just one example, the so-called “Council of Jerusalem” when Paul went up to Jerusalem to meet (confront?) the other leaders of the Church over the issue of Gentile converts.  After talking together, those early leaders wrote a letter to the converts which acknowledged their dependence on the Holy Spirit who then informed their decision.  Although we often hear from some folks that “the Church is not a democracy,” this is simply too simplistic and ignores the evidence of history, which suggests widespread models of collegiality and consultation, and we ignore that to our peril.

8)      Interpret the law as it is meant to be interpreted.

This is a tricky one, but critical!  For those of us who are not lawyers, it might be tempting to “read the black” and assume we know precisely what it means!  Language, however, is symbol, and symbols always “contain” more than appears at first sight.  When serving in ministry, do we make the proper attempts to find out how specific laws are to be interpreted?  Consider point #1 again: How am I to interpret this law in light of the overall spiritual purpose of the situation?  I am not suggesting that we find ways around our laws; merely that they will need to be interpreted as the law itself expects.  For that, consultation may be required  (see #7)!

9)      Be generous.

One principle of the interpretation of Church law involves the very “generosity” of the law.  The law exists for the spiritual good of people, and that involves being as generous as possible with the benefits of the Church.  For example, do we seek out ways to provide the sacraments to people?  We saw this recently when Pope Francis baptized the infants in the Sistine Chapel, including a child of a couple not yet married in the eyes of the Church.  The situation of the parents, while of concern to us of course, need not cause us to be stingy with the benefits of baptism for the child as well as her parents.  All of us in ministry can think of countless other examples: we need to think with our arms open.

10)   Be consistent.

Every pastoral situation is unique, as we all know full well.  And yet, justice obliges us to be consistent in our interpretation and application of law, while still appreciating the unique demands of each situation.  I think the caution here also involves the dangers of parochialism or favoritism for some people, and a narrow interpretation for those we may not know — or like! — as well!  This gives us a needed balance of pastoral approach.  It also conveys a sense of positive predictability: we are trying to be even-handed with all because all are equal in the sight of God.

11)   Be timely.servantLeadershipLogo

Is this one ever important!  Remember, again, that Jim was writing this to fellow canon lawyers, reminding them that “justice delayed is justice denied.”  That applies across the whole spectrum of pastoral ministry.  Are we as responsive as we should be to the questions, requests, concerns that come our way, or do we procrastinate or even ignore certain things?  The people we serve have a right to a timely response, whatever their need is.  How do we feel when it seems someone is ignoring or discounting us and our concerns?

12)   Be forthright.

Many of us struggle with this one.  As ministers, we don’t want to hurt others.  Sometimes, however, we are the bearers of bad news or difficult decisions.  Jim’s reminder is that, despite the difficulties which we may encounter in doing so, we need to be honest and direct with those we serve.  This does not mean that we are insensitive or nasty about things; it simply means that we all have to be honest with each other.

I, for one, continue to struggle with these principles.  Still, they are a good “checklist” for servant-leadership, and can serve as a fine reflective tool when we’re on retreat, for example!  Perhaps it is better to say that they can form part of a ministerial examination of conscience as we grow in service to others.  There are times when each and every one of us is asked to “lead.”  At other times we are all called to “follow”, and still other times when we just need to “get out of the way”!

Francis washing feet