Of +Wilton and Washington: A Personal Reflection

Wilton_GregoryAs much as I enjoy writing, I have grown weary and wary of blogging.  Today must be different.  Today, a man with whom I have prayed, worked, and socialized for some twenty years has officially been named the seventh archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.  Since I am a Deacon of the Archdiocese, my friend has now become my bishop.  Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Chicago, and longstanding Archbishop of Atlanta, now assumes his greatest challenge yet.

I am certain there will be those who question this appointment; I am not one of them.  I am certain there will be those who will point out any flaws and failings of the new archbishop; I am not one of them.  For any naysayers out there: give the man a chance.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory.jpg.jpg_37965856_ver1.0_1280_720

Then-Bishop Gregory as President of the USCCB, seated next to Bishop Bill Skylstad, the Vice President.

I write because I believe I know the man.  As he has said on several occasions, “we have history.”  I first met him while he was serving as Bishop of Belleville, Illinois and I was working on the drafting committee of a USCCB document on deacons in the United States.  As a young teenager, I had attended my first year of high school seminary in Belleville, and we chatted about that.  A couple of years later, I served on his diocesan staff in the Diocese of Belleville as he assumed the presidency of the USCCB.  Immediately after, I applied for a senior staff position at the USCCB and it was then-Bishop Gregory who called to tell me I had the job.  Over those years at the USCCB we worked closely on any number of projects and every encounter was special.  After he was sent to Atlanta, he invited me on several occasions to come to the archdiocese to speak at convocations, to conduct a formal study of the diaconate in the archdiocese, and to give the annual retreat to the diaconate community.

Atlanta SERV 09 with Wilton

Archbishop Gregory of Atlanta with students and faculty of Saint Leo University. I’m the tall guy in the back.

After I had assumed a teaching position at Saint Leo University in Florida, he invited a faculty colleague and me to bring a group of undergraduates to Atlanta for an “alternative Spring Break” serving the poor of inner city Atlanta.  Even though he had just suffered an injury which caused him to cancel a number of appointments, he insisted on welcoming our group to his own home, and he personally served us refreshments and visited with us all afternoon.

 

I believe the appointment of Archbishop Wilton Gregory is about as perfect a pastoral assignment as could be made.  The Archdiocese is a beautiful, diverse, complex and dynamic place.  It demands an archbishop who is a good navigator of its swirling currents.  It demands a pastor who will, as he said this morning in his press conference, focus on spiritual healing as well as the concrete realities necessary to proclaim the love of God to all and to restore hope to those who have no reason for hope.   If there is one trait the marks Wilton Gregory, it is his ability to listen.  I don’t think he’d mind me sharing this story.

I had recently joined his diocesan staff in Belleville as the Director of Pastoral Services and Ministry Formation.  Two days after starting, I was informed by the Vicar General that I would, of course, be facilitating the overnight Diocesan Pastoral Council meeting the next weekend!  The bishop, of course, was going to be there to participate, but it was my job to run the meetings.  That was the first I had heard about it!  Since I had only a couple of days to prepare, I called the bishop’s office to speak with him.  Naturally and significantly, he wasn’t in the office; he was traveling someplace in the diocese visiting parishes.  I called his cell phone and left a panicky message.  Not long after, the outer door of our building opened and immediately I heard, as he came walking down the hall, “Hi, Wilton!’ “How’s it going, bishop?”, “Wilton, thanks so much for the card!”  Finally, he got to my office.  He was dressed casually, and he dropped into a chair.  He remarked that he would be dressed just as casually for the weekend meeting of the DPC because he wanted to be as informal as possible so people would be comfortable and open with him.  He said, “Bill, my job this weekend is to listen intensely to what folks have to say; your job is to run things so that they can speak and I can listen.  It’s that simple.”  The man who everyone called “Wilton” wanted and needed to be himself and to be a pastor.

And it was that simple.  The love and mutual respect that I experienced that weekend, even while discussing some very touchy subjects, is something I will never forget.  His generosity of spirit, so beautifully on display with our students, continues to influence their own development in ministry to this day.  His deep love of God, his integrity and honesty, and his profound willingness to make himself vulnerable for the sake of others, are all gifts that he brings to Washington at a time when we need it the most.

Archbishop Wilton, welcome to Washington.  Those of us who know and love you are praying for you and ready to assist you in your new ministry in any ways we can.

 

Lenten Jerusalem Cross

Preaching Truth to Power: Clergy Edition

St. Matthew CathedralOver at the Deacon’s Bench, Deacon Greg Kandra has posted the latest public challenge to Cardinal Donald Wuerl to resign as Archbishop of Washington, DC [read it all here].  It comes from one of the deacons assigned to St. Matthew Cathedral who also serves as one of the Cardinal’s masters of liturgical ceremonies.  For those keeping track, this is the second time a deacon has publicly called for his bishop’s resignation; the other took place in the Diocese of Buffalo.  In confronting the horrific mess we face in the church right now, these men have chosen to take a public stand; while I don’t know either deacon personally, I believe it is safe to say that neither one of them relished doing so.

In speaking to parishioners and fellow clergy, we are all going through very similar emotions right now, and we all want things to be done — and done quickly and concretely — to purify, to heal, to nurture, and to move forward.  So whether one agrees with these deacons in their actions or not, all of us can certainly understand the feelings that led them to make their decisions.

Perhaps this is a good opportunity for all of us to consider how we Catholics might exercise the prophetic role we are given at Baptism, particularly those of us who serve in ministry in the Church.  Let me emphasize that what follows is NOT a criticism of my brother deacons.  That’s between them and their respective consciences and their bishops.  What I’m proposing is something for all of us to keep in mind going forward.

nurturing the churchDeacon Greg does a masterful job of reviewing briefly the notion of “fraternal correction” so I won’t repeat that here.  But I would like to offer as a fundamental reference point Chapter 18 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium):

For the nurturing and constant growth of the People of God, Christ the Lord instituted in His Church a variety of ministries, which work for the good of the whole body. For those ministers, who are endowed with sacred power, serve their brethren, so that all who are of the People of God, and therefore enjoy a true Christian dignity, working toward a common goal freely and in an orderly way, may arrive at salvation.

The reason that any of us in ministry exist, therefore, is “for the nurturing and constant growth” of the Church.  This is the ultimate “test” for us to ponder as we move into the future.  How will my action — or inaction — serve to nurture and assist the People of God?  Will I tear down or build up?  Let me be clear: sometimes “building up” demands powerful, prophetic and public witness.  At other times the better course of action is quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy.  Still, I think that this text gives us a very helpful source for reflection and for an examination of conscience.  We must always be about the building up of the Mystical Body of Christ.

Reckless person

Let me be completely clear here.  As I already said above, I am NOT offering this as a critique or a judgment on the actions taken by my brother deacons.  None of us knows what went into their particular decisions or what other steps they attempted in light of the situation.  We must all struggle for balance on the moral tightropes we have to negotiate.  It is the tradition of the Christian people and enshrined in scripture, that when we find a brother or sister in error we attempt private, fraternal correction first; if that is ineffective, we move gradually outward in attempting to resolve the matter.  Certainly Lumen gentium  18 can serve as a foundational element in the formation of our own consciences as we ponder our own future actions.

May we all serve to build up the People of God, the Mystical Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit!

hi-wdr-bricklayer

 

 

 

Back to Basics: Humility and Compassion

Church (1)

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?”

JoshuaLast 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.

“Decide today!”

 2.  Build From the Bottom: The View of One Who Serves

140417192103-pope-francis-feet-washing-easter-horizontal-large-galleryWe 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.

“Decide today!”

 3.  Religion: Binding Ourselves to God

people-out-perspThe 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.”

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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.

“Decide today!”

Dear Pope Francis: Thanks, and No One Is Confused

Dear Pope Francis,

Since so many people are choosing to write to you, I thought I would too.  Many of the letters you receive, at least those shared through the media, take you to task for one thing or another.  I am writing for two reasons: to thank you for your leadership and courage, and to tell you that — despite what some are complaining about — I do not think anyone is “confused” by your actions, your teaching, and your writing.  May I suggest that those who make that claim are using that language of “confusion” to mask the truth: that they just disagree with you.

Your writing and teaching are clear: you desire the Church to be an adult Church.  By this I do not mean a Church only FOR adults, but a mature People of God, Mystical Body of Christ and Temple of the Holy Spirit.  This should be a Church in which we deal with each other with compassion, maturity and an honest realization that people are generally trying to do the best they can despite the sometimes overwhelming challenges they face.  Mature human beings come to realize that one-size-rarely-fits-all, and that we must use our God-given freedom of will in the best ways we can.  Your Holiness, we all understand full well that there are absolutes in life, but we also understand that sometimes we are going to fall short and need to struggle on the best we can, always with the guidance of the Holy Spirit given to us all as children of God created in God’s own image and likeness.

No one is confused by this, Your Holiness.  Your call to a mature Christianity echoes the voice of the world’s bishops assembled in solemn Council:

Coming forth from the eternal Father’s love, founded in time by Christ the Redeemer and made one in the Holy Spirit, the Church has a saving and an eschatological purpose which can be fully attained only in the future world. But she is already present in this world, and is composed of men, that is, of members of the earthly city who have a call to form the family of God’s children during the present history of the human race, and to keep increasing it until the Lord returns. . . .   Thus the Church, simultaneously ‘a visible association and a spiritual community,’ goes forward together with humanity and experiences the same earthly lot which the world does. She serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God’s family (Gaudium et spes, #40.

There is nothing “confusing” in any of this, except for those who wish to be confused.  They seem afraid of the unknown, the sometimes grayness of life.  As Christ often chided his first followers, and your illustrious predecessors have often repeated, “Be not afraid”, and “Put out into the deep!”  As we sailors know only too well, this often means that while we want to steer a true course, we must often trim our sails and tack in order to take full advantage of the wind and sea.  My sisters and brothers who write to you of “confusion”, however, seem to long for a world — and the Church within that world — which has the clarity of a black-and-white photograph.  The reality of the world is color-full, however, admitting all the colors God created.  As the Council reminds us, we as Church have a “saving and eschatological purpose” which will only be fully realized in Paradise.  The Second Vatican Council (much like your own teaching) is accused by some observers for being “overly optimistic” or for using “ambiguous” language.  Nothing could be further from the truth of the matter, as you well know, Holiness.  This is not ambiguity but mature and conscientious adaptability; not naive optimism, but well-founded Christian hope.

And so I thank you again, Holiness.  Thank you for your clarity of thought and expression.  Thank you for your courage and strength of leadership.  Thank you for your joyful witness to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our lives as individuals and as Church.

Sincerely in Christ,

Deacon Bill

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Deacon William T. Ditewig, Ph.D., Archdiocese of Washington, DC

Commander, USN (ret.)

Professor of Theology, and former Executive Director, USCCB Secretariat for the Diaconate and Interim Executive Director, USCCB Secretariat for Evangelization

 

 

 

Going Golden: Fifty Years of Renewed Diaconate

PopePaulVIIt was just fifty years ago today that the Order of Deacons was renewed as a ministry to be exercised permanently in the Catholic Church.  Fifty years ago today, 18 June 1967, Blessed Pope Paul VI acted on the 1964 recommendation of the world’s bishops at the Second Vatican Council.  He promulgated motu proprio Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, which you can read in full here.

Following the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council (cf. Lumen gentium, #29), the Holy Father directed the appropriate changes to canon law which would permit the diaconate to be renewed as a “particular and permanent” order, and opened the diaconate to be conferred on married as well as celibate men.  The introductory paragraphs offer significant insights into the vision behind the renewal:

Beginning already in the early days of the Apostles, the Catholic Church has held in great veneration the sacred order of the diaconate, as the Apostle of the Gentiles himself bears witness. He expressly sends his greeting to the deacons together with the bishops and instructs Timothy which virtues and qualities are to be sought in them in order that they may be regarded as worthy of their ministry.

Furthermore, the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, following this very ancient tradition, made honorable mention of the diaconate in the Constitution which begins with the words “Lumen Gentium,” where, after concerning itself with the bishops and the priests, it praised also the third rank of sacred orders, explaining its dignity and enumerating its functions.

Indeed while clearly recognizing on the one hand that “these functions very necessary to the life of the Church could in the present discipline of the Latin Church be carried out in many regions with difficulty,” and while on the other hand wishing to make more suitable provision in a matter of such importance wisely decreed that the “diaconate in the future could be restored as a particular and permanent rank of the hierarchy.”

Although some functions of the deacons, especially in missionary countries, are in fact accustomed to be entrusted to lay men it is nevertheless “beneficial that those who perform a truly diaconal ministry be strengthened by the imposition of hands, a tradition going back to the Apostles, and be more closely joined to the altar so that they may more effectively carry out their ministry through the sacramental grace of the diaconate.” Certainly in this way the special nature of this order will be shown most clearly. It is not to be considered as a mere step towards the priesthood, but it is so adorned with its own indelible character and its own special grace so that those who are called to it “can permanently serve the mysteries of Christ and the Church.”

deaconsFrom the beginning, then, the renewal of the diaconate as a “particular and permanent” order of ministry has been about sacramental grace.  The diaconate must never be reduced simply to the sum of its various “functions” which might easily be performed by others without ordination.  However, the Council and the Pope recognized that those performing those functions in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church should be strengthened by the sacramental grace of ordination.

This is a very special day for the Church and her deacons.  We remember with great respect and humility the giants of the renewal of the order of deacons: the bishops, theologians, and most especially those pioneering early deacons who set out into the unknown, charting a course for the rest of us to follow.

Deacons of the Church: Happy Golden Anniversary!

50th-Anniversary

Coming Up for Air: Returning to the Blogosphere

It’s been an absolutely crazy time on many levels since my last blog posting.  I have officially “retired”, although I’m teaching more courses than ever at several universities, traveling to speak with groups of priests, of deacons and their wives, and directing retreats.  We have moved back to our home in Florida, saying farewell to family, friends and co-workers in California, and saying “we’re back!” to old friends and co-workers down here.  In ministry I have left a wonderful, extraordinary parish and returned to another where I served before heading out to California.

And, of course, since my last blog post, Donald John Trump has transitioned from being President-elect to being President of the United States.

I’ll be returning to active blogging shortly.

Happy Sunday!

Navigating the Scylla and Charybdis: Living, Loving and Leading through the Trump Presidency

GOP 2016-Why So Many

Act I is over.  Remember Act I?  All those presidential candidates sniping and name-calling and down-shouting.  I confess at first I found it rather entertaining, but before too long it became depressing yet mesmerizing, rather like watching a snake  charmer seducing a crowd.  Act I culminated in the national political conventions where the unbelievable happened.  The man most people voted the least likely to succeed in politics walked away with the Republican nomination and the woman with one of the most substantive public service resumes ever earned became the first woman to accept the nomination of a major political party for the office of President.  Those political conventions were the opening scene of Act II.

theaterNow, Act II is over.  The general campaign was brutal, bloody, bizarre, virulent, draining and depressing as two vastly different visions of our nation emerged.  Let’s face it: today as I write these words, no one is completely satisfied with the process or even the outcome. The wounds and the scars are deep.  But now Act II is also completed, with the election of Donald J. Trump as president-elect of the United States of America.  We’re now in the intermission of the transition, and that will end on 20 January 2017 when Mr. Trump places his hand on a Bible and swears the Oath of Office and he becomes President Trump.  At that moment, the curtain will rise on Act III.

trumpThe question for all of us is quite simple: What do we do now?  We are not an audience at a play.  We are not observers, but participants in our public life.  There is a term which became common during the Second Vatican Council: we are “co-responsible” for our lives and the life of our republic.  So where does that lead us today, the first day following the election?  The people who supported and voted for Donald Trump are ecstatic and triumphant; those who supported and voted for Hillary Clinton are reeling and depressed.  Those who supported third party candidates or who chose not to vote for any candidate are, well, I honestly don’t know how they feel.  But the bottom line, in my opinion, is that one feeling is prevalent on both sides of the political divide: almost everyone is feeling cut off and disenfranchised.  That was the stated position of those who supported Mr. Trump; it is also the position of those who supported Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton.  What should we be doing as we prepare for Act III?

scyllaHomer’s Odysseus, navigating his way home after the Trojan War, encounters the twin hazards of the Scylla and Charybdis: steer too close to the “rocks” of the Scylla and six sailors will be taken; steer too close the whirlpool Charybdis and the whole ship and crew will be lost.  It’s the classic conundrum much like our own expression of being “between a rock and a hard place.”  In today’s America, then, do we just proceed as we have over the last year and a half, and keep speaking of the Scylla of “winners” and the Charybdis of “losers”?  Is there a way, perhaps of navigating between these two hazards and overcoming some of the polarities of our national life?  There are people — good people! — who supported and voted for Donald Trump.  There are people — good people! — who supported and voted for Hillary Clinton (and for other candidates).  Caricatures on both sides will not help us move forward.

What I’m proposing below is something that we who are people of faith might do within our various churches and communities to move forward in a positive way, to seek the light and not to descend into darkness.  How might we be, in the famous words of the Second Vatican Council, “a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God”?

I offer four things to consider.  These are clearly suggestive and not exhaustive, but these will help suggest others.

  • We must be active agents of peace and reconciliation. No matter who had won the election, it’s been clear for some time that half of our people are going to feel left out, disappointed, angry and marginalized by the outcome.  We must find a way to take the high ground and model between each other and toward our sisters and brothers who have supported “the other side” the Christian love that is to characterize us all.  How we relate to each other, even privately, can have either a positive or negative effect as we go forward.  For those of us who serve as public ministers of the Gospel, we must guard are tongues and our behaviors – not only for the sake of others but for our own as well.
  • We must move beyond categories of “winners” and “losers”. If we permit this kind distinction to permeate our communities, we enable the very gridlock that has characterized so much of our public discourse for so many years.  I am reminded of the senior Republican leader who, after the first election of President Obama, declared that the agenda of his party would be to make sure nothing of the new President’s agenda was successful.  However, this is certainly not unique to one party; both parties share in this kind of attitude, and their public assertions have affected many in our communities, churches and parishes.  It seems to me that we must find ways to stress those things that bind us together rather than divide us.  As Catholics who share in the sacramental life of the Church, and especially as we gather around the sacrificial altar of the Eucharist in communion, we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy, and we are all God’s children saved by Christ’s saving action and filled with the Spirit of reconciliation and mission.
  • We can offer opportunities for listening and dialogue, with a view toward reconciliation. If it seems appropriate within your parish and community, perhaps we might offer guided listening sessions in which people might share their own pain and concerns.  It will be important that someone skilled in facilitating such sessions be involved so that they do not simply increase the tension.  The purpose is not to exacerbate the problems, or to argue the various issues all over again!  Rather, this would be an attempt to map out how we can all move forward.
  • Finally, how might we all become even more involved in the local political scene? For those of us who are clergy, we are restricted by canon and civil law in the ways we can do so, although deacons in the Catholic Church — with the prior permission of our bishops — can be active to a degree that priests and bishops cannot.  As we have seen in previous columns, our deacons might even serve in public office as long as they get prior written permission from their diocesan bishop. But even more important, how might we continue to encourage even greater participation in the public life of the community?  We all have a responsibility to do something and not just complain about things.

We all need to take a deep breath and  — as we sailors like to say — “take an even strain” on the lines.  If we take the high ground and stay energized and motivated to work for the common good of all, we can indeed move forward.  We can — we MUST — see this new Act as an renewed opportunity to help transform, even if on a small and local scale, public discourse and the political landscape in which the common good of all can be served. I will bring this essay to a close with the words we all learned by heart in elementary school.  May we now live them in a mature and profound way as we move forward.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

preamble