I am pleased to announce the publication of my latest book by Paulist Press, Courageous Humility: Reflections on the Church, Diakonia, and Deacons. It is available directly from Paulist, or from Amazon, or wherever you buy your books.
This is a book about the Church. The early chapters reflect on the nature and structures of the Church, and the remaining chapters build on this foundation to focus on the nature and ministry of the renewed diaconate. Here is the table of contents:
Foreword by Gerald F. Kicanas, Bishop Emeritus of Tucson
Chapter One–A Humble Church as Icon of the Humble Trinity
Chapter Two–Ecclesial 12-Step Program: Humility in the Rule of St. Benedict
Chapter Three–Renewing Structures for a Humble and Diaconal Church: In Tribute to John Quinn
Chapter Four–Strengthened by Sacramental Grace: The Sacramentality of the Diaconate
Chapter Five–The Code of Canon Law, a Servant Church, and Diaconate–A Proposal in Honor of James Provost
Chapter Six–Ordaining Deacons in a Humble Church: Proposed Revisions to the Rite of Ordination
Chapter Seven–Recurring Questions on the Diaconate
Chapter Eight–Concluding Reflections: Tapping the Potential of the Diaconate
Every day, it seems, we hear of some new travesty committed by the human members of the Church. Less dramatic, of course, are the constant reminders we all have of our human nature, weakened by sin. As we prepare for our solemn celebration of Christmas, of Emmanuel (“God-with-us,”), now is a perfect time to express our constant need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. We do this as individuals and as Church. We are a humble and humbled Church, and like our ancient ancestors in the faith, we acknowledge our sinfulness publicly. The tradition of the Latin Rite includes a penitential rite as part of the introductory rites of every Mass.
For the record, I fully embrace the teachings of the Second Vatican Council; all of them. As Pope Francis said recently, the teachings of the Council are the magisterium of the Church. Significant among those teachings are the principles of liturgical reform established in Sacrosanctum Concilium. In the subsequent liturgical reforms based on these conciliar principles, the former “prayers at the foot of the altar” were removed, except for an abridged form of the Confiteor. This became part of an expanded penitential rite, consisting of several forms available to the priest, with the simplified Confiteor being simply one of those options. Thus, the Confiteor may be prayed in some locations and not others, or at certain times of the year and not others. What I am about to suggest may surprise some people. Nevertheless, as I have reflected on the current state of the Church, it seems appropriate to restore the Confiteor as a mandatory part of every celebration of the Mass of St. Paul VI. To be clear, what I am suggesting is a modest revision to the Mass of St. Paul VI. I am most certainly not proposing a wholesale return to the pre-Conciliar Missale Romanum.
What follows is an excerpt from my forthcoming book from Paulist Press (paulistpress.com), Courageous Humility: Reflections on the Church, Diakonia, and Deacons.
A Humble Church Confesses
There is a longstanding liturgical tradition that offers, I believe, a rich opportunity to express personal and communal acknowledgment of our sinfulness and need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. For many centuries, before the post-conciliar liturgical changes, the Mass of the Roman Rite included preparatory prayers known as the “Prayers at the Foot of the Altar.” They involved the priest and the altar servers; the servers represented the people and spoke on their behalf. Often, the priest and servers were the only people present at the Mass. Even on Sundays, with greater numbers of the laity present, they were silent; it was still the servers who spoke the prayers on their behalf. With the priest and servers praying antiphonally (in Latin, of course), the prayers consisted of two major groups of prayers: first, Psalm (42) 43 (Introibo ad altare Dei), and second, the Confiteor. Today, in the reformed liturgy, we still have the option of praying a shortened form of the Confiteor as part of the Penitential Rite at Mass; however, the former practice was much more expressive.
At the end of Psalm (42) 43, the priest bowed with a “profound bow” and began the Confiteor. It is a fuller, richer form of the prayer than we use today:
I confess to Almighty God, to blessed Mary ever Virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to you, my brothers [et vobis, fratres], that I have sinned exceedingly, in thought, word and deed: through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I beseech blessed Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and you, brothers [et vos, fratres], to pray to the Lord our God for me.
The “brothers” to whom the priest is speaking are the servers (or, at a Solemn High Mass, the Deacon and Subdeacon). When he refers to them (twice), the priest—still bowing—rotates to each server in turn. As soon as the priest finished the Confiteor, the servers immediately prayed, “May Almighty God have mercy upon you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to life everlasting.” The priest then stood upright, and the servers took their turn, bowed profoundly, and prayed the same Confiteor, only this time referring to the priest (et tibi, Pater and et te, Pater) rotating toward him as he had toward them. When the prayer was complete, the priest offered the same prayer that the servers had prayed for him: “May Almighty God have mercy upon you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to life everlasting.”
I have provided this detailed description to apply it, with some modification, to our Mass today. Of course, today, we celebrate the Ordinary Form of the Mass in the vernacular; there is no need to change that. Similarly, in the past, the priest and servers were facing ad orientem. Today the Ordinary Form is usually celebrated versus populum, and this would continue. My suggestion works most powerfully if bishops, presbyters, deacons, and other ministers face the people and vice versa. Finally, the servers will no longer speak for the assembly; the assembly will speak for themselves.
Here’s my suggestion. The Mass begins as customary. The presider then invites the assembly to penitence, as we do now. However, after the invitation, the clergy (any and all bishops, presbyters, and deacons) would bow profoundly toward the altar (representing Christ) and the people (also a sign of Christ’s presence), praying the full, older version of the Confiteor. When the clergy have finished, and while they are still bowing, the whole assembly would pray over them: “May Almighty God have mercy upon you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to life everlasting.” (For anyone concerned about laypersons and deacons offering this prayer, I would simply point out that it was the young altar servers who offered it for centuries!) Then the clergy would stand upright while the assembly bows profoundly and prays the full, older Confiteor in turn, with the priest praying for God’s mercy when they are finished. In today’s world, such an act of mutual confession and plea for God’s mercy would be a powerful and much-needed form of reconciliation.
I am posting this on a day when a new report has been released that details still more dissatisfaction with organized religion in the United States and a dramatic increase in those who refer to themselves as “nones.” The question people of faith must answer is, “Why do people no longer find religious faith necessary in their lives?” Certain commentators like to blame cultural influences. While this may be accurate to some degree, I believe it is wrong to absolve organized religion from all blame. As church, we no longer capture the imagination of people. St. Augustine wrote of the “attractiveness” of the church and its message; that attractiveness has been lost for many people. “Church” is identified as corrupt, criminal, irrelevant, and hypocritical.
What I am suggesting is not a panacea. However, restoring a profound and solemn expression of our sinfulness and need for constant conversion may go a long way in restoring some measure of confidence in a humble Church. Let’s bring back the Confiteor.
I was speaking recently with a fellow Catholic who is against mandates concerning vaccinations or masks during this time of COVID-19. The language was interesting. “It’s all about my personal freedom. As Catholics, we have free will and as Americans we have individual rights. I should be able to make my own decisions without anyone else (especially the government) taking that freedom away. It’s my body; it’s my choice.”
It may be hard to believe, but I was speechless. The person I was speaking with is staunchly anti-abortion and anti-choice. He is part of a group that wants to deny Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who are pro-choice regarding abortion. But the very pro-choice position he abhors when discussing abortion is now the exact same argument he is using to justify his anti-vax, anti-mask mandate stance. So, he is anti-choice in one case, pro-choice in another.
How is this in any way coherent? It isn’t.
People who are anti-abortion make the case that “my body, my choice” is an insufficient claim for two reasons. First, they hold that there is more than one body involved: the unborn child as well as the mother. Second, even the claim of “my body, my choice” — disregarding for the moment the presence of the unborn child — is simply not true or absolute. Our experience tells us this readily. We accept without question and without distress that there are certain things that we may not do to our bodies; there are limits to the choices we can make. For example, if we saw a person about to harm themselves in some way, we would do whatever we could to stop them. Some personal choices are even subject to society’s laws: a person may “choose” to murder another person, but no one would say that this would be moral or legal. We readily accept limits on personal freedom. It is not an absolute right. Think of all the other restrictions we accept on our personal freedom: obtaining a driver’s license, for example, or the travel restrictions we endure to ensure the safety of all. Just because our personal freedom suggests we do something (or not do something), thinking adults realize that personal freedom is not an absolute.
How might this fact — that all rights have limits and commensurate responsibilities — affect the abortion debate? How might this fact — that all rights have limits and commensurate responsibilities — affect the vaccination debate?
Do I have a right to refuse to take the vaccine? The answer is not an absolute yes or no, but maybe. Does society have a right to regulate my behavior despite my personal freedom? “My body, my choice” is again insufficient. My personal freedom extends only as far as the personal freedom of others. At some point, the moral choice is to surrender a measure of personal freedom for the common good of all. Consider how we veterans are often greeted: “Thank you for your service!” It is acknowledged that, as a class of people, military personnel put their own personal freedom aside to a degree in order to benefit their comrades and the country. Taking the vaccination, even under a mandate, is less about one’s personal good than it is about the good of others. For people of faith, we need only look to St. Paul, who reminded the Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4).
The bottom line is that “my body, my choice” is an inadequate and flawed argument no matter who makes it.
Pope Francis has responded affirmatively to the recommendations made through the Synod of Bishops that women be admitted to the ministries of Lector and Acolyte. In an Apostolic Letter issued motu proprio titled “Spiritus Domini” [The Spirit of the Lord], published yesterday, 10 January 2021, the pope modified the Code of Canon Law (c. 230.1). Now, all qualified persons may be admitted to those ministries. To put this decision into perspective, several points need to be understood.
Prior to 1972, ministries were seen as the province of the ordained, and “the ordained” in the Latin Church consisted of seven ranks of ordained ministers. This was known as the cursus honorum, the “course of honors” by which a man “rose through the ranks” to the Order of Presbyters. A man became a cleric through a rite known as “first tonsure.” This liturgical rite was not itself an ordination, but it opened the door to subsequent ordinations; it made a man capax — capable — of receiving ordination. The orders themselves were divided into four minor orders and three major orders. The minor orders were porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte; the major orders were subdeacon, deacon, and presbyter [priest]. This system was in place for many centuries. It is important to recognize that the minor and major orders were, in fact, ordinations.
In 1972, St. Pope Paul VI responded to the recommendations of the bishops of Vatican II (1962-1965) that the sacrament of Holy Orders be streamlined to better meet the needs of the Church. The fact is, the various orders, except for the priesthood, had become little more than liturgical rituals celebrated in the seminaries before a man was eventually ordained a priest. No parish, for example, had the ordained ministry of a porter! Pope Paul, after considerable consultation with the world’s bishops, issued motu proprio the documentMinisteria quaedam in 1972. This was tied with an additional document, Ad pascendum, which addressed some aspects of the newly-renewed order of deacons, which Paul implemented in 1967. Ministeria quaedam did a number of things.
Tonsure and Subdeacon were suppressed. A man now became a cleric upon ordination as Deacon.
The minor orders were also eliminated. At the same time, Pope Paul recognized the practical need for lectors and acolytes in parish life. However, rather than continuing as ordained ministries, he established these two ministries as rightfully lay ministries. So, they were no longer to be conferred through ordination but through installation by the bishop as lay ministries. It is significant to note that that these two installed ministries were open to men alone. This is what Pope Francis has now addressed.
Pope Paul further required that those in formation for ordination (to the diaconate and to the presbyterate) were to be installed in the ministries (not ordained) prior to ordination as Deacons. This was practical: these lay ministries offer valuable ministerial experience, and that is why the pope established this norm.
There are several things we need to keep in mind about the action taken by Pope Francis.
First, being installed a lector or acolyte is much more than just “reading at Mass” or “being an altar server.” We already have men and women who do that on a regular basis in our parishes. Being installed by the bishop into these ministries carries additional responsibilities, as outlined in Pope Paul’s Ministeria quaedam. Installed lectors and acolytes are diocesan ministers; one is not installed simply to serve in one parish.
Second, there is an expectation of leadership by these installed ministers. They are to assist in training other ministers of the Word and the Altar. They are to be knowledgeable of all aspects of their ministries and of the sacramental life of the Church. In fact, Pope Paul wrote that the responsibilities formerly assigned to Subdeacons could be assigned to these installed Lectors and Acolytes. [Ed. note: My fingers got away from me in the original post and said that the functions of the Subdeacon could NOT be assigned to installed Lectors and Acolytes; sorry for any confusion.]
Third, why have these lay ministries been experienced largely as liturgical steps required only for those on the road to ordination? The answers are complex, but many bishops did not see an immediate need to install lectors and acolytes formally because pastoral needs were being largely met by the ad hoc lectors and altar servers already serving in most parishes, and which involved both men and women. Many bishops were also reluctant to install lectors and acolytes formally because they could not admit women as well as men. Now, they can.
This is a good move, and one that should be applauded, not feared. It is consistent with what Pope Paul VI began, at the request of the world’s bishops, back in 1972.
Today, my daughter sent me a link to a video from an unlikely source: Arnold Schwarzenegger. She said the thing that struck her immediately was the Governor’s use of the phrase, “a servant’s heart.” I think she is absolutely right. I am passing along his video, not as a political act, or to condemn or criticize anyone. But as a career Naval officer, I watched with horror and growing anger the events of last Wednesday — the feast of the Epiphany of all days! — as our US Capitol was attacked and sacked. Like all military officers, I swore an oath that never expires, to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic.” And here was the secular temple of that Constitution being ransacked, with innocent staffers, visitors, members of Congress and even the sitting Vice President, assaulted and terrorized for several hours by fellow Americans. How can begin to move forward — together — as Americans?
As we all consider our next steps, the Epiphany reminds us that, whatever our perceived grievances, THIS is not the way to address them. This is not how a People, under God, treat each other. For Christians especially, who believe that God took on human nature in Christ out of love for us, what we saw was the antithesis of God’s will for humanity. At a Catholic Mass, the deacon adds a little water into the wine which will be consecrated and offered to God, and says, “Through the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” What happened on Wednesday was the farthest thing from sharing “in the divinity of Christ.”
Instead we need to heed the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. . . .” (Philippians 2:3-5). Imagine if each and every one of us took these verses to heart and acted on them! Not in conceit and pride, but putting the interests of others ahead of our own. These are not only religious truths: they apply to many forms of servant-leadership. In my years of Navy service I served with many such women and men. As a deacon I continue to serve with many such women and men, who constantly put themselves and their own needs last. That is the heart of the servant, the heart “that was in Christ Jesus,” the heart that should be in each of us.
The Governor is correct: what is needed now is a servant’s heart. Think what you will of the rest of the video. Don’t fixate on the cheesiness of using Conan’s sword as a prop. Rather, listen to his insight about a servant’s heart. On that, he is right on point.
No one could have predicted the crises we face today, and they are slamming us all at once. Even before the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we were challenged by the erosion of credibility of all institutions, including churches. Our national politics were continuing their toxic descent into entrenched partisan screeching, and no one has been left unaffected. Add the pandemic to the mix and we have entered a whole new reality, affecting each and every one of us. Just when we need to come together to help each other through all of this, safety demands we be kept apart.
All of this has had profound effects on how we are called to be “Church” today: how we gather (or not), how we pray (no singing), and how we continue our mission of spreading the Good News.
Threatening to pull us even further apart, critics of Pope Francis have been doubling down on their accusations against him and his leadership of the church. These critics are adding even more confusion, anger and uncertainty to an already chaotic time. I recently contributed three reflections to Where Peter Is. Here are the links:
As 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.
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.
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.
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.
Deacon 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.
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!
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.
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 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