our Easter story

woodencrossAs the Easter Triduum approaches, we are propelled into the heart of the mystery of our Christian faith, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God. It is in his crucified and risen body that we are offered a return to God and in the same mystery of sacrificial love that we find a way home to our true selves and also to one another.

Like others, my wife and I began our journey toward Easter on Ash Wednesday but not with the imposition of ashes but at Westmead Children’s Hospital where our nine month old son underwent a morning ultrasound for a rare eye condition that had been discovered some weeks earlier. The sense of loss and shock we had felt those weeks ago, with the news that our first-born son was likely blind in one eye, was outstripped only by the dread of surgery and the small but real risk of infection and, at worst, complete blindness. With the passing of our friends’ child, born on the same day, and in light of our own son’s affliction, we no longer stored faith in statistical assurances.

It is difficult to express the heartbreak that accompanies the suffering of our loved ones and we can never prepare for the rawness of loss and vulnerability so close to home. In the long days and nights since that first diagnosis we looked upon our son with a mix of tenderness and helplessness, doing our best to carry on with the everyday practicalities of life, all the while handing the wellbeing of our son over to God day by day, with all the trust and all-too-human reluctance of those of whom more has been asked.

In the crucible of suffering and fear there is no room for second-hand anecdotes, about God giving only what one can bear or even for sentiments about the eventual meaning that suffering will bring, given only enough time. There is only the rawness of the experience, the silence of God in the focused ‘crying out’ of prayer, the inexpressible awareness of the wisdom of Hebrews, that it is, indeed, “a dreadful thing to fall into the arms of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).

candleIn the visits to the specialists that were to come, we were slowly initiated into a new world. We remember keenly the heartrending moment of pushing our young son through the hospital doors for the first time, now almost a ritual, and the distress of watching him squirm from afar under the careful handling of our doctors. Then, there were the other families and children we met along the way, many suffering to a far greater and incomprehensible degree, with cancer and profound disability. We shared space with these families each week with sympathy and deference. The quiet sadness of a hospital waiting room can bring life to its essence without a hint of sentimentality.

In the midst of our own uncertainty it was those furthest from our day-to-day life, but closest to our experience, who offered us hope and succour. A couple interstate who have suffered deep loss in their own life reminded us of the way in which our reality had changed over the years, incomprehensibly even, from praying and giving thanks for our vocations, our marriages and pregnancies, to now begging for the lives and wellbeing of our children. As these companions on the way reminded us, so is the advocacy required of us as parents.

Then there were two Cistercian monks, friends of ours through an internet connection and a shared love of the monastic tradition who, though so different in vocation, united with us in prayer and petition. There is great solace in communion. With them, we pelted the heavens with psalms.

Over the coming weeks and as surgery loomed, we had our home written prayers, relished every moment of play we could find, and in John’s Gospel heard Christ speak at the waters of Siloam,

His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.’ (Jn 9:2-3)

We waited in faith.

It was a Monday morning when my wife received the call that there had been a cancellation in theatre and our son’s surgery had been brought forward by weeks, to the following day. On the morning of his admission, our friend, a priest, blessed the three of us before we took leave for the hospital.

The day seemed an eternity. After admission and a lengthy wait, we watched our son slip under general anaesthetic and walked away from the theatre in one another’s arms and in tears. It would be the longest time our son had been away from his mother since birth.

jesuschristWe almost ran to the recovery room to greet him as he emerged from surgery, heavily bandaged and weary but with all having gone to plan. While his sight in one eye was likely to remain poor throughout his life, the offending obstruction had been removed without complication. After observation for a further few hours, we could take our son home.

This Easter we have been drawn into the paschal mystery without our asking. Indeed, no one runs toward the Cross for it promises to cost us much more than we are willing to give. Still, over the years we learn to entrust ourselves a little more to the ‘logic’ of this way. Sometimes we are carried by others and other times sustained by faith alone.

This Triduum we give thanks for all that we have, for out of the depths of limitation and fear has emerged a stronger faith, a greater hope and a deeper love.

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dolan

This week I read an interesting article by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York. You can read the full version here.

Dolan is a prominent figure in the American Church and a rising star in the universal Church, having made a big impression at the recent conclave (a journalist pointed out that if the cardinal-electors had elected Dolan as pope the other 5,000 bishops of the world might as well have taken the next 15 years off, because they’d never be seen or heard from again. In short, Dolan is incredibly articulate and he also doesn’t have an “off” switch).

Dolan’s article stood out because it provides a helpful insight into the complex issues involved in administering a diocese. Among other things, he underscores the need for parishes to support themselves financially (i.e. pay the bills) and to plan responsibly for their future life.

It makes for good reading. Whether you’re an ordained or lay minister, pastoral life coordinator, finance committee or pastoral council it provides a ‘bigger’ picture of Church than is often kept in view. While all dioceses and parishes differ in their financial resources and arrangements, there are a few points worth noting in Dolan’s article for all Catholic communities.

1. As a general rule, dioceses cannot be expected to carry parishes that cannot carry themselves.

coinIt’s simply unsustainable. Think of your typical (if there is one) American, European or even Australian diocese. There are probably more churches than needed (perhaps stemming from an earlier ‘one village, one parish’ approach) and attendance is likely declining which diminishes financial contributions as well (unless those who remain pick up the slack). Meanwhile the costs of church maintenance continue to increase as historic buildings and facilities degrade. Obviously dioceses do not enjoy an endless supply of funds and risk the patrimony and viability of other ministries if it were to prop up every parish in need. Most dioceses expect their parishes to be largely self-sufficient for these reasons; religious orders usually expect their regional communities to do the same.

It was interesting to read in Dolan’s piece that the Archdiocese of New York has established Inter-Parish Financing (IPF) which enables stronger parishes to aid those in need. This seems like a good idea in principle, a form of distributive justice, just as the Vatican itself redistributes finance from established churches to developing ones. However, it appears from Dolan’s remarks that the IPF has not proven sustainable over the long term and needs reform in their context. Keep in mind that the NY Archdiocese also carries the costs of the upkeep of a great number of schools which is not the scenario for all dioceses. The upshot for Dolan’s archdiocese has been an operating deficit which he intends to address through the measures he outlines in the article (NB: the operating budget of the NY Archdiocese  is $87 million which is far beyond the reality of most Australian dioceses!).

2. Dioceses balance significant demands which are not always recognised.

parishWhat do dioceses do with the financial contributions of parishes and its investment income? Dolan’s archdiocese is typical in providing pastoral services and resources that parishes cannot provide for themselves, at considerable cost.

There are the expenses of training seminarians and deacons for pastoral ministry, the employment of chancery staff, the financing of social support services not only for Catholics but for the wider community as well (think of our own CatholicCare closer to home), the need to support adult faith education, family and liturgical support, human resources and legal advice for parishes, the support of schools and the need to provide adequate housing for retired priests as well as healthcare, marriage tribunals, evangelisation initiatives, and loan facilities for the establishment of new parishes and the maintenance and upgrade of existing ones. The list goes on. Again, this makes it all the more important for parishes to fund their own activities to the extent that they can so that all can benefit from the greater resources that a diocese holds in trust.

3. Church revenue is a function of the quality of community life

dioceseWhile not addressed in Dolan’s article, it is a well-established fact that dynamic and missionary parishes attract larger and more consistent financial contributions than staid or listless ones. People contribute their time and money to communities that are life-giving, intentional in their mission and that value their belonging in explicit and tangible ways. People also contribute to communities that have transparent, credible and accountable leaders. It is no surprise that the crisis of legitimation experienced by the Church in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis in particular and poor pastoral practice in general has resulted in a weakened sense of belonging and, with that, a decline in the financial resources available to the Church to exercise its Gospel mission. Want to increase your parish revenue? Become a community that people value.

I’ll be keeping an eye on developments in Dolan’s archdiocese as it is a communicative and dynamic one and will share further news as it comes to light. Dolan’s article underlines sound financial governance as a must for every community of faith.

the great hope of Pope Francis

popefrancisSome eight hundred years ago a young soldier reposed in prayer at a wayside chapel on the outskirts of Assisi. It was there that the young man, named Francis, heard and heeded the divine will of God, ‘Go, repair my house which as you see is falling into ruin.’ This moment of great faith and also of intense tribulation for the Church of Christ provides a fitting backdrop to the announcement of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as the 266th Bishop of Rome, with the appellation of Pope Francis.

Bergoglio, until this morning the Jesuit Archbishop of Buenos Aires, presents as an ideal candidate to renew the Church in the present, beset as it is by the ongoing scandal of the sexual abuse crisis and an accompanying collapse of credibility in the public square, widespread persecution in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the challenge of rapid and aggressive secularisation in the West, and significant issues of church governance that, it must be admitted, have hindered the ability of the Church to respond effectively to these concerns as well as the broader needs of human culture and society.

archbergoglioOf course, it is naïve to assume that any one figure can bring about the conversion that remains the responsibility of the whole body of the Catholic faithful and it can be too easy to either acclaim or criticise those called to a service of leadership from afar while one sits comfortably on their hide. Naïve it would be, too, to assume a simply address of Church structures will provide the necessary medicine for the afflictions suffered by the Church on account of its members who, like the first disciples, know their poverty of spirit all too well.

Nevertheless, it is true that ‘leadership matters’ and it arrives with the responsibility to take up these great challenges with courage and the conviction that the current woes of the Catholic Church are not a fulfilment of its nature but a contradiction to its mission as the ‘universal sacrament of salvation’ (Lumen Gentium 48). In other words, leadership brings with it the demands and gift of hope, a hope that brings the future into the present and affirms that this moment of history, filled as it may be with trial and tribulation, does not exhaust all possibilities.

Doubtless much ink will be spilt about Pope Francis and his capacity to realise these possibilities in the years ahead. Already there has been a positive assessment for his acute concern for the poor, a virtue that is indeed evident throughout his episcopal career in Latin America, and for his prayerful acceptance of the responsibilities of the Petrine Office. The inspiration of Bergoglio’s papal name in the mendicant saint of Assisi augurs well for a pontificate marked by a focus on a renewed mission of evangelisation which responds to the poor, to poverty in its social and spiritual dimensions.

Who are these ‘poor’? There are those poor in spirit who have yet to hear the Good News of the Risen Jesus, sent from the Father and encountered in the Spirit; there are the poor in discipleship who have heard but not received this living Word within the depths of their life; there are the poor in circumstance who cry out for the bare necessities of life and who make a claim on the Church’s faith, and there is the poverty of the Church itself which remains ever incomplete in its human dimension, in need of conversion to the source of its life.

BergoglioThe credentials of Pope Francis to take on this missionary enterprise are certainly in evidence. In an interview with Vatican Insider, a media service run by the daily newspaper La Stampa, Bergoglio called the Church to return to its foundational ‘memory’, the memory of Christ and the urgency of his Gospel message. Reflecting on the current Year of Faith, the then-Archbishop reminded his audience that faith is not given to us for our own consolation or comfort but as a gift for others:

Benedict XVI has insisted on the renewal of faith being a priority and presents faith as a gift that must be passed on, a gift to be offered to others and to be shared as a gratuitous act. It is not a possession, but a mission. This priority indicated by the Pope has a commemorative purpose: through the Year of Faith we remember the gift we have received. And there are three pillars to this: the memory of having been chosen, the memory of the promise that was made to us and the alliance that God has forged with us. We are called to renew this alliance, our belonging to the community of God’s faithful.

It is memory of our election, the promises of God and our communion with Him that reminds us who we as Church. Like those who suffer amnesia, the Church, without this fundamental threefold memory, loses its sense of self, its very identity, and so its purpose. The Archbishop went on to remark,

We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a Church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a Church becomes like this, it grows sick. It is true that going out onto the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But if the Church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded Church that goes out onto the streets and a sick withdrawn Church, I would definitely choose the first . . .

Bergoglio identifies the need of the Church to resist insularity, to move from ecclesiolatry to a new evangelisation, from fear of the world’s unknown dimensions to an embrace of Gospel life within its very domain. This is the path of conversion that will bring renewed vitality and hope to the Church catholic. It is ‘on the street’ and in the public square that the Church will regain its innocence and vigour; it is in world-engaging mission that the Church grows young.

conclave2013Finally, the election of a Latin American to the papacy, the first non-European pope for twelve centuries, recalls for the Church its essential universality, a ‘Pentecostal’ breadth and diversity that implies a universality of mission, a mission not only to the West but ad gentes, to the East and global south. While differing in specific contexts, there is a continuity of global need that must enliven the Church’s faith: pressing issues of social and economic injustice, including gross exploitation of women and children, the endangered rights of the unborn and the voiceless, the victims of war and poverty, the spiritual imprisonment of those without hope.

As shepherd and teacher, leader and servant of the Church’s faith, we pray that Pope Francis will be given the courage and succour of the Holy Spirit to fulfil his great responsibilities. As Easter approaches may he, like the first Peter, grow firmly in his role as witness and messenger of Easter faith and proclaim Christ as Risen in humble service of the Church and to the world.

Peter among the Apostles

papal-conclaveWith the imminent election of a new pope, the role of the Bishop of Rome has come into focus in popular and religious media. It struck me that the many formalities and traditions that accompany a papal election, as interesting as they might be, have had the effect of putting into the shade the bases of the papacy in Catholic faith. This seems a lost opportunity to provide ‘reasons for our hope’ (1 Pet. 3:15)

In short, little attention has been given to the ‘why’ of the papacy, a ‘why’ which is significant not only for Catholic believers in their own understanding of the Church but also for non-Catholic Christians who are often, and it must be said not always unreasonably, ‘put off’ by an apparent obsession with ceremonial fanfare over and above the simplicity of biblical discipleship.

Indeed, Paul VI lamented in 1967 that ‘the Pope . . . is undoubtedly the most serious obstacle on the path to ecumenism’. His eventual successor, John Paul II, was to take a more positive view in regards to the ecumenical significance of the papacy, asking how the Petrine Office could accomplish a service of love and unity recognised by all. As the Oxford theologian Fergus Kerr notes, the Polish pontiff even appealed to Christians who are not now, and perhaps never likely to be in full communion with Rome, to help in reshaping the papal ministry (see Ut Unum Sint 4). This recognised not only the possibility of papal reform but situated the task of the papacy within an ecumenical context, within a communion of faith that was ‘already but not yet’.

peter-iconFor Catholics, of course, the pope is understood to be the successor of the apostle Peter and so has ‘full, immediate, ordinary and general jurisdiction’ or primacy over the college of bishops and indeed over the whole Church. What does this rather foreboding statement mean? It means he has a distinct, ecclesial responsibility to proclaim and preserve the faith in its purity and plenitude as well as uphold the unity of the communion of faith, with personal, and not merely delegated, authority to intervene in the workings of another bishop and local churches in service of that ecclesial communion.

Contrary to ‘ultramontanists’ who confuse the papacy with the Church, it should be kept in view that the pope is not the only principle of the Church’s unity (lest we forget the Holy Spirit, for one, and the worldwide episcopate to name another). The Petrine Office is firmly embedded within the Church, in service of the Church’s unity and not above it.

Put in terms of an ecclesiology of communion, the pope is for Catholic faith the visible point of communion of the local churches and cannot, and should not, act as an absolute monarch. Why? This is because it is the college of bishops as a whole that is understood to be of divine law (ius divinum), a college that the pope could never abolish or do away with and of which he remains a member. So the Pope is a head of a college of bishops, belonging wholly to this college while never being simply its delegate. ‘Peter’ remains an ‘apostle’ while the ‘apostles’ do have Peter as their head. Indeed, ‘papal infallibility’, that ability of the pope to proclaim what the faith is, cannot be understood apart from the faith of the college of bishops and so is intrinsically linked to the faith of the whole Church (and anything but an autonomous or private opinion).

greekorthWhat do other denominations make of all of this? Many non-Catholic Christians reject the entire notion of the papacy and its theological or biblical foundations. Closer to home, the Orthodox – whose bishops the Catholic Church does recognise as legitimate, sacramental bishops, of genuine apostolic succession – while not strictly or necessarily objecting to a place of honour for the Bishop of Rome among the world’s bishops, do not believe that the Bishop of Rome should have any juridical claim over a local bishop. In other words, they reject the idea that the Bishop of Rome can actually interfere with another bishop in the governance of his own diocese.

johnsgospelSo, to return to what I think has been a missed opportunity in recent weeks, what are the bases of the papacy in Catholic faith? The most basic approach is to reflect on the biblical warrant for the Petrine Office and to offer this in conversation to other Christians of goodwill. Specifically, how might we understand Peter’s role among the apostles, a role in the primitive Church that underpins, at least in part, Catholic faith on this subject?

The biblical and theological literature concerning Peter’s role in the early Christian community is vast and includes important contributions by Rudolf Pesch, Martin Hengel, Christian Grappe, Raymond Brown and the Australian theologian Gerald O’Collins.

The classic Scriptural texts which have been understood to establish Peter’s primacy among the apostles are well-known and have been well covered in apologetic debates. They are:

  • Matthew 16:18-19 (‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven) Note to conclave enthusiasts: This passage is traditionally read to the newly-elected Pope and cardinal-electors prior to the pontiff’s first appearance at the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica;
  • Luke 22:31-32 (‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers’)
  • John 21:15-18 (detailing Jesus’ repeated command to Peter, ‘feed my sheep’).

However, beyond these familiar texts, there are others which I think disclose Peter’s distinctive role and authority within the first community of disciples. We know, for one, that the Gospel of Mark was written not long after Peter’s martyrdom in Rome (c.60-70) and that it transmits the witness of Peter himself to Jesus’ life and ministry. This testifies to the importance of Peter’s witness for the early Church community.

Peter_the_apostleAs Gerald O’Collins avers, Peter stands out as well among the apostles as the first witness to the resurrection, and therefore one whose Easter faith and proclamation of that event is central to the Church’s life. This witness to the Risen Jesus is, as O’Collins points out, a much neglected dimension of the figure of Peter.

I suspect many Catholics would be surprised by this claim and would more likely name ‘Mary Magdalene’ as the first witness to the Risen Jesus and for good reason. After all, in all four Gospels she is present at the empty tomb. However, an empty tomb is not Jesus himself and Mary Magdalene is named as first witness to the Risen Jesus only in Matthew 28:1-10 and John 20:11-18.

The alternate, and likely earlier, tradition names Peter as the first witness to the Resurrection and can be found in St Paul’s writings which, of course, pre-date the four Gospels. In one of Paul’s letters to the community at Corinth we find an ancient formula (perhaps creed) which names Peter as first witness to Jesus risen from the dead. Paul writes,

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accord with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor. 15:3-8)   [My emphases]

Paul is clearly transmitting an already-existing tradition. This same Petrine tradition can be detected in Luke’s Gospel, on the road to Emmaus, where the evangelist emphasises that this ‘Emmaus’ encounter with the Risen Jesus is not the primary one. Luke writes of the disciples on the road,

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon (Peter)!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he has been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.   [My emphases]

It becomes apparent from such New Testament texts, in addition to reference to the ‘keys to the Kingdom’, Peter as shepherd of the flock and as the ‘rock’ on which the Church’s life will be supported, that ‘the fisherman from Bethsaida’ assumes a special leadership role among the apostles that was actual, grounded in his primary role as witness and messenger of Easter faith, and subsequently recognised in the writings of the early community of faith, that is, in its Scriptures as such.

sanpietropenitenteIt is interesting to note, as a final remark, that Peter’s leadership of the apostolic community is as a repentant sinner (cf. Luke 5:8, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’). Peter, of course, would go on to deny Jesus three times, a betrayal foretold. However, this ‘shadow side’ of Peter does not rule out his leadership but grounds his task of leadership in his own conversion and in service and proclamation of God’s love and compassion to others. Again, we hear Jesus’ words in Luke’s Gospel, expressing this exemplary role that Peter is to play in service of the Church’s faith as a whole, ‘I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers’ (Lk 22:32). St Peter emerges, as ever, an unworthy servant, entrusted to proclaim the plenitude and unity of faith in Him who first showed him mercy.

While the papacy has been subject to reform throughout the centuries, shaped not only by internal factors but also by the dramatic circumstances of the world, the continuity between the role of Peter among the apostles and the Pope among the college of bishops and the universal Church is a most positive and biblically-shaped principle of Catholic faith. While the reports on the conclave continue to roll in and as the announcement of a new ‘Peter’ looms, we remember the first Peter as leader, teacher, witness of Easter faith, repentant sinner, evangeliser and, above all, disciple to Christ who alone can ‘make all things’, including his Church, anew (Rev. 21:5).

the Spirit of the conclave

With the collegeofcardinalsconclave set to begin tomorrow (12 March), it is worth reflecting on one of the underlying themes of these past weeks, or one of the ‘issues under the issues’ as the historian John W. O’Malley would put it.

The  issue is the role of the Holy Spirit in the life and renewal of the Church. Of course, following Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication, it is the Spirit’s guidance of the Church in the election of a new pontiff that is at the heart of our prayer at present and for good reason.

As a religious and political institution, the papacy has shaped and re-shaped human history in innumerable ways both positive and notorious (compare the papacy of Gregory the Great in the sixth century and his historic mission to the people of Anglo-Saxon England, worshipping as they were ‘stocks and stones at the edge of the world’ to that of Benedict IX in the eleventh century whose election, the result of systematic bribery on the part of his father, brought only violence, debauchery and shame to the See of Peter).

This uneven history of the papacy and its influence on both the Church and world underlines the importance of the upcoming conclave and the Spirit-led discernment that calls to be exercised by the cardinalate.

The new pontiff will not only need to meet the challenge of the sexual abuse crisis, a scandal that continues to raze the credibility and mission of the Church globally, but also the plight of persecuted Christians in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, the yet-incomplete articulation and direction of ‘the new evangelisation’ aimed principally at the West, and the abiding issues of internal reform, including that of the Roman Curia, that call for address.

While it would be comforting and reassuring to assume that the Spirit’s direction will, and has been, a full triumph in the Church, history has told us otherwise. Indeed, on the subject of papal elections, the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made the following, now widely-publicised, remarks on the influence of the Spirit on such an occasion:

I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined . . .

The Cardinal went on to conclude with stark realism,

There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!

Erroneous decisions on the part of the Church, certainly not restricted to the realm of candidates for the Petrine Office, raise the question of the precise nature of the Spirit’s role in ecclesial discernment and decision-making for while Scripture affirms that the Spirit will indeed ‘guide us into all the truth’ (Jn 16:13) it ostensibly does not offer the community of disciples immunity from mediocrity or even calamity.

NTChurchCertainly, in the Acts of the Apostles the Spirit does appear to intervene at chosen moments in an immediate and decisive manner, leading the nascent Church towards what it should be and what it should do. For instance, we witness the power of the Spirit at Pentecost to bring about a reconciled diversity among Jesus’ disciples and later it is the Spirit who guides the Church into an embrace of the Gentiles, a decision which the apostles and elders attest as having ‘seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15:28). For Luke, the author of Acts, the power of the Spirit is at work, guiding and directing the early Church to its destination.

However, other New Testament texts, the dramatic history of the Church and our own personal experience suggest that the voice of the Spirit is not always so clear. The diverse manifestations of the Spirit as expressed in the New Testament communities (1 Cor. 12:28-31, Eph. 4:11-13, Rom. 12:6-8), while a profound gift to the Church, indubitably shape the later Johannine emphasis on the need of discernment to ensure that what has been received, experienced or testified is indeed truly of God. The First Letter of John, clearly acquainted with the experience of community discord, warns, ‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit but test the spirits . . . from this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error’ (1 John 4:1,6).

rubleviconIndeed, it is ironic that the subject of the Spirit, which ecumenical theology affirms as the principal of unity within the Church, has been at the root of some of the most significant divisions in the history of Christianity – the split of the East and West over the Spirit’s procession from the Father and/or the Son, and the Spirit’s relation to Scripture, tradition, and the sacraments including hierarchical ministry so bitterly contested at the Reformation.

What we can draw from this mixed history and the necessity of the Spirit’s discernment is that the gift of the Spirit – in all of its ‘elasticity’ as Cardinal Ratzinger puts it – does not so overwhelm the Christian that it alleviates or excuses them of the responsibility to evaluate, reflect and decide in faith but rather invites and even necessitates their active participation in that process of decision. This much is clear from the story of the primitive Church as described above (to open the Gospel of Christ to the Gentiles or to restrict proclamation of the Messiah to the House of Israel?)

In other words, the gift of the Spirit needs to be actively and constantly received by the community of the Church as it pilgrims through history, a ‘reception’ that involves the activities of listening, understanding, applying, and so truly ‘making one’s own’ the Spirit of faith and grace so that the community can be faithful to the person and message of Jesus.

The necessity of active human involvement in the Spirit-led decisions of the Church explains not only the emphasis of our tradition on being ‘docile’ to the Spirit (a spiritual tenet emphasised by Benedict XVI himself in his farewell address to the College of Cardinals) but also opens the real possibility for the non-reception of the Spirit by the Church community. This failure to heed the Spirit is evidenced not only in the grand crises and scandals of the past and recent history of the Church but also in the more ‘ordinary’, everyday failing of Christians to live the full meaning of their God-given discipleship.

The Australian theologian Ormond Rush concludes of the Church and the Spirit, ‘the human receivers of revelation are to be portrayed as active participants in discerning the way forward, co-deciders with God’s Spirit’ (cf. Rush, Still Interpreting Vatican II, 87). This ‘co-decision’ with God’s Spirit is a capacity and responsibility not simply of those who exercise authority in the Church but for the whole ecclesial body which shares the task of receiving the one Spirit, the ‘Spirit of Christ’ himself (Rom. 8:9), into its life, structures and decision-making.

CardinalsReturning to the impending conclave, though the abiding presence of the Spirit in the Church is that which ensures the Church a future as the ‘pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Tim. 3:15), it remains the task of the cardinal-electors, as individuals and as a college, to be open and receptive of the Spirit’s promptings in selecting ‘the first among the successors of the apostles’ to guide the Church into this future.

As for each and every Christian, what is essential to the cardinal’s reception of the Spirit is their own conversion for it is only in holiness that one can recognise the Spirit who is holy. There can be, then, no naïve self-complacency about those Spirit-led decisions which shape our life of faith, whether they are made in the splendour of the Sistine Chapel or the more familiar surrounds of our own dioceses and parishes with their own intimate concerns and hopes for the future. It is only our conversion that enables authentic discernment, a faithful recognition, of the Spirit of Truth as it calls us to respond. As the 14th century theologian Gregory of Sinai concludes, ‘the understanding of truth is given to those who have become participants in the truth – who have tasted it through living.’ We pray that the cardinal-electors will choose well and in good faith.

religious life as narratives of holiness

waterOn the 6th March, 2013, around 150 leaders of Religious Institutes gathered at the Novotel, Parramatta, for the Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes (NSW) Conference 2013.

The theme of the conference was ‘religious life in the post-modern world’ and I was privileged to address leaders and leadership teams on the purpose and contribution of religious life today.

The conference took in a variety of themes centred on religious life: the Church as sacrament of God’s mission, the multidimensions of evangelisation and the living symbol that religious life remains today in a culture that, while often very secularised, remains sensitive to signs.

Prominent documents to consult on the varieties and purpose of religious life include the 1965 conciliar decree, Perfectae Caritatis, and John Paul II’s 1996 Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata.

These were my remarks at the gathering:

‘Narratives of Holiness’ for the Church and world

candleIn the first instance, religious communities, both apostolic and contemplative, tell a particular story about the way in which God’s Spirit has been manifest in history. Secondly, religious life tells as well a story about the human response to such divine irruption. The many varieties of religious life reveal that Christian discipleship is possible even in this way and recalls for the Church that diversity can be an expression of God’s life too.

By the narratives of holiness it provides, religious life nourishes not only the vocation of those called to live radically the evangelical counsels but nourishes the hope and imagination of the wider Church as to how holiness might be exercised. As bearers of charism and grounded in the original spirit of their founder(s), religious congregations show forth the accessibility and concrete shape of a life centred in God’s gifts; in turn, they invite all members of the Church to envisage what God is asking to be realised and hence what they might live for.

I consider religious life essential to the Church also in the way in which such life stretches beyond but is nevertheless active within the local church, that is, the diocese. Of course, my role as a pastoral planner for a local church has brought into focus the centrality of parishes as the ordinary experience of communion for the vast majority of Catholic people.

However, religious life complements this particular experience of communion with witness to the universal dimension of the church’s life. Religious life, as we know, as a response to the Spirit, cannot be completely merged or contained within traditional diocesan structures. Marked by an intense desire to live the Gospel fully and radically in genuine service to the world, religious life possesses the ability to keep individuals and communities open to the essential universality of the Church and its truly global concerns.

The presence of religious within a diocese, for one, can assist to ensure that local communities do not become inward or self-absorbed, focused on their parish facilities rather than their engagement in God’s mission. In their universal character and tensive ecclesial location in the midst of the local church, religious institutes work against the absolutisation of the parochial and so support the genuine ‘catholicity’ of the Church’s identity and mission.

Religious Life and the New Evangelisation

marymackillopI would further suggest that the apostolic character of many religious congregations will play an important role in maintaining the integrity of the ‘new evangelisation’ which continues to unfold on both a magisterial and local level.

I approach the contemporary situation in this way: since the Second Vatican Council, we are well aware how close to the surface questions of Catholic identity lie. The danger of course is that ‘the new evangelisation’ and its more apologetic tendencies foster a narrow focus on Catholic identity couched primarily in terms of opposition to the world.

This way of being Church – permeated as it is by a certain apocalyptic, dualistic sensibility – can result, unhelpfully, in self-affirming Catholic subcultures which are unable to engage or dialogue with the surrounding culture.

(Note that this danger was on show in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication – while the pope’s resignation unleashed wide ignorance and some anti-Catholic bigotry in the secular media it also produced an ample supply of Catholic triumphalism with little genuine conversation between the two opposed tendencies.)

As an alternative to this narrow politics of identity, religious life is well placed to offer the ‘new evangelisation’ a model of outreach characterised by genuine service to the world without the reactionary and oppositional spirit to which other emerging groups may be vulnerable. In other words, religious life can model a mature evangelism, a truly contextualised faith which engages the surrounding culture while losing nothing of its distinctive Christian identity.

Religious Life and Lay Discipleship

SB054Finally, religious life continues to nourish the discipleship of lay men and women in a variety of ways. In addition to the ‘narratives of holiness’ which religious life offers to the whole Body of Christ, we have also seen the emergence of formal collaborations including the creation of new juridic persons among religious institutes in which laity have assumed governance responsibilities while allowing religious to re-engage more immediate and original expressions of service.

Of course, laity and religious collaborate in many other ways, including through ‘associations’ that give expression to a more inclusive imagination of holiness, and therefore a more inclusive notion of Christian community, recovered by the Second Vatican Council.

Beyond structured initiatives, however, religious life can foster lay discipleship through its work at the margins with those who may never feel comfortable within the structures of the Church. As noted by Australian theologian David Ranson, religious life has shown a profound ability to mediate between a given social context and the wider Catholic community – in the case of schools, hospitals or works of justice, between the lives of students, parents, and families who may not be connected to parish or regular practice and the normal life of the Church which is the bearer of the Word and sacramental encounter. This mediating role of religious life, its carriage of the meaning and experience of Christian faith to contemporary culture, is precisely that work of evangelisation to which the entire Church is called.

Conclusion

By a life that animates the local church but stretches beyond it, religious life bears witness to the essential universality of the Church’s identity and mission. In its proven ability to engage the culture with a mature and discerning spirit, in its continued work with and support of lay men and women through its apostolates and associations, and in its variety of charismatic life, religious life is positioned well to awaken and support the Church in its mission of evangelisation which cannot be exhausted by any single historical form.