synod on the family 2014

synod2The Extraordinary Synod on the Family concluded over the weekend in Rome (5-19 October, 2014), bookended by the beatification of Pope Paul VI. It proved to be an eventful, even enthralling journey for the Church, two weeks of discussion, passionate debate and prayerful discernment about the way in which the Church can best bring the Gospel to bear on the lives of millions of families as diverse as they are complex.

Given the multidimensions of family life, the issues canvassed by the bishops and participants were also broad. They included the plight of refugees, the care of children with special needs, the situation of migrant workers and the unemployed, the impact of the internet on family bonds, and then there were the distinctive concerns of African bishops whose concerns differ in striking ways from those in the affluent West (e.g. the practice of polygamy and conditions of extreme poverty).

However, and perhaps inevitably, the focus of media and popular attention ultimately fell on two specific matters: the question of Eucharist for the divorced and remarried, and the Church’s pastoral response to homosexual persons.

Controversies of the Synod

synod3As the first synod of bishops to meet under the leadership of Pope Francis, and affirming as it did many diverse views on the way in which Catholic faith speaks to human lives, the synod attracted not only generous media coverage for a Catholic get-together but wide-ranging interpretations of what was said, by whom and for what intent.

Of course, the synod discussions were pre-empted and almost overshadowed by Cardinal Kasper of Germany who in February 2014 advocated for access to communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried. This was followed by a strong critique of his position by several other cardinals, including in the book-length reply, The Gospel of the Family, which contained a foreword by our own Australian prelate Cardinal Pell (the text of the Cardinal’s introduction is available here).

(For those interested in the pre-history of the synod, preparations began in earnest in November 2013, with a survey distributed by national bishops’ conferences to glean the opinions of Catholics on a number of Church teachings. The survey was a commendable initiative and expressed a sincere desire to be consultative though it clearly suffered from limitations, including the formulation of the questions which could be difficult for the Catholic in the street to say the least e.g. ‘How is the theory and practice of natural law in the union between man and woman challenged in light of the formation of a family?’ This survey was followed in June 2014 by the lineamenta or preparatory document for the Synod which presented the results of the November consultation and set a platform for the synod discussions to begin in earnest).

midtermreportAs the synod officially got underway this month, one of the major causes of controversy was the mid-term or post-discussion report known as the relatio post disceptationem. This was intended as a provisional snapshot of the views of the bishops thus far. However, many bishops objected to the content of this summary, noting that it was not only insufficiently grounded in Scripture and Catholic tradition but that it seemed to present the views of one or two particular bishops as the consensus of the whole assembly, which they were not.

The most strident and vocal objector to this interim report was the American cardinal Raymond Burke who argued, ‘[this document], in fact, advances positions which many Synod Fathers do not accept and, I would say, as faithful shepherds of the flock cannot accept’. Controversially, the interim report had included praise for the ‘positive aspects’ of what the Church has long considered ‘irregular’ situations, including civil unions and cohabitation, and even spoke of ‘accepting and valuing’ people of homosexual orientation  (though with the notable disclaimer ‘without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony’).

Criticism was particularly focused on the General Secretariat of the Synod which handled the information flowing out of the bishops’ discussion, with accusations that its members, including Cardinal Baldisseri, had manipulated, or at the very least swayed considerably, the content of the relatio to reflect a personal and permissive agenda.

Interpretations of the Synod

synod4As is customary, and was the case following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the major media outlets interpreted the discussions and debates of the bishops through a political lens, with reports of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ camps pitted one against the other (of course, Pope Francis was read as ensconced within the latter and undermined by the former, taken to be the majority).

Without denying the political nature of all human discourse, including the ordinary desire to influence outcomes and press one’s case, the heart of a synod is not the political motivations that underlie the bishops’ views but the theological arguments that are raised in accounting for those positions. Of course, the media is generally not interested in actual arguments, only assertions, and for the most part lack a theological background or concern.

In cherry-picking lines from the disputed interim report we have mentioned, as well as Pope Francis’ powerful concluding address to the Synod Fathers, the Daily Mail and even the BBC were able to run histrionic headlines such as “Massive Vatican shift on gay sex” and “Pope Francis set back on gay policy”.

The BBC coverage focused on Francis’ critique of ‘hostile inflexibility’ among so-called traditionalists and intellectuals, and implied that these adversarial forces had undermined or ‘setback’ the Pope’s more ‘progressive’ agenda on homosexuals and the remarried. Conspicuously, the report made no mention whatsoever of the pontiff’s critique in the self-same address of those who have ‘come down from the cross’ to ‘bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God’ (you can read the complete address here).

More locally, broadcasters tapped into the local response to the synod, including SBS which while perpetuating the BBC caricature of a Pope Francis opposed by backward bishops, at least tried to seek out a Catholic view of things.

sbsIn my fifteen seconds in the spotlight, I shared the view that the synod represents a healthy and vital discussion for the global Catholic Church and that the Catholic bishops are mindful of the lived situations of people from across the world and mindful also of what the Gospel can bring to those contexts. I tried to underscore that the range of issues being discussed by the synod as they relate to the family were broad and that the synod represents the Church’s ongoing and sincere discernment of how best to accompany people in their life journeys, including divorcees, the civilly remarried, single parents, and gays and lesbians to whom the Gospel also speaks. (Other voices in the report included Paul Collins who can always be relied upon to express more than a healthy scepticism about Church matters).

Discernment is Not Division

The key to an interpretation of the synod and its events is given to us, I think, in Pope Francis’ closing address to the Synod Fathers which is a profound and striking statement (you can read it here). He provides us with ‘the eyes of faith’ to continue talking about these issues with confidence.

Firstly, Pope Francis is not at all unnerved by the differing views expressed in the preceding fortnight and accepts the rigorous debates in faith as an expression of the Church discerning how to enter ever more deeply into the heart of the Gospel by the sensus fidei, the sense of faith of the faithful. As he shared,

Many commentators . . . have imagined they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church – the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.

9954008What Francis is affirming by valuing debate over the silence of ‘a false and quietist peace’ is the capacity of the Church to receive God’s revelation faithfully and meaningfully by attending, together as people of faith in the Spirit, to tradition, including the teachings of the Magisterium, and the experience of Christian families in the world (I have written about the Church’s discernment of the Spirit here, in relation to the 2013 papal conclave).

To teach and evangelise the Church must first listen, receive time and again the deposit of faith which constitutes our living tradition and attend to the complex realities of contemporary family life which too can be a source of theological knowing.

The guarantor of the Church’s ongoing faithfulness to Christ in this multidimensional process is the Holy Spirit, as Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium affirms and which Pope Francis cited in as many words,

The universal body of the faithful who have received the anointing of the holy one cannot err in matters of belief. It displays this particular quality through a supernatural sense of the faith in the whole people when ‘from the bishops to the last of the faithful laity’, it expresses the consent of all in matters of faith and morals (Lumen Gentium 12).

This discernment of the sensus fidei, a sense of the faith and the Church’s sense for the faith, should not be a ‘source of confusion and discord’, as Francis remarked in his address, but should be entered into with confidence, trust and utmost faith in the Holy Spirit’s capacity, through diverse and even imperfect people (like you and me) to lead God’s people to the truth and mercy of God (you can read more about this connection between the deepening of tradition and the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit in Dei Verbum 8 as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church n.892).

As well, in the process of spiritual discernment that will continue until the General Synod on the family in 2015, Francis warns of temptations or polarities. The first temptation is to be fossilised in our faith, exhibiting a ‘hostile inflexibility’ which would in fact impede the ability of the Church to bring the Gospel to new and developing circumstances. This kind of fundamentalism or rigorism can manifest a lack of faith and trust in the Spirit that guides the Church (the Marian dogmas of the 19th and 20th centuries standout as instances in which the Church has developed a deeper appreciation of her own faith). ‘Traditionalism’ is in fact not traditional at all for the pilgrim Catholic Church understands development as a perennial and necessary deepening of her self-understanding in light of the Gospel, and never a departure from it (“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life”; John 6:68)

Christ Mosaic Cefalu Sicily 12th CenturyThe other risk named by Francis, the one that media outlets were less enthusiastic to report, was the capitulation or accommodation of the Church, and the Gospel it bears, to ‘a worldly spirit instead of purifying [the world] and bending it to the spirit of God’.

The Church must engage the world, as Francis has so often stressed, but it engages the world and contemporary culture with a view of what the world really is in Christ, a world of men and women made in the image of God and called to conversion or ‘likeness’ in Christ in whom we find our origin and destiny. Thus, Pope Francis critiques outright in his concluding address,

a destructive tendency to do-gooding, which in the name of a false mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them, that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots

with the phrase ‘false mercy’ a nod to no less than St John Paul II. What does Francis mean by this? He means that we cannot truly serve people in their wounds and in their growth through crisis if we disregard the truth, if we cover over the truth with superficial or cheap dressings. As American Archbishop Kurtz put it, ‘Mercy without truth is not mercy’.

While the concrete solutions to the contemporary challenges that confront the family will be the subject of discussion over the next twelve months, the synodal process has already recalled two principles for our view of Church and mission. The first, that all people are called to Christ and the Church – as all are called to the King’s banquet in the parable of Matthew 22 – and second, that all people are called to conversion in Christ who is the source of true life  – as was the guest at the banquet called to change before approaching the table. The Church must both open wide its arms to the sinner and invite a new creation in each one of us, no matter what our state of life or circumstances may be. This is the universal hope and universal challenge of the Gospel.

Much more will be said on family and life issues in the coming year, by each of the local churches (dioceses), episcopal conferences and the observing media. As Catholics, we are being invited by Pope Francis explicitly and the debates of the synod implicitly to trust in the Spirit-filled capacity of the whole Church, all of us together, to know what the faith is and to better accompany all people in their journeys with the promise and joy of the Gospel.

 

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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.