Leading Change in the Mission of Christ

This weekend I was glad to speak at the Ignite Conference 2022, a collaborative initiative of the Emmanuel Community and our Sydney Centre for Evangelisation in the Archdiocese of Sydney.

I addressed the theme of “leading change”, speaking to the personal and ecclesial aspects of moving our communities and ministries toward a genuine missionary stance. I touched on the role of charism in leading and responding to change, and the personal challenges that leadership evokes in the Church today and supports for a ministry that is both sustainable and fruitful for Christ’s mission.

I am conscious of the many different and varied contexts in which we lead, whether we exercise influence in our local parishes or dioceses, schools, ecclesial movements or other communities of faith. One consequence of this is that the responsibilities of leadership that we hold will differ and so will the particular dynamics of leading change.

However, what these forms of leadership will hold in common is that they will ultimately be concerned with exercising effective influence towards a particular goal. More specifically, as Catholic leaders our goal will be in related to proclaiming and witnessing to God’s love given to us in Jesus Christ and engage the task of bringing people into the encounter, surrender and the decision of faith. As leaders in the Church, we are called to be fruitful and make Christ’s life and mission powerfully present in our time with the people and communities that we serve. 

Leadership for mission, then, will not be primarily a rank or position but a choice and responsibility to actively serve a goal that is greater than ourselves.

Leadership Matters

Before examining the issues that arise when leading change in the Church, it is important to affirm that courageous leadership matters a great deal for the future of our Church and its presence in the world as a real sign and presence of Christ. 

In the Scriptures, Christ himself holds up leadership as essential to the continuation of his mission. Amidst the teeming crowds seeking out his help, Jesus still took the time to gather a group of leaders around him: forming, correcting and inspiring them; calling them into deeper discipleship; helping them to understand what impeded their leadership; and creating a culture of leadership as service.

We know that Jesus expressed compassion for people who did not have leaders: “He saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk 6:34). Jesus was critical of those who exercised their leadership without a spirit of service, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you…” (Matt. 20:25) and he rebuked those who evaded responsibility or led with impure motive, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matt. 23:4-5).

More positively, Jesus makes clear that all those who encounter him are given a commission to lead others to Him and to work toward the self-giving love, justice, forgiveness and abundance that marks God’s Kingdom. This pattern in Scripture is unmistakeable: those who experience a profound encounter with God are then given a mission to lead others to God.

As example, St Peter encounters Jesus in the miraculous catch and is called to follow Him and become a “fisher of men” (Matt. 4:19). Likewise, St Paul has a blinding encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus and is then called into God’s service in such a profound way that he proclaims, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). Clearly, leadership matters and is expected of us in extending the mission of Christ in every age. 

Varieties of Leadership

It is important to affirm that the various forms of leadership that Christ gives to the Church for this mission do not compete with one another. Properly understood and exercised, these varieties of leadership and influence work together to build up the one Body of Christ.

For instance, our priests are most often responsible for the oversight, pastoral care and leadership of our parishes and chaplaincies. They teach the Catholic faith, sanctify through the sacraments and other rites of the Church and, in union with the bishop, build up the communion of the Church so it can be a convincing sign of Christ in the world.

We have consecrated men and women as well who express for the Church the primacy of the Holy Spirit in Christian life, a Spirit who manifests within the life of a specific religious order or community the fact that Christian discipleship is possible even in this way. These religious communities with their varied charisms and expressions remind us that diversity can be an expression of God’s life too.

There are also many lay leaders who lead and direct various pastoral works of the Church, who engage in ecclesial ministry in our parishes as youth ministers, sacramental coordinators, catechists, leaders of prayer groups and ministries, as well as in our Catholic schools, universities and other educational institutions. Lay people today oversee and lead our hospitals and healthcare facilities, welfare and social support services, and the Church’s outreach to the poor and vulnerable.

Then, there is the leading witness that all the baptised exercise in daily life, with the Spirit’s gifting we find described in the New Testament, particularly in Romans, 1 Corinthians and Ephesians. In his correspondence to the Christians at Ephesus, now the Izmir province in Turkey, St Paul writes, “The gifts He gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, and some teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). We are gifted differently and so will lead change differently. 

The apostles among us will be the visionaries who extend the Gospel, who can be found most often thinking and asking questions about the future and dreaming about what could be. They are our Peters, Priscillas and Aquillas.

Our prophets are those who prioritise listening to God, who enjoy time alone with God, who wait, listen and call people to obey God’s will, like Isaiah, Jeremiah and John the Baptist. Our prophets value holiness, obedience and God’s revelation. 

The evangelists among us enjoy talking to others about the life of Jesus and will have a primary concern to ensure new people are discovering and entering into Christ’s life and the Church. They enjoy discussions with those who are not Christians or far from the Church and are focused on inviting ‘outsiders’ in. 

In experience, many of the people in our communities tends to be shepherds. Shepherds enjoy one-on-one chats and helping others; they tend to lead with care, counsel, empathy and encouragement, much like Barnabas and James. They nurture and protect and are the caregivers of the community, focused on the interrelationships and spiritual maturity of God’s flock.

Our teachers are explainers of God’s truth and wisdom. They relish helping others understand the Gospel and the traditions and teachings of the Church and to apply this learning to their lives, much like Apollos and Philip. 

So, each of us are gifted in our own way, and each of us will tend to lead and indeed respond to change in accordance with our gifts and charisms. More often than not, we will lead change most effectively in our Church when we lead change alongside others who have different but complementary gifts to our own. 

For example, the visionary apostle often needs the presence of care that the shepherd brings so people are cared for rather than merely dragged along on a journey they are not accustomed to or comfortable with, and apostles also need prophets alongside them, so they are attentive to God and not acting purely on their own strength.

In my experience, when leading change in the Church, and specifically in our parishes, we will be challenged by leading change among a high proportion of ‘shepherds’, people who are the caregivers in community and prize stability and the interrelationships of a community. The great gift of shepherds is that they like to be with people in their lives, their brokenness and pain, and are highly empathetic. However, shepherds can also have difficulty moving people from that stage of life to the next stages of discipleship – to conversion of life, repentance and transformation. Shepherds may lack the confidence to challenge people to move forward, for fear that the person will be angry or upset with them. 

Similarly, leading change with ‘shepherds’ can be challenging because people gifted in this way tend to value stability and have a natural desire to avoid any negative impact on others. In light of this, shepherds usually benefit from having an apostle or evangelist alongside them to keep the mission moving forward, or else a prophet by their side to ensure the truth is spoken and people are being called to conversion, even when it is hard. 

However, the great gift of shepherds to the Church and leaders of change is that they can teach those who may be apostles or evangelists, who like movement and are eager to embrace ‘the new’ or untried, to minimise pain in the process of change and to be more attentive to the impact change can have on a community and their networks of relationship. 

The Need to Lead Change

Having recognised the different ways in which people will lead according to their gifts, we turn to the specific challenge of leading change. Change is a fact occurring around us and within us, and indeed there is no growth personally or for the Church as a whole without change. 

Take the challenge of change among our parishes for instance. Whether one is a priest, deacon, lay leader in parish ministry or a youth leader, the plain fact is that our parishes have not grown in roughly seven decades in Australia, since at least the 1950s. The majority of our parishes in Australia continue to decline each and every year. If our purpose as a Church is to evangelise, to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of this time, place and culture, then we cannot keep doing what we’ve always done and expect a different result.

When our local communities have been declining for decades, it is going to be inevitable that there will be a small amount of people who love how we do things as Church and as leaders in the Church, and a whole community out there who don’t.

If we want to be more effective in reaching people for Christ, we are called to re-evaluate. We are called to re-evaluate not the Gospel – the life of Jesus himself who remains the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8) – but the ways, methods and expressions by which we bring this Gospel or ‘Good News’ closer to the people of our time. In short, all of us as leaders need to confront the challenge of changing how we do things to be ever more faithful and fruitful to Christ. 

Whether we are wrestling with declining numbers in our pews; changing priorities, expectations or demographics within our Catholic schools; changes perhaps in the available resources at your disposal or personnel or volunteers for shared ministry and service; or responding to new developments in the life of our Church or within the wider community, good leadership in the Church today means leading change. In fact, it can be said that if we as leaders in the Church are not leading change, we are probably not leading at all. By very definition, to lead means taking a team, a ministry, a community, and ourselves from one point to another. 

We have been tasked by Christ to grow the Church, to ‘go, make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19). When the landscape of faith in Australia is changing – when less people are close to the Church or Gospel than in previous generations, when more people claim no religious affiliation – we cannot afford to read off old maps. We are called to renew and change our approaches to evangelisation and outreach for the sake of the Gospel. This has been the pattern for the Church throughout the ages – adapting itself time and again to better proclaim and witness to the abiding Gospel and in full contact with the circumstances of its time.

It can be sobering for our communities, ministries and organisations to realise that they are perfectly structured and set up to achieve the results they are currently getting. If we want something other than the status quo, then we have to be prepared to change. Too often in Christian life we want God to do something new while we remain the same!

Leading change means making decisions about which direction our ministry or community should go, changing practices and methods to better fulfil our mission, reflecting on how to take others with us in that change, how to respond to the inevitable challenges and even resistance we can encounter in leading change, and how to sustain ourselves spiritually and otherwise throughout this process.

Preparing for Change

For many of us seeking to lead change in the Church – whether that change is big or small – we will inevitably find ourselves caught between an experience of a call and desire for renewal and the weight of church culture towards maintaining the status quo. In such an environment, it is important we do not become discouraged or disillusioned in the process of leading the growth and renewed vitality we all want to see in the Church.

It is worth noting that when we see people ‘burn out’ or become disillusioned in Church ministry, or even in their careers or vocations for that matter, it often has much less to do with how that person deals with the changes in their external environment and much more to do with how a person deals with themselves in the midst of that environment. After all, as the COVID-19 pandemic and our life more broadly will teach us, the only thing over which we can exert much control is our response to change, not the circumstances that surround us.  

So leading change is inherently challenging and self-implicating as it will test our character, what we value and believe within, how we respond to difficulties, relate with others, and understand ourselves before God. 

In leading change in the Church, it is always helpful to remind ourselves from the outset that the mission of our parish, diocese, or ministry does not all depend on us and that the Holy Spirit is always the primary agent of evangelisation, the one who bears the fruit and gives the growth, with whom we cooperate rather than substitute. It is equally important that we as leaders do not ‘spiritualise’ a lack of effort or fruitfulness in our ministry, and that we dedicate ourselves to making the very most of the gifts God has given us to serve God’s purposes. This means reflecting on and attending to a few key strategies so we can lead change well. 

Articulating our Reality

One of the practical things we can do in leading change well is to understand the landscape we are seeking to shape and influence. This is important because we want to build new approaches and strategies for mission on firm ‘rock’ rather than sand so to speak.

One of the best preparations for leading change in any organisation or community of the Church is to establish a clear view of reality, a firm and foundational understanding of the dynamics at play in a given scenario. This is especially important when the community or ministry we are trying to grow or change is complex or in crisis, which some would argue describes the current state of the Church. 

As an analogy, when a building is on fire or some other unexpected event occurs, the role of the leader is to give a clear account of what has taken place, working together with allies to convey this clear picture of reality. When the spokesman or woman comes forward to share what happened before a burning shop front, they exercise leadership simply by the act of describing reality for those trying to make sense of the scene (and without having done very much else!).

In a world of ‘fake news’ and fast online opinions, it is important to recognise a significant part of mature leadership is seeing the circumstances or situation we seeking to impact with clarity and depth. In other words, leading change involves doing some ‘homework’ or research and taking care and time to establish the facts. Leaders who have only half of the facts in hand or tend to be reactive or impulsive in response to situations can lead change that can be ineffective or even damaging. Their intent can be good, but their impact can be terrible. As the saying goes, “for every complex problem there are solutions that are simple, clear and wrong”. For a community as complex and important as the Church, there are few if any ‘silver bullets’ and this means engaging the full complexity of a scene rather than only the parts we want to see. 

For instance, when leaders turn to address the reality of declining Mass attendance in our Church, it can be all too tempting to put this at the feet of poor preaching, bad music and unfriendly people. It is true that these internal factors can discourage people’s engagement with our parishes and addressing these issues is pivotal. However, the reality is that people’s disengagement can also be the result of external factors, chief among them sport or other personal priorities at the weekend, or an unsupportive spouse or children. In short, disengagement from worship can be influenced by factors which have little to do with the experience of the parish in the pews as such.

How we define a pastoral problem and understand its causes will shape the responses we pursue in leading change. Building solutions on oversimplified, only partial or erroneous understandings of the present can lead to poor responses or, at the very least, incomplete ones that may not bear the full fruit we want to see.

Casting Vision

Complementing a firm grasp of the current reality is the need for leaders of mission to cast and unpack with their people a compelling vision of what the future could look like if change was realised and to bring others into this vision of a better future.

Again, as example, here in the Archdiocese of Sydney the key change we have identified as being at the heart of increased participation in worship, growing income and resources for our parishes, and increased support of volunteers and parish personnel is the growth of personal discipleship. Parishes change and grow only when people change and grow. 

However, in casting this vision with our parishes we were conscious that if nobody in our parishes, or Church agencies for that matter, talks about what Christian discipleship looks like, it becomes difficult for people to begin to walk on that road. As Sherry Weddell notes, “Unfortunately, most of us are not spiritual geniuses. If nobody around us ever talks about a given idea, we are no more likely to think of it spontaneously than we are to suddenly invent a new primary colour. To the extent we don’t talk explicitly with one another about discipleship, we make it very, very difficult for most Catholics to think about discipleship” (Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples). It is difficult to believe in and live something that you have never heard anyone talk about.

In the same way, reviewing our local parishes, youth groups, ministries and communities will remain a theory unless we have clear and consistent leadership that communicates a vision and inspires the engagement of the whole community in that vision for Christ. 

In forming our vision, Pope Francis has called us repeatedly to expand our vision beyond a narrow concern for self-preservation and to embrace a vision of evangelisation, reaching out beyond ourselves to seek out all those who are lost. If we are leading a ministry or community today and outreach to those who are not Christians or are otherwise far from the Church is not part of its vision, the lifespan of that ministry or community is already limited before it has even begun.

A clear vision for evangelisation – for making “missionary disciples” as Pope Francis puts it – is a necessity to maintain even what we have as local communities of faith. This is obvious enough in the struggle to maintain our ministries, our giving and even, in some parishes and ministries, our hope. More positively, when we bring new people to Jesus and the Church it plants energy and life in our communities.

While we as communities and ministries can naturally tend to focus on the flock or the sheep we do have, there is an increasing recognition that the sheep are not having ‘baby sheep’ and that we will have to learn a new skill set in this age which is actually an ancient one. We need to learn to ‘fish’ like the first disciples of Jesus and cast our nets far, rather than ‘making do’ with a slowly diminishing flock. Leading change in such a way that attends to the unchurched and those far from the Gospel aligns with the saving mission of Jesus who comes not for the righteous but for sinners, who places the needs of the outcast and ailing even before his own flock, a focus that, paradoxically, renews the flock and reminds the sheep of what it means to follow Him. 

Addressing Resistance

Having talked about the importance of a clear view of the pastoral reality and casting a compelling vision for a preferred future, one of the realities for all leaders who are leading change is the likelihood of resistance. Change always sounds great until people start to experience it! 

When we encounter resistance to change that we as leaders have either proposed or introduced, it can be helpful to realise the source of that resistance is not usually a lack of vision but in fact too many visions. As noted earlier, all of our people will have a different experience and perspective of Christian life – some will be apostles who are open and eager to break new ground, others are teachers who want their community to be primarily a school of faith where people learn and think, while others envision the Church as called primarily to offer the embrace of a sheepfold, to privilege care and nurturance of the flock.

The upshot of all these perspectives is that some in our communities will find proposals for change that might propose unnecessary, alarming or a threat, as misdirected, or wasteful of time and money. Unless it is a really terrible idea, we will usually have some supporters, alongside a good number of people in the ‘middle’ who prefer a ‘wait and see’ approach, while the remainder will be indifferent, resistant or opposed.

In managing such community dynamics as leaders of change, we should be careful not to treat these cohorts the same. Time and again, it has been shown that giving too much oxygen to the vocal minority who tend to oppose change can take up enormous amounts of limited energy for little gain and these negative forces can drag others in the ‘middle‘ with them. In experience, leaders of change often focus on investing in and galvanising the ‘supporters’ for the change, the ‘early adopters’ who can influence and engage those in the ‘middle’ toward greater openness and engagement with the intended change.

This is not to say that we should entirely ignore the voices of those who oppose change as there is usually some aspect of truth that can be found even in those who might be most resistant. It is important to remember in leading change that behind every program or initiative that has had its day, or from which we need to move on, close or amend, there are real people and convictions. One of the proper responsibilities of leading change is to minimise the pain of change and to ensure as many people are included in the new direction or approaches that we pursue. 

Sustaining Our Leadership

I wanted to conclude by addressing the issue of resilience in leading change as burn out, disillusionment and discouragement can impact upon many leaders in the Church seeking to move a community or ministry group from one point to another. Our reactions to the criticisms we might face or the challenges we might endure will often force us to face up to our inner motives; those things that are of ultimate value to us; even our beliefs about God, ourselves and others. 

However, leadership is not a journey that is meant to be travelled alone and the necessary supports of a regular sacramental life and constant prayer, professional supervision, the company and understanding of peers, and some form of mentoring or coaching can also help us and save us unnecessary pain. As it is said, ‘self-experience can a brutal teacher’ and learning from others who can mentor and guide us from their own experience of change can save us unnecessary hardship.

We also need to develop a clear sense of the boundaries of our responsibilities – what is within our control and influence, and what is beyond it and for which we need not take responsibility. A reliance on prayer and a healthy surrender to grace and the providence of God in our daily efforts can give us the confidence to lead boldly while remaining open and humble before God and others, a spirit that echoes the trust of Christ in the Father and the great saints who were led by the Spirit, exercised their gifts and were ultimately faithful, even in trial and tribulation, to God’s purposes.

I close with this encouragement from the First Letter of St Peter, which reminds us, “Whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11). This divine life is the source of all authentic change in our Church and the source of our joy in our cooperation with God in leading change.

the Spirit of the Risen Christ

Paschal CandleWe celebrate the Ascension of Christ and approach the Feast of Pentecost in the light of the Resurrection. Christ is risen. Truly, He is risen!

The readings in these past weeks of Eastertide have focused our attention on the appearance of the risen Jesus before the disciples, the first followers left distraught by the death of Jesus and struggling to come to terms with his rising.

The post-Resurrection narratives describe the disciples as “astounded” (Lk 24:22), “slow of heart” (Lk 24:25), “startled”, “terrified” (Lk 24:37), “disbelieving” (Lk 24:41) and “afraid” (Mk 16:8) as they grapple with this revelation – that Jesus is alive and walks among them in glory. In contrast to the authors of the Gospel who were writing decades after the Resurrection and knew how the story would end, the first disciples as contemporaries of Jesus did not yet have that same privilege nor did they possess that same confidence. Their experience of God’s revelation, of the new world signalled by an empty tomb, was far more hesitant if not uncertain. Salvation history was still unfolding before their very eyes.

PentecostAs we learn from the Acts of the Apostles, it is the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, promised to them by Jesus at his Ascension, that marks a new chapter in the disciples’ faith.

It is this Spirit that empowers the once frightened disciples to ‘go out’ into an unpredictable and even unknown world with courage and the conviction that life has conquered death in Jesus Christ. It is in the Risen Jesus that the promises of God had been fulfilled and it was his Spirit that made of the first disciples, and the apostolic generations to come, bold witnesses and bearers of this good news “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

In short, it is the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that inserts the disciples more deeply into this mystery of Jesus, that leads his followers to receive, live by and share in word and witness the truth of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

Being Christian Today

As Christians of the twenty-first century we can find ourselves feeling at times a bit like the first disciples of the Gospel narratives. We can encounter Jesus and yet harbour doubts or feel our vulnerabilities in a world no more certain or secure than that of other ages.

We know from personal experience that our discipleship is a pilgrimage, that it is the work of a lifetime to grow in holiness and understanding. In the course of this time, we learn to hand over our lives ever more fully to what God has accomplished on the Cross and on the third day. The new covenant comes to us as a grace but also sets before us the life-long project of accepting this new beginning by our conversion to Christ, “in living his mysteries, in making our own his example, his thoughts, and behaviour” (Pope Benedict XVI). Today we can find ourselves “slow of heart”, “disbelieving” and “afraid” standing before this call to conversion, reluctant to make that surrender to the Holy Spirit and to take that decision for Christ that faith entails.

COVID-19It happens that in these past months the experience of surrender has come to us. A global pandemic has left us dependent upon and yet strangely cautious of others, all at once. Individuals and entire communities are now vulnerable to a terrible scourge, originating on a distant horizon, that has brought life as we know it – in our homes, schools, workplaces and churches – to a collective and sudden halt. This global disruption is a striking reminder for us as Christians, and others besides, that we are not masters of our own world.

Our fundamental vulnerability to life’s contingencies can be a particularly startling experience for a culture that feeds on and even profits from the illusion of control. In this day there are no lack of techniques, products or technologies that offer, for a price, a sense of self-sufficiency or that cast self-willed autonomy as the way to personal fulfilment.

As Christians we live by a very different story. This story is one in which our origin, life and destiny cannot be imagined apart from the mystery of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen – nor can our culture, the economy or the future of the world itself for that matter. Our identity and the very meaning of our life arise from and depend upon the presence of another. It is by the Spirit that we encounter this Christ, the light of the world, with us “always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).

It is our surrender to this Holy Spirit, who has been “poured out” so we can “both see and hear” (Acts 2:33), that enables us to receive God’s presence and power in our joys and our sufferings, to proclaim Christ in the face of opposition, to serve the poor with the love of Christ, and that offers us the virtue of hope for our future. In the language of Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, it is new life in the Spirit that enables “the young to see visions” and “the old to dream dreams” (Acts 2:17).

As Christians we undertake a pilgrimage of discipleship that is not simply arduous but that is good and through which we are led to be ambassadors for Christ and of service to others. What the Gospels make clear is that we cannot walk or serve as witnesses in this world or aspire to the next without the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God who has been a part of the world’s story, and our story, from its very beginnings.

A Spirit-Filled Tradition

GenesisAs we pray and reflect on the role of the Holy Spirit in the world, we find this life-giving presence in the opening verses of the Hebrew Scriptures. Here we see the Spirit of God at the beginnings of creation as it “sweep[s] over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2).

Through this Spirit, God brings the world into being – night and day, sea and land, every living creature, humankind in his image and according to his likeness.

Reflecting on God’s creation in the thirteenth century, Saint Bonaventure would posit that it is the love in God that is so great and fruitful that God makes a gift of this divine love beyond Himself. In other words, the love that God is spills over into creation. It is this breath of Yahweh that communicates life in the world.

However, the spirit of God does not stop at a single act of creation. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures it is the Judaic sense of rûaḥ or ‘breath of wind’ which signifies God’s power, a spirit that continuously and constantly acts in and upon human history.

This spirit of God causes humanity to act so that God’s plan in history can be fulfilled. It is God’s Spirit that empowers God’s people – persons such as Joseph, the example of faith; David, shepherd and king; Moses and Joshua, leaders of the people; the prophets and elders – to accomplish His mighty works.

ChristThis spirit-filled history of salvation continues into the New Testament where the revelation of God comes to fulfilment in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ entire life unfolds under the sign of the Spirit.

It is by the Spirit that the young Mary conceives Jesus (Lk 1:35). It is the Holy Spirit that descends upon Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan, anointing him as the Beloved Son of the Father (Lk 3:22).

It is the Spirit that leads Jesus into the desert for fasting and prayer prior to his public ministry (Lk 4:1) and it is Jesus who will act through the Spirit, healing the sick (Lk 6:19), preaching and praying for his disciples and for the salvation of the world.

It is Jesus who sanctifies the ordinary things of this world – water, oil, bread and wine – by the power of the Holy Spirit. He renders all things holy, directs God’s gifts toward God’s glory, to the praise of his Father.

Finally it is the Risen Jesus, the glorified Lord, who gives the Spirit, the Advocate (Jn 16:7), to the disciples, to the Church, to continue and make present his truth, his Word, his teaching, his way, his life in the midst of the world.

The Holy Spirit and the Believer

If this is the ‘biography’ of the Holy Spirit, of God’s creative and redemptive power, what are the signs of the Holy Spirit in our time and in our world? What is more, what difference does the Spirit make to the world of our experience?

First and foremost the difference that the Spirit makes in our world is mediated in and through the lives of the Christian faithful and through the community of Christians, the Church.

The Holy Spirit is truly present in the world in each Christian baptised in the name of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are confirmed in faith by the Spirit’s action and anointing, and receive the Eucharist, Christ’s body, by the invocation of the Holy Spirit.

By this sacramental initiation into the Church, we are made anew in Christ by the Holy Spirit. As St Paul declares of our Christian life, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3).

St PaulThis Spirit comes to each one of us as a gift but also as a challenge to the ongoing conversion of our heart and mind. As the source and giver of all holiness, we implore the Spirit to keep us in grace and remove those artificial obstacles, habits and ways of thinking that prevent us from living fully in and for Christ. As St Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans, our baptism in Christ calls us to live no longer by the flesh, by the material things or selfish desires of this world, but to live according to the Spirit (Rom 8:5). It is for this new life that the Spirit of God dwells in us, the very same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 8:11).

In our Christian living, we are no longer beholden to a spirit of slavery or have need to fall back into fear (Rom 8:15). We have received a spirit of adoption, become sons and daughters of God. It is the Holy Spirit that bestows upon us the eyes of faith, the capacity to see others not as we would see them but as Christ sees them, to see the world as God looks upon the world. We appreciate what is positive in others and in the whole of creation, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God. The Spirit teaches us to ‘make room’ for the other and to bear one another’s burdens with gentleness (Gal 6:2).

The Spirit also enables us as Christians to have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16). We are endowed with the ability to respond to Christ’s words and open our minds to the understanding of his death and resurrection. In this way the Spirit keeps us faithful to Jesus in the present, activating and guiding our discernment to speak and act as Christians in the world so that this world reflects more and more of God’s Kingdom, the “fullness of life” that God intends for us and all creation (Jn 10:10).

The Spirit is particularly manifest in the world in the gifts that have been endowed upon each of the baptised. In addition to the gifts and fruits of the Spirit outlined in the writings of St Paul, which are gifts given for us to keep, the Holy Spirit also bestows charisms, special abilities for others, that enable us to be powerful channels of God’s love and redeeming presence in the world. Whether extraordinary charisms, like healing, or ordinary charisms, like administration, these are to be used in charity or service to build up the Church for the sake of our world (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 798-801).

We see the Spirit at work in the lives of the faithful, in such charisms as hospitality, of intercessory prayer, leadership and knowledge, the discernment of spirits, charisms of teaching and wisdom, and service and poverty among others. Received through Baptism and Confirmation, these charisms empower the People of God to have an impact on the world that surpasses their natural, human abilities. These are graces freely given by God, that call to be discerned among the whole People of God to actively help spread the faith, the Good News as missionary, Spirit-filled disciples.

SaintsOf course, the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit are especially manifest in the saints. These ‘bright patterns of holiness’ remind us that Christian sanctity is not just an ideal or possibility but a reality in concrete persons and the concrete conditions of the world. This cloud of witnesses, these Christian exemplars, are models of holiness who have responded to the needs, challenges and opportunities of their time. These saints allowed themselves to be filled with the Spirit. In the pattern of Mary, “full of grace” the saints give birth or expression to Christ in the world.

The diversity of their holy lives attests to the creativity of the Holy Spirit, each saint demonstrating that Christian holiness can be lived even in ‘this’ way. No doubt the Holy Spirit, agent of evangelisation and soul of the Church, is making news saints in our time who will open up new and fruitful ways for responding to the Gospel in the future, who will be new manifestations of the Spirit of Christ alive, illuminating the world.

The Holy Spirit and the Church

As evident in the communion of saints and those first disciples gathered in the Upper Room, a primary way the Holy Spirit acts in the world is to bring the Church into being.

22.4.2010: south wall, Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, RavennaThe Church, as the third-century theologian St Hippolytus affirmed, is “the place where the Spirit flourishes”. The Church is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit animating and bringing to life and holiness its members through the Word and sacraments, the ministry of the ordained (our bishops, priests and deacons), the various gifts and charisms of the faithful of every rank, the varieties of religious orders and ecclesial movements that express the Spirit’s power and anointing.

So integral is the connection between the Holy Spirit and the Church that St Irenaeus would proclaim as early as the second century, “for where the Church is, there also is God’s Spirit, and where the Spirit of God is, there are also the Church and all grace” (Book III, Against Heresies).

A particular aspect of the Spirit in the Church is its role as principle of unity, enabling all people to be one and the unity to be a multitude. The Spirit gathers what has been scattered, overcomes division and unites difference. It brings into communion the People of God, a people of every culture, nation, tongue and tribe, in the one body of Christ.

Like a soul is to the body, the Holy Spirit binds all the members of the body of Christ to its Head and to one another. This unity is one of the ways in which the Church gives witness to Jesus Christ, through whom “God was pleased to reconcile… all things” (Col 1:20). As we have learned from our history, a lack of unity within the Church or poor witness seriously impairs the ability of the world to see the Church as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, as a source and expression of God’s love.

Therefore, to be fruitful in its evangelising mission, the Church privileges unity which will be not the product of our efforts or structures alone but the fruit of our common docility to the Holy Spirit. Just as St Paul entreated the community at Ephesus centuries ago, so too are we to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:4).

Not only does the Spirit make the Church one, it also leads the Church to be faithful, in ever deeper adherence to Christ. As identified by John’s Gospel, the Spirit guides the ecclesial community “into all the truth” of God’s revelation (Jn 16:12).

The Church Fathers of the third and fourth century were themselves conscious of a tradition or communication of the Holy Spirit that ensured the unity of the faith in the churches spread far and wide across the ancient Mediterranean. It was the Holy Spirit promised and given to the Church by Jesus that ensured the faithful transmission of the faith.

The Church remains today as it was then, ‘apostolic’ in its Spirit-inspired efforts to be faithful to the Gospel and to interpret it as Good News for the world. In this task, the bishops as successors of the apostles have a particular charism, to serve as the visible principle and foundation of unity in the particular churches and to exercise a special competence within the Church to ‘test all things and hold fast to that which is good’ (Lumen Gentium 12).

It is important to note here that the Spirit also enables the fidelity and adherence of the Church to Christ through the personal conversion of all the faithful, the reading of Scripture and immersion in the tradition, the initiative of local communities, parishes, families and groups, the teaching, sanctifying and pastoral government of our priests, the apostolate of our religious, whether obscure or well-known, and the birth of new movements and forms of evangelisation that are fresh signs of the Spirit active in the world. In the end, the Church is no less than the world as those who believe in Christ and who live by and engage this world by the influence and promptings of the Spirit.

‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ 

FraAngelicoAs the Feast of the Ascension brings us to reflect on our Christian pilgrimage in this world and to the next, we do not have a choice between God and the world. As Christians, we choose God by choosing the world as it really is in Him. We choose God by working toward the transformation of the world as disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit who inspires true freedom and furthers God’s plan of salvation.

In human lives transformed, in the works of justice and mercy that express Christ’s love, the prayer and worship that reveal his glory, in outreach to and inclusion of the poor and vulnerable that reveal his heart, the Spirit moves the world toward its fulfilment.

By the Spirit each of us are sharers in Christ’s mission and we are inspired by a constant and healthy unease in the world to make all things new in Him. As Christ himself beseeches each one of us “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22), the spirit of truth, love and holiness that leads us home to God.

parish transformation by divine renovation

DRI recently returned from the Divine Renovation 2016 Conference which provided an opportunity to learn from and be immersed in the experience behind the book of the same name. For those who may not be familiar with this work, Divine Renovation tells the story of St Benedict’s Parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a parish led by Fr James Mallon in collaboration with his senior leadership team, parish team, pastoral council and an army of lay leaders, that has become a genuinely evangelising community that brings people into encounter with Jesus through a well-developed discipleship process (you can view highlights of the Conference here).

I was privileged to attend the conference as a guest of Alpha Australia which has become a significant point of connection for Christian leaders in our country, not only from our own church but from non-Catholic communities equally committed to transformation and missionary outreach.

While no silver bullet and a steadily evolving reality, the way of Divine Renovation is among the best models of parish-based evangelisation I have seen and experienced firsthand. It provides a substantial model of the evangelising Catholic parish that complements its predecessors and contemporaries, including the Church of the Nativity, the focus of the book Rebuilt.

As shared elsewhere, the Church of the Nativity in Baltimore targets its weekend experience toward the nuclear family and the God-seeker, with as few barriers to participation of children and newcomers as possible. By its focus on the newcomer (embodied in the personified target market, ‘Timonium Tim’) Nativity tends to function as a ‘personal’ or oratory parish with a dedication to reaching unchurched Gen X parents and their children. Overall Nativity functions well as a parish-wide enquiry or pre-catechumenal process in the context of community. 

It remains a privileged time to learn from these various models of parish, acknowledging their range of contexts, and to take up the challenge of grounding the best of these growing Catholic communities in our own pastoral life.

The Vision of Divine Renovation

FJMSo where to start with Divine Renovation? First and foremost St Benedict’s has been driven by the desire for a model of a renewed parish. While many have looked to the ecclesial movements for discipleship, authentic community and evangelisation, Fr James is adamant and passionate about the fact that our Catholic parishes do not have to be centres of mediocrity or minimalism in which people come forward for the sacraments but little else. Parishes can yet be evangelising communities in which dynamic Christian life, conversion and discipleship can be born and raised.

Divine Renovation identifies a principle issue for our parishes as a forgetfulness of who we are, our identity, and this is significant for what we do is rooted in who we are. As underscored by Pope Francis among others, we have often lost sight of our identity as a missionary Church, a Church of the Great Commission that is called to ‘go and make disciples’, to baptise and to teach (Matt. 28:19-20).

While our customary focus in parish life has been on catechesis and a sacramental life, these have often presumed discipleship or otherwise not confronted head on the reality that many of our people have not encountered the Lord personally, made him the total meaning of their life or yet given their life to him. This vital, spiritual breakthrough is the purpose for which our parishes exist. What is most often lacking in the culture of our parishes is not first and foremost knowledge of the faith but the passion and desire for ongoing conversion and mission that emerges from a personal encounter with Jesus.

This initial realisation, which supports our movement toward cultural change, recalls a question that was once posed to me at a parish pastoral council meeting. What is the greatest stumbling block to the mission of evangelisation? It is a lack of faith and passion that the Gospel is worth sharing.

churchpewsThe confrontation of Divine Renovation, and much of the contemporary literature on evangelisation in the Catholic Church, is the suggestion that many of the people in our pews are not sufficiently converted, are not yet disciples or furthermore missionary disciples. As reiterated at the conference, while much energy can be dedicated in parishes on managing decline in our pews (or the limited number of our people actively involved in parish ministry and mission), our pews and mission will remain dormant or listless unless this first radical and personal conversion takes place (as it was shared mere “bums in pews are not going to change the world”).

In speaking of a change of parish culture, we find ourselves as Church caught between an experience of a call and desire for renewal and the weight of church culture towards maintaining the status quo (Divine Renovation 53). While many of our usual approaches to disciple-making are not as effective as we would like (e.g. the mixed results of our sacramental programs and low retention rates following RCIA), Church leaders and teams are so often bound by layers of expectation that demand the continuation of the old while new realities beg for expression. It was acknowledged that our parish cultures can also struggle with hope, which can be lost through hurt or disappointment. Our people can be fatigued, even exhausted, again by layers of expectations of the status quo and a system that wants change but refuses to change, and disillusionment and cynicism can set in when ministries and initiatives bear little or no fruit.

This time calls forth bold and passionate parish leadership and vision at this time, to see what is not yet, to create room for change (which involves a departure from the status quo), and then to move towards a new hope-filled possibility.

Divine Renovation in Practice

Below I have attempted to summarise the practical steps towards parish transformation as offered by St Benedict’s Parish, all of which can be found in the recently released Divine Renovation Guidebook. Happily, this guidebook reiterates many of the principles of pastoral planning that are the focus of this blog but brings great life, example and vitality to these principles.

1. Forming the right team. St Benedict’s values excellence and this informs their leadership team which operates on four key foundations: unanimity of vision, a balance of strengths, healthy conflict on the basis of mutual trust among members, and a great deal of vulnerability for leaders of parishes in maintenance mode are likely to be fairly competent in their routine but missionary leaders will soon be in unfamiliar territory, risking the unfamiliar and the untried for the sake of mission.

These principles also translate to the St Benedict’s parish pastoral council. All members have experienced Alpha themselves (the parish’s primary tool for evangelisation) and have read Divine Renovation so that all members share the same vision, a vision which is non-negotiable (however, how the parish might achieve that vision certainly is). It is also telling that the St Benedict’s parish pastoral council is not filled with ‘representatives’ from parish ministry groups, an approach taken by many communities, as this runs the risk of a focus on particular needs within the parish. Instead, the parish privileges passionate dreamers on their council who focus only on the ‘big picture’ of the parish and who have the practical skills to form, strategise and articulate plans to fulfil the parish vision.

IMG_1986In terms of team roles, it is worth noting that the parish pastoral council at St Benedict’s is dedicated solely to five year strategic planning, while the parish team dedicates itself to implementing those rolling plans through the laity they engage. Importantly, the parish team works on the organisation, not in it, are not “doers” of ministry but rather leaders who call forth and equip others who “do”.

It is a decentralised model of mission that carries implications for our priests. The pastors of St Benedict’s do not function as personal chaplains for every parishioner (as is often the case in our parishes or at least an expectation within communities) but as leaders out of team and champions of the parish vision for evangelisation, including by ‘preaching the announcements’. In seeking a balance of strengths with its teams, St Benedict’s uses the ‘Clifton Strengths Finder’ from Gallup to evaluate natural strengths among its leadership team. I would suggest that Sherry Weddell’s ‘Catholic Spiritual Gifts Inventory’ could also be used as a complementary resource to discern, develop and draw upon the gifts of the Spirit present among parish leaders in the most fitting areas of leadership. Other suggested tools for team evaluation recommended by the parish include the Birkman Method of evaluation and Myers Briggs.

2. As intimated, missionary parishes such as St Benedict’s Parish form and communicate a clear vision for their life and mission. To have a vision is to bring the hope of the future into the present. Where do we want to be in three or five years’ time? This vision can even emerge from our current frustrations in parish life for our recognised limits can be the mirror image of possibilities we would like to pursue into the future.

The parish vision at St Benedict’s is as follows, “Saint Benedict is a healthy and growing faith community that brings people to Christ, forms disciples, and sends them out to transform the world. Our members commit to worship, to grow, to serve, to connect and to give”. This grand vision for the parish provides the image of a preferred future that always remain a challenge for the community rather than an achievement or goal from which the parish will someday graduate. Complementing this grand vision is the purpose statement of the parish which makes concrete and drives the daily commitment of the parish to achieve the vision: “To form disciples who joyfully live out the mission of Jesus Christ”.

Again, it becomes the responsibility of the priest to constantly and continually communicate and preach this vision as the leader of the community and to ensure the ‘why’ and not just the ‘what’ of parish life and mission becomes transparent and compelling to staff and the parish at large. Of interest to pastoral planners, a large scale consultation process did not inform the formation of the parish vision at St Benedict’s though the parish team and ministry leaders contributed to its creation. With a large dose of reality, Fr James noted that while everyone wants a joyful and missionary Church, people can react badly when you begin implementing change to achieve this reality. It is a sober reminder that change for evangelisation demands leadership, not popularity or perfect agreement (indeed, it was an absolute democracy that delivered us Barabbas).

As a part of its vision, it is worth noting that St Benedict’s has described a disciple by the following qualities, again to establish the parameters of what they are seeking to achieve. A disciple in the vision of St Benedict’s Parish, and indeed for the Church, is one who:

  • has a personal relationship with Jesus
  • can and does share faith with others
  • is open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit
  • has knowledge and love of the Scriptures
  • knows basic Catholic theology
  • has a daily prayer life
  • experiences real Christian community
  • has a commitment to Sunday Eucharist
  • celebrates the Sacrament of Reconciliation
  • can pray spontaneously out loud when asked (this in fact presumes the practice of personal, daily prayer as aforementioned)
  • serves in ministry
  • and sees his or her life as a mission field (Divine Renovation Guidebook, p.59).

In forming a parish vision it is also necessary to have a clear understanding of where we are, as we can only responsibly plan for the future on the basis of an assessment of present reality. We cannot build houses on sand. From a pastoral planning perspective this is where demographics and other forms of data can be helpful as well as an inventory of the ministries and activities already present in the community of faith. Information and not anecdotes form the basis of rigorous parish assessment.

In explaining the need for an initial assessment of parish life, Fr James engages the analogy of a shopping mall – to find what we are looking for involves a clear vision of what we seek to attain. However, before we can walk towards our goal we need to find the “You are here” dot on the shopping mall map to determine our starting point.

In its parish assessment, St Benedict’s draws on five systems of a healthy church as articulated by the evangelical pastor and author Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, California. The parish assessment process can involve a leadership team or parish pastoral council categorising its current activities under these five categories to develop a self-understanding of where it is, where it needs to grow, and what may be missing from our parish life in the pursuit of health and missionary vitality. These five systems are:

  • Worship (including Eucharist, prayer meetings and times of praise experienced in small groups)
  • Evangelisation (involving proclamation of the kerygma, the basics of our Christian faith, and bring people beyond and within the community to a personal encounter with Jesus)
  • Discipleship (meaning the lifelong process of growing, maturing and learning, involving catechesis but also prayer life and discernments of gifts or charisms)
  • Fellowship (the experience and commitment to meaningful community in the body of Christ)
  • Ministry (meaning here service to others and so referring also, in this model of parish health, to what may be more particularly understood by theology as ‘mission’)

3. Planning with priorities. Planning can then takes place in each of these five areas, commencing with a SWOT analysis of each of the five areas, and then identifying goals, action steps, owners of each action, completion dates and forms of measurement to respond to each quadrant (e.g. a mini plan for the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for ‘worship’). As a further example in analysing their own efforts in the area of evangelisation, Alpha was identified as a strength at St Benedict’s while their weakness was ‘invitation’ and so this provided the basis for stronger promotion and invitation by the parish priest and team, supported by the overall communications efforts of the parish. In working with parishes over the years it is undoubted that this depth of planning requires significant leadership with the right skill set and experience in planning, underlining again the need for discernment of the parish pastoral council members who can effectively lead this work forwards. The Divine Renovation Guidebook provides a 6 month planning guide on pages 106-115 which parishes will find helpful, while a basic parish planning template I have used with local parishes is available here.

Given that all parish resources are limited, the planning exercise also needs to prioritise what gets done first and what is implemented later. Prioritising ensures the best use of constrained resources, improves the speed of decision making, brings order to chaos, and reduces parish stress. The conference affirmed that setting priorities is among the most important things that parish leadership can do. It will involve the decision to say ‘no’ to good things in order to choose the best things. People will be disappointed with the selection of particular priorities apart from others but this selectivity frees a parish to pursue its vision beyond the layers of expectation that tend to privilege the status quo (i.e. maintenance).

4. In its order of priority, St Benedict’s formed and follows a process of discipleship which it describes as its “Game Plan”. For me, this is the genius of the culture of St Benedict’s. There are seven ingredients of this process as seen in the diagram below:

The Game Plan B & W

As explained by the Divine Renovation Guidebook (p.164-165), ‘Invitational Church’ is not a program but an attitude and parish culture in which St Benedict’s continually seeks to grow. The parish measures ‘success’ not necessarily by the number that show up but the number of invitations that are made, recognising the responsibility of the parish lies with the offer not the response (it is encouraging to note that if a parish has some 1,000 people in church, and half of them invited one person each week, and one in five of all those asked said yes, it would bring some 100 new visitors to the parish on any given weekend).

The emphasis on ‘Alpha’ as a way of ‘on boarding’ people into the life of discipleship recognises that the Catholic Mass presumes so much, being as it is worship for the initiated. St Benedict’s encourages all who wish to be part of the parish to take Alpha. The Alpha process provides an experience of hospitality and community life, exposure to the kerygma and group discussion that is welcoming of both newcomers and more established Catholics, recognises that people seek to belong before they believe and behave, and forms the primary evangelising tool at St Benedict’s Parish.

splash-logoIn discussion with facilitators of Alpha in Australia, it has been recommended that Alpha be first piloted by your parish with a mix of parish staff, parish pastoral council members, committed parishioners who may not already be involved in a ministry, and new Catholics. It is notable that St Benedict’s engages Alpha not only to initiate the journey of discipleship but to develop lay leaders, as a part of their RCIA process, and as an element of marriage preparation for couples.

Following Alpha parishioners are invited to join a Connect Group (an economy of small groups in the parish, of around 25 to 35 people, led by two couples, that meet together fortnightly in the homes of parishioners for a shared meal, singing and prayer, a talk by a member and intercessory prayer with one another) or to be a leader in the next series of Alpha (the parish seeks to have first time members comprise half of their Alpha leadership teams and to move those who have already served on the Alpha team to other ministries, thereby creating a continuous leadership pipeline).

Next, the hope is that every parishioner will also be involved in a ministry, an involvement that is shepherded from within a Connect Group. On reflection, this formation of Connect Groups is vital to the success of the parish as it provides a more intimate or personal experience of Church, and people are brought to maturity and accompanied in these groups by an encouragement towards ministry and mission. This twinning of accompaniment and mission neatly aligns with Pope Francis’ teaching in Evangelii Gaudium when he notes,

Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelisation. Paul’s relationship with Timothy and Titus provides an example of this accompaniment and formation which takes place in the midst of apostolic activity. Entrusting them with the mission of remaining in each city to “put in order what remains to be done” (Tit 1:5; cf. 1 Tim 1:3-5), Paul also gives them rules for their personal lives and their pastoral activity. This is clearly distinct from every kind of intrusive accompaniment or isolated self-realisation. Missionary disciples accompany missionary disciples (EG 173).

We learn from Connect Groups that healthy parishes make disciples that then make and accompany other disciples into mission.

As part of the St Benedict’s game plan, parishioners are also invited to involve themselves in a Discipleship Group that is focused on learning content (catechesis) and it is when the fullness of Christian life is being lived in the ways above that worship, especially the Mass, then comes to life, as the source and summit of a living faith. The parish offers a variety of styles of worship, including contemporary, traditional and contemporary choir.

The clear strength of the ‘Game Plan’, this process of discipleship, is that it provides pathways or an itinerary for personal growth rather than standalone programs that can run the risk of creating what Rebuilt well identified as a ‘Catholic consumer culture’ in which people expect but do not contribute, seek to be served rather than serve as missionary disciples.

It reminds us that programs without a larger context of process within a parish may provide an experience or consolation of a ‘quick fix’ but do not produce lasting or authentic renewal, as Fr James notes in Divine Renovation,

Any course run in a parish will be only as good as the culture of that parish. Even a very successful tool for evangelisation like Alpha will have a very limited impact if the values of a parish are vastly different from the values within a particular program” (p.94).

This same dynamic could be applied to large initiatives in the universal Church such as World Youth Day which risk being standalone events without address of the necessary cultural conversion of our local parishes to which our pilgrims return (it can, in the words of Fr James, “leave us open to charges of false advertising”).

Conclusion

IMG_1992While the processes of evangelisation and discipleship above are indeed impressive and can be overwhelming to consider for the parishes we know and love, it was assuring to learn that the parish of St Benedict’s has not achieved this clarity of vision and process overnight. The parish at the heart of Divine Renovation has arrived at this point after at least six years (if not more in the ministry of the pastor) of considerable trial and error, experimentation and ongoing refinement and reflection.

In a plenary session Fr James described to us three distinct phases of renewal that missionary parishes will undertake: the start of the journey, the middle phase in which we do not necessarily know where we are going, and our intended goal or landing point. We have in Divine Renovation great encouragement to begin the journey of renewal as parishes. For those communities that take the steps to form a vision, create the right team and start moving forwards, there will need to be an ongoing effort to uphold momentum (an initial momentum created at St Benedict’s by Alpha and that then led to the formation of Connect Groups). Momentum needs to be sustained during the middle phase of the renewal process for what works will eventually stop working without a renewed intent to grow and adapt (we know this to be the experience of many a youth group that begins with potential, builds a critical mass but eventually fades if change, further development, or a leadership pipeline is not inaugurated).

In its ongoing journey, the parish of St Benedict’s is married not to a method but to a mission, not to programs but a process of discipleship that creates opportunity and support for growth. This model challenges all of our parishes not simply to gauge their health by the number of groups within them, or by standalone events or programs, but to form a ‘game plan’ for active and missionary discipleship, the spiritual fruit of its members, which such programs might support (we seek not people to build up the Church but a Church that builds up our people).

The emphasis on a discipleship process challenges our parishes to move away from a habit of disconnected activity, a ‘spaghetti approach’ to pastoral life and events that might appease anxieties of leadership and a community looking for evidence of life. We know this approach eventually leads to burnout with little progress in cultural transformation. We need vision and coherency, to act out of a commitment to a defined mission. As was shared at the Divine Renovation conference, less is more and an overled but undermanaged environment will be ultimately unsustainable, with much activity but little progress.

Alive to the urgent need of missionary disciples in our age, Fr James and the parish of St Benedict have not only named but responded to what we are painfully conscious of as Church – the often poor health of our parishes reflected in declining participation and morale, a lack of growth and a clinging to ineffective routines, ministries that bear no or little fruit, an absence of bold and passionate proclamation of the saving Gospel, few genuine forms of evangelical outreach, and the result and reality that many of our people have never come to know Jesus personally.

St Benedict’s have responded by describing and dedicated themselves to being a healthy parish (drawing upon the five systems of vitality outlined), by inviting participation and expecting growth among its members and non-members, engaging Alpha as a practical tool for this purpose with an emphasis on the saving kerygma, nurturing community and involvement in ministry and mission through an experience of small group accompaniment, and underpinning all of this with a culture of invitation.

It is testament to the vitality of this parish that it recognises at all times that health, growth and conversion are the product of the Spirit of Christ who is the source of all holiness and mission. St Benedict’s Parish is an evangelising community that has learned, and is learning, to cooperate in the mission that belongs to God, to be a vine, heralding from the branch, that bears much fruit.

 

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.

 

solitude with thomas merton

Thomas-Merton2In Christian tradition, classic texts are those which occupy a privileged place in the community’s memory, response to and reception of the Gospel. They are committed texts with a specific ‘take’ on revelation and invite the reader to engage with this same commitment in the context of their own personal understanding and experience of faith. Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation is such a text and I’ve been revisiting it over these past few days here in Japan. It was among the first Christian texts that I ever read and remains a touchstone in the tradition.

For those new to his work and person, Merton was one of the great spiritual masters of the twentieth century, an American who came to Catholic faith in his twenties. Not long after, Merton entered a Cistercian monastery, Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, and then, almost by accident, penned a best-selling autobiography Seven Storey Mountain which brought him into a limelight he could not have anticipated and did not seek out (Merton would reflect, “The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real”).

Merton would go on to assume the role of novice master for his Order, publish widely on prayer, contemplation, monasticism and social issues, and became a prolific correspondent with intellectual and spiritual luminaries within the Church and beyond it. He died in Bangkok on the 10th December, 1968, at the age of 53, electrocuted by a faulty fan while attending a monastic conference. His body was flown home with those of dead U.S. servicemen.

Published in 1962, New Seeds of Contemplation is the coalescence of Merton’s ever-maturing reflection on the contemplative experience of God as the realisation and ground of identity. Commenting on previous drafts of the work, Merton would remark,

When the book was first written, the author had no experience in confronting the needs and problems of other men (sic). The book was written in a kind of isolation… the author’s solitude has been modified by contact with other solitudes; with the loneliness, the simplicity, the perplexity of novices and scholastics of his monastic community; with the loneliness of people outside any monastery; with the loneliness of people outside the Church. (New Seeds, ix-x)

New-Seeds-of-Contemplation-9780811217248In New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton gives voice to themes that he elaborated and refined throughout his life’s work, particularly the identity of the ‘true self’ hidden in God and the profundity and need of solitude.

According to Merton’s spiritual itinerary, the discovery of authenticity in Christ begins not with an awareness of what lies at the end of the road but with a recognition of the obstacles that block its very beginnings. He describes the fundamental obstacle to maturity as the dominance of the ‘false self’, also described in New Seeds as the “the smoke self”, “the empirical ego” or the “routine self” which takes itself seriously but does not even exist (New Seeds, 38, 281, 16).

This illusory self is the product of our own pride and self-determination, for unlike animals and trees which give glory to God in being themselves, we are at liberty to be real or to be unreal, “We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face” (New Seeds, 32). Layered with selfish desire and defensive mechanisms, we can be imprisoned within fictions of our own making:

I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface. (New Seeds, 34-35).

This propensity to construct and find assurance in superficialities includes the caricature of the ‘good Catholic’ and a heroic sense of spiritual achievement. In this critique, Merton was ever conscious of the ability of the false self to appropriate even religion or ‘spirituality’ as a secret means of control and separateness.

mertonMoving to the discovery of the true self, Merton identifies solitude as the pathway to true identity. As theologian David Ranson underlines, Merton would maintain that within each one of us is a solitary dimension, a dimension not to be afraid of or done away with but entered into for this is the monastic ‘cell’ in which God is most deeply encountered. There is a need for this solitude in our lives, not as a rejection of others or the world, but as a school in which we learn to be ourselves before God. Only then can we embrace and relate to others clear of the selfishness, need for possession and validation which characterises our insecure times. It is solitude that is the doorway to the contemplative experience in which God discovers Himself alone in us, not crowded out by idols on which our hearts have become set.

What is more, the experience of authentic solitude is for Merton fundamentally Trinitarian, for God “infinitely transcends every shadow of selfishness… He is at once infinite solitude (one nature) and perfect society (Three Persons). One Infinite Love in three subsistent relations” (New Seeds, 68). By this Trinitarian focus, Merton implies that the true solitary is not an individual, imprisoned in a dream of separateness, but a person deeply related to others.

Contemplative solitude, then, is not our own, and leads the pilgrim beyond all limitation and division: “He has advanced beyond all horizons. There are no directions in which he can travel. This is a country whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” (New Seeds, 81). Even the monk or hermit does not enter into solitude for his own purposes but in relationship to and for the good of others, for the Church and the world in which he remains embedded, inseparable and even necessary.

In the depths of solitude, often experienced in prayer, the movement toward authenticity comes by way of a self-emptying or kenosis: “a man cannot enter into the deepest centre of himself and pass through that centre into God, unless he is able to pass entirely out of himself and empty himself and give himself to other people in the purity of a selfless love” (New Seeds, 64). This selflessness, however, is only possible to the extent to which we are enjoined to Christ as it is he who first gave himself for humanity and makes that kind of self-giving love possible, “I become a ‘new man’ and this new man, spiritually and mystically one identity, is at once Christ and myself… This spiritual union of my being with Christ in one ‘new man’ is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, the Spirit of Christ” (New Seeds, 158).

candleMerton concludes that as long as there is an “I” aware of itself and its contemplation, an “I” that can possess a certain “degree of spirituality” then we have not yet passed into the fullness of contemplation, the fullness of Christian life itself (New Seeds, 292). Ultimately, the mature Christian has no psychological individuality or even self-conscious biography; all the shadows of self-assertion end at an interior death which, paradoxically, and in the light of the paschal mystery, emerges as the very beginning of a real, authentic life.

We can see that there is little sentimentalism in Merton’s writing and much challenge. In texts such as New Seeds of Contemplation we hear a robust call to purify our desires and to meet head on the ‘spiritual deaths’ that lower the ego and allow the emergence of the true self to take place. In this respect, the Christian life unfolds as ‘revolutionary’ though not in the sense of accelerated progress or an aggressive, suprahuman evolution. As Merton affirms,

… the burden of Christ’s Cross, that is Christ’s humility and poverty and obedience and renunciation… this is the most complete revolution that has ever been preached; in fact it is the only true revolution, because all the others demand the extermination of somebody else, but this one means the death of the [person] who, for all practical purposes, you have come to think of as your own self. (New Seeds, 144).

Merton reminds the Christian that the gift of faith is not an escape or an evasion but a project of deepening integration in our identity in Christ, one which carries with it a greater responsibility for the world and not less.

shibuyaOur life in Christ is not any more abstract or comfortable than life as we now know it, nor is it found in the sublime stories, private or collective, we tell about ourselves. The inheritance we receive from the writings of Merton is the decisive possibility of freedom and authenticity in faith, being who we have been made to be. It is an existential summons to unlock ourselves from the inside, from the imprisonment of our own private illusions and the masks that operate, as it were, ‘behind the Gospel’s back’. The path back to ourselves begins with an interior solitude that can be found even among the exterior noise and din that fills the world. Writing from Tokyo, a city of fourteen million, among the machines, lights, and appeals of the salesman, this pilgrimage seems more important than ever.

towards a planning culture in our church

plannerA fortnight ago I was in Brisbane for a meeting of the executive of the National Pastoral Planners Network (NPPN). It is a privilege to hear and share the concerns and aspirations that are shaping our dioceses around the country as well as in New Zealand. The network and its members offer a unique insight into the backstories shaping ecclesial culture and decision-making in our midst.

To put the network in context, the NPPN is a professional pastoral planning body that promotes and advocates a culture of planning within the Catholic Church in Oceania. It promotes consultation, facilitates the exchange of knowledge, provision of resources as well as training among pastoral planners. It is entering a new phase of life with a new executive and a developing focus on education and increased communication with the wider Church.

While the importance and rationale of pastoral planning is obvious to those of us involved – and indeed noticeable in dioceses when absent – there remains a need to promote with greater vigour a planning culture in our parish and diocesan communities. This advocacy is especially important at a time when the ecclesial, political and social landscape is more complex than ever, when there is division within the communion of faith, when the need for best practice in the Catholic Church is indisputable given our past and present, and when new generations await a compelling invitation from the Church to embrace the Gospel and the mission it entails.

collaborationWhile pastoral planners offer no ‘silver bullet’ for the many challenges of the Church (if we did, we would sell it to the world!), we provide advice to bishops and diocesan curia, collaborate with business managers, church agencies, clergy and local communities in a variety of circumstances. As pointed out in a previous post, dioceses in Australia are at varying phases of progress and idleness in terms of a more strategic approach to their pastoral life and this is not without consequence for their vitality.

In order to promote a culture of planning in our Church, an advocacy that I believe is critical to our future, it is important to name and address the scepticism and even resistance that can exist toward pastoral planning at a diocesan and parish level. If we truly believe planning is essential to the Church’s life, then we need to tackle objections to it for the good of our Church and its mission.

A central objection that can be expressed and calls for specific response is the view that pastoral planning takes a rather bureaucratic and functional approach to the Church. With talk of community engagement and stakeholders, strategic plans, policy development and the like, pastoral planning can appear to be driven by principles more commonly found in the Business Review Weekly than the Gospel. Some would view the enterprise of planning for the Church to be Pelagian in spirit for it suggests a lack of faith in the capacity of God to lead us to greener pastures.

336280_lowHowever, I believe that position not only misrepresents how pastoral planning is actually exercised in the Church (operating as it does from ecclesiological and missionary principles not management techniques) but it also tends to abstract the Church out of history with an opposite tendency toward fideism. It fails to appreciate that the Church’s mission is not only a gift but a task, a mission exercised in history and that calls for human decision and agency as well as the graces we implore from God. (At the time of the last conclave, I reflected on the interaction of the Spirit and human decision-making here).

Indeed, pastoral planning, properly understood, is a response of faith to the mission with which we have been entrusted. It recognises as well the very sacramental nature of the Church – Christ present in and through the community of those who believe in Him – and values practices of consultation, discernment and prioritisation as a means of making the most of the faith, gifts and resources given to us as stewards of the Kingdom.

As intimated previously, planning can take on a determinative or self-satisfied spirit but only when it fails to acknowledges its own limits within an ‘open’ system such as the community of the Church. It is worth repeating that addressing pastoral dilemmas within a diocese is not the same as a problem of mathematics, such as solving an equation, nor is it the same as playing a game of chess. In the latter cases, it is clear when the problem has been resolved – the equation is solved or checkmate is declared.

For Church planners, however, the dilemmas never end because there is always something more that could be done in the name of Christ and his mission. More realistically, church leaders and planners will say, ‘that’s good enough’ or ‘this is the best we can do for now’ before reassessing priorities and remedies and/or any adjustments that need be made in subsequent phases of ecclesial life.

This ever changing and fluid nature of our dioceses and our parishes is more of a reason to plan than an excuse not to. Planning is an appropriate response to change and takes a pro-active stance towards the future rather than letting the Church be shaped passively by external forces which has been the reality in past stages of its history.

consultationUltimately, a planning culture will be fostered in our Church by dioceses and church organisations witnessing to the benefits of planning and consultation, as well as serious reflection on the consequences of not doing either. A refrain of this blog and the project in my own Diocese of Parramatta is that a failure to plan does not leave communities where they are but can actually speed their decline. Churches and parishes that grow are communities that plan, that express an intentionality about their life, have a clear Gospel vision and commit themselves to actions appropriate to context. We cannot rely on the charismatic fact that things will simply fall together; organisation and planning is indispensable for persons to do things together.

Responses to pastoral planning will largely be determined by our expectations and understanding of its practice. While it has an undeserved reputation for being in the business of closing parishes and responding to diminishing numbers of clergy (again, both misapprehensions of a broader missionary reality), pastoral planning is a vital resource for the Church’s mission without which our dioceses can be left only with vague decision-making processes, a deficit of shared vision and with that a lack of common commitment. It is hoped that through witness and best practice there will be more pastoral planning in our Church in the years and indeed the generations to come.

coresponsibility in communion

jvaleroThis week I was privileged to attend and present at the Great Grace Conference, an event hosted by the Archdiocese of Sydney to commemorate 50 years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council. The keynote address and workshops proved dynamic and engaged head on with the issues that confront the Church and its mission, including the challenge of modernity, the need to address the education of the laity, and issues of authority and power, among others. Thank you to the 100 or so participants who attended my own workshop over the past two days which focused on the theme of ‘co-responsibility’ and lay leadership in the Church.

The conference dinner, held last night, brought together a remarkable mix of delegates, bishops, theologians and lay leaders in the Church. It was good to catch up with new and old friends, including Robert Tilley of the Catholic Institute of Sydney and the University of Notre Dame, Matthew Tan of Campion College, Byron and Francine Pirola of the Marriage Resource Centre in Zetland, an inspiring couple of the Neocatechumenal Way, and the UK’s Jack Valero of CatholicVoices (pictured), a bold and pioneering lay-led media initiative that began in 2010 and that has just established itself in Melbourne (I’ll be blogging more about this initiative in weeks to come). The conference concludes today with addresses from Tracey Rowland and Bishop Mark Coleridge. Next week takes me north to the Gold Coast for the National Pastoral Planners Network Conference where I’ll be presenting on strategic planning within church communities.

For now, here is a summary of my ‘Great Grace’ presentation on co-responsibility which may be of interest to laypersons, religious or clergy in service of the Church (for those who prefer to listen, an audio file of the live workshop is now available here):

Since the Second Vatican Council the concept of ‘collaboration’ has been the dominant framework through which the relationship of laity to the ministry of the clergy has been read. However, that began to change on 26 May, 2009, when Pope Benedict XVI, in an address to the Diocese of Rome, raised the term ‘co-responsibility’ as an appropriate hermeneutic through which to interpret the role of laypersons in the Church.

This concept of ‘co-responsibility’ has surfaced as an explicit theme of the Church’s self-understanding only in recent decades. Even then, the idea appears in outline, and occasionally, rather than in a fully elaborated or systematic manner. When it does appear, the primary contexts in which the term ‘co-responsibility’ is employed in the official documents of the Church include the relationship between local churches, the workings of the college of bishops, the bond between nations, and the relationship of the Church and Christians to civil society. The term appears in the Catechism of the Catholic Church only once, again in the context of the duties of Christians toward the common good (cf. CCC n.2240).

To my knowledge, the first magisterial application of the term ‘co-responsibility’ to the laity appears in John Paul II’s 1988 Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, Article 21:

The Church is directed and guided by the Holy Spirit, who lavishes diverse hierarchical and charismatic gifts on all the baptised, calling them to be, each in an individual way, active and coresponsible.

The third chapter of the exhortation makes clear the context of this common responsibility – it is for the Church’s mission in the world which includes witness and proclamation of their communion with Christ. The document gives sparse attention to the responsibilities of laity within the Church, more concerned as John Paul II was at the time with a perceived “‘clericalisation’ of the lay faithful” and associated violations of church law.

jp11 version 2The term is repeated ten years later in John Paul II’s comments at General Audience on the Holy Spirit. Here he remarked, “[the laity’s] participation and co-responsibility in the life of the Christian community and the many forms of their apostolate and service in society give us reason, at the dawn of the third millennium, to await with hope a mature and fruitful ‘epiphany’ of the laity.” In this instance ‘co-responsibility’ is understood to embrace both the active contribution of laity within the Church’s life as well as their social mission beyond it.

Taken together, these early references do not supply us with a fully elaborated theology of co-responsibility. However, they do express an increasing consciousness of the agency of laypersons in the world as well as some recognition of their involvement in the Church. Laypersons contribute in both spheres, ad intra and ad extra, through their Spirit-led witness and baptismal discipleship.

Benedict XVI’s interventions

It was on the 26 May, 2009, that the term ‘co-responsibility’ first appeared in the thought of Pope Benedict, in continuity with the outline offered by John Paul II but with an added, distinguishing element that raises the profile of the concept for the Church’s self-understanding. The occasion was the opening of the annual Ecclesial Convention of the Diocese of Rome. Expressing the need for renewed efforts for the formation of the whole Church, Benedict insisted on the need to improve pastoral structures,

. . . in such a way that the co-responsibility of all the members of the People of God in their entirety is gradually promoted, with respect for vocations and for the respective roles of the consecrated and of lay people. This demands a change in mindset, particularly concerning lay people. They must no longer be viewed as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy but truly recognised as ‘co-responsible’ for the Church’s being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity.

popebxviIt’s important to affirm that Benedict’s appeal for a new mentality and recognition of co-responsibility falls within the specific context of lay ministry in the Church, and not simply their involvement in worldly mission. In this statement, Benedict has in mind those “working hard in the parishes” who “form the core of the community that will act as a leaven for the others.” These ideas recur, almost verbatim, three years later in Benedict’s message to the International Forum of Catholic Action.

While, again, no systematic theology of co-responsibility appears in Benedict’s thought, he has introduced a degree of specificity to the term by way of a significant negation. The co-responsibility of the laity is not to be interpreted as a ‘collaboration’ in church ministry fitting to clergy alone, and therefore not as derivative in nature, but as an integral and authentic participation, an ecclesial responsibility, that is proper to laypersons themselves. It is because this contribution of laypersons is real, legitimate and essential to the Church’s life that it is to be given practical support in the form of appropriate structures.  The significance of this statement by Benedict is best appreciated in the light of previous statements of the magisterium on the role of the laity vis-à-vis the Church and ordained ministry.

The 1997 Instruction

Pope Benedict’s application of the term ‘co-responsibility’ to laypersons is particularly striking when read beside the 1997 instruction, issued by the Holy See some 15 years earlier, entitled “On Certain Questions Regarding Collaboration of the Lay Faithful in the Ministry of Priests.”

I singled out this document for it well represents the predominant thinking of the magisterium on the relation of the laity and ordained within the Church’s unity. The instruction sought to reinforce the essential difference between the clergy and laity in the light of a perceived blurring of the boundaries in ministry that risked “serious negative consequences” including damage to a “correct understanding of true ecclesial communion.” While the document affirms the common priesthood of all the baptised and sets the ministerial priesthood within that context, the Instruction nevertheless promotes what Richard Gaillerdetz describes as a “contrastive” or categorical theology of the laity.

Specifically, the Instruction defines laypersons from a hierarchiological perspective with their theological status determined by two points of contrast with the ordained – the first, the ultimately secular character of the lay vocation in contradistinction to the ‘spiritual’ concerns of the ordained, and, secondly, the ministry of the baptised is differentiated from the ministry of the ordained by “the sacred power” (sacra potestas) uniquely possessed by the latter. Indeed, as Gaillerdetz observes, the Vatican instruction suggests that the fullness of ministry resides, by virtue of this sacral power, with the ordained alone.

On the basis of these two theological presuppositions – the ascription of laity to the secular realm and the ‘fullness of ministry’ to the ordained – the activity of the laypersons within the Church is cast as a ‘collaboration’ in the ministry of the ordained without a positive or integrated theological basis of its own. It must be said that the absence of such a theology can be explained, in part, by the purpose of the Instruction – it is a corrective, disciplinary document that seeks to uphold, quite rightly, the unique charism of the ordained. Still, as the Australian theologian Richard Lennan observes,

While that concern is proper, [such] documents tend to provide little encouragement to further reflection on the meaning of baptism, the possibility of ‘ministry’ for the non-ordained as other than a response to an emergency or an exception, or the implications of church membership for witnessing to the gospel in the communion of the church, rather than simply ‘in the world.’

The apprehension or hesitancy of this early Vatican instruction toward the status of lay involvement in Church ministry makes the “change in mindset” advocated by Benedict all the more significant. If laypersons are to be viewed not simply as collaborators in a ministry that belongs to another, but genuinely co-responsible in ecclesial life, as Benedict avers, then renewed reflection is called for regarding the positive theological status of laypersons and of their service in the Church, one that stretches beyond the paradigm of ‘collaboration’ that has dominated the lay-clergy relation to date.

I find possibilities for this positive, more constructive, and less contrastive, approach of the laity in the documents of the Second Vatican Council itself. Here we identify sound ecclesiological bases for the form of co-responsibility endorsed by Pope Benedict, flowing from the idea of communion that underpins the Council’s thought.

The Church as Communion

Andrej Rublev TrinityReturning to deeper biblical, patristic and liturgical sources clear of the juridical, extrinsicist tendencies of neoscholasticism, the communio ecclesiology of Vatican II expresses two primary insights. The first, a recovery of baptism as the primal sacrament of Christian life – prior to subsequent distinctions in charism, vocation or office; the second, a renewed appreciation of the Church as an icon of the Trinity, a relationship that promotes a mutuality of exchange between believers as an expression of the unity-in-diversity, the communion, that God is.

Lumen Gentium sought to ground all Christian vocations in what Kenan Osborne describes as a “common matrix” of baptismal faith for it is the entire people of God that are “by regeneration and anointing of the Holy Spirit… consecrated into a spiritual house and a holy priesthood,” “made one body with Christ, sharers in the priestly, prophetic and kingly functions of Christ” and so “share a common dignity from their rebirth in Christ, a true equality.” As Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium avers, each member of the ecclesial body, baptised and confirmed in the Holy Spirit, shares “the same vocation to perfection” and all people are commissioned to the mission of the Church, not in a derivative way, but as Lumen Gentium 33 emphasises, they are called to this mission “by the Lord Himself”.

However, it is important to note that these gifts – baptismal regeneration, the tria munera of Christ, an equality in dignity and in the call to the heights of holiness – are ascribed to the entire christifideles, to all the faithful or People of God in their Christian vocation, and are not particular or distinguishing of the laity per se.

A Theology of the Laity

In seeking to identify a unique or distinctive element apropos the laity, scholars have pointed elsewhere in the conciliar documents, especially Lumen Gentium 31. This text directs attention to the distinct ‘secular character’ of the lay vocation in contrast to the ‘sacred’ ministry of the ordained: “to be secular is the special characteristic of the laity . . . the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God.”

The overall thrust of this and other documents leads the theologian Aurelie Hagstrom to conclude, “this secular character must be an essential part of any theology of the laity since it gives the specific element in any description of the laity’s identity and function. The peculiar character of the laity is not only a sociological fact about the laity, but also a theological datum.” In short, Hagstrom interprets these documents as raising the ‘secular character’ of the laity to the level of metaphysics, as belonging to the ontological status of the lay vocation as such. To be lay is to be immersed in the secular, or so it is proposed.

laityHowever, questions can be raised about the theological adequacy of such a presentation and its support in the breadth of the conciliar documents. For one, the subcommittee responsible for Lumen Gentium 31 – that section of the constitution that refers to the laity’s ‘secular character’ – did not intend this to stand as a reference to their ontology, as pertaining to the core of their being, but rather a ‘typological description’ of the situation of the laity, that is, a description of how lay men and women typically live, but not exclusively so (cf. the relatio of John Cardinal Wright). This original intent of the Council Fathers challenges a view that would limit the proper responsibility of laypersons to the external life of the Church, that is, ‘in the world’ alone.

What is more, as Archbishop Bruno Forte points out, it is in fact the whole Church that the Council situates within the world as a leaven, in both Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes. Forte goes as far as to predicate ‘laicity’ not of a specific subset of the Church – that is, of its non-ordained members – but of the entire Church that serves the world as the “universal sacrament of salvation.” These conciliar perspectives challenge a conception of the Church in dichotomous terms, of clergy as the apolitical men of the Church; the laity as the less ecclesially committed, politically involved, ‘men of the world.’

The heart of the issue is that to define laypersons by an exclusively ‘secular character’ in contradistinction to the ‘sacred’, ecclesial ministry of clergy renders genuine co-responsibility within the life of the Church difficult if not problematic. As intimated, as long as laypersons are defined exclusively by an identity and function in ‘the world’ without taking into adequate account the reality of their witness within the Church, then their involvement in Church ministry can appear only a concession, an anomaly or even a usurpation of Church service that belongs properly and fully to the ordained alone. What is more, the definition of laity by a secular vocation stands in contrast to the pastoral reality of many thousands of laypeople engaged in church ministries which are obviously not secular. As Lennan concludes, the practice of Church ministry by lay men and women, the very reality of their co-responsibility within the contemporary Church, presently outstrips the theology and church policy regarding such matters. Lay ecclesial ministers such as ourselves are doing something in the Church that, ontologically speaking, appears incongruous for their ‘proper’ place has been read as being ‘in the world.’

Co-responsibility of Order and Charism

19238374In moving beyond  a “dividing-line model”, a hardened distinction of laity and clergy in isolated realms, it is helpful to consider the place given by the Council to the exercise of charisms within the Church’s mystery. Prior to the Council, the charismatic gifts of the Spirit were treated by theology primarily within the context of spirituality, as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the human soul of the individual believer. Considered extraordinary, transient and isolated in experience, the charisms of the Spirit were not integrated into a broader ecclesiological framework and so their relation to the sacraments, the life and mission of the Church remained largely overlooked.

CongarBuilding on the insights of Congar and other proponents of the ressourcement movement, Vatican II witnessed a recovery of the pneumatological foundations of the Church as presented in the writings of St Paul. A strong integration of the activity of the Spirit within the Church can be found in Lumen Gentium 12 with consequence for our theme of co-responsibility:

It is not only through the sacraments and the ministries of the Church that the Holy Spirit sanctifies and leads the people of God and enriches it with virtues, but, “allotting his gifts to everyone according as He wills,” He distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts, He makes them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices which contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church . . . Those who have charge over the Church should judge the genuineness and orderly use of these gifts and it is especially their office not indeed to extinguish the Spirit but to test all things and hold fast to that which is good.

While it is true that the Council is not here making an explicit link between charism and lay ministry per se, it does provide a foundation for understanding leadership by laypersons as something other than an exception, usurpation or offshoot of ordained ministry. In grounding the life of the Church in the work of the Spirit, the Spirit of Christ who ‘co-institutes’ the Church by the giving of gifts, the Council grounds all ecclesial activity, all “tasks and offices,” in the inseparable divine missions of both the Word and Spirit.

In the post-conciliar era it was Congar especially who would bring out the consequence of this unity of Christ and Spirit in the Church’s being for our understanding of ministry, including on the part of laity. In a 1972 article Congar takes issue with the largely ‘christomonist’ approach of the Church and ministry that had dominated Catholic ecclesiology since the age of high scholasticism. Congar critiques this linear and predominantly vertical perspective with acuity:

“Christ makes the hierarchy and the hierarchy makes the Church as a community of the faithful.” Such a scheme, even if it contains a part of the truth, presents inconveniences. At least in temporal priority it places the ministerial priest before and outside the community. Put into actuality, it would in fact reduce the building of the community to the action of the hierarchical ministry. Pastoral reality as well as the New Testament presses on us a much richer view. It is God, it is Christ who by his Holy Spirit does not cease building up his Church.

This richer view of the ‘building up’ of the Church’s life is indeed offered by Lumen Gentium 12 in its recognition of the Spirit’s bestowal of gifts on “the faithful of every rank,” on the entire christifideles. In renewing and building up the Church’s life, the Spirit is understood to operate throughout the entire community of God’s people, disclosing the Church as other than a pyramid whose passive base receives everything from the apex. The laity are indeed subjects of the Spirit’s action as persons of baptismal faith.

NTChurchThis appreciation of the entire Church as anointed by the Holy Spirit (LG 4), as entrusted with Scripture and tradition as Dei Verbum 10 insists, and with charisms of the Spirit that bear structural value for the Church, opens the way for recognition of lay ministry qua ministry for the life of the Church and its mission. In the light of a pneumatological ecclesiology, the activity of laity surfaces not as derivative, a mere collaboration in the ministry of another, but, as Benedict intimates, a genuine co-responsibility for the sake of communion with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

While affirming the Spirit’s guidance by “hierarchical and charismatic gifts”, the Council never successfully integrated these christological and pneumatological aspects of ecclesial life. They were simply placed side by side (cf. LG 4). As long as this integration of hierarchical order and charism remains lacking, the co-responsibility of laypersons within the Church risks being read by Catholics against, or even as a threat, to the unique charism of the ordained who act uniquely “in the person of Christ the Head.” In other words, there is a risk of distinguishing ordained ministries from lay ministries by associating Christ with the former and the Holy Spirit with the latter, a solution that is clearly inadequate. If the co-responsibility of the laity is to be fruitfully realised in the life of the Church, its future theology must hold charism and order, the missions of the Spirit and Christ, in unity without confusion or separation.

It has been suggested by Gaillardetz that the ordained priest, in that “discovery of gifts” described by the Council, directs and oversees the entire local community while, for the most part, the lay minister serves only within a particular area of ministry and does not exercise leadership of the community as a whole. To locate the charism of the ordained in the particular gift of leadership of the entire community upholds the principle that no matter how much pastoral work one does or how competent one becomes, the non-ordained person never ‘forms’ or ‘rules’ a community as a leader in the sense in which a cleric does. However, such an understanding of the unique charism of the ordained still permits recognition of other forms of Spirit-led leadership within the communion, under the oversight and with the encouragement of the ordained.

Though the integration of charism and order within the Council’s document was never achieved, there are within its letter foundations for an appreciation of ordained ministry not in opposition or above the Spirit-filled reality of the body but firmly within it as the apostolic principle of order and oversight of the local community. It is in recognising the Church’s constitution by both the missions of the Word and Spirit, in the ministry of the apostles and the Spirit given at Pentecost, that we can move toward a theology of co-responsibility that supports and extends the reality of both lay and ordained ministry vivifying the life of the contemporary Church.

14546210As a final observation, it may well be the unfolding momentum of ‘the new evangelisation’ that offers the zeal and occasion for co-responsibility to be practiced with greater intensity in the mission and ministries of the Church. The new ecclesial movements, for one, have manifest the way in which the historical shape of the Church can be shaped by a renewed appreciation of the work of Christ and the Spirit, order and charism, clergy and the laity within a communion of faith, as endorsed by my conference paper.

Conclusion

‘Co-responsibility’ remains a developing concept that is to be understood in the context of the Church’s life as a communion. Tracing the appearance of the term within magisterial thought, I see the interventions of Pope Benedict XVI on the subject as particularly significant for the Church’s self-understanding. In differentiating ‘co-responsibility’ from mere ‘collaboration’, Benedict has prompted renewed thinking about the theological integrity of ministry by laypersons and the relationship of this growing service within the Church to divinely-given hierarchical order. It is through ongoing reflection on both the christological and Spirit-filled foundations of the Church, the missions of Christ and the Spirit in the ecclesial body, that the practice of co-responsibility, already growing at the level of pastoral practice, may be matched by a coherent theology that strengthens the contribution of laypersons in the decades to come.

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.

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.