Just about a year ago, Pope Benedict XVI was about to celebrate his 85th birthday and the seventh anniversary of being elected Pope. He had just returned from Cuba and Mexico, and was feeling his age...from falling in the middle of the night to having to rely on a moving platform to get down the aisle at Saint Peter’s Basilica.
And on top of it all, he was awaiting word from the Society of Saint Pius the Tenth as to whether they would accept his overtures of unity. It was not an easy time.
Perhaps that is why during that week he chose as the theme of his message on the fifth centenary of exposition of the seamless garment of the Lord to speak about unity in the Church.
This relic, he noted, may seem to be only a secondary story in the Gospel account of the Passion, but the Fathers of the Church see a metaphor for the unity of the Church, an issue obviously much on the mind of the College of Cardinals in Conclave this week.
Whether it be divisions in the curia in the Catholic academy or in the blogosphere, disunity in the Church is a major issue for our times and will be a major part of what Pope Francis will have to deal with.
And so will you. Which is why I’d like to spend a few moments reflecting with you this evening on the question of unity and the Church.
The signs of disunity in the Church are legion.
Speaking in Ontario late last year, a leader of the Society of Saint Pius the Tenth offered this critique of the Church and her Council:
Calling the Jewish people "enemies of the church," he suggested that Jewish leaders' support of the Second Vatican Council "shows that Vatican II is their thing, not the church's." Those most opposed to the church granting canonical recognition to the traditionalist society have been "the enemies of the church: the Jews, the Masons," he said. He went on to suggest that the portions of the Second Vatican Council are “opposed to what the Church has always taught” and must be rejected.
At the other extreme, a prominent professor of theology and catechetics has called for a reconstruction of the Catholic priesthood, suggesting that "The presence of women as priests and bishops would be an extraordinary gift to the life of the Catholic Church ... To ordain women would surely hasten the demise of clericalism - the antithesis to priesthood as servant leadership - and catalyse a renewed ministry of 'holy order'." Also on the agenda for Church reform is the issue of "lay participation in the oversight of the Church, the clandestine way bishops are selected [and] the inflated role of the Roman Curia".
Pope Benedict XVI wrote of this disunity in his last homily for Pentecost Sunday:
"Inequalities continue that do not infrequently lead to conflicts; dialogue between generations is hard sometimes opposition prevails; we see daily events which appear to suggest that people are becoming more aggressive and more unsociable; it seems to be too demanding to try to understand each other and we prefer to be closed up in our own 'I', in our own interests.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Pentecost Homily, May 29, 2012.)
This egoism, which is as prevalent on the left as it is on the right and effects traditionalists as frequently as the progressive wing, is tearing the Church apart.
So what do we do about it?
So what are the antidotes for this disunity? Pope Benedict made two suggestions for us, both in terms of the seamless garment of Christ.
Woven from the top down
First, we must always remember that Christ’s garment is “woven from top to bottom” (Jn 19:23).
“[The Church] is the work of God, not the product of human beings and their skills.” The Holy Father returned to this theme in his final remarks to the Cardinals on the day of his resignation in quoting from the great liturgical visionary Romano Guardini:
“The Church is not an institution devised and built by human beings…but a living reality….It lives still throughout the course of time. Like all living realities it develops, it changes…and yet in the very depths of its being it remains the same: its inmost nucleus is Christ.”
We have a hard time with this, for we are often obsessed with control, and the essential insight here is that we are not in control, even of the Church, Christ is. It is not one hundred and fifteen men entering into the Sistina who choose a Pope. It is not a man dressed in white standing on the central loggia of Saint Peter’s Basilica who determines the course of the Church. It is not you or me who formulate the will of God for a particular people or a particular parish. Rather, the Holy Spirit steers the Church and we seek only to discern God’s will and cooperate with it.
When our focus shifts from the spiritual to the political we are in deep deep trouble, for we are on a fool’s journey. The spiritual is best discerned from our knees with a compliant, prayerful disposition and a deep love of God. THe political is best discerned with a copy of Machiavelli in one hand the right set of media skills in the other. The first seeks God’s will, the second my own.
Constantly, the Church and we her members must remind themselves that “her unity, her consensus, her effectiveness, her witness can be essentially created only from above, can be given only by God.”
Such discernment requires an enthusiastic embrace of the most unpopular of twenty-first century virtues: the virtue of obedience. I do not take communion, I receive it, unworthy though I may be. I do not take the Deposit of Faith, I receive it, unworthy though I may be. I do not take an assignment as pastor, I receive it, unworthy as I may be.
I receive it from the Church, which makes the Eucharist in fulfillment of her Lord’s command, preaches the truth, despite the howling of the crowds, and sends shepherds into the vineyard not to preach themselves, but Christ crucified, ever decreasing that he may increase.
So, do you want the Church to be one? Practice humble obedience, embrace the cross, and you will have done your part. For, as Pope Francis observed this morning:
We can walk as much we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a pitiful NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ....When we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, and when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly, we are bishops, priests, cardinals, Popes, but not disciples of the Lord.
Our Poor Selves
Pope Benedict’s second suggestion for maintaining unity in the Church is to recall that the seamless garment “is not a toga, an elegant robe which expresses a role in society. It is a modest garment which serves to cover and protect he who wears it...” In other words, the Church is Holy, but she is made up of such as us, constantly in need of conversion and constantly called by our weakness to humility.
In this regard, I almost changed my entire topic for this week’s rector’s Conference after reading reports that a Cardinal Archbishop had admitted that while he served as a seminary spiritual director he had sex with some of the seminarians.
What’s it all about? And how do you even begin to deal with such a reality? What is it about this crime which so destroys the fabric of the Church? Two things:
First, it is the horrendous scandal of abuse. For the relationship of faculty to seminarian is not a relationship of equals. It’s not a relationship of friends. It is, like the relationship of priest to parishioner or of spiritual director to directee an unequal relationship and the introduction of a sexual dimension to such a relationship is just as abusive as the rape of a child.
A seminary faculty member can direct you, judge you and exercise real power over you. As such, he has special obligations to you. In his presence you should feel safe, and if you don't there is something very very wrong.
Second, it is the scandal of hypocrisy, which tears us apart. Perhaps the sharpest of all the arrows in the devil’s quiver of temptations is hypocrisy. The priest who passionately preaches the devout life, and never prays. The priest who works tirelessly for reverence for the human person, and then revels in ecclesiastical gossip. The priest who preaches eloquently against violations of the sixth commandment, and then follows “a second way” in his private life.
Pornography, masturbation and sexual fantasies of all sorts tempt and will tempt in the life of any man. What God calls us to, in every age of life, is an authentic striving for purity. And no matter the temptation, the Priest who authentically strives for purity participates in the cross in a very real way.
But it is not the man who struggles authentically who scandalizes me. Indeed, such a priest inspires me. Scandal comes when the word authentic is dropped from the sentence.
Perhaps this is what hits the world so strikingly about Pope Francis. His simplicity, his honesty, his authenticity....He’s like an old parish priest whom you know you can love and trust, and who you know loves you and will never lead you astray. What you see is what you get.
But by contrast, the day when a Priest strikes a Faustian bargain to say one thing and to be another, to preach purity and to remain sexually active, on such a day, angels weep in heaven and those who wish to destroy the Church are given their greatest weapon.
On the walls of the Basilica of St. Francis, where the little Saint is buried in Assisi are a series of twenty-eight Giotto frescoes depicting the life of the poverello.
One of the frescoes depicts the dream of Pope Innocent III, to whom Francis appealed for the Church’s approval of his order. For you see the night after Francis and his rag tag bank came to Innocent and asked for his approval, the Pope went to bed. And as he slept he dreamed of his own Cathedral, the Lateran, cracked and broken, its enormous towers tottering on ruin.
One thing alone kept the Church intact, the efforts of a little man in a brown robe, supporting the structure and keeping it all together. It seemed by his utter simplicity and shear state of joyful determination that the Church was save from ruin.
The Pope interpreted his dream to mean that St. Francis would be the ideal instrument to rebuild his Church. And so he did, by living a life of uncompromising authenticity and fidelity to Christ and to his Gospels.
His weapons were piety, poverty and extravagant love.
Which is why God gave us a humble Pope named Francis. For the antidote to disunity is not for us to be smarter or more clever or more powerful. The antidote to disunity is for us to be more authentic, more simply, faithful and more real.
Sounds tough, huh? And it is. For the devil goes about like a roaring lion seeking to devour good men by leading them astray.
But, as a couple of Popes ago used to say, “Be Not Afraid,” for the God who first planted that call in your heart will not abandon you. He will give you the grace to perdure. Amidst temptation to make believe, to live two lives, to forsake purity as arcane, to make believe its all about me, or to use others as playthings for our own entertainment....He will give you the grace, which only you can accept...the grace to be a good and Holy Priest...
Like Father O’Malley, Father McManus, Father Tobin, Father MacDonald, Father Mansell, Father Matano, and even Father Moroney, who on the day of their ordination promised Christ to embrace this life “as a sign of pastoral charity and an inspiration to it...Compelled by the sincere love of Christ the Lord and living this state with total dedication, [to] will cling to Christ more easily with an undivided heart.” So help us, God.
So help you who aspire to a life whose whole purpose is to make all things one in Christ, an end which is expressed in the doxology of the prayer which consecrates every Priest and it goes like this:
“And so may the full number of the nations, gathered together in Christ, be transformed into your one people and made perfect in your Kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever.” (Rite of Ordination, Prayed of Consecration of a Priest).
March 14, 2013