Thursday, November 7, 2013

November Rector's Conference: Thinking with the Pope

I was born eighty three years after the close of the First Vatican Council, during the reign of Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, whose visit to our Chapel in 1936 is marked by bronze letters inset into the marble on the right hand side of the apse.  He died when I was five years old, and then, as his predecessor once said, “When the Pope dies, you get another one tomorrow, because the Church continues.” 

So Blessed (soon Saint) John XXIII reigned until I was in fifth grade, when Paul VI, was elected.  The Council closes and I go to Seminary and while I’m a transitional Deacon, John Paul I; and then a month later, the white smoke goes up for Blessed (soon Saint) John Paul II, and I was there to see it.

Then, while I was a fifty-one year old Monsignor at the Bishops’ Conference, Pope Benedict XVI took his place.  And now, here I am a Seminary Rector with a Pope named Francis.

And the blogsphere is all atwitter (excuse my mixed metaphor) with the implications of the election of Jorge Bergolio and Pope Francis' recent and extended interviews in America magazine and elsewhere.

But nothing new there. As I recall, similar commentators used to say that the problem with Benedict was that he didn't have the charisma of a Wjtoyla.  With John Paul, that he lacked the Curial expertise of a Montini.  With Paul VI, that he wasn't as spontaneous as a Roncalli and with good Pope John that he lacked the intellectual gravitas of a Pacelli.

And so it goes.

Just as it will be with your next Bishop.  If you are twenty-seven years old now, you were in High School when His Eminence came to Boston and Bishop Coleman to Fall River. When it comes to the change of Bishops, you haven’t seen much yet, but you will.

And wait until you see what it's like.  For the one thing I know is that your next Bishop will not be a clone of his predecessor and of course the priests will be all atwitter. As it was in the beginning, so now, the current Bishop is not like his predecessor, who was not like the one before that, who was not like the old one before that...sometimes spoken with a scowl and sometimes a look of sheer relief.

And so it will be a few years from now, when, God willing, a young whipper snapper, fresh out of the seminary, replaces dear Father so and so as the associate in Saint Elsewhere's parish.  The Chrism still moist on your hands, you will be the new character who replaces the beloved or not so beloved old one, and some will lament and some will rejoice....and so it goes.

Which is to say that none of this is new.  Since Linus succeeded Peter some people relate better to this guy and others to the other. This one's a great administrator and a not-so-much scholar.  This one has them weeping in the aisles and the next one has them groaning with boredom.  This one's a real people person while that one's best kept in the office.

Each of us has been given different gifts, and by the grace of God, we will be sent somewhere where they are put to good use, while our many faults will be allowed to lay dormant.  

Priests and Bishops and Popes have different personalities, predilections, strengths and weaknesses.  And like all pastors, they make different decisions depending upon the age, the circumstance and their point of view, like Pope Clement XIV, who suppressed the Jesuits, Pope Pius VII, who favored them, and Pope Francis who is one.

Because you see, it's really true.  There is but one God and he ain't me or the Bishop, or the Pope, or even you.  We really are but  useless servants, who at the end of the day are utterly dependent upon the mercy of God.  

And whether your rector is Moroney or Kennedy, your Pope is Francis or Benedict, your pastor is Hickey or Vianney, our job is not to judge but to figure out what gifts God is offering us in this man and to receive them with a humble and obedient heart.  

The alternative route, already chosen by certain strains of the blogosphere, to declare myself God and judge of the actions of the Holy Spirit.  It is a road paved with equal parts of sarcasm and frustration, and it leads to a very unhappy life.

Which is how Holy Father Francis began his interview.  Who is Jorge Bergolio, he was asked?  

I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner....Yes, perhaps I can say that I am a bit astute, that I can adapt to circumstances, but it is also true that I am a bit naïve....But I am a sinner.

He tells us that he is like Matthew, as Jesus points a finger at him in Caravaggio’s painting.

“...pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew. It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. 

Now I trust you’ve read the rest of the interview by now, along with the hundreds of articles by pundits, each with their own take on what it meant to them.  But now I’d ask you to listen to the Holy Father with the ears and the heart of a seminarian or a priest.  And to us, I suggest the Holy Father teaches four very important lessons:

1. How to learn from experience
2. The importance of Consultation and Collegiality
3. People as the Ecclesial Priority
4. Looking for God in All Things

Learning from Experience

So how do you think you’ll be at being Pope, they essentially asked him?  How good are you at governance?  And for the first time in the history of the modern Church, the Pope did something entirely new...entirely refreshing: he began by telling us what he’s not good at!  With the honesty of a First Theology self-evaluation, he confessed how he’s messed up governance in the past.

In my experience as superior in the Society, to be honest...I did not always do the necessary consultation. And this was not a good thing. My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults. That was a difficult time for the Society: an entire generation of Jesuits had disappeared. Because of this I found myself provincial when I was still very young. I was only 36 years old. That was crazy. I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself. 

Yes, but I must add one thing: when I entrust something to someone, I totally trust that person. He or she must make a really big mistake before I rebuke that person. But despite this, eventually people get tired of authoritarianism.

My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative. I lived a time of great interior crisis when I was in Cordova. To be sure, I have never been like Blessed Imelda, but I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.

I say these things from life experience and because I want to make clear what the dangers are. Over time I learned many things. The Lord has allowed this growth in knowledge of government through my faults and my sins. 

Consultation as a Priority

Now notice what God did in the Holy Father’s life and what we can learn from it!  He had a fault, he messed up, and he learned from it.  He avoids the extremes of reacting to a fault...either denying it as not possibly true, since I know that God anointed me with infallibility, or the full fledged panic attack by which I am sure that my latest screw-up will result in the end of the world.

He simply admitted, I didn’t do that very well and learned from it.  And the result was not just a better Bergolio, but through the grace of God, a better Church. 

What started as a personal propensity for an overly centralized and autocratic way of making decisions, has now convinced him of the need for consultation and for collegiality among the other Bishops of the world.  

In recent years, as you have no doubt read, many Bishops have raised the need for more effective structures of collegiality, especially in relationship with actions of the Roman Curia.  The role of the Conferences of Bishops, institutions which by their nature promote collegiality, is at the heart of this issue, as are ways of making the Synod of Bishops a more effective structure.

Listen to what he has to say:

“The consistories [of cardinals], the synods [of bishops] are, for example, important places to make real and active this consultation. We must, however, give them a less rigid form. I do not want token consultations, but real consultations. The consultation group of eight cardinals, this ‘outsider’ advisory group, is not only my decision, but it is the result of the will of the cardinals, as it was expressed in the general congregations before the conclave. And I want to see that this is a real, not ceremonial consultation.”

There’s another application of the Holy Father’s concern which applies closer to home, for the Parish you will serve in as a Priest, God willing, is not your grandfather’s parish.  The ability to collaborate and the instinct to consult widely before the making of any important decision are skills which this Seminary needs to be able to foster in an ever increasing way.  Few of the pastoral initiatives I undertook three decades ago in my first assignment perdured for long after I left Sacred Heart in Webster.  But the ones that did were preceded by extensive consultation...asking peoples’ views and learning as much as I could.

Even as Seminary Rector, I can tell you the most effective and long lasting actions are those which are preceded by respectful and broad based consultation and followed by a careful plan of implementation.  If I sit on my royal throne and issue edicts I will have an audience of one.  If I listen and collaborate and build constituencies, I can shepherd a people into the Kingdom of God.

People as the Ecclesial Priority

Which leads to his second major reflection: the importance of people.  Here, I would suggest, is one of the fundamental pillars of Pope Francis’ pontificate: the notion of the Church as the People of God, as articulated by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council.  in Lumen Gentium, no. 12.  Here an extended look at Lumen Gentium 12 would be helpful.

The holy people of God shares also in Christ's prophetic office; it spreads abroad a living witness to Him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the tribute of lips which give praise to His name. The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One,  cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples' supernatural discernment in matters of faith when "from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful" they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God. Through it, the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life.
A careful re-reading of the Conciliar texts is indispensable to understanding what the Holy Father is speaking about.  This is because of the enormous role the Council plays in his fundamental orientations towards Church, Theology and life.  Recall that this is the first Pope to have been ordained a priest after the Second Vatican Council and how his formation and a Priest and a Jesuit were so deeply influenced by the conciliar fervor of the late 1960’s.  The conciliar text is, therefore for always and important matrix against which to read the Holy Father’s reflections, as here:

In the history of salvation, God has saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.

For some, this is a hard teaching.  A Church made up of individuals, each negotiated their own personal salvation, or a Church identified exclusively with the Bishops, or the Vatican or the Pope himself is a lot easier to take.  But a Church composed of “yea all come” is messy, complex, and always hard to figure out.  

I remember on one First Communion day in a parish where I was pastor many years ago, making the rounds of the parties at parishioners’ houses.  At one house the kids ran out to see Father Jim and promptly announced to the adults in the kitchen, “The Church is here!  The Church is here!”  And while the children’s cute declaration reveals a certain laudable appreciation for the Priesthood, I am not the Church, but one part of it, and we are never the full ecclesial reality until we are all gathered into one by Christ.

Thus does the Holy Father speak of the infallibility of the believing People of God and their ability to teach us essential things, not in the same way as the clergy, but with their own unique charism.  In an exquisite turn of phrase he says:

This is how it is with Mary:  If you want to know who she is, you ask theologians; if you want to know how to love her, you have to ask the people.

Such an appreciation of the Universal Call to Holiness is a shift for us who have experienced an intensified call to more closely examine the uniqueness of the Priesthood in recent years.  But now the Holy Father calls us to acknowledge and embrace the whole Church, to fall more deeply in love with the People of God and to reject any ecclesiology which would seek to purify the Church by cutting off the margins.  Listen to Pope Francis:

This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity. 

And then, as is his want, the Holy Father gives a quite concrete pastoral example of a young man who wrote a simple but beautiful letter to him.  What did the Holy Father do?  He picked up the phone and called his correspondent.  The Holy Father evidently does that quite a bit.  But why?  Here he explains:

I called him because that letter was so beautiful, so simple. For me this was an act of generatively. I realized that he was a young man who is growing, that he saw in me a father, and that the letter tells something of his life to that father. The father cannot say, ‘I do not care.’ This type of fruitfulness is so good for me.”

It seems to me that we have been spending recent years looking for just the right words to effectively implement the New Evangelization.  Maybe, just maybe its not words we need, but actions.  Like a Pope calling someone who writes him a letter, or a pastor responding to a woman’s heartfelt plea, or everyone of us answering our emails and texts with sincerity and paternal love. Maybe, just maybe there’s an important lesson to be had here about how to love and preach to the People of God, not just with our words, but with our lives.

Look for God in All Things

Imagine what it will be like when you arrive in your first parish as a Priest.  Or the first time you walk into the door as the Pastor.  It will be a remarkable day, and you will form relationships that will change you, forever.

But what will be your attitude when you sit at your first Parish Council meeting?  Or your expectations when you meet your first Pastor?  Or your thoughts the first time your pastor or the Director of Religious Education challenges to your comprehensive pastoral plan?

What will you be looking for?  Success or the truth?  Looking for your career or God’s will?

If you look for success I will use every opportunity to change things into your image and likeness.  No one’s ideas will be as good as yours.  No pastoral plan will be safe from your brilliant reforming insights.  And no one will be quite as up to the task as you are, the center of the universe and the Savior of Saint Elsewhere’s parish.  How Blessed are they who are called to your supper!

In a second, less reported interview in La Repubblica, the Holy Father spoke of such a priest as a clericalist.

It ...happens to me that when I meet a clericalist, I suddenly become anti-clerical. Clericalism should not have anything to do with Christianity.  St. Paul, who was the first to speak to the Gentiles, the pagans, to believers in other religions, was the first to teach us that.

Such a clericalist is filled with certainty, born of his own vision, his own will.  He fails to see God in the other, to listen to God’s will in the one whom he meets on the road.  He seeks only to defend his own infallibility.  The Holy Father continues:

If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists­—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.

From where does this trust in God come?  It comes from the patience of the People of God born of prayer, mutual respect and an attitude of joyful expectation of God’s active presence and self-revelation.

We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run historical processes. We must initiate processes rather than occupy spaces. God manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history. This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics. And it requires patience, waiting.

...A contemplative attitude is necessary: it is the feeling that you are moving along the good path of understanding and affection toward things and situations. Profound peace, spiritual consolation, love of God and love of all things in God—this is the sign that you are on this right path.


Well, there’s a lot of food for thought.  And bear in mind, this is only the beginning.  For when the Holy Spirit reveals God’s will, through your new pastor, your new Bishop, or your new Pope, he challenges you to open our hearts and minds to the truth and the love which were, which are and which ever will be.

I would like to conclude with one final quote from the Holy Father which we should all take to heart:

The world calls for and expects from us simplicity of life, the spirit of prayer, charity towards all, especially towards the lowly and the poor, obedience and humility. Without this mark of holiness, our word will have difficulty in touching the heart of modern man. It risks being vain and sterile. (Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiadi, no. 76.)

Words which are as true today as when they were spoken by Pope Paul VI thirty-eight years ago.

The More things change, the more they stay the same.  And so it goes.

Monsignor James P. Moroney