Thursday, January 26, 2012

AUSCP - A Voice for Priests

Fifty priests from nine dioceses in five states gathered in Columbus, Ohio, on January 24, 2012, for a regional meeting of the newly formed Association of United States Catholic Priests (AUSCP).

Their agenda included two talks, the first by Father Don Cozzens (Cleveland) on the consequences of making a commitment to the priesthood, the second by Father Jim Bacik (Toledo) on the "dialectical virtues" required of priests if they are to follow Christ faithfully. Small group discussions and organizational business items interspersed the day-long meeting.

This regional gathering reflects the AUSCP's efforts to organize a collective voice for the Roman Catholic priests across the country.

AUSCP began in August of 2011 when 27 priests from 15 dioceses in 11 states plus one Religious Order priest met to found an association with two major goals: 1) to offer fraternal support to priests and 2) to create a collegial voice.

Most priests (many laity) know that there is a division among priests in the United States, basically three groups or "cohorts" of priests modeling their theology and ministry on Pope John XXIII/Vatican II, Pope John Paul II, or Pope Benedict XVI.

In his presentation Father Bacik clarified the difference between Vatican II priests and JPII priests under two operative models of priesthood: servant/leader (inspired by Vatican II) or spiritual father (inspired by Pope John Paul II).

The servant/leader model tends to see a priest in terms of ministry shared with the laity, of witness to social justice issues, of exploring how the Gospel is to be translated into today's world.

The spiritual father model tends to see a priest in terms of directing the laity in their service to the Church, of piety in prayer, of maintaining orthodoxy.

(The distinction between JPII priests and B16 priests is still being clarified, but the major difference may be that the latter are far less influenced by the letter and spirit of the Second Vatican Council.)

With rare exceptions the members of the AUSCP (some 350) are the seniors (over 55 years) of the US presbyterate, heavily influenced by the changes initiated by Vatican II.

One of the major topics of discussion at the regional meeting was the perception that the Curia and the last two popes have been pulling back on the reforms and vision articulated during the Second Vatican Council.

The most recent example of hierarchical backtracking is the newly required English translation of the Roman Missal.

Whereas Vatican II proposed that "the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of bishops' conferences" (Lumen Gentium 22.2), the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments rejected the U.S. Bishops' recommendation of an English translation and devised a different one. The United States Bishops submitted.

One of the priests attending the AUSCP regional meeting said he was reprimanded by his bishop for publicly criticizing  the new translation and ordered by the bishop not to write any further about the liturgy.

Many members complained of the awkwardness of the Roman Missal translation, and acknowledged stumbling over some phrases and omitting others. Some thought the language harkened back to a theology of our "meriting" God's love rather than the theology of seeing God's grace and salvation as gift.

Still other priests acknowledged an atmosphere of fear in the Church, priests fearing their bishops, and bishops fearing the Curia.

Some lamented the inability to communicate with the hierarchy without fear of reprisal, and others acknowledged the threat to their personal integrity and the anxiety of following one's conscience vis-a-vis Roman control and certain diocesan policies and practices. All seem eager to preserve the legacy of Vatican II.

The regional meeting also surfaced the priests' love for their people and their deep appreciation of  their role as presiders at liturgy.

Despite the expression of caution and concern, there was agreement on the hopes and dreams engendered by Vatican II and its aftermath.

AUSCP will hold its first national meeting in June of 2012, including presentations by Father Anthony Ruff, OSB, St. John's Abbey, teacher of liturgy at St John's University School of Theology-Seminary; by Richard R. Gaillardetz, University of Toledo, theologian in ecclesiology; and by Father Donald Cozzens, teacher at John Carroll University and author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood and Faith That Dares To Speak.

Also in attendance at the national gathering will be the St. Louis Jesuits (the Catholic composers well-known in the 1970s and 80s) and Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, OSB, retired archbishop of Milwaukee.

Further information about the AUSCP is available at   or  724-850-1616.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Sign of the Cross

It is said that the oldest extant depiction of Jesus' crucifixion is a piece of griffito found on the wall of a building unearthed on one of the seven hills of ancient Rome.

The dating is uncertain, maybe the third century.

The drawing (discovered in 1857) looks like something done by a child on an Etch-A-Sketch. A man is looking at a cross on which hangs a human form but with the head of a donkey. The artist has scratched across his artwork a description in Latin which is usually translated: "Alexamenos worships his God."

The artist was mocking the Christian admission that Jesus, Son of God, was crucified!

We who have grown accustomed to seeing images of the crucified Lord can scarcely imagine the shock and disdain with which both Jews and Gentiles heard the Christian claim.

Paul acknowledged that preaching a Christ crucified was "a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Cor 1:23).

It would bother us today if Jesus were depicted in an electric chair or with a noose around his neck. I suspect our repulsion at such an idea would fall short of the reaction of those who first heard Paul's preaching.

Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe has concluded that it took the Church 400 years to dare to portray Christ on the cross, on the door of S. Sabina (a church on another one of Rome's seven hills).

Christians are not ashamed of the thought and image of a crucified Lord. They see it as a sign of the depths of God's love, a clear indication of how much God identified with the sinfulness of the human race so that he might restore them to innocence. It is said that Jesus paid the penalty which was due our sins.

Our ease with looking at a crucifix, our appreciation for Christ's sacrifice, however, must not keep us from recognizing that those who follow in Jesus' footsteps are expected to pick up a cross and walk behind him.

From the start Christians have likewise been crucified. Some, like Peter, were actually nailed to cross beams. Others have been executed for professing their faith. Still others (the majority of Christians) have had to lay down their lives in order to live according to the Gospel.

When I feel the pinch of being Christian I must remind myself of the example Jesus gave. At that point a cross or crucifix ceases to be an icon or a piece of jewelry and becomes the sign of a true disciple.

I like the story of the man who complained to God that his cross was too much. So God invited him into heaven's "cross room" and told him to lay down his cross and select another from the many models hanging around the warehouse.

The man tried several on for size. One was too heavy, one had beams too broad for the man's shoulders, and other had such rough and splintered wood that the man thought it worse than his original.

Finally he selected a cross, and told Jesus, "This is the one!"

Jesus smiled, "Good," the Lord said, "I am glad you found one that fits. I must tell you, however, that the cross you chose is the one you came in with!"

No Christian escapes his cross. Once we acknowledge that little bit of wisdom (and make friends with the cross we have) the Christian experience becomes a good bit easier.

I don't know who Alexamenos was, but I trust he didn't let a piece of graffito dissuade him from following Christ.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Catechists or Theologians?

Are priests, pastors, preachers supposed to be catechists or theologians?

In 1992 Pope John Paul II formally issued Catechism of the Catholic Church, presenting it as "a statement of the Church's faith and of catholic doctrine." He declared it to be "a sure norm for
teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion."

He asked his fellow bishops and all the faithful "to receive this catechism in a spirit of communion and to use it assiduously in fulfilling their mission of proclaiming the faith and calling people to the Gospel life."

He called the CCC "a sure and authentic reference text for teaching catholic doctrine and particularly for preparing local catechisms."

A second edition of the CCC, with some changes, was published in 1997

In 2006 the United States Catholic Bishops published a "local catechism," United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, described as an adaptation of the CCC.

The US version is more reader-friendly than the Vatican's catechism, and tries to relate the Church's teaching to the culture of the United States. Most chapters begin with stories about saintly people, many of them Americans, e.g., Elizabeth Seton, Orestes Brownson, Junipero Serra.

Both the CCC and the US catechism were written to serve a noble and necessary purpose. We need to know the Church doctrine; we need tools to insure faithful and comprehensive teaching of the truths of our faith. Both of these publications are to be hailed as authentic reference texts.

The U.S. Catholic Bishops have developed guidelines for publishers of catechetical materials. These guidelines insist on a core curriculum to insure doctrinal content in the instruction of  young people of high-school-age. (Significantly the presentation of these doctrinal elements includes far more references to the CCC than to the U.S. adaptation.)

Although the US adaptation is not as widely used or known in our country as the CCC, both are most helpful in catechesis, faith formation, and even research of Church doctrine.

There is a flip-side, however, namely, the tendency to think that a catechism answer or explanation is necessarily the only way of understanding and holding on to a truth.

Those of us who memorized the Baltimore Catechism as youngsters still remember some of the answers it provided. "A sacrament is an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace."

That answer is valid, but falls far short of the full reality. When we learned that there are seven sacraments, we did not count on an ecumenical council's also saying that the Church itself is in the nature of a sacrament (cf. Lumen Gentium, #1).

Pope John XXIII made it clear at the start of the Second Vatican Council that fundamental teachings of the Church always remain the same, but the way they are presented can change.

And this preservation of truth joined with changing cultures and language as well as the potential for gaining new insight and deeper understanding of a truth is the task of theologians.

An old notion endures that the pope alone is in charge of the Church and that bishops are simply local representatives of the pope. Without prejudice to the rightful authority of the Bishop of Rome, it is also true that "together with their head, the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him, they (bishops) have supreme and full authority over the universal Church even if this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff (cf. Lumen Gentium, #22).

How the pope can be the supreme authority and at the same time how the bishops can have supreme authority is something of a conundrum, and it is the role of theologians to probe such mystery and find ways of expressing the truth in its fullness.

There is also a catechism tendency to make all Church teachings equal in certainty. In truth a catechism includes truths that will never change plus teachings which are subject to change.

For example, you may recall answer #48 from the revised Baltimore Catechism: "When we say that Christ descended into hell we mean that, after He died, the soul of Christ descended into a place or state of rest, called limbo, where the souls of the just are waiting for him." Today the existence of limbo is almost universally questioned, and significantly the official Church has neither defended or abrogated the teaching.

Theologians (whether working in systematics, liturgy, patristics, etc) explore the truths of faith and work to keep us accurate and honest in our presentation of those truths.

Theologians remind a pastor who tells his congregation, "I am here to save your souls"  that Christ has already done that. Theologians remind us that there is evidence of women deacons, evidence that in the early Church any Christian could administer the anointing of the sick, evidence that bishops were elected by their local congregations.

It is not a matter of "either/or" when it comes to praising catechists or theologians. It is "both/and."

Seminaries have the obligation to form priests who are as adept in theologizing as they are in catechizing. Emphasizing one to the neglect of the other would be a disservice to the Church and the Gospel.

Theology keeps us aware of the hierarchy of truths, and preserves the mindset that there is always more to learn and other ways of formulating a truth.

Priests, pastors, preachers are supposed to be theologians and catechists.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Mystery of Church

The unfolding of the history of the Church remains a mystery.

This institution/community/herald/sacrament/servant which is charged by Jesus Christ with the responsibility of building the Kingdom of God on earth often seems inept, dysfunctional, and off track.

From the start there were conflicts. Mark's Gospel account records the contest between the sons of Zebedee and the other ten apostles (10:41). James and John wanted preferential treatment when Jesus came into his kingdom and the others took offense at their chutzpah in asking for it.

Paul and Peter got into it over requirements imposed on Gentiles who wanted to join the new way. Paul told the Galatians, "And when Kephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he clearly was wrong" (2:11).

And before the Church was 100 years old the extant letters of Clement, Barnabas and Ignatius were warning believers against false doctrine and practices. Clement was upset about a revolt against the presbyters (elders) in the Church at Corinth. Barnabas advised the Christians to avoid schism and to "pacify and bring together those who are quarreling." Ignatius lamented to the Church at Ephesus that "certain persons from elsewhere, who have evil doctrine, have stayed with you."

Christians in the fourth century were still arguing over whether Jesus was divine. It took a council of bishops at Nicea in 325 AD to settle the matter and declare that Jesus was indeed homousion tō patri (Greek for "one in being," i.e., consubstantial with the Father).

A really big break or schism in the Church occurred  in the 11th century when conflict erupted (not for the first time) between the pope in Rome and the patriarch in Constantinople. Politics (the papacy wanted to get out from under the control of the emperor) complicated the scene but in essence the Roman pontiff was declaring himself ruler of the Church and the Christians of the East resented the effort to reduce the authority of the patriarch.

A second really big break occurred in the 16th century --we call it the Protestant Reformation.

And some are suggesting that we may be standing on the cusp of yet another schism, not so much a public denunciation of Roman authority with the formation of a new sect, but a schism of indifference in which Vatican power and control are simply ignored.

Hopes were high in many Church quarters following the Second Vatican Council that there would be greater cooperation between the Vatican and conferences of bishops around the world. Those hopes were soon challenged and deflated. Many thought that the Curia (the Vatican bureaucracy) and John Paul II were making a concerted effort to close any windows John XXIII and Vatican II might have opened.

The Vatican's recent rejection of the English translation of the Roman Missal as developed by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (a mixed committee of bishops from English speaking countries formed to provide English translations for the liturgy) is a Vatican power-play.

The new translation imposed on most English speaking countries (South Africa seems to have a indult allowing use of the initial ICEL translation which the Vatican first accepted and then rejected) is an example not only of poor English but of reining in the authority of bishops' conferences.

The distorted translation, the disruption of Mass, the decision by many priests to disregard some expressions in the translation and retain the use of others are viral signs undermining unity and peace in the Church.

When those in authority use a too heavy-handed approach those affected by that authority tend to rebel, ignore, challenge, or walk away. It remains to be seen what the ultimate outcome will be.

Catholics who think of the Vatican and the pope as the exclusive authority in the Church will accept the new translation and subsequent efforts to close the window.

Catholics who recognize that bishops, together with the pope, have supreme and full power over the universal Church (cf. Vatican II's Lumen Gentium, #22) will wonder why the bishops' conferences simply gave in to a poor English translation and to the rejection of their authority.

It is doubtful that the Roman Curia and its departments serving the pope underwent the reorganization and modernization that the bishops at Vatican II called for (cf. Christus Dominus, #9).

Conflict, dissent, power plays have been part of the Church's history from the beginning. It is difficult to appreciate how this ongoing dysfunction would be allowed by the Lord who sent it into the world to build the Kingdom of God.

The mystery of God's will (and patience) tests our faith, but in faith we hold to the conviction that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Church through and in spite of our human foibles.

The mystery of it all remains intact.