April 27-28, 2002, Fifth Sunday of Easter Cycle C
If the subject matter of the present sexual abuse crisis was not so serious, it would be humorous to watch this clash between U.S. media and the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. The secular media just canít get their minds around an organization that is not checking the polls every day to determine what to do, and that plans in time frames orders of magnitude longer than the media is useful. And the institutional Church cannot seem to get its collective mind around the reality that how you say something is sometimes as important as what you say. In the midst of all the swirling controversy and agendas, there are some things that most people seem to agree on. Looking back on the acts of abuse, everyone agrees that what happened was not only sinful but criminal. Looking at the present everyone agrees that trust in the institutional Church has been severely damaged. But what about looking forward? Aside from the obvious things like everyone agrees that steps have to be taken to make sure this kind of abuse never happens again, is there anything that all sides agree on? The answer is yes, and one thing is that the laity must have a more influential role in the Church.
Todayís readings speak very clearly on that subject. For these last 3 weeks of Easter, we hear Gospel stories that anticipate Jesusí ascension. In these discourses, Jesus is trying to prepare the disciples for life with him in his human form. Today we hear Jesus trying to explain to the disciples that unless he goes they cannot enter into a new and fuller experience of their relationship. During our Lenten mission we had Linda and Dean Manternach as presenters. They talked about how various parts of the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Our Lord speak to us at different times of our lives. For example, Good Friday speaks to us in times of death, death of a loved one, or the little deaths of losing a job or the break up of a relationship. They pointed out that the ascension speaks to us of times when we have to let go of things. Jesus is trying to get the disciples to let go of him in his human form so that they can experience him in a much deeper and more widespread way in his Spirit. Letting go is very hard but absolutely essential for human beings if they are to grow and fulfill their potential.
That is all well and good you say, but what does that have to do with the laity having an increased role in the life of the Church?
The vision of a greater role in the Church for laity is not something we just thought up. It was one of the major themes of Vatican II. For many centuries in the Church, the laity were not ready for a greater role. Many were unable to read or write. So clerics filled that void because they were educated and were able to study and understand the faith so that they could pass it on faithful to the apostolic teaching. Today, in this country and many others, many laity are as educated or even more so than many clergy but in order to assume greater responsibility we all have to let go of a vision of church that equates Church with the clerical hierarchy, a vision that makes the Church the main or even the only focus of what we do as Catholics. For several decades we have not been able to do this, even in the face of the undeniable shrinking numbers of priests and religious.
I would like to suggest a different vision of Church that hopefully helps us let go of the old so that we might grow and fulfill our potential, a vision that our readings give us a glimpse of. I think I am safe in saying that most people view the Church as a rigid hierarchy that has God at the top, then the Pope, then the bishops, then the clergy and religious, and at the bottom, the baptized. All grace and power and commission to participate in the mission of the Church percolates down the pyramid and by the time it gets to the bottom there is nothing left. †All responsibility for furthering the mission of the Church is at the top of the pyramid. Is that not how most people see it?
Our readings tell a different story. Peter tells us that by the sacraments of initiation, baptism, confirmation, and again and again Eucharist, we are formed into a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation. The primary relationship in the Church is not hierarchical; it is a direct relationship between God and Godís people. If you want to keep the pyramid, turn it upside down so that we have God at the top, then directly below God, the people of God, and then below that all the ranks of the institutional Church supporting the people of God in recognizing their chosenness and there sent-ness, till at the bottom we have the Pope, the servant of the servants of God.
Instead of God's people participating in the mission of the Church through a power delegated to them by the Pope and bishops, etc., the baptized are called to participate in Jesusí mission directly by our baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist. And this mission God has chosen entrusted to his people has a Church to help us participate in a way that is faithful to Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life. Vatican II is crystal clear about this as well. The mission of the people of God is to bring salvation to the world, and the laity are the ones who live in the world. All the other ministries within the Church have only one purpose: to help all of us who are baptized offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ, and to announce the praises of God who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Does this mean that there is no need for the institutional Church? Absolutely not. The pope and bishops and clergy and religious have the special role of teaching and governing and witnessing so that the People of God are carrying out the mission which has been entrusted to them in a way that is faithful to the way and the truth and the life. Without the institutional Church we have no where to go to be formed into this royal priesthood, this spiritual house. But we do not get this mission from the the bishops or the pope or any of the ranks of hierarchy, nor do we need their authorization or delegated power to fully participate in this mission.
And lest we think that this means some fuzzy notion of strictly spiritual activity, our first reading from Acts reminds us that Jesus commands us to love one another, as he loves us, by doing whatever it takes to take care of the human needs of those around us, whether that is washing the dust from their feet, giving them food and drink, or dying on the cross for them.
So if we are to follow through on this shared vision of a more involved and influential laity, we have to start by letting go of our idea that being Catholic is about focusing in on the Church and that the important things are done by the hierarchy. We have to turn out from the Church, as we are sent at the end of each Mass, to go forth to bring salvation to the world we live in. But we need to make sure we are connected to the way and the truth and the life of Jesus. That is the role of the Church. It is where we gather to connect to Jesus so we can go forth to do the works that show the Father to the world.
I would suggest two very practical ways of doing this for your consideration: one that looks out from the Church to the world and one that looks in to the Church as a way of serving the mission of Godís people.
At the end of Mass, you will hear from a member of the Stewardship Committee about the plans to form a St. Vincent DePaul Society. The St. Vincent DePaul Society is dedicated to serving those in need right around us. Please listen and reflect on whether you can help in this part of the mission.
The second is to consider serving on the Parish Pastoral Council. That may seem like a strange thing to bring up after the stories in some of the media the past day or two. Bishop Edyvean's fax was correct. Parish pastoral councils are not meant to be organizations that look back up the ranks of the institutional church to be concerned with what is happening there. It is meant to help this parish here in Stow in 2002 turn and look out from the church to the world right around us, to make sure that St. Isidore parish is fully active in the mission to bring salvation out into the world in which we live. I think if you talk to anyone who has served on the PPC in the past 15 or so years you will find that it is a vital part of this parish, and that many of the wonderful things we have done over that period are the direct result of the dreaming and visioning of the PPC. I would ask you to prayerfully consider nominating yourself or someone else to serve on this council.
We are chosen, and precious in Godís sight, chosen to be living stones to be built into a spiritual house that is sent into the world to bring it salvation. How we respond to that call will make us a stumbling block or a stepping-stone. This decision is completely in our hands.