Pastor’s Perspective – November 14, 2021

*Sunday’s Readings

The readings for the last couple of Sundays of the Church’s liturgical year bleed into the first Sunday of the new liturgical year beginning with Advent by focusing on the culmination of all creation in Christ Jesus. They take on what is called an “apocalyptic” tone. We often associate the word with a catastrophic end to all things, and it can mean that. In fact, much of how we image the end of all things comes directly from the apocalyptic passages of the Bible which image such catastrophes. But, at root, “apocalypse” means “to reveal.” As we end the current liturgical year and begin a new one in the weeks ahead, the mystery of how sin and evil seem to have such power in human history is revealed to be a false understanding. Sin and evil have only as much power as humanity gives to them. God’s saving mercy and goodness, through Jesus Christ, have ultimate power and will win out in the end; in fact, could win out even now, if only we allowed our human reality to be fully shaped by God’s grace.

Interestingly, the Church develops its understanding of its sacramental nature and the power of sacraments to bring us into a saving relationship with Jesus by calling such sacramental moments “mysteria,” the Greek word for “mystery,” which gets translated into Latin both as mysterium and as sacramentum. Over time, the word sacramentum wins out in our theology. It might seem like nothing important, but that word choice also means, over time, sacraments tend to be seen as “things,” as specific moments of guaranteed grace, rather than as life-changing invitations to more deeply connect all that we are and experience to the saving mystery of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Language has power, and “mystery” connects us to a journey of faith in which we can discover more and more God’s love at works. In other words, in the face of what others see as apocalyptic chaos and tragedy—some of those images we see in today’s readings and in the weeks ahead—the Church invites us to experience as part of the mystery of God’s grace at work in our lives. Because we have already experienced that mystery revealed in our sacramental journey, we are invited to face such events with a confident faith, knowing God’s goodness will ultimately have the final say.

The depth of our ignorance about how that mystery of salvation will all finally come together into a united whole is shown by Jesus’ statement in the Gospel today that “of the day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” In the face of that unknowing–not even Jesus knows!—we have to have a certain humility. At the same time, we have all experienced that mystery breaking into our lives, especially in the Eucharist. That keeps us on the journey, no matter how daunting it may seem at times. We yearn for the full mystery to be revealed—“Come, Lord Jesus!”—and in the meantime celebrate all the sacramental signs of his presence already at work in us and throughout the world.

*Pope Francis’ Call for Consultation on the “Synodality of the Church” (conclusion)

Over the next two years we will see what the various regions of the world highlight in terms of “synodality.” There is no doubt in Pope Francis’ mind that it is a way to embrace the authentic vision of the Second Vatican Council which upended a centuries-long pyramidal understanding of Church. In that understanding, those ordained were fewer in number but “higher” on the pyramid than the laity.  Those who embraced celibacy and especially vowed religious life were thought to be “more holy” than those who were married or who had to live “in the world.” At its extreme, prior to Vatican II, such a view placed all administrative, sacramental, and teaching authority in the hands only of ordained men. As one mocking aphorism put it, the role of the laity was to “pray, pay, and obey”! Something extraordinary happened at the Second Vatican Council sixty years ago. The bishops, as they talked and prayed and deliberated together, found that there was an overwhelming consensus to shift that rigid understanding of the Church’s life and teaching authority toward a more collegial and communal understanding, one in which all bishops contribute to the Pope’s universal teaching role and all the baptized contribute to the Church’s unerring passing on of the faith. Instead of starting with the vowed religious life as the model of holiness, the Council talked about the call to holiness of every baptized person. No longer was marriage to be seen as a “secondary” vocation but as a primary one.

Because Vatican II was trying to reconcile a vision of the Church rooted in the early centuries of our history with the reality of a centuries-long drift toward uniformity and rigidity, the language used at Vatican II to open up a new vision is quite tame and limited. For example, the document on the Church (Lumen Gentium, #37) states: “[The laity] are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church.” This might sound trite and obvious to us, but for a document of the highest teaching authority possible to state that every baptized has a right and even obligation to contribute their expertise to the inner functioning of the Church was a true paradigm-shift. That is how rigidly hierarchical we had become. However, because the language was so cautious, after the Second Vatican Council there was a tendency to pull back on this vision and to settle for a less than collegial, less than synodal form of Church life. Yes, Synods of Bishops would meet periodically, but almost always they would leave it to the Pope alone to write up an Apostolic Exhortation on the results of the Synod. The unease with theologians speculating on newer understanding of the doctrines of the Church led to silencing some of the more prominent ones and contributed to the desire to once again have a uniform Catechism of the faith. The new Code of Canon Law contributed to the growing tendency to once again think that what is in the Code is more important than how people actually live out their faith journeys. The call of Vatican II for sacraments and liturgies that reflect the diverse cultures of the world gave way to a more rigid “Romanization” of the liturgy. [Think of some of the awkward wording in the newest translation of the prayers at Mass: “consubstantial” rather than “one in being” in the Creed; or “for you and for many” rather than “for you and for all” at the Consecration, even though the most correct meaning of the underlying Latin is “for all”.] It is understood that one must be ordained to lead the sacramental worship of the people, but there has been a reluctance to fully embrace the idea that one does not have to be ordained to have a charism to lead and teach in the Church.

The picture, of course, has not been all one-sided. Most worship has been enculturated at least to the extent we pray mostly in our own language, rather than uniformly Latin only. At the parish level Pastoral and Finance Councils, various Commissions and lay-led groups have had a huge impact on the daily life of parishes. The obvious growth in lay ecclesial ministers on parish and diocesan staffs, lay theologians at the university level, including women as well as men, has been perhaps the clearest fruit of Vatican II. For example, Pope Francis recently appointed a woman to the second highest position in the civil government of the Vatican and has named women to a number of Vatican offices.  Many spiritual movements have been started and led by lay people. In Latin American and elsewhere “base communities” gather with lay leadership to reflect on God’s Word and apply it to the cultural, economic and political reality they are facing.  But, overall, the reality does not resemble the full theological vision of the Second Vatican Council.

There is no easy path to what Pope Francis calls a “synodal Church,” because to be collegial in our decision-making is always messy. People disagree with one another, sometimes vigorously. Life must continue and decisions need to be made, and we cannot always govern by consensus. Here in the Archdiocese of Detroit we have lived through a synodal process that resulted in Synod 2016 and the ”Unleash the Gospel” initiative that followed. The move to a Family of Parishes model that then followed was more of a top-down decision by the archbishop than a synodal one, but the collaboration and shaping of each Family of Parishes will succeed only if the Family embraces a collegial, “synodal” form of listening and decision-making. It will be interesting to see what emerges at the parish level in our new Families of Parishes structure. Soon the Archbishop will appoint who will be the priest-Moderator of our group of parishes. Then in the spring of 2022 all the parishes in the Family (St. Regis, St. Owen, Holy Name, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs) will need to embark on a “synodal-type” journey in order to come together as a Family of Parishes.  This journey will take several years, but through it all the key will be to move from “my parish only” decision making to Family-wide decision making; from pastor alone decision making to collaborative decision making with pastor input.  Our January 11, 2022 Parish Leadership Night will focus on this upcoming reality of Families of Parishes. It will be open to all, in person and via zoom. You might want to mark your calendars now for that night.

Fr. Buersmeyer

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