What’s a Catholic? Reflections on Archbishops Chaput and Martin

In a former posting of mine entitled, “Revisiting - And Healing - An Open Wound,” I quoted the following statement from Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin:

“On a deeper level, however, there is a certain ambiguity as to what “being Catholic” means in contemporary Irish society. There are multiple expressions of the claim: “I am still a Catholic, but…” Many people who no longer regularly practice will still come to Church on special occasions and on the great feasts and maintain some personal contact with the Church. In some cases people live out a sort of cultural Catholicism; in other cases what is called Catholicism is really a type of civil religion, a social spirituality without dogma, with blurred reference to a Jesus of one’s own creation.

“…the Catholic Church in Ireland must be concerned about the lack of knowledge of basic elements of the Christian faith and of the nature of the Church among Catholics. This is a situation which should be a cause of concern as it can only increase from one generation to the next. The Irish Church is extraordinarily weak in its knowledge and use of the scriptures. In other cases there remain among those who have drifted from Church life vestiges of faith and of affection for the Church. The importance of these signs should not be underestimated. But such vestiges will never flourish again without a genuine programme of new evangelization.”

His words about our faith and about our Church have struck a chord in me. His words were within the context of his Interview with CBS News and thus resonated with me and what we’re facing in Philadelphia at the present moment…on the eve of a trial, the result of the second “Grand Jury” investigation of sex abuse allegations in Philadelphia. But as I read his words, there was something else - about the larger issue of the Catholic Church and how that Church is changing - that had me mulling over his words in to different context.

Recently Archbishop Chaput announced the initiation of the Pastoral Council of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Groundwork for the Council was done by Dr. Robert Miller of our archdiocesan research staff and Auxiliary Bishop John McIntyre. What struck me was the title of his post: The Nature of the Church and the Importance of Lay Action. The Archbishop said:

Going forward, APC meetings will occur quarterly. Remaining 2012 dates include May 5, September 8 and December 15. In practice, the council should be a local snapshot of the whole People of God. In Philadelphia, that means it will always include at least one priest, one permanent deacon and one religious. But the rest of the roughly 30 members are laypeople from every walk of life and region in the archdiocese.

This makes sense, since the Church is overwhelmingly lay in her membership, and – especially today — laypeople must play a vital role in advancing the work of the Gospel. I select APC members from candidates nominated by their pastors through the local deaneries. I also reserve a number of at-large appointments to myself to ensure a balance in gender, age, ethnicity and experience.

Service on the council follows four simple rules: fidelity to Catholic teaching; charity; mutual respect; and candor. Members do not “represent” any constituency but themselves. Their great value to the bishop lies in bringing their personal life experience to the honest discussion of pastoral issues facing our Church.

Over the past six months, I’ve written several times about the hard challenges that lie ahead for our Church. But it won’t always be so. To borrow a thought from Francis of Assisi, God has given us too many good people in our archdiocese — clergy, laypersons and religious — to fail if we work together to “repair [God’s] house.

I was recently speaking with a good priest-friend about what we had done over the past several months in Manayunk especially in the parishes where I am assigned (St. Lucy and St. Mary of the Assumption). I also mentioned what we were planning moving forward once the announcement about the parish restructuring is eventually announced. He said, “You must have a really good Parish Council.”

Actually I don’t. I have four spectacular Parish Councils (Finance and Pastoral) — two in each parish. They have worked with me, and with each other, on a whole host of challenging and difficult issues within highly irregular and complex times. They’re magnificent. Any Pastor should be so blessed.

But who they are and what they do are exactly what Archbishop Martin and Archbishop Chaput are talking about. Over my 17 years of priesthood I have had the pleasure, honor and privilege of working with numerous talented, creative, hopeful, resilient, faith-filled Philly Catholics. I can also say that I have met or been aware of way too many who have sat on the sidelines and been quiet or absent when needed in their parishes. Many of them have also been highly vocal when the Church did something wrong or when something was happening (or not happening) of which they did not approve.

We are in an unprecedented time in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. We face historically complex issues and I know that people are hurting, confused and frustrated. I understand that as the nearest “official church guy” I get dumped on - a lot. I “signed up for that” 17 years ago when I was prostrate on the Cathedral floor. But as a Pastor, I am not, and cannot be, “Father FIY - the solutions guy.” In addition, those who always seem to be there to assist me and support the parish, “The Few, The Proud, The Exhausted” faithful people who always seem willing to step up in the parishes where I have been assigned are getting worn out. I worry about their physical stamina, their resilience, their spirit (small “s”) and their Spirit (large “S”).

And so I find myself, more and more, saying in such situations, “You’re bringing me a problem. Bring me a solution” or “Are you volunteering to lead a group of people to address this situation? No? Well how about at least being a member of the committee?” The responses are often massive backpedaling or looks of confusion (or even fear!). Part of this is “our fault.” By “our” I mean the priests, Pastors, Bishops and Archbishops who have not encouraged nor taught nor led our people into a place where they have the right (and responsibility) to be.

So these questions are new, and disorienting, to people. Hopefully I ask them with a sense of encouragement and not criticism. I also know that I am failing in this regard especially now when I’m feeling frustrated too. If I’ve hurt any of you, I officially apologize. Contact me and let’s keep the conversation going. I also believe that we are also in an exciting time. Dr. Miller (mentioned above) said to me once, “You know, we’re in a winter. and it’s been a LONG one.” Yet I keep hearing Pope Benedict referencing a new springtime. I believe it’s coming. I look forward to seeing what “Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, neither has it entered into our hearts, the things which God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)

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