My Ways or Your Ways?

What do ISIS, the Chinese government, and many Catholics have in common? It begins like a bad joke, I know, but none of them allows Christ’s Church to carry out her mission fully.

Reading the papers these past few weeks only confirms a convergence between the Church’s enemies: ISIS takes 300 of our faithful as hostages and threatens their martyrdom unless they recant the Faith, Beijing rebels against Vatican-appointed bishops, and so many of our so-called Catholic institutions are fighting the removal of abortion coverage from their insurance policies.

In talking about these instances with a dear friend, I learned that all of this reminded her of the line from Ezekiel when the chosen people are grumbling against God: “But the house of Israel says, ‘The Lord’s way is not fair!’ Is it my way that is not fair, house of Israel? Is it not your ways that are not fair?” (Ezekiel 18:29). Who is not being fair? By definition, two contrarily-opposed parties cannot both be right. The bishop who teaches one thing, and the people who demand another cannot both be correct. Who, then, is being fair?

While the popular media are loathe to report it through this particular religious lens, a large part of ISIS’s pattern of violence is unarguably against Christians and particularly Catholics. Most recently, over 300 members of ancient Christian families in Assyria were taken hostage in Northeastern Syria. Extremist groups are slowly, systematically aiming to eradicate all who disagree with their interpretation of the Quran (including other Muslims), and the Church’s faithful are the most obvious targets. God is in no way done in these lands that deny him, and one day, these terrorists will come to see what Tertullian (Apology §50, around AD 197) meant, when he said “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” These otherwise unknown men, women, and children will hereafter be prayed for and remembered at every Christian liturgy throughout the world as, “blessed Apostles, martyrs, and all the saints …”.

Some 3,500 miles farther to the East, the Chinese government is also helping the Church mystically grow. Out of its fear of Rome, Beijing fines and often imprisons those whose fidelity to the one, true Church is known. Chinese officials continuously seek to control the appointments of all religious leaders, including even the Tibetan Buddhist monks who control those communities. Yet the Catholic Church appears to be the most hated. Take, for example, Bishop Cosma Shi Enxiang who was imprisoned for over 60 years, and even spent the last 14 of those years in an undisclosed, secret place. Bishop Shi refused to let his tongue renounce Rome, and for this, he is kept silent. Now we know that Bishop Shi died sometime this past winter, but out of fear of making him a martyr and saint, the Chinese government refuses to release any details of where or when the Bishop died. The Diocese of Hong Kong is still petitioning Beijing for the release of his body. Little does China know that they helped this man and many, many others become saints.

Perhaps a bit closer to home, the archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, recently sought to insert into the Catholic School Handbook there a clarification that “administrators, faculty, and staff … are to arrange and conduct their lives so as not to visibly contradict, undermine, or deny” official Church teaching. Given the fallout and media attention, one would think Cordileone had taken hostages or imprisoned others himself. But according to reports (I have not seen the document), the archdiocese simply wants to include in the handbook 15 “affirm and believe” areas that are especially important in the proper formation of our young: the outright condemnation of taking innocent human life (e.g., abortion); pornography, masturbation, homosexual activity, and heterosexual contraception as disordered ways of attempting to show love; artificial reproductive technology; women’s ordination; and so on. Protests ensued, petitions were signed, and counter-documents were written. Once again, the attainment of sainthood is on the table.

Now, of course, the faithful, not only have the right, but, in fact, are expected to make their voices known. In some ways, I would rather have dissent than apathy; at least those who wrestle with official Church teaching are aware that it is there, that demands are being made upon them.  There can be great intimacy in arguing.

Yet the question remains: Who speaks officially for the Catholic Church? Amongst the cacophony, whose voice best speaks Christ’s own?  Either we are unable to know what it is the Lord wants us to do in our minds and with our bodies, or we are left to figure the Christian life out on our own. If we are, in fact, able to be instructed, from where does that teaching come? Is it our feelings, our opinions, past experience, the majority vote, or is there possibly something deeper, something more divine? When Christ promised his Apostles “those who hear you, hear me” (Luke 10:16), what did he mean?  In the Spirit of Vatican II, let me tell you what Jesus meant:

Bishops, therefore, with their helpers, the priests and deacons, have taken up the service of the community, presiding in place of God over the flock, whose shepherds they are, as teachers for doctrine, priests for sacred worship, and ministers for governing. And just as the office granted individually to Peter, the first among the Apostles, is permanent and is to be transmitted to his successors, so also the Apostles’ office of nurturing the Church is permanent, and is to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops. Therefore, this Sacred Council teaches that bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the Apostles, as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and him who sent Christ. (cf. Luke 10:16)1

Prophecy means to speak for, and it is a gift given in the holy waters of baptism. So, who speaks for Christ? All the baptized do! The Church is ultimately Christ dwelling in the baptized, and our voices in unison sing eternal concord.

Yet every single voice is not always on key. So, when direction is needed, when the fog of secularism clouds the bright way Christ alone can offer, and when the body is itself divided along fairly predictable lines, Jesus refuses to abandon his people. For this, he has given us his Church: not a nebulous, ethereal, spiritual, toothless abstraction, but a muscular and robust Body whose voice is God himself. Through his appointed shepherds, God uses his Church to pull down dictators, to convert countries, and to teach the timid. He always has, he always will. This is where all can become saints. Even in San Francisco.

So, as Ezekiel still asks, whose ways are fair?

  1. Lumen Gentium 20.
Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ About Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Meconi, SJ is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.

Comments

  1. Martin B. Drew says:

    yes Father Meconi, Martyrs are the seed of the Church. The Chinese, ISIS devastating the Assyrians in Syria and the catholics in San Fransisco ignoring the goodness of their Archbishop Cordileone are in distress where they have not prayed to the Holy Spirit nor have they made an intention for assistance from the Holy Spirit. They are not persons of the Beatitudes which St Pope John Paul II called Blessed Giorgio Frassati of Torino.

  2. Jim Anderson says:

    Thank you, Fr. Meconi, and God bless you.

  3. Ted Heywood says:

    Fine thoughts and words, Fr. Meconi. A solid 21/2 out of 3! Unfortunately, too many of our shepherds have no intention to … “pull down dictators, convert countries and teach the timid.” Rather for expedience, power and position they support tyranny, throw crumbs to the masses and refuse to support the Magisterium. They acquiesce to current social trends, compromise religious and natural law principles to assure ongoing funding from governmental agencies and undercut Catholic doctrinal teaching to curry favor with liberal/progressive politicians. It would be interesting to know how many were 2 for 2 in voting for the single most destructive administration in the history of the country.
    It may not sound so, but, I am very optimistic about how the story plays out in the long term. Not because of our current crop of Shepherds but because of the promises that Christ made. ‘Be not afraid…. I go before you always’; or ‘ I will be with you for all times even to the end of the world’.

  4. Thank you, Fr. Meconi, for this article. It ought to be no surprise, of course, that the Church has her enemies – the Chinese and Islamic forces are predictably against us and ought to have been anticipated. But the enemies among us, whose existence ought not be a total surprise, should trouble us deeply because of their numbers. Yes even Scripture warns us, and in many ways, of weeds among the wheat. But Scripture at the same time directs us in a path that would minimize such an enemy force, and we have not been careful enough to follow that path. The seminal command was, “make disciples, …, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you,” and we have settled for much less.

    Obedience to the Truth must be formed in a human person, and that formation must be “shepherded” as by a loving shepherd, “tended” as by a loving farmer or vinedresser, as the Christian grows. It is not enough to tend the garden carefully “up to 8th grade”, and then leave it to itself and the forces of nature until fruit is required in adulthood – and then expect a good and abundant harvest! The phrase, “Because the Church says so,” is appropriate to a child – but to an adolescent or young adult those can be fighting words! As we grow, we need to grow in understanding – we need more than a growing list of edicts. To a poorly formed adult, the Church seems to be offering only one more opinion to think about, or at worst, a dictatorial command that insults the adult’s sense of personal dignity. We, the Church, have not raised our children well, and we are reaping the harvest. And the results are mixed, and painful.

    We as Church ought to have learned something about formation by now, but I still have not seen a wave of repentance and serious resolution to change course. We need to take shepherding, and tending the vineyard, seriously – and soberly – and carefully – because we will have to give account to our Lord, who has entrusted us with His vineyard. The call to holiness is a reality, not a “bumper sticker” or in-style phrase to sprinkle into homilies, conference talks and books. Formation in the Faith is a life-long work; discipleship is a full-time vocation; Christianity is a way of life, not a weekend diversion from the “real” (secular) world of “real” life. We are past needing renewal or re-awakening: we need His life. We need to hear the Gospel, we need to repent and believe, we need to grow in the beautiful truth of His life. And I pray we will begin soon: the day is coming to an end.