Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Only Great Men Can Make Great Men (Part IV)



Only Great Men Can Make Great Men continued:

The last point from Of the Five Wounds of the Holy Church worth considering may surprise many twenty first-century Catholics. To be sure, when I first heard of this practice I thought it was just another attempt to make the Catholic Church more like a democracy. This ancient practice of the early Church Fathers may be confused with putting doctrine up for a vote, as if we can pick and choose between Church teachings; accepting some and rejecting others.

No. The practice that I refer to is when both the clergy and the people chose their Bishop. This indeed was a democratic process; a legitimate one endorsed by the early Church. The local community- big or small –was consulted on who would serve their spiritual needs.

Today, much is said about the principle of subsidiarity: a principle which holds “that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.” The people who would be affected the most by the selection of a Bishop, the local church or diocese, had a say in determining who that might be. When the decision of this magnitude and importance is centralized- even if the centralized authority be that of the Vatican -and when it does not involve the consent of the faithful, then the placement of the Bishop runs the risk of causing resentment or indifference. This unilateral process also runs the risk of creating mismatches between the Shepherd and the sheep.

Father Antonio Rosmini, who authored Of the Five Wounds of the Holy Church, asked the following questions. In this passage, he takes it for granted that the one tier approach in deciding Bishops, and even priests, causes an indifference among the people, not just on who their pastor will be but also on the very doctrines they teach:

“When the people are required and taught to be indifferent about their own Pastors, is it not equivalent to teaching them indifference to the doctrine which may be set before them, and to the course of conduct in which they may be held? Is it not teaching them that it is no longer necessary for men to have confidence in the ministers of religion; that they may set aside the needs of their souls and repentance?”


Rosmini then goes on to write that one of the greatest popes, Pope St. Leo the Great, not only enforced this practice but even went so far as to say that when the people are not consulted about who their ministers were, they may end up being demoralized:

“The great St. Leo knew well that to force the people to accept an unwelcome Bishop was to demoralize them, and this was one reason why he persisted in upholding the ancient discipline of the Church concerning the election of Bishops, as carried out by the clergy, the people, and the provincial Bishops.”

“For instance, he writes thus to Anastasius, Bishop of Thessalonica: ‘When it is a question of electing a chief priest, let him be preferred to all others who is required by the consent of both clergy and people; and if the votes should be equal, let the Metropolitan prefer him who has obtained most affection, and is a man of great merit; only give heed that none shall be elected who are not wished or asked for; lest the people, being thwarted should despise or hate their Bishop, and lest they should become less religious than is fitting, not having obtained him they desired.’”

Another example: “Council of Paris: ‘No Bishop shall be appointed contrary to the will of the citizens, but he only whose election has been heartily and voluntarily demanded by the people and the clergy.’

If this ancient practice were implemented today, there can be no doubt that the tide of priestly scandals would have been stemmed. Unfit clergy could have been contested by the very people who would be influenced the most by the transfer of these unfit priests. And as for the Bishop(s) who did the transferring of these priests, there could have been a check and balance between his decisions and the concerns and complaints of the flock.

It was different in the early Church. Rosmini said that the Catholic Church acted as “one man." Both clergy and the people were on the same page. During the second millennium, however, there were periods when the clergy and the laity evolved into two different subcultures within the same body; speaking different languages and pursuing different ends. When these two worlds, the hierarchy of the Church and the faithful, were not acting as one, then the making of great men was harder to come by.

Spiritual fathers need to understand and relate to their spiritual sons. Spiritual sons, on the other hand, need to identify with and admire their Spiritual fathers. Was the early Church on to something when the Bishops personally discipled their seminarians and priests; when the dominant standard of choosing a priest or a Bishop was holiness; and when the people helped determine which of those great men were to shepherd them? Can it be any wonder that the supply of great men were in such abundance in those first thousand years? And can it be doubted that the abundant supply of great men led to the greatest civilization the world has ever known?

With the multiplication of great men within the Catholic Church today, that great civilization can be restored once again.

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