Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Bishop Pierces the Darkness

The picture to the right is a painting by Anthony Van Dyck of St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, physically preventing the Roman emperor Theodosius from enter into the cathedral. It so happened, that the emperor, in order to suppress an uprising in Thessalonica, killed 7,000 of its citizens. St. Ambrose demanded that he do several months worth of public penance; and penance the Roman emperor did. This was a crucial turning point in world history. The era of the all-powerful State was coming to an end.

The second post of this series: A Bishop Pierces the Darkness: Why Bishop Aquila's words are rays of hope for the Church

In March of 2011, Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo Pennsylvania gave an address at a symposium of seminarians. The Catholic News Agency's article, “Bishop Aquila urges clergy not to let ‘lies’ take hold among faithful” provides excerpts and a fine analysis of the talk.

What I would like to do is to reference some of the things he said and elaborate a bit on their importance. I do believe his address to be a historic one in that it signals a renewal of both the episcopate and the Church itself. Indeed, Aquila's words can be likened to God's rays of sunlight piercing through the clouds in the sky. After decades of being lost in the desert without a compass, so it would seem, the Bishop of Fargo points to the promise land. His words are reminiscent of the insight and pastoral wisdom of the Fathers of the Church; in particular, St. Ambrose, a bishop that will be introduced in the next post.

Bishop Aquila's recent talk to his seminarians gave special attention to the pastoral exercises of our Lord and the condition of souls that sometimes warranted a forceful and direct approach. The Bishop said that Jesus' “forceful” language towards the Pharisees and Scribes would never be tolerated today but the Gospel writers did not hesitate to pass them down. He further explains that “In love Jesus makes these direct statements to open the eyes of those whose hearts and minds are hardened. His straight talk, given in love for the person, desires the conversion and holiness of the person to the ways of God.” And then he adds that the clergy (and even laity in positions of authority) need to speak the truth especially with those who say they are with Christ and the Church but do not accept the teaching of Jesus and the Church. I would elaborate by saying that the sheep and wolves have existed side by side for far too long in the name of compassion. As result of this mixed population of the faithful and dissenters, the visible unity of the Church has been impaired. Thinking with one mind, speaking with one voice and uniformity of action have long been undermined. From this has come mixed messages and sometimes scandal.

“Bishops and priests,” Aquila continued, “should turn to Jesus Christ to learn how to exercise their authority in governing the Church.” When they “are hesitant in exercising their authority, the 'father of lies' takes hold of the hearts and minds of the faithful.” Hesitant about what? you might ask. Hesitant about exercising authority that a father- spiritual or biological -has to exercise from time to time with wayward souls. And the exercise of that authority I referred to is one of discipline and punishment. Because we have downplayed the reality of sin and deleted its term from our lexicon (i.e. sermons, teachings and other venues of public discourse) the consequences of sin, especially hell and damnation, have suffered from extinction; at least in our own minds.

Without knowing about the bad news, who will care to hear the Good News? Without the preaching of divine justice, people will feel that they are entitled to the mercy of God whether they go to church or not. If hell is not a real possibility, then speaking to Christ and conforming our ways to his ways becomes optional. The “business” of saving souls assumes that souls can be lost. If this assumption is absent then the necessary pastoral measures will not be exercised in order to save souls from their own destruction. To inspire holiness and virtue is not enough! The greatest of the gifts of the Holy Spirit- the fear of the Lord, must be cultivated. To fear the Lord and to fear, not only his displeasure, but the consequences of that displeasure, is a good thing! This is why St. Paul can say to the Philippians to work out their salvation in fear and trembling.

“(T)oo many people understand correction or punishment as not loving the other or as dominion over the other, and this is the work of ‘the father of lies.’ A reluctance or hesitancy to correct and properly punish does not invite the other into the truth that frees and ultimately fails in true charity.” These words by Bishop Aquila cut to the chase. Christian love, real Christian love, is willing to offend and hurt feelings if it means speaking the truth about specific sins so as to liberate souls from the bondage of sin. God is a loving father who punishes. Without punishment, not only love but the freedom to become holy is undermined.

This all presupposes that the mercy and goodness of God is proffered. However, the blind spot of our generation is that we entirely omit truths like sin and hell. We further fail to mention that the flesh, the world and the devil- this unholy trio -is the enemy of the soul; at least that is what Scripture and the Saints say. In fact, we no longer speak about enemies. That would be too impolite. Indeed, we are soft and delicate. And as such, evil all the more is unhindered in our world today. Especially unchecked are those worldly and unrepentant politicians who march into Catholic cathedrals and churches throughout the world only to put their hand out to receive the Eucharist; the Holiest Thing (or pearl) the Catholic Church has to offer. But how does the love of Christ bid us to respond?

We already referenced what our Lord said about giving holy things to dogs and pearls to swine. However, Bishop Samuel Aquila had spoken about this specific issue at his March symposium of seminarians. His insights and the historic conflict between St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, and the Roman emperor Theodosius in the next blog.