Monday, February 13, 2012

Recalling a Bishop's Symposium for Seminarians: And its Political Relevance

If a time ever comes when the religious Jews, Protestants, and Catholics have to suffer under a totalitarian state denying them the right to worship God according to the light of their conscience, it will be because for years they thought it no difference what kind of people represented them in Congress, and because they never opposed the materialistic lie with spiritual truth.

-Bishop Fulton Sheen, Communism and the Western Conscience 1948

Forceful Language:

Almost a year ago, in March of 2011, Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo Pennsylvania gave an address at a symposium of seminarians. His address is an historic one in that it signals a renewal of how bishops and pastors go about protecting the sheep against the wolves. I would go so far as to say that his words are reminiscent of the insights and pastoral wisdom of the Fathers of the Church.

Bishop Aquila's 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 even so, the Gospel writers did not hesitate to pass them down. He further explained that it was out our Lord’s love for souls that he “made these direct statements to open the eyes of those whose hearts and minds are hardened.” “His straight talk,” the bishop said, “given in love for the person, desires the conversion and holiness of the person to the ways of God.” And then he added 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. Many faithful Catholics have argued 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.

Reluctance of Fathers:

“Bishops and priests,” Aquila continued, “should turn to Jesus Christ to learn how to exercise their authority in governing the Church.” But 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 natural father) 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 omitted its term from our public discourse, the consequences of sin- especially hell and damnation -have suffered from virtual extinction; at least in the minds of many Catholics.

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 mission of saving souls assumes that souls can be lost!! If this assumption is not clearly articulated then the necessary pastoral approach will not be exercised in order to save souls. To inspire holiness and virtue is not enough! The greatest of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that is, 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! A very good thing! This is why St. Paul can say to the Philippians that they are 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,” said Bishop Aquila. His words 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.

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. This is the testimony of Scripture and the Saints. In fact, we no longer speak about enemies. We, the clergy and laity, have exercised diplomacy to a fault. As such, evil all the more is unhindered in our world today.

Public Sinners and Communion:

Bishop Samuel Aquila didn’t stop there, however. He had spoken about an issue of great political consequence at his 2011 March symposium of seminarians. He posed the question of the century. A question many have asked in recent years:

“[H]ow many times and years may a Catholic politician vote for the so called ‘right to abortion’ … and still be able to receive Holy Communion?”

This, of course, is a rhetorical question. The bishop is simply stating a fact: Obstinate sinners, especially those who publicly advance abortion rights and same-sex marriage, have had access to sanctuary of the Church for too long- they have been able to receive the Eucharist for too long- and they have been able to enjoy full communion with the Church for too long! He also posited that the easy access to the Eucharist by those who publicly contradict the truth of human dignity by promoting grave evil is a scandal to onlookers. It further undermines the teaching and governing authority of the Church when there is no discrimination between a faithful communicant and one who blatantly dissents from the Gospel of Life.

Regardless of what the intention of the Eucharistic minister may be, giving the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ to those politicians who publicly oppose our Lord’s teachings is a pastoral action that speaks louder than words. It essentially says that the Eucharist- the greatest gift of the Church –is really not that important. It also ignores St. Paul’s admonition that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.”

Our Lord said, "Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces.” Certainly Jesus didn’t mean that those who receive the Sacraments unworthily will literally dismember Catholics. But he did mean is that such an unguarded access to such holy gifts of God will divide the Church. Not only divide, but such a liberal and indiscriminate “generosity,” people will no longer treasure them as they ought.

Social and Political Implications:

“If we honestly pray with the Gospel we can see that hesitancy and non-accountability is not the way of Jesus Christ, but rather it is a failure in the exercise of governance,” says the bishop. He goes on to imply that if the hierarchy of the Church took a stronger stand against those priests who publicly dissented from Church teaching against contraception in 1968 in Washington DC, perhaps the Church would not be dealing with the problem of abortion, same-sex unions, and other problems in the Church.

From 1968 to the present day, Catholics in name only have been groomed and fed right along with faithful Catholics. To be sure, the wolf and sheep were given equal status and in some cases the wolf was given preferential treatment. When no distinction is made between the friends and foes of Christ, and when the shepherd does not separate the two, the wolves quite often devour the sheep. This is why St. Paul gave the following pastoral directives to the Christians at Corinth: “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people.” And he then added with an exclamation point: “Purge the evil person from your midst!" (I Corinthians 5)

The importance of Bishop Aquila's address to his seminarians cannot be overstated. It is an attempt to dust off the model of leadership left to us by our Lord, the Apostles and the Church Fathers. When the Church does not draw a fine line between the sheep and wolves; when she fails to make the bold distinction between good and evil, then spiritual and moral confusion in society is but the natural result. And more often than not, what we are left with is a powerful State which attempts to organize the social disorder remaining from such confusion.

On the other hand, when the Church speaks with one voice and with moral clarity, she is a force to be reckoned with. She is a font of spiritual and cultural renewal. In periods of the Catholic Church's strength and confidence, clergy and laity alike have spoken with moral clarity; sometimes at a great cost. Indeed, the Catholic Church has a legacy of protecting the citizen and the lowly from the tyranny of the State. And one of her greatest accomplishments was that she tamed the overbearing dominance of the State to a kind of governance which understood itself to be the servant of its citizens; a servant who had to answer to a higher divine law.

A Bishop and an Emperor:

One man who helped changed the way people looked at the State is St. Ambrose. In 392 A.D. the Roman Emperor Theodosius II killed 7.000 Thessalonians in an uprising. Having been informed of this while the emperor was still miles away, St. Ambrose, a bishop of Milan, wrote him a letter and said, “I urge, I beg, I exhort, I warn, for it is a grief to me, that you who were an example of unusual piety, who were conspicuous for clemency, who would not suffer single offenders to be put in peril, should not mourn that so many have perished.” In no uncertain terms, the saintly bishop cautioned Theodosius that “sin is not done away but by tears and penitence. Neither angel can do it, nor archangel. The Lord Himself, Who alone can say, ‘I am with you,’ if we have sinned, does not forgive any but those who repent.” St. Ambrose then recounted a dream he had of the emperor coming into the Church. Upon his arrival, the Lord had forbidden the saintly bishop to offer the Sacrifice at the altar. St. Ambrose took this to mean one thing: confrontation if need be.

Inspired by these convictions, St. Ambrose was determined to publicly call the Roman emperor to public penance. Indeed, there came a day when Theodosius presumptuously attempted to enter the cathedral in Milan where St. Ambrose was presiding at. However, this heroic bishop physically prevented him from entering. St. Ambrose demanded that this powerful head of State repent from killing so many people before partaking of the Holy Sacrifice of the Liturgy. This Saint, Doctor and Father of the Church was too concerned for Theodosius’ soul to let his sin go uncensored. It was not only an act of courage but the highest kind of pastoral love a spiritual father could give to a son. It was furthermore a precedent that the great shepherds of the Church aspired to in the centuries to follow.

Unfortuanately, we haven’t seen this fatherly discipline in the last five to six decades. But with bishops like His Excellency, Samuel Aquila, the miter and the scepter will meet again. The golden standard of pastoring will be restored, a stronger Church will emerge and civilization will once again give public honor to Jesus Christ. But let us suffer no illusions, this cannot happen without a conflict between good and evil.