We rightly regard the diversity of the Church here in Chicago as a strength, because we are enriched by the beautiful and varied ways the faith is practiced and passed on by the many cultures that make up our local Church. We also have diversity of opinion and approach in the Church about what is the best way to practice and pass on the faith, and that discussion can be healthy and productive. This diversity of cultures and approaches exists within each parish as well. At times, however, this diversity breaks down into division, and when it does, the Church becomes fractured and her unity is threatened. If the Catholic Church is to carry out the mission of Jesus Christ, as a Church we must walk together in unity.
I meet with the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council five times a year. This group reflects the thinking and lives of Christ's faithful in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Although its membership includes some priests, deacons and religious, it is primarily a lay council responsible for being the "eyes and ears" of the Archdiocese for me, so that I might govern well, truly aware of what is on the hearts and in the minds of the laity. The Council consists of two members from each of the twenty-five deaneries (clusters of approximately ten parishes each) that make up the Archdiocese. Each year I ask the APC to provide me with feedback on three issues facing the Archdiocese. In this and in other ways, the Council has been incredibly helpful to me.
Council members and parishioners have at times asked me to report in a more public way the results of APC deliberations. Last year, for example, our most fruitful discussion revolved around the question of division and unity. Some of the obstacles to unity were predictable, such as the division between a liberal point of view about Church issues versus a more traditional viewpoint. Three somewhat less obvious sources of division, however, came to light. First, both inter- and intra-ethnic tensions remain causes of disunity in many parishes of the Archdiocese. Stories of parish events attended by one ethnic group and shunned by another were all too frequent in APC discussions. A strength of our local Church is the close historical identification between nationality and religion that has marked and continues to mark immigrant Catholic communities here in Chicago. The flip side of that strength is the difficulty so many of those groups have in reaching across the boundaries of their own cultures and sharing the universal faith with other communities that make up the parish.
APC members spoke of much progress on this front in many parishes. The great unifier often seems to be food. Parish international fests bring everyone together to sample the rich cuisines of many cultures. With the sharing of food often comes the first halting sharing of conversation. One parish council set a goal of increased unity as its primary ministry for three years. Council meetings became fully bilingual, and council members visited every group in the parish in an effort not only to come to know one another but also to link the various ministries to the central moment of the parish – the Sunday Eucharist.
The second obstacle to unity that the APC identified involved the cliques and groups that develop in parishes, and the rivalries and animosities that develop between parishes. All too often in our parish life, there tend to be "in groups" and "out groups," Father So-and-so's followers versus the pastor's people, the groups that meet in the rectory versus those that meet in the small room in the basement. Equally serious in these days of limited financial resources is the refusal of parishes to share with one another programs, resources, physical space, staff or even ideas. Many times, rivalries between parishes once known as Irish, German or Polish continue long after the ethnic distinctions have disappeared or changed. While these tensions might seem minor or petty, they impede the unity that is necessary to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ effectively. In recent years, several deaneries have begun to work together to eliminate these obstacles to unity and to plan together for the future of education, athletics or social ministry on an area-wide basis. We need to see more of this across the Archdiocese.
The last of the three major sources of division involves another intra-parish tension. To oversimplify, we'll call it the school versus the parish. Somehow in the last few years, the sense that the school is an integral, if not central, ministry of the parish has often been lost. APC members told numerous sad stories of school personnel and religious education personnel who barely spoke to each other and who shared space begrudgingly at best. While many pastors continued to regard the school as central to the life of the parish, others, when a school closed, felt almost relieved to be free of the financial burden of a parish school. Fifty years ago, 50% of Catholic children in Chicago attended Catholic schools. Today that number is 22%. The burden of a Catholic education has fallen most heavily on parents, who paid $430 million of the total cost of $550 million to fund our Catholic schools last year.
This source of division is especially troublesome and irksome. If we can't agree that the mission of the Church will certainly falter if the faith is not handed on to the next generation, then indeed the unity needed for mission will surely be lost. Consider the fact that, even with weekend religious education programs, less than 50% of Catholic children are being educated in the faith in any formal, parish-based program. The mission of the Church to convert the world to Christ must start with us and be passed on to our children. Some signs of hope do exist. Select parishes are discussing and trying out different models of stewardship, which may in time provide greater access to Catholic education for children across the Archdiocese.
Unity is necessary to advance the mission because a Church that cannot clearly preach the Gospel, a Church divided in heart and mind, is an ineffective witness to Jesus Christ and cannot call people to conversion. Unity is one of the four marks of the Church, along with holiness, catholicity and apostolicity. The unity of the Church in her teaching and worship reflects the Unity in Trinity that is the nature of God. The Church is God's house, the household of the faith. May the Lord convert us ever more deeply to the faith and give us courage to propose it to the world. God bless you.