Last year, the mostly lay Archdiocesan Pastoral Council asked the Presbyteral Council to consider how the homily at Mass might be used to deepen lay people's understanding of some contested mysteries of faith. The request arose during a discussion on what it means to be Catholic. Many of the more external signs of Catholicism, the practices people associated with life in the Church, were abandoned thirty or more years ago. The disappearance of external protections left the internal life of faith exposed to error and confusion. The priests took the time to clarify with representatives of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council just what was being asked for, and a list of six topics was finally agreed upon. The six topics that are to be discussed at some time over the course of the year, depending on the liturgical readings and season, are: the Eucharist, ordained priesthood, penance or reconciliation, marriage, the Blessed Virgin Mary and immigration.
The first impression this list, minus the sixth concern about immigration, leaves with me is that we're back to the Protestant Reformation. At the time of the Reformation, when the visible unity of the Church was broken for doctrinal reasons, the Mass became a memorial service for most Reformers, its unity with Christ's sacrifice at Calvary became purely "spiritual" and the objective, sacramental, substantial re-presentation of that sacrifice was denied. With the disappearance of the sacrifice of the Mass, the ordained priesthood was reduced to ministry, a function or service based only on baptism. The sacrament of Holy Orders was lost to the life of the Protestant faith communities. With the loss of ordained priesthood, the sacrament of penance or reconciliation became unnecessary, for neither the Church nor the priest mediated the penitent's relationship to God's mercy. Nor did the bond of marriage continue to enjoy the character of sacramentality, opening that tie to the contemporary reduction of marriage to an external, legal permission to have sex between two consenting adults. The individualism that is left when mediation disappears makes even the saints competitors with Christ, so there is no room for the Blessed Virgin Mary and other saints to pray for us or care for us. At best, they become reminders of good behavior in past history; devotion to them is classed as a form of idolatry.
There are many good people whose path to holiness is shaped by religious individualism and private interpretation of what God has revealed. They are, however, called Protestants. When an informed and committed group of Catholics, such as the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, comes up with an agenda for discussion that is, historically, Protestant, an important point is being made. Catholics assimilated to American culture, which is historically Protestant, are now living with great tension between how their culture shapes them and what their Catholic faith tells them to hold.
This is not surprising. Many writers who claim to be Catholic make names for themselves by attacking truths basic to our faith. Without the personal integrity that would bring them to admit they have simply lost the faith that comes to us from the Apostles, they reconstruct it on a purely subjective, individualistic basis and call it renewal. The Second Vatican Council wasn't called to turn Catholics into Protestants. It was called to ask God to bring all Christ's followers into unity of faith so that the world would believe who Christ is and live with him in his Body, the Church. The de-programming of Catholics, even in some of our schools and religious education and liturgical programs, has brought us to a moment clearly recognized by the bishops in the Synod of 1985 (when the Catechism of the Catholic Church was proposed as a partial solution to confusion about the central mysteries of faith) and acknowledged by many others today.
This issue of the Catholic New World is devoted to faith in education and to celebrating our Catholic schools. They make us proud and grateful. Dr. Nicholas Wolsonovich and others have placed Catholic identity and the handing on of the apostolic faith at the core of his reform efforts for our schools. Discussions about the identity of Catholic colleges and universities continue despite opposition by some and lethargy by others. The nature of Catholic health care has been well worked out on paper, but finds practical implementation difficult for many reasons. We could go on with cases from every Catholic institution, including parishes and dioceses themselves. The Church is and should be a very big tent. But the posts are firmly planted in divine revelation and the Church's response to God's self-revelation over two thousand years. It's a communal response; the individual and his or her self-expression are never normative. That's a hard saying in a culture shaped by Protestantism and the later Age of Enlightenment.
I'm looking forward to the next year. If we are to propose to the world our faith, we need to be better grounded in it. Proposing, as Pope John Paul II often said, is not imposing. Any proposition should be respected because of the person proclaiming it; but it should also be contested when it is false. In matters of faith, truth and falsity depend on theological warrants from history. Since history, for many Americans, is bunk and, for some academics, is only a field to be reworked at will, we'll see how far we get this year.
What seems clear to me is that God is calling us to be authentically Catholic in our faith and also, perhaps paradoxically, Protestant in our culture. We live where we are, not in some ideal world where everything works smoothly. Those who withdraw into sectarian enclaves, even in the name of orthodoxy but without respect for or obedience to the mediators called bishops, are simply repeating the Protestant Reformation with Catholic tags. The one thing necessary is to live with discerning hearts and minds. We need to keep asking ourselves what is influencing our ways of thought, our decisions, our feelings and affections. A life of constant discernment is not always easy, but it's joyful because it means living with the Holy Spirit, whose presence brings truth and consolation and unity.
In the Spirit, the relationships that bind us to Christ and one another remain strong. Our hope, even our optimism, remains sure no matter the challenge. We face each challenge, including those we create by our own sinfulness, not only together here and now but with all the saints and with Christ himself. May God bless you and make you holy in the community of faith and obedience and love that is his Church.