Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Obedience and Renewal

Let us ask again: do not such reflections serve simply to defend inertia, the fossilization of traditions? No. Anyone who considers the history of the post-conciliar era can recognize the process of true renewal, which often took unexpected forms in living movements and made almost tangible the inexhaustible vitality of holy Church, the presence and effectiveness of the Holy Spirit. And if we look at the people from whom these fresh currents of life burst forth and continue to burst forth, then we see that this new fruitfulness requires being filled with the joy of faith, the radicalism of obedience, the dynamic of hope and the power of love.

Dear friends, it is clear that configuration to Christ is the precondition and the basis for all renewal. But perhaps at times the figure of Jesus Christ seems too lofty and too great for us to dare to measure ourselves by him. The Lord knows this. So he has provided “translations” on a scale that is more accessible and closer to us. For this same reason, Saint Paul did not hesitate to say to his communities: Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. For his disciples, he was a “translation” of Christ’s manner of life that they could see and identify with.

Ever since Paul’s time, history has furnished a constant flow of other such “translations” of Jesus’ way into historical figures. We priests can call to mind a great throng of holy priests who have gone before us and shown us the way: from Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch, from the great pastors Ambrose, Augustine and Gregory the Great, through to Ignatius of Loyola, Charles Borromeo, John Mary Vianney and the priest-martyrs of the 20th century, and finally Pope John Paul II, who gave us an example, through his activity and his suffering, of configuration to Christ as “gift and mystery”. The saints show us how renewal works and how we can place ourselves at its service. And they help us realize that God is not concerned so much with great numbers and with outward successes, but achieves his victories under the humble sign of the mustard seed.

Homily, Chrism Mass, 2012

Reflection – The idea often is out there that obedience to the Church means turning your brain off, becoming passive, relapsing into a kind of ‘pay, pray, and obey’ mode where all the power and initiative of the Church lies with the clergy, while the laity are supine and essentially inert.

This is simply not the case. For example, the Church’s teaching about the male human being the necessary matter for the sacrament of ordination (i.e. ‘no women priests’), far from relegating women to the sidelines of the Church’s ministry, is sparking a whole new intellectual and spiritual movement of Christian feminism that is enlivening the faith and discipleship of many women, and challenges all of us to both develop and live out of a whole rich understanding of gender and its theological meaning. There is nothing passive about it.

At the same time, the Church’s sexual teachings, so difficult and painful for so many people I realize, have sparked in the past thirty years one of the greatest theological revivals of our history. Blessed John Paul II’s ‘theology of the body’ presents the eternal vision of human sexuality in the light of Christ in a way that has renewed and deepened the faith of millions. And this theological renewal is largely driven by lay theologians and evangelists, for the most part married men and women.

And of course what Pope Benedict is referring to here is precisely the new movements and communities (MH being one of them, and among the oldest!) that have re-vitalized Christian faith and culture all over the world. These are little-known in North America for the most part, but their influence is huge in Europe, Latin America, and Asia.

Obedience and its challenges provoke growth, not passivity. I said yesterday that I would never have come up with the ‘no sex outside marriage’ law on my own. And this is true: I am child of the sexual revolution, and left to my own devices would have gone down that road, not exactly happily, but certainly with alacrity.

The strange intervention of God in my life (which is another story) which put me on the path of ecclesial obedience and obsequium fidei has really forced me to deepen my understanding of God, the human person, the body, the passions, the mystery of love, the theology of the Cross and the eschatological hope of resurrection. Sexual libertinism (which is where I would have ‘naturally’ gone) is banal and shallow and takes us nowhere but to the wasteland of self-indulgence; the call to chastity has pushed me into spiritual and human depths I would never have reached otherwise.

Obedience is renewal and evangelization and deepening of faith and life, in other words. And this is what Pope Benedict means as he invokes all these saints and their example. The renewal of the Church has never come from political activism and agitation; it always comes from men and women who plunge into the passion of faith and the imitation of Christ, the obedience of the Son and the way of the Cross.

And again, this is plenty for one day’s blog post. I realize that keeping these posts to a manageable length while treating such complex issues may mean that I raise more questions than I can answer. But we have to start with the basic call to obedience and the basic foundation by God and by Christ of his Catholic Church as teacher and guide to us. If we don’t start there, we are not starting from a Catholic place at all. We will continue to discuss this tomorrow, God willing.


  1. By happenstance I just stumbled across your blog. I must say that I find the perspective that seems to be espoused here to be almost gnostic, as if Christianity is for a select few who have the inclination and wherewithal to bear the heavy burden current ecclesial leaders have made it. I don't know if you are aware of the IMMENSE changes that are taking places in parishes and Catholic communities every day -- changes in which God's People are leaving and going elsewhere for spiritual and sacramental nourishment. Yes, one can respond to these changes from a perspective that blames God's People, claiming they are weak or poorly-formed in faith, having been seduced by a secularist, materialist, hedonistic culture. But when will papal and episcopal leaders look at themselves, in a mirror, and ask the very tough questions that need to be asked -- questions about their own failures as pastors? The "easy yoke" and "light burden" that the Lord Himself describes has become heavy and truly "too much to bear" because of what this Pope, his immediate predecessor, and so many of the "JPII" bishops have done to God's Holy People.

    I'm sure you're well aware of the irony of your blog's title. This "German Shepherd" may have a grandfatherly head of white hair and disarming smile, but his bite can surely do great damage.

    1. Sorry, but I don't think you know what the word 'gnostic' means. Jesus Christ calls us to take up our cross and follow him; Paul exhorts us to make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ; every Church father, doctor, and saint writes of the absolute claims of Christ and the Gospel. To claim that BXVI, JPII, etc., have taken something that was so easy and light and made it heavy and hard is ridiculous. The Gospel is hard.

  2. "come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" Matt 11:28
    This is one of those passages that is soothing, who hasn't been soothed when Jesus calls us into his gentle heart? Then things get pushed too far, and you have no idea what it is supposed to mean and wonder if it is really true. Because, we all know that God is always asking us to do stuff that is hard, if not impossible. ...David take a small rock and kill that giant...Paul, keep preaching until they kill you...scripture goes on...

    So what is Jesus taking about? What is the light burden? Just a few verses before this- Jesus praises God because he revealed these things to little children. It comes down to a child like trust. This is Jesus yoke.
    Tj...believe it.

  3. Father Denis,
    I read what you wrote=all of it. I even believe you.
    I read the pope's list of people whose lives 'translate' Christ for us. It is a great list. I would add a few more- Catherine, Dorthy Day, Thomas Merton (even at the end), Jean Donovan, St Faustina, Bishop Gumbleton, St Benedict, Oscar Romero.
    I have even read some of Joan Chittister that really helped me love more, and that lawyer nun I have forgotten her name- from Network- has done so to enable help for the poor.
    I have a big list- both ends of the church.
    Jesus called them all, and loved and taught them too. Why else would they volunteer the pain? How else could they stay?
    Is it possible that we are all church, despite our weaknesses and obvious faults? Do we have to squabble about who is most be obedient, most moral, or most closely reformed?
    Can't we just accept that Jesus comes to each one of us, as well as all of us together? What if each one us is already plunging into the passion of faith, and imitating Christ as he came into their own heart. What if those Austrian priests are truly being obedient to God revealed himself to them?
    And those women who are asking to be ordained...what if it is for the same reason as you? What if the reason is because they are called by God?
    I don't pretend to know the answers to these questions. And I do believe that there many answers to these questions and all are here in Christs body...
    So, that obedience stuff... it is so confusing to me...
    I hope you are still praying for me...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.