LEAD ME, GUIDE ME, ALONG THE RIGHT WAY
Recently, I spent some time with a brother bishop who had escaped his home diocese’s frigid climate for some of our Florida warmth (of sunshine and welcome). We were talking about the Church for which we were ordained and the Church we now serve. Both of us remembered the pre-Vatican Council liturgy, the excitement of “aggiornamento” or new birth that accompanied the papacies of Blessed John XXIII and Paul VI. They were heady days for us in which the seeds of our own vocations were sewn and our ministry begun. We recalled bishops who were either unknown to or to be feared by us. Pastors who locked the kitchen refrigerators so that a hungry assistant pastor could not “raid it at night” (in some of the northeastern (arch)dioceses, the whole Offertory collection went to the pastor who had the ‘duty’ to feed his assistants, if he wished). There was a lot about our early experience of Church which we liked and some which we found challenging. It was precisely the “opening” that in effect opened our hearts and minds to serve not a “new” Church but a “slightly different Church.” When I first began to study Scripture in the seminary, the professors were not even allowed to suggest that the Book of Genesis might have been the work of four distinct authors, that the first three Gospels could all trace their source to two ‘fountains’ and that the Evangelists may not have even known Jesus personally. But before we finished our studies, with the openness of the Council’s document Dei Verbum we were pondering all these possibilities, finally coming into harmony with other biblical scholars of other demoninations. I remember a wonderful Scripture professor at my seminary who one day came into class with a colorful book entitled Men and Message of the Old Testament by Peter Ellis, I believe, and he opened it to pages showing which verses of Genesis were likely written by which authors and with tears in his eyes said, “all my life what I have been teaching is not the truth, this book contains the truth.” That was in the field of Sacred Scripture.
Then we began to talk about the role of the bishop in today’s Church and particularly how it has evolved. We both shared common insights because I served as did my bishop friend an episcopate in this country which was markedly different than the one to which I belong today. The emphasis of the ’70′s and ’80′s was on collegiality and shared responsibility. Bishops focused their attention after implementing for the country the directives of the Second Vatican Council on issues of social justice and the Church in the Modern World. Speaking ill of another bishop was a violation of the “eleventh” commandment and public disagreements, even on matters like “communion in the hand” were done with deepest respect. I particularly remember a long discussion in a November General Meeting between the late Cardinal Cooke of New York, chair at the time of the Pro-Life Committee and Cardinal Medeiros of Boston over the Hyde Amendment. The Pro-Life Committee supported it even though it was imperfect legislation because it offered some protection against federal support for abortion but Cardinal Medeiros could not in conscience support it because it allowed for the exceptions for rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother. Both men were kind to one another in the debate, recognizing the consciences of each, respecting one another. At the end of the discussion, the bishops voted overwhelmingly to support the Hyde Amendment’s adoption in Congress. I remember Cardinal Carberry of St. Louis who was unalterably opposed to the reception of communion in the hand. For a number of years he carried the day in the Assembly of Bishops, but then one November, “communion in the hand” was adopted and the Cardinal went back to St. Louis and allowed the practice. Were there differences of opinion in those days? Indeed. But there was a unity among the bishops which sometimes does not appear to exist today.
We commented at great length on how the theological and ecclesiological shift from a full embrace of collegiality as the driving force of working together began to shift in the mid-eighties to each bishop’s first obligation is to shepherd his own diocese and on occasion to break with or challenge collegial decisions. As an example of this I would point to the implementation of something as seemingly simple as women or girl altar servers where it is still not permitted in some dioceses and a good number of parishes. At least two of the dioceses in the United States refuse to allow outside auditors to examine their record on handling sexual abusers and even on whether or not they are complying with the strongly unanimous decision by the bishops to create a safe environment for children. I dare say these would likely have never occurred in the ’70′s and early ’80′s.
Bishops have lost credibility in the last decade. The sexual abuse of minors and how it was previously handled has contributed to it, and so have the liturgical wars. This loss of credibility in bishops extends also to some our priests and religious and to many lay people who just don’t understand why so little time is spent by us on why people are leaving the Church in great numbers and what can be done about it. They do not understand how a hospital procedure in one local Church can be judged unacceptable yet be acceptable in many others. They do not understand why Catholic politicians can be denied the sacraments in one diocese but not in another. They do not understand why the President of the United States can be welcomed in some Catholic circles but not in others. The answer, of course, rests in the ecclesiologial truth that each bishop is the successor of the apostles in his diocese (or archdiocese) and can and must act as his conscience dictates but the danger rests in a growing sense of congregationalism, something every bishop fears in his diocese but can also occur in a national hierarchy and, I think is equally to be feared. I don’t foresee this changing unless and until it becomes so out-of-control that someone says, “stop”: we must face the future together and not divided.
My thoughts here are clearly in the minority among the bishops and I understand and accept that. And I do not bemoan the present though I think it has made the challenge of leadership of a local Church much more difficult. Most bishops, if they were truly honest, would speak of a tri-partite priesthood: there are those men who experienced the enhilaration of the Council but who see retirement in the offing and simply say “all I want to do now is make it to retirement.” Then there is a second group who are dillusioned and unhappy with the direction in which they feel the Church is going and do not know if they can make it to retirement or what retirement will be like for them. And there is a third group who are quite satisfied, some of whom wish the “reform of the reforms” might continue. If a local Church is to ”make beautiful music unto the Lord,” then the bishop must be a skillful conductor, allowing each section to make its contribution but to see that we are playing from the same “score.” It is a real task of leading and guiding to see that the local Church progresses along the right path.