Sunday, May 5, 2013

More Than We Imagine

In his Rule, Saint Benedict instructs the abbot to call the community together whenever there is important business to discuss: “Let the Abbot call together the whole community and state the matter to be acted upon. Then, having heard the brethren's advice, let him turn the matter over in his own mind and do what he shall judge to be most expedient. The reason we have said that all should be called for counsel is that the Lord often reveals to the younger what is best” (Ch. 3). As with so many of the Rule’s precepts, Benedict bases his teachings on a balanced understanding of the human person and community dynamics, as well as the experience of the broader Church.

Synaxis of the Apostles
14th century icon

In the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Luke presents the first generation of believers as living an almost idyllic existence: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers… All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need” (2:42, 44-45). This utopian community was short-lived, however. The fledgling Church soon experienced persecution from religious and secular leaders and, perhaps more importantly, internal divisions that began to erode the foundation that had been laid by the Apostles after Pentecost. As those first Christians wrestled with questions of inclusivity and what should be expected of the new non-Jewish believers, they worked to determine what was essential for membership in the Church (cf. Acts 15). Something new was beginning to happen and the community had to discern how to respond to the challenges they faced.

The Church’s leaders enlisted the help of others to assist them in their mission: “The apostles and elders, in agreement with the whole church, decided to choose representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. The ones they chose were Judas, who was called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers” (Acts 15:22). Recognizing both limitations and opportunities, the leaders looked beyond the enclosed circle of the Apostles to find new workers capable of responding to the present needs. This willingness to “look beyond the boundaries” was recently held up as the ideal for the Church by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, only days before he was elected to the Chair of Peter. In a speech delivered during the “general congregations” preceding the conclave, he said: “Evangelizing pre-supposes a desire in the Church to come out of herself. The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also in the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance, and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.”

In Lumen Gentium, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council reflected that each of us shares in the Church’s prophetic office, especially through the witness we offer in lives of faith, charity and praise: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief… the Holy Spirit sanctifies and leads the people of God and enriches it with virtues, but ‘allotting gifts to everyone according as He wills’ (1 Corinthians 12:11), the Spirit distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank” (12). To live the life of the Church places a burden of responsibility on each of us, clergy and laity alike. Whether we style ourselves “a ministry professional” or simply as “a person in the pews,” each of us is called to walk the same path: “Thus in their diversity,” Lumen Gentium says, “all bear witness to the wonderful unity of the Body of Christ” (32).

Collaborative ministry, exemplified by the Early Church and in the mutual discernment of Benedict’s monks, allows for each of the Church’s diverse members to contribute to the building of the Kingdom, whether this is expressed in consent and support of new movements, evangelization, and doctrinal development, or in questioning and challenging what might be outdated policies and modes of governance.

Contrary to what some may argue, the greatest threat to this vision of collaborative ministry is not magisterial oversight or Curial power. Rather, it is the tendency to privatize our faith and disengage from the life of the Church. In our contemporary culture, in a time when the number those who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” or who claim no religious affiliation is rising rapidly, the Church is seen by many as a relic of the past. And, if we believe that we ourselves are the sole actors in the life of the Church, that we make the Church, then we would be right. But, what if we look beyond our egos and allow for the work of the Holy Spirit? Can we risk engaging a universe larger than the comfortable worlds we have created for ourselves?

Madonna Enthroned with Saints
The Maestà of Duccio di Buoninsegna
in the Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena

In Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris emphasizes that we must begin to cultivate a “greatness of spirit” if we are going to combat this tendency to focus on our selves, our comforts and our agendas: “In a priggish culture such as ours, this magnanimity of spirit is precisely what we lack, and if we persist in denying any truth but our own, the danger to society is that our perspective will remain so narrow and self-serving that we lose the ability to effect a meaningful change… This mentality may be of some use in business, but in a family, including a family of faith, it is a disaster. It permits us to treat our churches as if they were political parties instead of the Body of Christ, making them vulnerable to crass manipulation by ideologues” (116-117).
The antidote for all of this is faith. If we are willing to allow the Advocate promised by Jesus to come into our hearts and dwell there, then we will be able to live the communion with Christ and one another that is the life of the Church: “Life reaches farther than our biological existence. Where there is no longer anything worth dying for, even life itself is no longer worth living. When faith has opened our eyes and has enlarged our heart, [the message] of Saint Paul attains its full illuminating power: ‘None of us lives for himself, and no one dies for himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; if we die, we die for the Lord; whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s’ (Romans 14:7f)” (Joseph Ratzinger, Called to Communion, 155-156). It is only when each of us comes to own our faith, accepting our unique vocation, that the Church can more perfectly reflect the beauty of that Heavenly Jerusalem, becoming more than we ever imagined she (that is, we) could be.



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