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A Solitary Pilgrimage?

In a week which has witnessed changes in political leadership within the UK, and nationwide disruption caused by the wrong type of heat ‘on the line’, one might be forgiven for overlooking the papal criticism of another 'stateside' member of the episcopate. Misconduct towards adult colleagues, misappropriation of power and the cultivation of self-interest feature in the reports of his demise.

The secular response is as predictable as it is instant: punishment, public condemnation and purdah. It is not difficult to see these traits in the response of the Church too. This poses not a little difficulty.

In company-speak, the Bishop has suffered a vote of no confidence and is accordingly removed. This sequence from adulation to condemnation is closely followed in the media. An abrupt displacement from the metaphorical pedestal, by those who positioned the Bishop upon it.

The Church, has long since abandoned the practice of acclamation as the form of appointment to the episcopate. In its stead, there is the practice of secret (and not so secret) soundings, invitations and - in our own times at last - polite refusals. More recently, there have been rumours that certain bishops-elect were not the first choice of the Holy See and indeed, may not have been high on the list of episcopabile.

In Her teachings on the episcopate, the Church declares the Bishop as possessing the fullness of priesthood; called to be the shepherd of those entrusted to him and father and brother to his priests. He enjoys the status of successor to the apostles and exercises original competence. Within the diocese entrusted to him, he is in persona Christi. This is a tall order; some might say, a recipe for failure or disappointment. Little wonder then, that there are occasions when the bishop proves himself unequal to the task.

In his Shoes of the Fisherman, Morris West recounts the difficulties of high office. In one scene, the author presents the fictional Pope Kiril in private discussion with a senior member of the curia: Cardinal Leone. To this point, their relationship has been one of mutual, but unspoken, distrust. The encounter between Pope and Cardinal is initially tense, distant and formal. However, the dynamic of their interaction changes when the Cardinal declares:

“You are a priest Holiness. I am a soul in distress. I elect to make my confession to you. Do you refuse me?”

There follows an exchange in which the Cardinal comments upon the office of the Bishop of Rome. In a statement which reveals his respect for both the office and those who occupy it, the Cardinal observes:

“Like it or not, you are condemned to a solitary pilgrimage, from the day of your election until the day of your death. This is Calvary, Holiness, and you have just begun the climb. Only God can walk with you all the way, because He took on flesh to make the climb Himself…I wish I could tell you differently. I cannot.”

The institutional experience of the Church has shown that challenge and loneliness can from time to time, combine to form a dangerous cocktail. We should not be surprised. The Catechism of the Church itself declares (CCC 1550):

“[I]n many other acts the minister leaves human traces that are not always signs of fidelity to the Gospel…”

In his Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood, Fr Basil Cole OP expresses matters rather more directly:

“Being a creature of Adam and Eve, the priest has his own weaknesses to struggle against and crosses to bear, even though he is joined to Christ in a special way…”

One might conclude that it is because he is joined to Christ in a special way that he must participate in His passion. How does this relate to the recently denounced US Bishop?

Some will undoubtedly form the view that the Bishop in question has permitted his own personal ambitions to exclude the demands of his office. Others may suggest that he is the author of his own misfortune and on that account must suffer the consequences of his actions. Viewed through the lens of secular reasoning, this analysis cannot be faulted. But one is obliged to ask the question: is this reasoning in conformity with the teachings of Christ himself?

In formulating a response to this question, a number of co-ordinates are likely to prove beneficial. The reports indicate credible allegations have been made which implicate the erstwhile Diocesan Bishop in: (a) sexual misconduct; (b) abuse of his position; and (c) misuse of the resources to which his office gave him access. The discerning reader will immediately recognise a correlation between these offences and those committed by the prodigal son (Lk 15). The parable – which needs no introduction- commences with the memorable words: ‘A man had two sons’. Upon first hearing, those accompanying Jesus may have recognised this as an allusion to other disparate siblings (e.g. Cain and Abel).

At a superficial level, the parable is received as the account of mercy and reconciliation directed to the younger son who, by his own admission, has squandered the gifts which the father bestowed upon him. However, such a reading misses the point. The narrative affirms two different sources of sin: the squandering of the younger son and the resentment and jealousy of his elder brother. Both are in need of repentance and forgiveness.

In his apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, St John Paul II spoke of the need to rediscover the call to repentance and the ministry of reconciliation entrusted to the Church and the whole community of believers. He defined the role of the Church as:

“[T]he task of doing everything possible to witness to reconciliation and to bring it about in the world.”

To this end, St John Paul II added:

“In order to carry out this ministry adequately, we have to evaluate the consequences of sin, with ‘eyes enlightened by faith.”

From this perspective, we are able to detect that like the elder brother in the parable, we are called to recognise our own need for conversion; individual and institutional. In the words of St John Paul II:

“In the light of this inexhaustible parable of the mercy that wipes out sin, the church takes up the appeal that the parable contains and grasps her mission of working, in imitation of the Lord, for the conversion of hearts and for the reconciliation of people with God and with one another-these being two realities that are intimately connected.”

The solitary pilgrimage referred to by Cardinal Leone to the fictional Pope Kiril is a reality which the Church must embrace and bear witness to. With eyes enlightened by faith, the Church is called not to condone wrongdoing but to recognise the gift of God’s Mercy as being open to all who seek it. The Church must continue upon the path of detesting the sin, not the sinner, and in so doing, not be deflected from its own solitary pilgrimage.

Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom – pray for us.

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