Those who are frequent visitors to these pages, will have detected more than an element of commitment to the Church and its priesthood. If one might be forgiven an isolated foray into the biographical, my decades of experience within the Church has - with very few exceptions- been blessed by contact with those who have epitomised all that is good and authentic about the priestly vocation. This should not be taken as a signal of blind devotion, an indicator of premature canonisation, or, for that matter the suggestion that these men did not have their faults. After all, we are each by reason of our human frailty, endowed with feet of clay. However, each of these were men of tenacity, Many are and were 'of their times'. Some resisted the conciliar changes; others embraced them with alacrity. Issues of liturgical understanding aside, however, they were able to display a tolerance and acceptance of 'the other'.
In the span of the years, the Church as an institution has been subjected to turmoil from outside and within. To the lay person, this turmoil can, on occasion, have all of the appearance of one faction seeking to gain priority over another. It involves displays of behaviour which are not capable of reduction to the old tropes of 'liberal' or 'conservative'. Few would claim allegiance to either and, in the majority of cases, many are wont to categorise others rather than themselves. In the main, the protagonists are well meaning and sincere.
More recently, senior church leaders (and those acting on their behalf) have demonstrated a willingness (if not an enthusiasm) to engage with the media and, where possible, to utilise social forms of communication to provide stability and assurance. There has also been a professed recognition that action is required on the part of the part of the laity, if the faith is to be rekindled, retained, or, indeed, transmitted to future generations.
In many dioceses, this has taken the form of statements of affirmation and exhortations to the laity to become more involved in the mission of the Church as a whole. Whilst not infrequently incorporating information concerning the demise of priestly vocations and reduced numbers of those in active ministry, there is no mistaking the fact that the laity is being invited to engage with its own duty as members of the people of God. All in all, an emerging climate in which members of the laity are reminded of their vocation and the duty to contribute to the salvific mission of the Church.
There is, however, no escaping the fact that words are cheap and, with some occupying senior clerical positions, they represent a rapidly depreciating currency. As with any human interaction, it is not the words we utter, but the conviction we demonstrate which bears witness to the substance of our belief. Our actions and responses sometimes all too graphically betray our real attitudes; thereby revealing our words to be of neither substance nor permanence. As Catallus once observed: like a 'thing writ on air or in water'.
There is a temptation to consider such communications as being confined to overly zealous clerics seeking to impose authority over their 'junior' brethren. But is this a fair depiction? Recent experience suggests it is not. Within certain quarters there has emerged an increasingly corporate mentality. Some of those occupying office have, it seems, overlooked the fact that within the Church, authority is the portal for service not dominion; duty not domination. This corporate mentality has, in turn, fuelled practices which would not be tolerated in the secular world. Practices in which - despite the soundbites- one is able to detect a refusal to engage with any view point other than their own. Why does it matter?
Throughout the decades since the conclusion of the second Vatican council much has been written on the universal call to holiness and the equality of vocation enjoyed between both clergy and laity. Indeed, in the formulation of the Code of Canon Law, St John Paul II made very specific mention of the rights of the people of God. In this respect, Canon 212 §3 is informative:
"According to the knowledge, competence and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church..."
This important canonical norm should not be equated with freedom of speech of the type we encounter within the European Convention on Human Rights (Art 10). It is of far greater significance. Any doubt on this issue is removed when one notes that this norm is directed to the common good and not the personal interests, convenience, or preferences of the individual. The issue of personal interests and needs is separately addressed (see c212 §2).
This clear canonical norm points to the Church (and participation in Christ's Faithful) as requiring dialogue. Significantly, in an age when a great deal of energy is being expended upon the development of lay participation, one might be forgiven for thinking that those tasked with such projects would be more than committed to the notion of dialogue of this kind; dialogue conducted upon the basis of encouraged participation and co-operation (as to which see c129 CIC). After all, it may be thought that faith in the future is dependent upon a clear foundational understanding of who we are and what we believe in the present. By way of example, few concerned with executive duties or corporate governance in the secular world would consider themselves able to formulate a strategy for the future of their organisation without first constructing a clear understanding of the organisation's position, values and indeed, history.
Within any faith community, words alone are insufficient. To have faith in the future presupposes faith in the present. Contrary to what may be considered in some quarters, faith in the future is a state of mind. However, unless it is to be misplaced, it must have its foundations in a present state of being. Without a state of being which is founded in an authentic practise of the faith, the notion of faith in the future is reduced to the status of ill-informed optimism.
The Church has through its legislation unequivocally communicated the rights of Christ's faithful. The ability to communicate concerns to those holding office is but one fundamental and irreplaceable component of the rights which the Church upholds. It is predicated upon the dignity of the other as someone who is deserving of our time, attention and consideration. It similarly recognises the fact that each is required to fulfil their own vocation. They should not be castigated for attempting to do so. We must be astute to guard against the mentality of the corporate world; a world in which ends so often are invoked to justify means. For those who have accepted appointment to office, they would do well to remember that they have been called to, and assumed, a heightened duty of service. It is an occasion of, and opportunity for, witness.
Credible witness requires that we are receptive to the views of others whilst seeking a clear understanding of what motivates the formulations of our own. In this way, we can be confident that our faith is in Him and not in ourselves.
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom - pray for us.