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Seeds of regeneration

Patrick Jordans lovely remembrance of Dorothy Day in the latest issue of Commonweal includes these remarks:

It was very much as a realist that she had entered the church in 1927; and in 1933, when she and Maurin started the Catholic Worker, she had not sought approval for the venture from church officials. Instead, as she recounted some years later, she relied on the advice of three priests (all editors), who told her to launch out, but not to ask permission. It would not be given, it was implied.In 1968, when the Catholic sociologist and peace activist Gordon Zahn (who had brought the story of Franz Jgersttter to the attention of the English-speaking world) was having a serious crisis of faith over the institutional church, Dorothy reassured him that as a convert, I never expected much of the bishops. In all history, popes and bishops and father abbots seem to have been blind and power-loving and greedy. I never expected leadership from them. It is the saints who keep appearing throughout history who keep things going. However, she told Zahn, What I do expect is the bread of life and down through the ages there is that continuitythe sacraments and tradition. The gospel is hard, she continued. Loving your enemies, and the worst are of your own household, is hard. Still, as she was to instruct another coworker thinking of leaving the church, No matter how corrupt the church may become, it carries with it the seeds of its own regeneration. To read the lives of the saints has always helped me, she counseled.

The paragraph reminded me of the view that Jean Gerson maintained in the midst of the dark days of the Great Western Schism when first two and later three rivals claimed the papal throne, dogs quarreling over a bone, Wyclif called them. Gersons view has been summarized by Louis Pascoe:

...the church has within itself the resources for its own reformation. Gerson maintains that the church is endowed with a semen vivificum et reformativumwhich has both a conservative and a reformative role in its life. At times he calls the semen a vis insita spiritualis or an ars quaedam vivifica. This semen permeates the entire body of the church and guarantees the continued existence of its hierarchical order through successive generations. The reformative activity of the semen is manifested in the fact that it is capable of restoring proper order to the church whenever deformities occur in its hierarchical structure. Under its influence the church is restored to the unity that characterized the early days of its institution. He argues that this is the unity to which St. Paul refers in Eph 4:4-6, 15-16 when he speaks of one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one body under one head (Louis B. Pascoe, Jean Gerson: Principles of Church Reform, p. 45).

I notice the same metaphor: the seeds of its own regeneration (Day), a life-giving and reformative seed (Gerson). As Gerson thought that this seed permeates the entire body of the church, Day points to the lives of the saints, who are the ones who keep things going and who are the ones who best experience that "the Gospel is hard." Which reminds me of the distinction made by several twentieth-century Catholics between a hierarchy of authority and a hierarchy of holiness in the Church, with the two seldom coinciding.Im reminded too of the emphasis that, Enzo Bianchi, the founder and prior of the ecumenical Monastery of Bose, places on the conversion of individuals and small groups as the seeds of the reform and renewal of the Church.

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And in this Sunday's gospel, at the wedding Jesus acts with the help, not of the bridegroom or of the headwaiter who is the one in charge, but of the lowly servants.

"In all history, popes and bishops and father abbots seem to have been blind and power-loving and greedy. I never expected leadership from them. It is the saints who keep appearing throughout history who keep things going."Amen, Dorothy Day. And God bless Patrick Jordan, whose remembrances of her, I hope, will prevent her from being "hagiographized" however the canonization process turns out.

Claire:Interesting that it is His mother, who said to the servers, Do whatever he tells you.

Helen: and the headmaster, although he didn't do anything himself - and no one asked him for permission before tinkering with the purification containers -, was still able to recognize that something good happened!With a bit of practice, one can make a text from Scripture mean whatever we want it to mean...

Claire,There is a a free online course entitled "John - The Sacramental Gospel" that does some fine exegesis on the Wedding at Cana. It's presented by Scott Hahn who may not be popular with some Commonweal readers, but I find his work very helpful in understanding God's love for us. I won't provide the link, but you can easily find it on Google.

Here is Aquinas' take on Cana:

Mystically interpreted, the mother of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin, is present at the spiritual wedding as a marriage-counsellor (nuptiarum consiiatrix) because it is by her intercession that we are joined to Christ by grace: In me is every hope of life and virtue (Eccl 24:25). Christ is present as the souls true groom, as is said later: The one who has the bride is the groom (Jn 3:29). The disciples are present as paranymphs because they join the Church to Christ of whom alone it was said: I espoused you in order to present you as a chaste virgin to a single husband (2 Cor 11:2).

I like the insistence that Christ alone is the Bridegroom with the paranymphs arranging the marriage with the Church as Bride. Augustine also emphasized this: that "the friend of the Bridegroom" was not to put himself in the place of Christ. Augustine regularly stressed the two texts adduced here by Aquinas: Jn 3:29 and 2 Cor 11:2. Aquinas also speaks of the bishop as a paranymph.

The trouble with metaphors and similies is that there is no way of telling just what their messages are. Too often the likenesses are overstated because there is no way to tell whether a particular part of a metaphor's content is meant to be a part of its message or not. For instance, if you tell me, "My boss was out of control yesterday. He was a bull in the china shop", does that mean he was literally destructive of something physical? It is only by considering information other than the content of metaphor that we might -- just might -- interpret the metaphor correctly.

But the disciples at Cana do absolutely nothing. No joining, no arranging, no talking, no nothing. I don't see that that text suggests anything about paranymphs. It's a stretch.

Claire: You're right. Perhaps Aquinas was nodding, and meant the servants?But now that we've indulged in this digression enough, let's get back to Dorothy Day and Gerson, if we may.

It is unsurprising, when metaphorical-mystical language is so often employed in discussing articles of faith, that it should also be invoked to explain the Church's historical development. But seeds of its own regeneration and semen reformativum add little to our understanding of a process that every institution must undergo if it is to remain relevant and endure. Times and circumstances change, throwing up new challenges to seemingly settled views of the world and our place in it. Statecraft, art, science, literature, religion, everything must grow to accommodate a better understood reality.Dorothy Day recognized in the lives of the saints an important internal engine of renewal, but she would surely have acknowledged as well the part that many other people, in and out of the Church, have played in shaping its long history.And there is no denying that, like those of the Kentucky coffee tree, such seeds as the Church possesses often take a very long time to germinate.

From the excerpts given here the two viewpoints seem a bit different: Gerson thinks that the seeds of regeneration are "capable of restoring proper order to the church whenever deformities occur in its hierarchical structure." Day expects little good from the hierarchy, but alongside those, there are the saints who carry the seeds of regeneration. So Day seems to think that the hierarchy is deformed (greedy, blind etc), but that it doesn't matter because what matters is elsewhere, and Gerson seems to think that the hierarchy is deformed, but continually gets straightened out by the seeds.Gerson doesn't explain how those seeds affect the hierarchical structure. Day doesn't seem to think they do.

I don't like the metaphor as used to signify reformation because seeds don't re-form, they form, even in the strange biology of Gerson's middle ages. It's a real stretch.

Since the hierarchy is a closed system, I don't see how it can be expected to reform itself. The recent sex abuse scandal is a good example. In the U.S., no bishops resigned. I am not sure how the whole thing played out in Europe. But did the Pope ever acknowledge the complicity of the bishops? Deformities have occured. I am waiting for the appearance of the seeds of generation. My bishop will retire in two years. I don't have great hope about his successor.

William T. ==Three Irish bishops were allowed to resign. A couple of others offered to, but the Vatican wouldn't let them. Go figure. The Vatican seems to think that repentance turns men with bad judgment into men with good judgment. Until we have a pope who knows better. I don't think there is any hope for real reformation.

If I'm not mistaken, in the U. S. there also were several of bishops who themselves were guilty of abuse or other wrong-doing, admitted it and resigned. Carolyn Disco, are you there?

If I'm understanding this right, I think that dynamic tension- forces of reform and conservative forces- works pretty well and gets us eventually wto here we need to be. Can anybody more informed set out a specific, contemporary context where this is in play? I think womens' place in the Church might be one, maybe? The movement for women's ordination had momentum in recent decades (forces of reform?) then was more or less shut down by Pope John Paul II (forces of conservation?) but people are still talking about the issue, there are some ordained women out there; there is now some focus on women deacons (reform?). So the issue is still live and kicking between these opposing forces.I've run into quite a few everyday saints- people whose Catholic faith drives their heroic lives. These people would be beyond mortified to be characterized as saintly, but their example, certainly breathes life into my own faith and helps point towards a better way.

The sex abuse scandal is an example where the church institution is in the process of (slowly and painfully) learning from the world. William Taylor, I'm not so pessimistic: we'll get there! As in a Gaudium et Spes 44, which one future day will be quoted to back up the claim that "The Church has always said that she greatly profits from the sexual abuse trials for its purification, for which she is grateful":Since the Church has a visible and social structure as a sign of her unity in Christ, she can and ought to be enriched by the development of human social life Whoever promotes the human community at the family level [], according to God's design, is contributing greatly to the Church as well, to the extent that she depends on things outside herself. Indeed, the Church admits that she has greatly profited and still profits from the antagonism of those who oppose or who persecute her.

A comment that Jim Pauweis made above, in the "Pax Obama" thread, is pertinent here, I think:

From the Gopnik piece:Thanks to the efforts of MADD and the other groups, drunk driving became socially verboten, and then highly regulated,Note the progression, from the grass roots and mediating institutions, and then to legislation.For the futility of trying to change culture via legislation, cf the war on drugs.

When I was in Australia a decade ago, during a question and answer period, someone complained that all the new ecclesial movements were so conservative. I replied that if they wanted a less conservative ecclesial movement, they should start one. My somewhat testy remark (I was tired...) wasn't all that well received. But all these movements, and movements of renewal and reform in the Church's past, began very small--like Jesus' mustard seed--and that seed began to grow, most often, in and because of a very holy person or two. And haven't they all been movements from below, grassroots movements? I don't know when the hierarchy has been more of a "closed system" than in the last decade of the reign of Pope Pius XII, and yet that did not prevent the calling and the achievements of Vatican II, inspired and led by two octogenarians, John XXIII and Cardinal Bea.

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.