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.
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.