Shepherding the Church

In 1996, John Paul II issued the apostolic letter Universi dominici gregis, which laid down detailed procedures to govern the election of a new pope. Among the responsibilities of the cardinals, prior to the recent conclave, was to appoint two preachers “known for their sound doctrine, wisdom, and moral authority” who were to offer “meditations on the problems facing the church at the present time and on the need for careful discernment in choosing the new pope.” This requirement of prayerful discernment of spirits carries beyond the conclave and the election of the next pope and constitutes a continuing responsibility of the church gathered in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Had I been asked to offer recommendations on texts to guide the preachers’ presentations (and now, more importantly, the Catholic community’s ongoing reflections), I would have suggested two: the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, and the wonderful pastoral vision sketched by John Paul II in his Novo millennio ineunte.

John 21 is striking on many counts. It serves as the epilogue to one of the theologically most profound writings of the New Testament. It is a foundational text for the exercise of the Petrine ministry, based on the risen Christ’s injunction to Simon Peter: “Feed my lambs ... feed my sheep” (Jn 21:15, 17). It links this pastoral imperative to the unconditional personal relation that binds the disciple to the one Lord: “Do you love me?” Thus it reminds Peter (and all of us) that the demands and the cost of discipleship are addressed to all, though in different ways. Christ commands each disciple individually: “follow me!” (Jn 21:19)—words that served as leitmotif of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s moving homily at John Paul II’s funeral Mass.

The late Raymond Brown contended that John 21 may testify to the integration of John’s community and the Johannine heritage into the “Great Church,” the church catholic, represented, indeed "sacramentalized," by the Petrine ministry. The communion (koinonia) thus realized is marked by a vibrant unity that resists sectarian temptations, whether to “left” or “right.” Whatever the legitimacy of current concerns regarding an over-centralization of the church, the need, in an increasingly global world, for a visible, authoritative center is more imperative than ever.

A meditation on John 21, undertaken as a “spiritual exercise,” lays two indispensable responsibilities upon the Petrine ministry. First, proclaiming in season and out of season the living source of the church’s communion: Jesus Christ, who is the light of the nations. This surely entails renewed commitment to catechesis and education in those nations, including our own, where there is widespread biblical and religious illiteracy. A people adrift often lacks the very instruments whereby it might recover its proper course. The Catholic community must cultivate the language of faith, in all its breadth and depth, not in a truncated version, if we are truly to encounter the mystery of Christ.

Let me add, that focusing on evangelization and education in shaping a distinctive Catholic identity does not represent a rejection of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. Such dialogue, however, must proceed not only from intense respect for the other, but also from abiding fidelity to one’s own tradition.
A second responsibility of the Petrine ministry suggested by a lectio continua of John 21, is the acknowledgement that disciples of Christ are called to diverse paths and missions. The church has taken root and borne abundant fruit in different cultural soils, sanctioning, for example, a diversity of religious orders and institutes, from Benedictines to Jesuits, from Opus Dei to the Community of Sant’Egidio. Each pope must safeguard the genuine unity of the church while still promoting the richness of plurality.

Here John Paul II’s Novo millennio ineunte offers guidance. The text of this letter is one of the richest and most accessible of his many writings. In it he recalled the intense experience of the Jubilee Year which included his history-making pilgrimage to the Holy Land and his prayer at the Western Wall. But the central chapter lifts up the person of Jesus Christ as “A Face to Contemplate.” One appreciates, in this text, how “mystagogy”—the profound evocation of and immersion in the mystery of Christ present in scripture and sacraments—formed the very heart of John Paul’s preaching and ministry.

The pastoral charge facing the next pope and the whole church is to appropriate anew this mystical knowledge of Christ and to communicate its significance to others. There are, certainly, issues of “management” that any institution must engage, and by no means do I minimize the importance of such concerns as accountability and transparency—they are key to ecclesial credibility. But what is unique to the community called church is not good management, but the all-demanding love of Christ which answers the yearning of the human heart for the Transcendent—for the true and the beautiful. Whatever his lapses in management, it was John Paul’s mystagogy—his palpable love of the living Christ—that attracted millions. The same dramatic witness to the beauty of the Christian mystery must mark the Petrine ministry of his successor, albeit with different accents and hues.

This embrace of the mystical dimension of faith does not require withdrawal to the cloister or a privatized Christianity. No quote from Vatican II was dearer to John Paul than the passage in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes) which declares that, in the mystery of the Incarnation, "Christ fully reveals humankind to itself." This Christological conviction is the basis for the church’s commitment to human dignity and human rights in every nation and culture. Contemplating the face of Christ inspires Christians to recognize him in a special way in the faces of the poor, leading the church to reaffirm its "preferential option for them."

Another theme developed in Novo millennio ineunte may prove particularly important in focusing the vision and energies of the church, his call “to make the church the home and the school of communion.” Achieving this will require the development of “a spirituality of communion” that can undergird and sustain a commitment to consultation, dialogue, and collaboration. Vatican II’s recovery of the constitutive role of collegiality in Catholic ecclesiology was a catalyst for the postconciliar development of such participatory structures as the Synod of Bishops and diocesan presbyeteral and pastoral councils. The challenge confronting the next pope and the whole church is to reanimate these, to employ them more effectively, and, when necessary, to create new vehicles for expressing and furthering the active and mature collaboration of all the baptized.

In this regard, one must mention two crucial claims on the prayerful discernment of the church. The first is how the manifold gifts that women bring to the whole church may find fuller institutional recognition. The second is whether, in view of the aging and diminishing numbers of clergy, especially in the West, the tradition of celibacy can continue to be the normal practice for the Latin church.

In the years since Novo millennio ineunte, other challenges of “these rapidly changing times” have emerged, perhaps none more difficult, and urgent than the dialogue with Islam. Clearly our new pope cannot be the sole responsible dialogue partner; but his leadership will set the tone and help orient its course.

The daunting challenges presented to the next pope and to the whole church can seem overwhelming. Like Peter and the disciples in the storm-driven boat we are tempted to lose heart. But the two-fold passion, for Christ and for communion, is the beacon that guides disciples, not away from suffering and the cross, but toward meeting them with faith, in the hope of resurrection. Together with St. John of the Cross the church of the new millennium chants the song of “The Dark Night”:
Sin otra luz y guia / Sino la que en el corazon ardia—“With no other light and guide / Save that which burned in my heart.”

Published in the 2005-05-06 issue: 

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.

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