The New Pelagians

Still, some Christians insist on taking another path, that of justification by their own efforts, the worship of the human will and their own abilities. The result is a self-centred and elitist complacency, bereft of true love. This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment. Some Christians spend their time and energy on these things, rather than letting themselves be led by the Spirit in the way of love, rather than being passionate about communicating the beauty and the joy of the Gospel and seeking out the last among the immense crowds that thirst for Christ.

Not infrequently, contrary to the promptings of the Spirit, the life of the Church can become a museum piece or the possession of a select few. This can occur when some groups of Christians give excessive importance to certain rule, customs or ways of acting. The Gospel then tends to be reduced and constricted, deprived of its simplicity, allure and savour. This may well be a subtle form of pelagianism, for it appears to subject the life of grace to certain human structures. It can affect groups, movements and communities, and it explains why often they begin with an intense life in the Spirit, only to end up fossilised… or corrupt.

Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate (Apostolic Exhortation on the Call to Holiness in Today’s World), nn. 57-58

Surrendering Control

When somebody has an answer for every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right road. They may well be false prophets, who use religion for their own purposes, to promote their own psychological or intellectual theories. God infinitely transcends us; he is full of surprises. We are not the ones to determine when and how we will encounter him; the exact times and places of that encounter are not up to us. Someone who wants everything to be clear and sure presumes to control God’s transcendence.

Pope Francis Gaudete et Exsultate (Apostolic Exhortation on the Call to Holiness in Today’s World), n. 41

Each In His Or Her Own Way

We should not grow discouraged before examples of holiness that appear unattainable. There are some testimonies that may prove helpful and inspiring, but that we are not meant to copy, for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us. The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them. We are all called to be witnesses, but there are many actual ways of bearing witness.

Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate (Apostolic Exhortation on the Call to Holiness in Today’s World), n. 11.

In Search of the Champion Bishop

This best describes a “champion” model of pastoral leadership. Many Catholics today, including myself, prefer to sit on the sidelines of social media and put our collective support, “likes,” and retweets behind those bishops who are outspoken in opposing our political and cultural enemies. We rally behind bishops who speak truth to power and put their reputations and careers on the line in order to give the laity the sense that they have a dog in the fight. We’re not really looking to bishops to help or teach us; in fact, it increasingly appears we don’t want to actually learn anything from the bishops. Instead, we want the bishops to be on the vanguard so we can play the part of the barrier guard, shooting down anyone who dares to abandon their post. We want bishops who seem larger than life and serve as avatars of divine wrath battling the forces of Satan on Earth. Their humanity looks pathetically frail in contrast.

The champion bishop model, of course, is an understanding that gets Church teaching completely backward. The bishops are not politicians or policymakers. They do not have more than one vote nor are they talking with our friends and neighbors about the Good News. They are not confronting the casual racism we see in our workplaces nor feeding the homeless we come across in our daily lives. They aren’t teaching our children or reforming parish ministries. They can’t make that difficult call to our estranged family member for us nor are they pressuring companies in our investment portfolios to be more supportive of working families. We expect our bishops to do the heavy lifting, but when it comes to “doing” what Jesus asks, we often find ourselves passing the buck. The laity is responsible for this failure. 

Not An Epoch of Change, But A Change of Epoch

The Working Document of the Bishops’ Synod on the Amazon broke new ground in offering a different vision for the process of liturgical inculturation reflected in the final document of the synod. It challenged the absolute need for the substantial unity of the Roman Rite, opening the door to a process of inculturation that is “from the bottom up” rather than from the “top down.” Rather than the timid and defensive stance taken by previous documents of the magisterium, this document, inspired by the pastoral approach of Pope Francis, responded to the real need to make the gospel message more accessible in the liturgy, especially to people belonging to non-Western cultures. We now await Pope Francis’s traditional post-synodal exhortation to see how this challenge for more profound inculturation will be integrated into the life of the Amazonian Church.

Mark Francis, CSV, “The Synod on the Amazon and Liturgical Inculturation”, Worship 94, no. 2 (April 2020): 152-153.

The Holy Spirit Makes Us Divine

Christianity offers an authentic alternative to [a range of ] methods of self-deification. Through the action of the Holy Spirit poured out through the sacraments, the divine life may be shared by all, from the infant to the elderly, from the poor and forgotten to the rich and elite, women and men. Moreover, deification is not some individual pursuit but rather a communal offering that is made within the life of the church, shared especially through service to the suffering.

As a church, our participation in God’s life does not require technologies that aim at self-sufficiency but rather humble reception and subsequent growth in the Spirit. Just as in the church’s early history, so also today the Holy Spirit can enable our growth in the virtues, especially our faith, our hope, and our love, beyond any limits that society would impose on them, to become heroic and even divine expressions of God’s action in the world.

Brian Dunkle, SJ, “The Holy Spirit Makes Us Divine”, in The Holy Spirit: Setting the World on Fire, Richard Lennan and Nancy Pineda-Madrid, eds. (New York: Paulist Press, 2017), p.23.

The Awesome Power of Eucharist

The Eucharist is not celebrated to simply consecrate the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, but to transform the assembly into the Body of Christ. This transformation takes place a through a participation in the Eucharist that empowers those present to proclaim to the world the kingdom of God from which flow unity, justice, peace, and love. This is the ultimate goal of the Eucharist, the res tantum described by scholastic theologians.

Mark Francis, “Reflections on Clericalism and the Liturgy”, in Worship 93 (July 2019), p. 200.