Healing the Reformation’s wounds

Archbishop Aquila

Five-hundred years have passed since the Reformation rippled through the Church, causing painful division and spurring changes. Sadly, even more divisions have occurred in that period. But the ecclesial and cultural landscape today is much different than it was then, and we must respond to Christ’s prayer that “we may all be one” (Jn 17:21) by speaking together about our faith, inspired by his Word and the Holy Spirit.

This necessity reminds me of Pope Francis’ passage in Evangelii Gaudium, where he observes that the “credibility of the Christian message would be much greater if Christians could overcome their divisions and the Church could realize ‘the fullness of catholicity proper to her in those of her children who, though joined to her by baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her’” (EG, 244).

Pope Benedict XVI also remarked in a March 2007 message to the Lutheran Worldwide Federation on the need to pursue Christian unity. He said, “(W)e are called in common witness to proclaim the saving message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world suffering distress and seeking orientation at so many points. After all, ‘we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God’” (Rom 5:2b).

With this in mind, on March 19, I will be joining Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Jim Gonia for a ceremony to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation at Bethany Lutheran Church in Denver. It will be an occasion for us to recognize that despite our differences, we are fellow pilgrims who are seeking the face of God.

We also recognize that overcoming historic divisions and healing wounds is difficult. It requires the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. Jesus knew this, which is why he prayed that his followers “may all be one,” just as he and the Father are one (Cf. Jn 17:21).

The noted spiritual writer, the late Carmelite Father Wilfrid Stinissen, described the Holy Spirit as “the great ecumenist.” He says this is because if we let the Holy Spirit “live in and through us, we grow in unity, whether we will it or not. It is his ‘charism to make all things one. He makes the Father and Son one God. He wants to make all denominations into one holy Church and all people into one body” (The Holy Spirit, Fire of Divine Love, pages 10-11).

The reality is that there is much that Lutherans and Catholics have in common. Over the past 50 years our two churches have engaged in a theological dialogue that has found 32 points of agreement between us. Among the key areas of agreement are an acknowledgement of the apostolic nature of the Church, recognition of the divine origin of the ordained ministry and its necessity for the church, and a shared understanding of the Eucharistic presence.

Despite the prevailing cultural winds that would have us discard our belief in the truth and merely search for agreements that allow us to work together, our ongoing dialogue must continue to be grounded in our faith. It must be what Pope Benedict XVI called “a dynamic inspired by the Word of God, by the divine Truth who speaks to us in this word.”

It is my hope that as this dialogue continues, Catholics and Lutherans are able to set aside our suspicions and seek the face of God together. I also ask you to join me in praying for the full unity of all Christians and to seek out opportunities to carry out works of mercy together, building up the body of Christ.

The Commemoration Ceremony will be held at Bethany Lutheran Church in Denver on March 19, 2017 at 3 p.m.

COMING UP: The priesthood is more than just a job

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In October, the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region will be held at the Vatican. On the agenda: a discussion on the possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood in that region, due to a particularly dire lack of vocations. The news has reawakened discussion on priestly celibacy in general, and whether the time has come to relax the requirement on a wider level. And so, I figured it was time to revisit the subject here, as well.

To set the tone, I’d like to begin my discussion with a very short quiz:

Q: Why does the Roman Catholic Church require lifelong celibacy for ordained priests?

  1. Because sex is bad, dirty and evil, and our priests should not defile themselves;
  2. Because we don’t want to have to support priests’ families out of collection funds;
  3. None of the above; or
  4. Both of the above.

The correct answer would be C, none of the above.

So why, then? Why on earth would these men have to give up the possibility of marriage and children, just because they want to serve God as priests?

Priestly celibacy is a discipline of the Church, not a doctrine. It could change. The rule has already been relaxed in relation to married Episcopalian priests who convert to Catholicism. In this era of widespread priest shortages, and even wider-spread scandals, should we consider expanding that exemption, and remove the requirement of priestly celibacy entirely? Wouldn’t a married priesthood encourage more men, and perhaps healthier men, to respond to the call of God?

Perhaps. But at what cost?

Discussions about the elimination of priestly celibacy are not new. They’ve been around as long as priestly celibacy itself. One of the periods of particularly spirited discussion on the subject was in the late 1960’s. In response, Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical entitled Sacerdotalis Caelibatus. In it, he explained the reasons for the Church’s long history of priestly celibacy, and he enumerated three “significances,” or reasons, for the tradition:

Christological: The priesthood isn’t just a job. It is a state of being. It encompasses his entire existence. It places a mark on his soul — a mark that will follow him into eternity. The priest is ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by another bishop, in an unbroken chain that goes clear back to the apostles. And through that sacramental ordination, and the power and grace it conveys, the priest stands in persona Christi —  in the person of Christ. He has the power to consecrate the Eucharist — to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He can forgive sins.  And so, standing in the person of Christ, the priest seeks to be like him in all things. He imitates Christ’s life, which includes Christ’s celibacy.

But, you say, Christ also had a beard. Does the priest have to imitate that, too? How far do we have to take this whole imitation thing? Well, the question we must ask is: What was integral to Christ’s ministry? Was celibacy integral? What would it look like if Christ had married and had children? He would have had to work to support them. He would have had to provide them a home.  No iterate preaching, moving from town to town. Jesus was not going to be an absentee husband and father. It was the freedom of celibacy that allowed him to give himself totally to the service of the Father and the Father’s children. So yes, I’d say it was integral. The beard, not so much.

Ecclesiological:  This basically means it is about the Church. Our understanding of a priest is not that he’s a single guy, a bachelor. He, like Christ, is in fact “married” to the Church. You’ve heard all that talk about how the Church is the “bride of Christ.” We really believe that. And the priest, standing in persona Christi, likewise becomes the Bridegroom, giving his life for the Church, and especially for the part of the Church he serves. He doesn’t just offer his “workday” to us, the flock.  He offers his life. He serves us as a husband serves his wife. (And we the faithful, as good “wives”, should likewise be going out of our way to love and care for our priests.)  His attention and affections are not divided between his bride, the Church, and an earthly bride and family. He has far greater freedom than a married man — freedom to not only serve his flock, but to pray and meditate and to grow closer to the Christ whom he represents on this earth. Which then prepares him for further service to the flock.

Eschatological: This means it’s about the next life. Remember my last column, about the Poor Clare Sisters who make the radical choice to live this life as if were already eternal life, focusing only on Christ? Well, priests participate in that too. Scripture says that, in Heaven, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage. (Mt 22:30) Priests and consecrated religious foreshadow that here, reminding us that everything that happens in this life is just a prelude to the life to come.

And so, for all of these reasons, I oppose the wholesale elimination of the requirement of priestly celibacy. I realize that we already have exceptions. I know several of those “exceptions,” and I think they are wonderful people and wonderful priests. But I think they would acknowledge the difference between the exception and the rule, and that the loss of priestly celibacy would change our understanding of the character and charism of the priesthood. The priesthood would be increasingly perceived as just another career choice — one to be entered and left at will.

And whatever the priesthood may be, it is definitely not just another job.

Featured image by Josh Applegate on Unsplash