In the New Year, a little silence, please

Last year, I spent a raucous New Year’s Eve in San Francisco, celebrating with some of my oldest and dearest friends against the backdrop of one of the most exciting cities in the world.

This year, I rang in the New Year alone. On my sofa. In my jammies. In prayer.

It was wonderful.

For some reason I felt very drawn to spending this holiday with the Lord, in silence. “Silence” was in fact the theme of my little New Year’s party. Not only was my house completely silent, but I spent a good part of the evening reading Cardinal Robert Sarah’s new book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise.

It’s a wonderful book. I am only perhaps 1/3 of the way through it, but I already highly recommend it. It stirred in this extrovert a longing for silence, and a hunch that God may be calling me to more of it in 2018.

The good Cardinal wastes no time in getting to the heart of the matter. He begins thus:

“There is one great question: how can man really be the image of God? He must enter into silence . . . [w]e encounter God only in the eternal silence in which he abides.”

As the meditations continue, Cardinal Sarah makes it clear that this silence is not absence, but “it is the manifestation of a presence, the most intense of all presences.” It is in quieting our hearts, in shutting out all of the noise that competes for our attention and our affections, that we encounter God, that we hear His voice.

And so, how do we do this? Where do we go to find His Presence?

Cardinal Sarah says that His Presence is found in particular in the Blessed Sacrament, “where the Presence of all presences awaits us, Jesus in the Eucharist.” He goes on to say that we find that Presence in “ . . . the houses of God that are our churches, if the priests and the faithful take care to respect their sacred character, so that they do not become museums, theaters, or concert halls, but remain places reserved for prayer and God alone.”

This hit close to home for me.

I crave silence in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. I think part of this is because I have a harder time than most achieving silence in my heart. I am easily distractible. Case in point: I spent a good part of a daily Mass last week wondering if Orange Pledge is safe for use on leather.

When it comes to recollection, I need all the help I can get.

In a silent church, in silent adoration before the Word Made Flesh, I can often feel His presence. St. John Paul II said that “Jesus waits for us in this sacrament of love.” That becomes real to me in those quiet moments, where the Tabernacle light reminds me that He is indeed present.

Finding that silent church, however, can be easier said than done.

We seem to have lost any sense of the church being a sacred place. Rather, the sanctuary has become just another place — for conversation, for texting, even for eating lunch. (Yes, eating lunch. I was praying recently in a small chapel when I heard the rustling of a fast food bag a few pews back. It smelled good. But not the place for it.)

So often, before or even long after Mass, we see mostly empty churches with a handful of people focusing on the tabernacle in silent prayer, while one or two conversations about politics or last week’s cold snap echo throughout the sanctuary, destroying any hope of recollection. Or people attempt to pray silently, while one or two people take it upon themselves to recite their own personal prayers aloud, again shattering the silence and making personal prayer impossible for anyone else in the space.

Of course, finding a place for recollection is easier at a parish with a dedicated adoration chapel — which I hope we all agree should always be places of silent prayer. But not all parishes are so blessed. And as Catholics, we believe that our sanctuaries — not just our adoration chapels — are sacred spaces. They house the the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. He is there, in his physical body. That is why there is a candle perpetually lit next to the Tabernacle — to remind us that this place is different. It is holy ground. A place where — outside of the Mass or organized public prayer events — anyone can come to encounter the God of the universe, in silence.

I’d like to challenge you to do what I’m doing in 2018. To seek God in silence — in the silence of your heart, and in the silence of the Tabernacle.

And to allow others a space to do the same.

COMING UP: Nothing about us without us

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The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA