A papal canonization doubleheader

I doubt that Pope Francis has heard of Ernie Banks, the Hall of Fame shortstop. But like “Mr. Cub,” whose love for baseball led him to exclaim “Let’s play two!” before Sunday doubleheaders in the 1950s, the pope from the end of the world seems to think that papal canonizations are better in tandem: hence the Sept. 30 announcement that Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II will be canonized together on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27, 2014.

Predictably, the decision caused some unhappiness in some quarters.

Some Poles wanted John Paul II canonized by himself. Some who welcomed the decision to canonize John XXIII are disgruntled that “their” pope has to share the billing with the pope they think hijacked John XXIII’s Vatican II. The aggrieved Poles should (and most will) recognize that, while John Paul II brought uniquely Polish insights and experiences to the papacy, he now belongs to the entire world Church. The aggravated partisans of John XXIII should, but probably won’t, concede that the “John XXIII” they’ve have constructed in their imaginations bears little resemblance to the real John XXIII, and that the charge of Council hijacking is ludicrous.

In fact, it might be reasonably speculated that Pope Francis liked the idea of a papal canonization doubleheader precisely because it will underscore the continuity between John XXIII’s intention and John Paul II’s authoritative interpretation of Vatican II: Vatican II was intended to prepare the Church for the challenges of evangelization in late modernity, an intention realized by John Paul II’s use of the Council’s teaching to launch the world Church into the new evangelization of the third millennium.

Vatican II differed from the previous 20 ecumenical councils in that it provided no authoritative keys for its proper interpretation. Unlike other councils, it defined no dogmas, condemned no heresies (or heretics), commissioned no catechism, wrote no new canons into the law of the Church. Vatican II did give the Church 16 documents of differing magisterial “weight,” but it provided no interpretive keys to its body of teaching. The result was 20 years of argument, sometimes quite bitter. And in those arguments, as Benedict XVI put it, the idea of Vatican-II-as-rupture-with-the-past (which seemed to detach the Church of the future from its historical and doctrinal moorings) contended with the idea of Vatican-II-as-development-of-the-authoritative-tradition-of-the-Church (the tradition providing the reference points for grasping the true meaning of the Council).

At the very outset of his pontificate in 1978, John Paul II said that the full implementation of Vatican II would be the program of his papacy. He kept that pledge, providing authoritative interpretations of virtually all of the Council’s documents through his own encyclicals, apostolic letters, and post-synodal apostolic exhortations. Perhaps most importantly, he called a special meeting of the world Synod of Bishops in 1985, to assess what had gone right, and what had gone not-so-right, in the 20 years since Vatican II closed on Dec. 8, 1965. That synod, in turn, offered the Church a connective thread with which the various pieces of Vatican II might be woven together into a full tapestry, by describing the Church as a communion of disciples in mission. Catholicism begins with Christ (hence discipleship); those disciples are joined in a community, a “communion,” that is different from any other association because it is the mystical body of Christ; that “communion” exists for mission—to spread the Gospel and offer men and women the possibility of friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

The liveliest parts of the world Church today are found where Catholics have embraced this vision of a communion of disciples in mission; the dying parts of the world Church are those that cling to the false idea of Vatican-II-as-rupture. Pope Francis, who urges the Church to avoid being “self-referential” and to get about the business of spreading the healing message of the Gospel, is very much a pope of the new evangelization, which he understands to be a fruit of Vatican II.

And that’s why it’s entirely appropriate for him to canonize John XXIII and John Paul II the same day.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.