A papal follow-up

Amidst some splendid Catholic theater, there were a lot of ideas to chew on in Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States. The pope’s sermon in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in which he used the stained glass, the harmony, and the countervailing tensions of the building’s stonework as metaphors for the life of the Church, was a homiletic masterpiece—and a powerful reminder to our priests that “preaching up,” not dumbing down, is the way to inspire congregations. The pope’s U.N. address, picking up themes from John Paul II’s 1995 General Assembly address, made an intriguing argument: human rights, which can be known by reason, are the moral “language” by which the world can turn dissonance into conversation.

Those looking to extend their experience of Benedict XVI, master-teacher, might well buy a new book just coming out from Our Sunday Visitor Press: entitled, simply, Questions and Answers, the book collects the public conversations the Holy Father has had with children, young adults, and priests over the past several years. It’s a format in which Benedict shines, as the following examples illustrate:

“Q. In preparing for my first communion day, my catechist told me that Jesus is present in the Eucharist. But how? I can’t see him!”

“A. No, we cannot see him, but there are many things that we do not see but they exist and are essential…We do not see our soul, and yet it exists and we see its effects, because we can speak, think, and make decisions. Nor do we see an electric current…yet we see that it exists; we see this microphone, that it is working, and we see lights. Therefore we do not see the very deepest things, those that really sustain life, but we can see and feel their effects…So it is with the Risen Lord: we do not see him with our eyes, but we see that wherever Jesus is, people change, they improve. A great capacity for peace, for reconciliation, is created…We do not see the Lord himself, but we see the effects of the Lord. So we can understand that Jesus is present.”

“Q. Do I have to go to confession every time I receive communion, even when I have committed the same sins? Because I realize that they are always the same.”

“A. …you do not have to go to confession before you receive communion unless you have committed such serious sins that they need to be confessed. [Still], even…if it is not necessary to go to confession before each communion, it is very helpful to confess with a certain regularity. It is true: our sins are always the same, but we clean our homes, our rooms, at least once a week even if the dirt is always the same…otherwise, the dirt might not be seen but it builds up. Something similar can be said about my soul…if I never go to confession, my soul is neglected and in the end, I am always pleased with myself and no longer understand that I must work hard to improve…”

“Q. …in this silence [of non-belief], where is God?”

“A. …There was a very intelligent woman who was not a Christian. She began to listen to the great music of Bach, Handel, and Mozart. She was fascinated and said one day, ‘I must find the source of this beauty’ and the woman converted to Christianity, to the Catholic faith, because she had discovered that this beauty has a source, and the source is the presence of Christ in hearts – it is the revelation of Christ in this world….Christ came to create a network of communion in the world, where all together we might carry one another and thus help one another find the ways that lead to life, and to understand that the commandments of God are not limits to our freedom but the paths that guide us to the other, towards the fullness of life.”

A master-teacher who seeks to bring his student to friendships with Jesus: that is Benedict XVI. His answers to the basic questions of Christian faith and practice are very much worth pondering.

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.