Paul, Apollos, and Cephas, all over again

In April 2016, Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth, England, issued a pastoral letter on the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia (the Pope’s apostolic exhortation on marriage) and re-affirmed the Church’s long-settled teaching: the divorced and civilly remarried, while members of the Christian community, are not living in full communion with that community, and thus should not present themselves for Holy Communion until their manner of life changes or their irregular marriage has been regularized under Church law. Last month, Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Bishop Mario Grech of Malta also issued a pastoral letter on Amoris Laetitia and invited divorced and civilly remarried couples to present themselves for Holy Communion if they were, in conscience, at peace with God.

It happens that a woman in the Portsmouth diocese has vacation property on Malta. She’s divorced and civilly remarried and seems to understand the Church’s longstanding teaching about what her situation means for the worthy reception of Holy Communion. Shortly after the Malta bishops’ statement, she ran into the local priest on his village rounds and asked, “When it comes to Communion, do I follow Bishop Egan or Archbishop Scicluna?” As the priest in question put it in an e-mail, “What could I say, ‘Egan when you’re here, Scicluna when you’re there…’?”

At the very beginning of the First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul lamented that his fractious converts in rowdy Corinth were divided: “For it has been reported to me…that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas’….” These divisions were not simply a matter of who-got-converted-by-whom, Paul insisted. They were misunderstandings fracturing the body of Christ: “Is Christ divided?” [1 Cor. 1.11-13].

Such Corinthian-type divisions once seemed far removed from our contemporary Catholic situation. But as that brief conversation in a Hampshire village suggests, we are living, today, the crisis of division that caused St. Paul such grief.

And as the Church is universal, so is the crisis. Cardinal Wilfred Napier of South Africa is one of Catholicism’s more robust practitioners of the tweet. After the Malta bishops’ directive, Napier tweeted, “If Westerners in irregular situations can receive Communion, are we to tell our polygamists….that they, too, are allowed?” The archbishop of Durban was not being glib or snarky; Cardinal Napier was describing a real pastoral problem in Africa that has now been made worse.

Media stereotypes notwithstanding, Catholicism is not monolithic; there’s ample room for legitimate diversity in the Catholic Church. The Vatican yearbook lists almost two dozen liturgical rites recognized in the Catholic Church. (For extra credit, identify the principle differences between the Malankarese Rite of the Antiochene tradition and the Malabarese Rite of the Syro-Oriental tradition.) That same yearbook catalogues hundreds of men’s religious institutes and even more women’s religious orders. The Church’s governance structures include dioceses and archdioceses, territorial prelatures and territorial abbacies, vicariates and prefectures apostolic, patriarchal exarchates, archiepiscopal exarchates, and one personal prelature. Catholicism is a luxuriantly and colorfully diverse communion, and that rich spiritual and human plurality is one of the Church’s glories, a reflection of the abundance of divine grace poured into the world by the Holy Spirit.

Yet as St. Paul explained to his paleo-Christians in Corinth two millennia ago, legitimate diversity does not and cannot touch on fundamental questions of Christian truth. Whether they claimed spiritual descent from Paul, Cephas, or Apollos, that human connection was subordinate to the truth that they had been baptized into Christ, who is indivisible. And as Christ is one, so must the Church, his mystical body, be.

Writing during Synod-2015, I was but one of many who made what seemed to us an obvious point: it cannot be the case that a grave sin in Poland is a source of grace two kilometers across the border in Germany. None of us then had thought of Portsmouth and Malta, but the same principle applies: Christ is not divisible and neither is his truth. We do not “belong to Egan” nor do we “belong to Scicluna.” We belong to Christ. And authentic pastoral accompaniment must always be along “the way” of the One who is also “the truth and the life” [John 14.6].

COMING UP: Synod-talk, again

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On January 13 the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops published a “preparatory document” for the 2018 Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment. The document begins well enough, with a brief meditation on St. John the Beloved as the model of a young person who answers the call to follow the Lord and makes a gift of himself in evangelical witness. Sadly, things go downhill from there. Rather than pursuing that Johannine biblical imagery to explore the dynamics of youthful faith in the twenty-first century world, the Synod general secretariat reverts to the sociologese that marred the Instrumentum Laboris [Working Document] of the 2015 Synod, wandering rather aimlessly through prolix discussions of “A Rapidly Changing World,” “New Generations,” “Young People and Choices,” etc., etc.

It’s also noteworthy, if strange, that the preparatory document comprehensively ignores the contemporary saint who was a powerful magnet for young people during his twenty-six-year pontificate, John Paul II. But surely there is something for the world Church of the twenty-first century to learn from that experience.

I’ve been asked dozens of times why John Paul was such a Pied Piper for the young, especially when, in his latter years, he didn’t look like what youth culture imagines to be a “celebrity.” Two reasons strike me.

The first is that John Paul II transparently believed and lived what he proposed. He didn’t ask young people to bear any burden he hadn’t borne, risk anything he hadn’t risked, stretch themselves as he hadn’t been stretched. Young people have a good nose for fakery and there was nothing false about John Paul II’s catechesis and way of life: he transparently walked the walk, living out the talk.

Then there was his refusal to play the Pander Bear with a generation long accustomed to being told how amazing it was. He held up a higher standard, summoning the young to risk the lifelong adventure of heroic virtue. He knew they would fail from time to time, just as he had. But that was no excuse for lowering the bar of expectation. Rather, it was a reason to seek out the divine mercy and re-encounter God’s truth: to repent, confess, be forgiven, and then try again, with the help of grace, to grow into the sanctity that is everyone’s baptismal vocation. Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that the grace of God makes possible in your life: that was John Paul II’s challenge. A lot of young people found it irresistible, at a historical moment when youth ministry in the Church seemed moribund and perhaps even impossible.

The Synod preparatory document ends with a proposed global survey of the Catholic youth scene, full of generic (and, alas, dull) questions. As the Church prepares for Synod 2018, there are at least two more urgent lines of inquiry for our reflection.

The first involves All-In Catholicism vs. Catholic Lite. Why are the growing youth movements in the Church those that have embraced the symphony of Catholic truth in full? How do those movements create vibrant microcultures in which young people grow in their relationship to Jesus Christ and are formed as missionary disciples, offering healing to the battlefield casualties of the post-modern world? How does the Church summon young people to be countercultural Catholics, precisely for the sake of converting the cultures in which they find themselves?

The second set of questions touches the Synod’s theme of vocational discernment and accompaniment. Here, the Church should ponder why Catholic Lite religious orders are dying, while religious orders that try to live the evangelical counsels and the consecrated life in a distinctive way are growing. The same seems true for seminaries. In their case, how can rediscovering the sacred character of the priesthood as a unique participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ be disentangled from temptations to clericalism, understood as a kind of ecclesiastical caste system?

And as most young people will live their Christian vocations as married couples, not as priests or consecrated religious, might Synod 2018 take the opportunity to lift up the vocation to marriage, not as an impossible ideal, but as a holy challenge that can be met through the power of the grace that Christ never denies his people?