Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Being Truly Catholic Today
I always thought that I would have made
a great archbishop in Salzburg during the time of Mozart. But instead
I—m the archbishop of Milwaukee in the time of rock —n— roll. That—s
the way life turns out. We live in a period of tremendous upheaval
and change. Each of us has to come to terms with that and fulfill
our mission in the real world in which we live. In this Update
we—re going to consider how to be more fully Catholic at the unpredictable
dawn of the third millennium.
One of the biggest challenges I see for
us today is how we talk to each other—and especially our young people—about
the Church. Some of us avoid the subject. How often, instead of
saying Church, we talk about the "community of faith" or
the "Kingdom of God," and so on. I think we talk like that because
many of us Catholics have a certain ambivalence, a love/hate relationship,
with our Church. You can see that if you watch your newspaper—s
letters to the editor. We are the only Church that publicly criticizes
itself in the newspaper.
Another challenge: We Americans sometimes
think of the Church more as our parish than as the Catholic Church.
I became especially aware of that while in Rome for the Synod on
the Laity in 1987 and again at the Synod for America in 1997. We
need to expand our limited view of Church. The parish is only part
of the picture. Yes, the parish is something I can put my hands
around, it—s very concrete. But if you don—t see a bigger picture
of Church, you begin to search around until you find the parish
that—s going to fit your definition. Yet being Catholic is not about
finding people who think and act like us.
I—d like to propose a way for us to
think about Church that can help bring us together. I think you—ll
agree that my perspective is biblical, it—s revealed, it—s truly
catholic. My image is this: We are the People of God, dancing
on pilgrimage. Let me explain by a brief look at how God reveals
the truth to us.
The Trinity as overflowing love
It is a marvel that God reveals God—s
inner life to us as dynamic, as Trinitarian, as three people in
love. That—s remarkable! We could forever sit and think and not
come up with this marvelous image of God as three persons in love
The great Church Father St. Gregory
Nazianzus, in the fourth century, gave us a Greek word to describe
this marvel: perichoresis. The word literally means "moving
around." It—s how the Greek theologians in the early Church described
the dancing in the Trinity. It—s the sign that God—s love is so
full that it can—t stay still.
Some of these Fathers of the Church
even said that God—s love was so great that it had to break forth.
Creation itself, they say, is nothing but God—s love looking for
more things to love. In our own times Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx
has observed that we have not yet probed the depth and the meaning
of creation. God created this world out of love. Therefore, the
world is important. Every person is important because God needs
people to love. If the universe began with a big bang, as many scientists
say, then creation is really love—s big bang. That in itself is
But the next marvel is also incredible.
God wanted to come down in and swoop up all of that creation into
the dance of love, the perichoresis. And that—s why God becomes
one of us. God becomes a human being. In traditional theological
language, we call that the incarnational perichoresis. It—s
a big phrase, but it—s an easy and wonderful concept. It—s that
God—s love and God—s life swoop down and somehow want to pull up
all of creation, including us human beings, into that dance, God—s
inner life. The Greek Fathers called that "divinization." The dance
of love is now a dance between the human and the divine in Jesus
Christ, who is the Incarnation—literally "en-fleshment"—of God.
That dance is going to extend to all of us!
That—s why the next marvel is even more
wonderful. The mission of Jesus Christ is handed over to us human
beings. What a risk Christ took! He—s telling all of us that—s the
Good News; that we have to dance to the right tune (a love song,
actually), we have to be a part of and eventually share totally
in the dance of the Trinity.
Why go into all of this in talking about
what it means to be Catholic today? Because in order to be Catholic,
we must begin with the mission of Jesus Christ. That mission of
Jesus Christ has been handed over to us human beings, with all of
our limitations. The only way we can hope to fulfill Christ—s mission
is because he promised to be with us to the end of time. And he
promised that his Spirit would be with us to the end of time. That—s
the only way in which I could have said yes to being a bishop. That—s
the only way in which you could have said yes to being baptized.
You see why now I say that the Church
is the People of God dancing on pilgrimage? Because it—s a part
of being taken up into that divine life. Yet we live in history,
here on earth.
A universal Church
What challenges face the People of God
in their dance today? The great modern theologian Karl Rahner mentioned
after Vatican Council II (1962-65) that for the first time in history
the Church was truly becoming catholic, universal. That—s
what I think is both the greatest challenge and the greatest privilege
of our Church today.
Before Vatican II the Church had identified
itself pretty much with Western civilization. Now, since the time
of Vatican II it is becoming truly catholic. The tensions of the
age we live in as Church are how to be truly a universal Church
in every culture, every race on this globe. It—s a great moment
of history because for the first time we live in a global world.
We are privileged to belong to that universal Church.
I mentioned earlier about how we can
so easily concentrate on our own parish. At this moment of history
the challenge to us is how to be universal in our own little parish,
in our nation, in our world. How are we going to hold all of that
together in unity and at the same time respect all of the cultural
differences that make up truly our Church? That is the test of our
I—m going to go one step further. I
think it—s a privilege to live here in America. We have the possibility
of modeling that type of Church to the world more than any other
people on this globe, because we live in a part of the world where
people of many cultures have the opportunity to live together in
peace. And the future of our globe and the future of our Church
depend upon whether people of many cultures can live together in
peace. That—s why recent popes have made such an effort to visit
and pay honor to so many parts of the world.
Loving the Church
In our day there are many cultural influences
outside the Church. Those cultural influences are very strong, especially
in the younger generation. Perhaps the biggest of these is our culture—s
dependence upon science for "real" answers. That presents a problem
when it comes to much of Church knowledge. The Trinity, for example,
cannot be proven scientifically. You won—t find it under a microscope.
It is revealed, which is why it—s so difficult for our modern
generations. We—re not used to revealed truths such as Jesus Christ
being the perfect image and example of God—s love.
When it comes to revelation, you have
to say, "I believe." That—s what our creed is all about. In the
creed we proclaim this Trinity, we proclaim that the second person
of the Trinity became one with us, became flesh, became man. We
say, "I believe."
We also proclaim our belief in one, holy,
catholic and apostolic Church. But right away we want to put that
under the microscope. Yet just as Christ took a tremendous risk
when he gave us his mission, so also every time we say, "I believe,"
we risk. It—s a risk of faith. We have to believe in the
Let me ask you to do one thing, and
this is not easy. Come to terms yourselves with the question of
authority in the Church. Because it—s one of the reasons why many
Catholics today have anger and that ambivalent feeling I mentioned
at the beginning of this Update. We bishops don—t always
do a good job of imaging God—s love and empowering lives. But somehow
you have to love your Church with all its warts.
It—s easy to love a Church that—s perfect—if
you find it. But to love the Church with its warts means you have
accepted Christ—s risk, to hand that Church over to human beings.
Once Christ made that risk then you and I are in trouble. Because
it means that all of our defects are going to be as widely visible
as our assets. That—s the way it is.
Each of us must come to terms with living
in a Church where the dance of God often happens among so many human
tunes that it—s hard to see the divine element dancing with us.
When we can—t accept Jesus— Church with its human face, we send
a mixed, self-defeating signal to the younger generation.
Dancing together with God
Here is another challenge of our day.
Every so often I say to myself and sometimes to the Lord, "It would
have been a lot easier if it had been just you and me. Why can—t
we have a salvation that takes place just between you and me? Give
me the Holy Spirit, that—s all I ask, and let me dance. Why do I
have to learn all those different steps with all these people tramping
on my toes?" It—s that tendency in our American culture to want
to make everything private, including religion.
But that isn—t the way in which Jesus
Christ handed over his mission to us. We—ve gotta do it together—like
it or lump it! There is no other way. Not only is it important to
do it together, but we also have to realize that at least for us
that—s how Jesus Christ dances with us. Every time you come
to liturgy you say, "This is the dance I—m being invited to because
Jesus is going to dance with me." The divine and the human in that
liturgy: That—s what it—s all about.
So often we can become like the Old
Testament figure Naaman and say, "But you—re gonna make me go wash
instead of zapping my leprosy clean; is that all you—re gonna do?"
(see 2 Kings 5:1-14). But that is all we—re gonna do. God uses ordinary
signs and symbols. God uses people, that—s what it—s all about.
In theology we call that mediated grace or instrumentality.
God uses you and everyone. That—s why we—re tied together in the
—Church— means dancing with everybody
I had a wonderful Irish grandma who
knew no theology. She could never distinguish between virgin birth
and Immaculate Conception and I gave up trying to explain it to
her! I also had an uncle who refused to go to church. I remember
her saying to him, "Yes, you don—t like Father Bertrand so you don—t
go to church. You don—t like the bartender either, but you go for
a whiskey when you want one!"
We dance with everybody. That—s my new
definition of Church. Talk to some other Catholics about what it
means to say each Sunday, "I believe in one, holy catholic and apostolic
Church." And then say to yourself, "How am I going to be a part
of it? How can I begin to make it easier for people to believe because
of the goodness of my life, because of my becoming more and more
like Jesus Christ? How can I break down all those barriers that
divide us so that we can dance together?" That—s being truly Catholic.
Next: What the Church Teaches About
Homosexuality (by Richard Sparks, C.S.P.)