Monday, April 18, 2005

A leader for a pilgrim church

I'm not sure what the usage is in many places, but at our parish, we observed nine days of mourning for Pope John Paul starting immediately after his death, and concluded with a special Mass last Monday night. His body is now at rest in the earth as he asked, and the conclave starts in a few hours. We may never in this life understand all that John Paul did for our church -- we haven't really closed the book on the effects of many of the popes of the last century or so. But we can start to get some perspective. Many call for immediate sainthood, while others, both in and out of our church, point to feet of clay. I think that the proper place to start is not with how we see this one dear and holy man, but how we see our Church, and how the Church changed over the past 50 years.

God gathered together as one all those who in faith look upon Jesus as the author of salvation and the source of unity and peace, and established them as the Church that for each and all it may be the visible sacrament of this saving unity. While it transcends all limits of time and confines of race, the Church is destined to extend to all regions of the earth and so enters into the history of mankind. Moving forward through trial and tribulation, the Church is strengthened by the power of God's grace, which was promised to her by the Lord, so that in the weakness of the flesh she may not waver from perfect fidelity, but remain a bride worthy of her Lord, and moved by the Holy Spirit may never cease to renew herself, until through the Cross she arrives at the light which knows no setting. -- Chapter 9, the Dogmatic Consititution on the Church, Lumen Gentium
During most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church was in a defensive stance in relation to the rest of the world -- and who could blame us? After the Enlightenment, French Revolution, Napoleon and the spread of secular nationalism, I can understand the need to take a couple of aspirins and lay down in a darkened room for a couple of decades. (By the way, this is a topic that we could spend years on . . . but not today.)

It was becoming clear by the end of the Second World War to many in the Church that it was time to change, to become in the words of the Council, a pilgrim church. In my view, each of the four postwar popes has played a specific role in this process:
  • Pope John XXIII opened the windows of that darkened room and committed the Church to figuring out just how it could bring the eternal truths of the Gospel to a changed world while still remaining the Church.
  • Pope Paul VI did the hard work of leading the Church through and past Vatican Council II and into that new relationship. We came out of that room, but stood blinking in the sun and noise that we were not used to any more.
  • Pope John Paul I in a few short weeks changed the idea of what a pope could be.
When John Paul II was elected, the Church was out and involved in the world in any number of ways -- to continue to stretch a metaphor too far we were out on the street, but we resembled a mob -- some busy, some not, many going in different directions. To shift images, we had decided that yes, we were setting out on pilgrimage, but to some it seemed that we could not choose between Lourdes and Las Vegas. My belief is that John Paul II knew that he had to be a new kind of leader, a different kind of pope, a pilgrim leader for a pilgrim church.

To do this, he had to call the Church back to a fuller understanding of her eschatological dimension -- that we are to be prophets proclaiming the Reign of God and calling all men to join on a pilgrimage that is aimed not at a geographic destination but to union with God. To be this kind of church required a renewed humility, and a restored unity. In his own style, John Paul II was in so many ways the simplest of all modern popes, losing the regal trappings and emphasizing his role as bishop, not prince. You could see this once again in the funeral Mass -- no damask pall or golden vestments, but cardinals vested rather simply in red, and just a simple wooden box. The too glibly repeated title of "Pilgrim Pope" came from his numeous trips, but it could be better applied to his efforts to energize real ecumenical progress, especially with the churches of the East, and with other religions, especially the Jews. He was not afraid to take the first step, to apologize or offer change without any final assurance of a response.

And he never stopped calling us all onward. Many (including me) have recalled over the past weeks the impact of hearing him say "Be not afraid" and feeling it as a personal call. In recent years though, I noticed his use of a different phrase, duc in altum from:
ut cessavit autem loqui dixit ad Simonem duc in altum et laxate retia vestra in capturam
Which is from the Gospel of Luke chapter 5:
Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch." Simon said in reply, "Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets." When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that they were in danger of sinking. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon. Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men."
It was no longer enough for us to simply not be afraid, we need to move well past where we are used to being, we need to put out into the deep and lower our nets. This is the challenge I am trying to live up to now.

A very wise person once said to me that the most important choices one makes sometimes are the choices of what not to do. In choosing to be a leader for a pilgrim church, in doing what was necessary as completely as he could, John Paul II made choices of what he would and would not do. And choices have consequences. By choosing to be the kind of leader he was, he could not be other things, such as an administrator or Curial reformer, and that has had its consequences, some of them bad, including many of the problems that some critics are citing. There is no way around this for any of us, this side of the grave. All we can do is make the best choices we can. If things do not go as well as we would like, it does not mean that we have made the wrong decisions, just the best ones that we could.

The leader can only take you so far, can only show the way -- the rest remains to us. As for the next person chosen, they will have to make the best decisions they can based on what they see. But we truly are a pilgrim church again, and I don't think any one pope could change that.