Worth Chewing On: Points from Archbishop Chaput, O.F.M. on Renewing the Church

A thought-provoking and wonderfully challenging address from Archbishop Chaput, O.F.M. in Philadelphia. Given to clergy, but published by the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Here are my take-ways:

1. “Material health means nothing for a Church, unless it sets the stage for something more important:  renewing the heart and spirit”

It’s great that your parish/ministry has sustainable financial health. But is the material wealth enabling the conversion and transformation of individuals? Both those within and outside your parish walls?

2. “Our priests are admired and genuinely loved by our laypeople…On the other hand, a much lower number of parishioners see their parish as a welcoming place; or as spiritually healthy; or as offering strong homilies; or as having good financial management and transparency.”

Archbishop Chaput notes that there’s “no contradiction” in this data. And, I see what he means. Taking it a different direction, I think this points to a common problem in parish-life–low expectations. I’m certainly not saying that priests shouldn’t be genuinely loved! But, why is it that we are okay with pastors who do not lead in creating a spiritually healthy, welcoming parish, or a place with solid administration–or who at least can preach powerfully at Mass? Now the reaction to this isn’t to condemn pastor-priests, but maybe to ask ourselves as baptized believers, how are we enabling failed parish practices through silence? How might we step up and intervene? No pastor can do it alone!

As he writes later (echoing Russell Shaw), “If “Father,” in the person of the priest, always knows best, or thinks he knows best, then Father is always responsible for everything, and the spirit of a parish swings between adolescent piety and resentment. “

3. “The Church of most U.S. priests’ childhood — the parish life we all once fell in love with — is ending.  And it is not coming back, at least not in our lifetimes.”

Thank you, Archbishop Chaput, for plainly stating and acknowledging what can be a harsh and painful reality. We can’t change unless we feel a deep sense of urgency. And we’ll never feel urgency, if we don’t acknowledge reality.

4. “The Church will be very vulnerable to government interference in those of her ministries which fall outside of her core worship functions, such as her social service agencies and educational institutions.”

This is certainly true and has already impacted some branches of Catholic Charities with regards to adoption services. But, I think it’s a shift in funding structure that drives us more deeply to a renewal of giving as a spiritual discipline. The work of a disciple–to be personally responsible for the welfare of those around us, who we are compelled by Jesus Christ to love.

In 1945, Dorothy Day wrote, “We believe that social security legislation, now balled as a great victory for the poor and for the worker, is a great defeat for Christianity… It is an acceptance of Cain’s statement…’Am I my brother’s keeper?'” She challenges us as Christians, “Certainly we all should know that it is not the province of the government to practice the works of mercy, or go in for insurance. Smaller bodies, decentralized groups, should be caring for all such needs” (The Catholic Worker, Feb 1945).

Faith-based social services have received subsidies and grants from the government now for decades. It’s a hard habit to break. But it’s not a right to expect the government to give us financial resources to live out our Christian calling to serve the poor, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, etc. It won’t be easy, but it means that all of us disciples will have to give of our wealth, material possessions, and time. Hmm…sounds a bit like Jesus’ Gospel messages.

5. ” in loving his people, a priest also needs to lead them to ‘own’ their lay vocation as full partners with equal dignity in the work of the Church.  And that involves much more than being a lector or usher or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion — as important as those tasks are.  It also means that committed laymen should not automatically need to become permanent deacons; although again, the permanent diaconate is a great gift to the Church.”

Amen. Without undercutting the permanent diaconate in any way, we can look around and see instances where we do, consciously or unconsciously, bias ourselves toward seeing a deacon as the only “non-priest” suitable for a specific role–when Church law allows otherwise. Leading funeral vigils/wake services, preaching at a communion service (i.e. Sunday Celebration in Absence of a Priest or Morning Prayer with Communion), or administering a parish come to mind…

The baptized faithful taking “co-responsibility” (as he calls for later, using the language of Pope Emeritus Benedict) is not something that requires a chance in our theology! Not at all. It does however require cultural change for the “rest of us” to respond to this as leaders and followers.

He exhorts his priests that this “means shaping real lay leaders.  If we’re not zealous, they won’t be.” And not only shaping, but enabling leaders. In Tools for Rebuilding, Fr. Michael White observes, “Everything in the [parish] culture insists that the priest be the center of attention, action, activity, and authority” (p. 270)–the only person with the capacity to change this is the pastor himself. With delegation and strong leadership, the pastor can set the right tone. Without that pastoral leadership, however, the culture will still say, “it’s all about Father.”

Archbishop Chaput summarizes this all, loudly and clearly with this final challenge:

“a renewal of spirit in the Church of Philadelphia, and elsewhere, depends not on money, or legacy, or buildings, or even a wonderful visit from the Pope — but on the ability of our priests and people to change the way Catholics think about the mandate and the privilege of baptism”

Yes! 🙂


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