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COMMENTARY

PABLUM ISN’T GOSPEL       

Cardinal Luis Antonio (“Chito”) Tagle, the archbishop of Manila, is a supremely friendly, outgoing man who, to all appearances, wears his heart on his sleeve: permanently. In an intervention during the first days of Synod-2018, he broke into tears while telling the story of a young Filipino who had a T-shirt bearing the cardinal’s image; one bishop said, with some asperity, that he’d heard the story three times before and it was getting a bit old.  Cardinal Tagle can do better than this when he puts his mind to it, though: He once wrote a scholarly and insightful chapter on a critical moment during the Third Period of the Second Vatican Council, for the canonical progressive account of Vatican II edited by Giuseppe Alberigo. Tagle’s contribution was more balanced and nuanced than others coming from what’s known in conciliar studies as the “Bologna School” (which is not, I hasten to add, a reference to a delicatessen product).

Cardinal Tagle’s thoughts and self-presentation are of particular interest, however, because it’s no secret that he’s the Catholic left’s dream candidate as successor to Pope Francis. So all concerned might want to take a look at a short video the cardinal recently made at the behest of the Vatican communications apparatus.

Of which, perhaps, the best that can be said is….oh, dear.

With all due respect to His Eminence, a lovely man, this kind of thing just won’t do. It’s pablum. It’s pandering. It’s saccharine happy talk. And there’s little that’s explicitly Christian about it, save the ecclesiocentrism at the end.

The cardinal addresses his putative audience of young adults as if they needed hankies and Kleenex, not conversion—much less salvation. There is nothing in the cardinal’s invitation to some vague sort of journey that would attract interest from a seriously inquiring young adult who wants to know what the Catholic Church offers beyond a pledge to walk together for “a better humanity, a better world, a better future…”—which is all fine, except that you can pursue those quite decent aspirations without getting up earlier than usual on a Sunday morning, leading a life of prayer, undertaking the occasional penance, or affirming a single sentence in the Creed.

The testimonies from successful young adult ministries that LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD has been privileged to publish for the past two and a half weeks all bear witness to a fact that both the Synod’s managers and some bishops can’t seem to grasp: In today’s cultural environment, at least in the West, young people are looking for the gospel, for friendship with Jesus Christ, and for communities in which the young and their spiritual mentors challenge each other to lead countercultural lives of integrity. They are not looking for more pandering in a world that already tells them they’re wonderful; they know they’re not, and they sense (and some know) that there are empty spaces in their lives the world cannot fill. That’s why the most vibrant young adult ministries in the 21st-century Church make religious and behavioral demands, even as they offer a hand of friendship, a supportive community, the Word of God in the Bible, and the grace of the sacraments.

More than one participant inside the Synod Hall and “Off Broadway” has observed that a lot of what’s been said by those the Synod managers evidently wanted in Rome for Synod-2018 sounds as if the Church had taken a trip back to the Seventies. Cardinal Tagle’s video fits easily within that Seventies model. I don’t doubt for a moment that the archbishop of Manila wants to attract young adults to the Lord Jesus Christ; but might he mention the Name? Grace? Redemption? Cross-free, evangelically anorexic, soothing, Seventies-talk didn’t work in that lost decade. And it isn’t going to work now, when the cultural pressures on the young to conform to self-assertion rather than to embrace self-gift are even greater.  

On this liturgical memorial of St. John Paul II, let’s remember that he won the hearts of the young by transparent integrity (never asking young people to take any risk he hadn’t taken); by not playing the pander-bear; and by challenging young adults to apply to their spiritual and moral lives a lesson they learned in drivers’ education: “Aim high in steering.”

                                                                         - Xavier Rynne II

TESTIMONIES FOR THE SYNOD

The third part of Synod-2018’s theme— “Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment”—has gotten relatively little attention thus far. So for the next three days, LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD will feature testimonies about fostering and discerning priestly vocation, and forming men to be the priests of the New Evangelization. The first of these testimonies comes from a recently-ordained priest, Father Andrew Schumacher, who currently serves at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Lafayette, Louisiana. XR II

MISSION INSPIRES VOCATION 

Over a period of ten years I felt invitations in prayer to discern the priesthood. But like many of my brother priests, it was an invitation I did not originally want to receive.  I was the guy who wanted a big family. I played sports, dated girls, traveled around the world, studied business, and was the president of a college fraternity. I fought God’s call, ran from it, was afraid of it...but eventually I said yes. Many people look at my past and question how I became a priest. Some even viewed my departure from “normal life” to the celibate priesthood as a waste. They had dreamt up some future for me based on my upbringing and way of life. By not pursuing what our culture views as successful, I was simply “wasting” my life.  I realize, however, that it was precisely my past that placed me in my current state.

The truth is, a priest absolutely should desire marriage, he should be well-rounded, well-studied, and perhaps even well-traveled.  My years before seminary, and even those early years of formation, were sprinkled with particular moments that fundamentally changed my path and the way I viewed the world.  Many of those occasions came outside of the United States, in small, remote villages. They came in countries like Mexico, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. It was precisely in the poor, outcast, and forgotten that the mission I desired to pursue most in life would become clear.

I went on my first mission during Easter of 2007 as a senior in high school. We traveled to a poor village outside of Stalilo, Mexico. It sparked some flame in my heart. Traveling far away from the daily routine and familiar sights, removing distractions and the simple pleasures, all allowed me to meet Christ in a new way. I wanted to serve, to suffer, and to bring others along. I remember thinking that no matter what I do in life, it must involve spreading the gospel and assisting the needy.  Four years later I would return on mission. At this point in my life I had just finished my undergraduate studies at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. As a graduation gift, I went on a pilgrimage to Rome and followed it with a ten-day road trip from Florence to Amsterdam with college friends. But from there, I headed to La Vallee de Jacmel, Haiti with a group of doctors, medical students, and nurses. I spent my days in the Eye OR helping with cataract surgery. I witnessed patient after patient lie down on an old table with no anesthesia as the physician removed cataract after cataract, restoring sight to the blind. It was remarkable, a reciprocal exchange of love. I recognized how blessed I was but at the same time how blessed they were in their poverty. If their poverty and simplicity helped liberate them from distractions often faced in our loud secular society, then really who are the lucky ones? If their utter dependence on the Lord for food and shelter helped maintain their thirst, while I allowed temporal, material pleasures to quench mine, then yes, they are rich in something that money cannot buy.

Pope John Paul II wrote that “The call to mission derives, of its nature, from the call to holiness.” Yes, I still had many worldly aspirations, I still wanted to pursue business and married life, but in that medical clinic I desired most of all to know and do God’s will. I recognized that I have first been called to holiness. Surrounded by the poor, I felt a call to a radical and complete conversion: a call to turn away from a life according to the flesh, to a life grounded in love. I knew this process would be difficult, it would take time, but ultimately it would be worth it. With only a month before my graduate studies began, I started the application and ended up entering seminary soon after.

Once in seminary, I had the opportunity to help at an orphanage run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrows in Fortaleza, Brazil.  Returning from this mission a thought came to me in prayer. It would be an answer to the question I often had concerning how to convert my lackadaisical or even fallen-away Catholic friends and fraternity brothers. It was simple: Bring them on mission. I thought this would take place after ordination, if I ever made it to that day.  However, my spiritual director wisely told me how seminarians think they have to wait until they are ordained to start their priesthood.  He asked the question, “Is God calling you to start now?”

He was. With the help of some close friends, we started a mission company called Mission Renew. It was geared to lost Catholics and non-Catholics, many of whom had everything else the world told them brought happiness but still had a void. They had a void because, like me in high school, they had not received an opportunity to love greatly, to suffer, to give of oneself and expect nothing in return.  This is what mission brought them. Aquinas tells us that the first fruit of love is joy. Our first trip had 14 missionaries, the following year 24, then 28, then 36, until this past summer when we started two trips. Over fifty percent of the missionaries would return the following year. They sacrificed their vacation days and made a significant financial offering, only to take cold showers, make grueling daily hikes, and spend days with people from a different culture and language. The missionaries kept returning year after year, like I did, because they found themselves full of joy. They returned because they saw truth, beauty, and goodness in their Haitian brothers and sisters, and they fell in love. 

When I moved on to major seminary in New Orleans our Rector was quick to make clear that he was forming missionary disciples for the New Evangelization. In this day, priests must be creative and we must be missionary disciples who go out.  We must be priests who go out not to tend simply to people’s material needs. The love and commitment we show through our interactions has had a great spiritual and emotional impact. This impact cannot be taken away and it can very well change eternity itself.  In my encounters with the poorest of the poor, I have come to face my own poverty and brokenness, but also my God. My God who was calling and continues to call me to mission; to be that missionary disciple for perhaps the greatest battles our Church has ever seen.  To win this battle... suffering, poverty, commitment, and a thirst for God like your entire life depended on it is an absolute. I am a priest today because it is my vocation.  I said yes to the invitation because of mission. And I will not let this priesthood go to waste.

MISCELLANY

The following letter to the Synod from over two hundred young Australians has gotten a bit of press attention but deserves to be read in full. XR II

Mr. Christopher Wilks on behalf of
The Members and Alumni of the Australian Catholic Students Association
President
Australian Catholic Students Association
150 City Road, Darlington, NSW 2007
president@australiancatholicstudents.org

 17 October 2018

 Synod Fathers, youth ambassadors, and all the faithful participating in the Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment:

Cherishing the opportunity presented by a synodal church, we humbly pray for your consideration of this petition. 

Forming the young, shaping the Church

The young do not want to shape the Church before the Church can form us. The world is confused. And in this confusion, the young have nothing to grasp. We want the Synod Fathers to remind the world that God will only deliver us when we cling to Him in love.  

His Grace Archbishop Anthony Fisher recently explained to the Australian Catholic Students Association that Blessed John Henry Newman was a major influence on the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in their teaching on the dignity of conscience and its need for formation. It is because of Newman that the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes conscience as “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” But even Newman saw the risk that “conscience” could be interpreted as any man’s “prerogative to be his own master in all things.”

Without the Church and everything she offers—divine revelation, tradition, community, and reason itself—conscience has no substance. We need a reliable moral compass. For this, the young need to be well-formed in the truth. We cannot shape the Church when we are not formed. Formless minds will manifest a shapeless Church, constantly evading the truth.

This formation takes a lifetime, a lifetime the young cannot claim. Newman’s epitaph reads: “Throughout his entire life, Newman was a person converting, a person being transformed, and thus he always remained and became ever more himself.”

Every one of us, like Newman, is a man or woman converting. How could we ever presume to shape the Church, which as the Mystical Body of Christ contains within it billions of lifetimes of conversion, the hopes and prayers of all the faithful departed, the wisdom and holiness of the entire Communion of Saints, and the conviction and bravery of an ever-growing army of martyrs?

Like past generations, today’s young will only shape the Church when we are ourselves formed. Then we will, God willing, take shape as Christ’s hands, eyes, feet and heart.

Ambiguity

But we can’t hope to take shape amidst confusion over issues such as contraception, sexuality, communion for divorcees and non-Catholics, married priests and female ordination. Such confusion is borne from senior prelates purposefully employing ambiguous language when addressing such issues, even in the face of Christ’s teachings, the Church Fathers and the clear dogma of the Church. Such ambiguity is neither charitable nor desired by the youth and needs to be addressed by this Synod.

Some of the Synod Fathers wish to avoid a Church of “rules” which fail to encourage a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. However these rules lead us to Christ, they always have. We need the Church to explain why and how this is.

When the Church eschews the truth for policy-speak, young people are left with only superficial banalities to express their beliefs. Deliberately unclear words are, ironically, relied on and repeated with rigidity. The Church should not discourage young people following its rules in love, nor its priests from teaching them. 

As well as clarity in language, we pray for an increase in practices which help satisfy the sacramental needs of our bodies and souls—pilgrimages, confession, devotions, adoration, sacred art, music, and architecture.  The world can be an ugly place, and the outward beauty of our churches should be rays of light in our communities, particularly in the lives of the poor.

The times show that the young are searching for meaning beyond flattery. Many young people are enamored by public intellectuals such as Dr. Jordan Peterson. He doesn’t tell the young that they are fine the way they are. Though he is explicitly agnostic, he repeatedly tells the young: “Pick up your cross.” In their hearts, even people who have little faith somehow know that this image, this instrument, the cross, gives their suffering meaning. Veiled in the language of psychology, Peterson explores the significance of scripture unapologetically and at length. But Peterson and those like him have a ceiling. They know some of the truth intuitively, but they do not offer the fullness of truth because they do not have faith. Only the Church can provide real meaning to our world. The Synod Fathers need to accept this mission. The young want the truth, unambiguously.

A worthy Mass and welcoming Church

In his Synodal intervention, Archbishop Fisher apologized for “unbeautiful or unwelcoming liturgies.” In preparing Australian youth for a Plenary Council, His Grace asked us: How can we ensure that we are praying and worshipping God in ways that are worthy and welcoming?

The balancing of these two concepts of “worth” and “welcoming” is the point of tension for most. Of course we want our churches to be welcoming to everyone, we want as many souls as possible to be received into the Church. But we also want the Mass to be worthy of the profound claim it is making—that the same Jesus Christ of the gospel descends to the altar in body, blood, soul and divinity, in every instance.

The problem is the debate over “worth” and “welcoming” is limited to what form and what tone the Mass should take. This makes the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass look like a battlefield between the faithful, when it should only proclaim the victory of Christ over death, time, and sin.

The inescapable truth is that the Mass and what it represents is profound. It is no accident that the Last Supper is part of the ultimate series of events of Christ’s earthly ministry. When Jesus says “this is My Body,” it comes after all the parables, sermons, and miracles which, although marvelous, only hint at the overwhelming claim He makes at the Last Supper.

If it took the Apostles such immense preparation at the feet of Christ himself (and even then they didn’t quite get it), how could we possibly hope to make the Mass “accessible” to people today?

No matter how much we try and make it contemporary or easy to understand, the Mass escapes us. In bringing the Mass down to our level of comfort, we turn a profound claim physically manifested in a glimpse of heaven, into a weird claim which people struggle to take seriously.

Solution: wider use of the Divine Office by the laity

We can ensure a welcoming Church before it comes to Mass. The Synod Fathers should consider encouraging the use of the Divine Office more widely. This would complement the increasingly popular and fruitful practice of Eucharistic adoration in parishes and university chaplaincies.

Imagine the widespread practice of vespers in the same vein as the Community of Sant’ Egidio’s evening prayer, encountered by so many young people and pilgrims in Rome at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. A warm, candle-lit refuge from the world, passers-by wander in, clueless, are handed a psalm book by a kind hand, and then gently guided by the community in prayer. This could be easily replicated around the world. The Psalms are appropriate for welcoming people into the Church, as they continuously hint at Jesus’s coming, preparing us for His awesome claim. And so we can achieve a beautiful and welcoming service, in an ancient Catholic setting. Perhaps solutions such as this are part of the answer to retaining a Mass that is worthy, and promoting a Church that is welcoming?

Conclusion

Newman once meditated on Mary as the Mystical Rose:

“How did Mary become the Rosa Mystica, the choice, delicate, perfect flower of God’s spiritual creation? It was by being born, nurtured and sheltered in the mystical garden or Paradise of God.”

Mary, as the greatest of God’s creations, is a model to all of God’s people, no less for the young. But as Newman explains, Scripture makes use of the figure of a garden when it would speak of heaven and its blessed inhabitants. So how can we become flowers in the Paradise of God, like Mary? We do not find flowers in the mountain-crag, or rich fruit in the sandy desert. We will not find heaven wandering the wasteland around us. We will find it by being born again in Baptism, nurtured by the Sacraments and sheltered by the Truth in the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church.

The young do not want to look elsewhere any more. We do not only want accompaniment in the wasteland. Synod Fathers, plant us in the mystical garden.

Yours in the Lord,

The undersigned members and young alumni of the Australian Catholic Students Association

Christopher Wilks- President of the Australian Catholic Students Association
Nicholas Morlin- Vice President of the Australian Catholic Students Association
Shirlene Perera- Secretary of the Australian Catholic Students Association
Lucas di Cicco- Treasurer of the Australian Catholic Students Association
Tien Kelly- QLD Chairperson of the Australian Catholic Students Association
William Brazier-  NSW Chairperson of the Australian Catholic Students Association
Hugh Samuel King- VIC Chairperson of the Australian Catholic Students Association
Jemille West-  TAS Chairperson of the Australian Catholic Students Association
Nicolas Calandra- President of University of Melbourne Catholic Society
Charles Gerrand- General Executive of University of Melbourne Catholic Society
William Hill- President of Sydney University Catholic Society
Julen Reyes- Vice President of Sydney University Catholic Society
Terressa Bernado- Vice President of Sydney University Catholic Society
Alessandro Sobral- Secretary of Sydney University Catholic Society
Melissa Kurishingal- Treasurer of Sydney University Catholic Society
Thea Boutros- General Executive of Sydney University Catholic Society
Shania Coutinho- General Executive of Sydney University Catholic Society
Matthew D’Souza- General Executive of Sydney University Catholic Society
Erin Meese- President of Campion College Student Association
Francesca McGinnity- Secretary of Campion College Student Association
Sudham Perera- President of University of New South Wales Catholic Society
Chris Chan- Arc Delegate of University of New South Wales Catholic Society
Christine Kuan- President of Macquarie University Catholic Society
John Gallimore -Treasurer of Macquarie University Catholic Society
Patrick O’Shea-  General Executive of Macquarie University Catholic Society
Andrew Taslim- General Executive of Macquarie University Catholic Society
Angelo Andrew- General Executive of Macquarie University Catholic Society
Andre Fernandes- General Executive of Macquarie University Catholic Society
Phillip Brooks- President of University of Technology Catholic Society
Finbar McCaughan- Vice President of University of Technology Catholic Society
Anson Antony- Secretary of University of Technology Catholic Society
Monica Axiak- Treasurer of University of Technology Catholic Society
Akhile Joseph- President of University of Tasmania Catholic Society
Maurice Liaw- Secretary of University of Tasmania Catholic Society
Tony Kottaram- Treasurer of University of Tasmania Catholic Society
Maria Becerril—Vice-President of Catholics of One Spirit Down Under
Edsel Parke- Secretary of Newman Society UQ
Matthew Chin- Vice President of Catholic Asian Student Society

And many others.

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