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COMMENTARY      

ANNOUNCING THE GOOD NEWS, URGENTLY

The last decade of the pontificate of Pope Paul VI, who will be canonized on Sunday, was not a happy one. The global controversy over his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which became quite rhetorically violent at times, had to have wounded Giovanni Battista Montini, a sensitive spirit. His teaching on the appropriate means of planning a family was often misrepresented as an ideology of “reproduction at all costs,” when in fact he taught that family planning was a moral obligation and a delicate exercise in the virtue of prudence. Many of his brother-bishops abandoned him amid the Humanae Vitae wars, determined to push other moral-theological agendas or cowed by the ambient public culture and the sexual revolution. Faced with widespread and public dissent from his encyclical, the pope seems to have made a conscious decision not to enforce doctrinal and moral discipline in the hope that rational discussion would prevent further divisions in the post-Vatican II Church. But that strategy, like his Ostpolitik of accommodation in east central Europe, failed; the results are much with us today, in the crisis of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal pusillanimity and malfeasance.

Pope Paul never wrote another encyclical. But toward the end of what had begun as a successful and dynamic pontificate and was ending in papal and ecclesial exhaustion, he rallied himself in an effort to put an end to the post-conciliar drift—and issued the first trumpet call summoning the Catholic Church to what his second successor, John Paul II, would call the “New Evangelization.” It’s ironic, and may ultimately prove consoling, that this Sunday’s canonization will take place during a welcome pause in Synod-2018. For the occasion for Paul VI to challenge the world Church to its evangelical and missionary birthright was a failed Synod.

The Synod’s theme in 1974 was “Evangelization in the Modern World,” and while there was agreement on the general proposition that the Church had to recover a sense that mission and evangelization were every Christian’s responsibility, there was little consensus beyond that. Moreover, there was considerable disagreement on the relationship of evangelization in the Third World to “liberation,” the meaning of which was also contested. As noted before in these LETTERS, the synodal Relator, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła of Cracow, was charged with developing a final report the entire Synod could accept, but was unable to do so. So Synod-1974 ended in some discord, its materials being handed over to a papal commission; the commission then passed things along to Paul VI with the suggestion that he do something. Pope Paul decided to do so. The result was the first-ever “Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation,” Evangelii Nuntiandi (Announcing the Gospel), which was published on December 8, 1975.

Drafted by the Brazilian Dominican Lucas Moreira Neves, the themes of Evangelii Nuntiandi clearly reflected the conviction embodied in Giovanni Battista Montini’s papal name: the Church of the future had to be a Pauline or missionary enterprise. Thus Evangelii Nuntiandi outlined an approach to Catholic self-understanding in which the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ the First Evangelizer, was evangelical in its very essence: Mission is what the Church is, not simply something the Church does. Moreover, Pope Paul insisted, this evangelical proclamation is not some generic call to human decency but a forthright and unapologetic call to meet the living person of Jesus Christ: “There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom, and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, are not proclaimed.” There could be no imposition here, but neither could there be timidity. The Church must proclaim Jesus Christ and his gospel, and none other.

In discussing how that proclamation and that offer of friendship with Christ could best be done in late modernity, Paul VI struck a characteristic note, deploying in Evangelii Nuntiandi a formula he often used in his preaching and teaching: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” So there could be no distance between what the Church proclaimed and what the Church lived, or between what Christian disciples offered to others and the manner in which they conducted their own lives. Proposal and witness were of a piece: They formed a seamless garment, if you will, of evangelization.

To meet Jesus Christ, Paul also insisted, was to meet the Church. To enter the Church was to be incorporated into a community of believers that lived by the sacraments, the fonts of grace that nourished faith, hope, and fraternal charity. And to be members of this sacramentally-ordered Church in the full sense, the evangelized had to become evangelizers: The Church’s sacramental life was both a means of personal sanctification and a platform for mission, witness, and service. And in becoming evangelists Christians also became transformers and renewers of culture, Paul taught. For the Christian offered the world a true and complete humanism, one in which the prerogatives of conscience and the demands of truth coincided, as the truth was freely accepted and lived in a reconciled and more deeply humanized world.

On the 25th anniversary of Evangelii Nuntiandi, Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves described the apostolic exhortation as Paul VI’s “pastoral testament to the Church.” It was, arguably, more than that. It might even be suggested that Evangelii Nuntiandi was the prism through which Paul VI urged the Church to read the entirety of Vatican II: As John XXIII’s opening address, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (Mother Church Rejoices) was his prescription for the Council’s work, Evangelii Nuntiandi was Pope Paul’s summary of the Council’s achievement and a prescription for living its sixteen documents as a coherent whole. In that sense, the last major teaching document of Paul VI’s magisterium sought to end the post-Vatican II drift in the Church and point Catholicism into a robustly evangelical future.

As the Synod fathers participate in Sunday’s canonization ceremonies in St. Peter’s Square, they might reflect on the sense of evangelical urgency that motivated Paul VI to write Evangelii Nuntiandi—a text that, along with the prophetic witness of Humanae Vitae, is one of the two magisterial bookends of a turbulent pontificate. “The love of Christ impels us….”, St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:14: that fiery love doesn’t suggest, or hint, or nudge; it impels. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia tried to ignite something like that Pauline flame in a mini-intervention offered during the early going of Synod-2018:

We do need to listen to young people. This is vital. Peoples of all ages long to be heard. But St. Paul didn’t decide to ‘listen’ for a year when he got to Corinth. His faith would not let him wait. ‘Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel': that was the fire in his heart; that was the kind of absolute confidence that led him to preach Jesus Christ from day one, whether people accepted or rejected him. He preached a Christ who insisted on radical conversion, but who liberated the soul precisely because of that conversion.

That call to evangelical urgency is one which the author of Evangelii Nuntiandi, who will soon be Pope St. Paul VI, would have approved.

                                                                        - George Weigel

TESTIMONIES FOR THE SYNOD

Bishop David Konderla has led the Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma, since June 29, 2016. Prior to his episcopal ordination he was director of one of America’s most successful campus ministries, at Texas A& M University in College Station, Texas. Under a series of dynamic pastors, “Aggie Catholics” have produced more religious and priestly vocations in the past twenty-five years than the University of Notre Dame, in addition to forming hundreds of young Catholic families who embody the New Evangelization. LETTERS TO THE SYNOD invited Bishop Konderla to make a testimony to Synod-2018, and he responded with the following open letter to his brother bishops. XR II

Lessons for the Shepherd from the Sheep

I spent fourteen of my twenty-three years in ordained ministry, as a priest and now a bishop, serving as a campus minister with the Aggies, the students at Texas A&M University. As I was leaving the university, I told the students that if I was now prepared to be a bishop, it was because they had taught me to be a pastor.             

Leading young people to choose to give their lives to Jesus Christ is not one of the things shepherds must do. It is the only thing. That is because it cannot happen passively, and because the Church and everything that is true about the Church exists for this purpose. It is, after all, his Church, his Body. The man or woman who exchanges his or her life for Jesus Christ has everything they need to live. Indeed, they have life itself.

Here are some lessons that I learned from my students, which I hope may prove valuable for the bishops meeting in the Synod on “Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.”

Personal prayer is the heart of life in Christ. 

The most stirring sight on the Texas A&M campus was the flow of students into and out of the adoration chapel. It began with students standing around, waiting for the chapel to open at 7 a.m., and it ended with the final group of students leaving the chapel at 11 p.m. They came to be fed so they could go on campus and witness to others that life in Christ is light and joy and available for everyone. 

Bishops are professional prayers, meaning that bishops are constantly leading people in prayer. For that reason, bishops must have some time each day when they go to the Lord, by themselves, and for no other purpose than to renew their own choice of life in Christ and renew the love and the strength to witness that life to others. 

Repentance is the path to prayer. 

An observation: There was a definite correlation between the young people you could find in the chapel praying and those you could find in the chapel waiting in line for confession.  That is because sin is a reality for every disciple of Jesus Christ, and the closer one draws to the Lord the more aware one becomes of sin and of Jesus as the source of forgiveness and peace.  The more we feel the healing love and power of the Lord, the more we want to spend time in his presence in prayer. 

Bishops are sinners. Confession is even more necessary for the bishop because of his greater responsibilities, which bring opportunities to sin through pride and arrogance.

Unity is not the goal of the Church; truth is the goal of the Church

Unity happens when we commit ourselves to the true and the good. The students with the best questions were often those who were farthest from the Church.  That is because they were wrestling with the truth and desiring unity with the truth. It was the truth that was drawing them closer to Christ and his Church. And once they found unity in the truth, they became the best evangelizers of their peers.

If, desiring unity, the bishop stops teaching the truth, he loses both unity and truth: for himself, and those he is called to shepherd. 

Only light has substance, darkness is the absence of light. 

Sin is associated with darkness, and rightly so because sin is the absence of grace. Young people are not afraid to hear about sin in preaching and we should not be afraid to preach about sin; but we should not focus on it either. Focus on the light—the true, the good, and the beautiful—and people will see in contrast how ugly and undesirable sin is.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is our friend. 

Young people live in a world that often divides itself into left and right, liberal or conservative. Many, especially in the media, try to divide the Church this way as well. But the gift of the Catechism gives us a path to unity, a way to avoid such divides by living fully the Word of God: For there we find the Scriptures, and the teaching of the saints, and the wisdom of the Church. 

As bishops, the Catechism is a measure for us and, if needed, a corrective for our teaching.

The good, the bad, and the sacred.

Winning football is good, laughter among friends is good, eating pizza is good, frisbee golf is good, but sex does not belong on this list. 

Sex is not bad, either. It does not belong on the list with flat tires, lima beans, studying all night for exams, or 8 a.m. classes. 

Sex is sacred. It belongs on the list with marriage, with prayer, with the birth of a baby, and union with God. For that reason it is reserved to marriage and to use it outside of marriage is akin to a sacrilege. Just as we would never consume the Eucharist with peanut butter as if it were a cracker, we ought never use sex outside the covenant of marriage as if it were a hug between friends. 

Sex is also true. God created us male and female. The growing list of acronyms that claims to represent how some humans are made is in fact only naming conditions that some humans have. What we are is male and female. And the reason God created us male and female was so that there could be marriage. Only by creating two persons whose differences were designed for union together could he create two persons who could become one, and in that becoming give life to others. Marriage is a special kind of friendship but not the only kind of friendship, and the joy of every kind of friendship is the gift from a loving God to every person. 

The counterfeits for sex and marriage and friendship, on the campus and in today’s world, are many and confusing. Young people know this, and that is why they have such an interest in these subjects and a right to hear the wisdom of the Church. Among the great treasures of the Church that bishops have to offer to the world and young people is the true meaning and appreciation of sex and marriage and friendships.

Hearing the Sheep

In listening to the voices of the youth of the world, should the shepherds listen to the good sheep or the bad sheep? None are good, only Christ. All others have sinned. But some are grazing on the green pastures of Christ and his Church and living. They are calling out directions to their brothers and sisters. Others are still searching and they are calling out hungry. 

As shepherds, it is up to us to amplify the call of those who have found Jesus Christ and his Church, so the ones still searching can hear and feed and live. 

MISCELLANY

Thanks to Dominic Palmer of Westwood, Massachusetts, for this link, which reflects some good news about the New Evangelization in Scotland.

It has been pointed out by an alert reader that, in LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD-2018, #6, George Weigel erred in describing Abraham Lincoln as the fifteenth president of the United States, when he was in fact the sixteenth. Mr. Weigel has been duly chastised and promises to do better with numbers in the future. XR II

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