A Light to the Nations; The Meaning and Future of the Catholic Church – Part III

In 03 Archbishop Charles Chaput on 2013/11/22 at 1:03 AM
What does all this mean for those of us who serve as bishops in the early years of a new millennium?
I believe that being a good bishop requires, first, that we become simple again — and by that I mean gospel simple. Jesus loved simplicity because it allowed Him to immerse Himself in the essential things of His Father’s business. I often wonder whether bishops in the developed world are in danger of losing that Christ-like focus. The United States has become a culture of noise, confusion, and complication. Americans are a distracted people, and American Catholics are now also a distracted Church. We bishops have plans and committees and projects and staffs. All these things are important in their proper place. But at the end of the day, are we apostles, or are we executives? And what do our people really need: managers or pastors?
In effect, the structures of today’s diocesan life sometimes work to block the very thing they were meant to help: a bishop’s direct contact with his people. Obviously, good stewardship requires skilled management of our resources. But it is easy today for a bishop to delegate his missionary zeal to others, to become a captive of his own administrative machinery. This runs exactly counter to the example of Jesus and the first apostles.
In fact, many of the key problems bishops face as shepherds are not programmatic or resource-driven. They are problems of faith. Too often, those of us in the Church — and sometimes even those of us who are bishops — simply do not believe deeply and zealously enough.
The hunger for God persists in every human heart, even when it’s buried under a mountain of consumer goods. Too often, we’re not feeding that hunger as effectively as fundamentalists and other evangelical Christians. And the thousands of Catholics who leave the Church every year for rigorous sects of every sort testify to that.
Forty years after the council, the Church throughout the industrialized world urgently needs to recover her original spiritual fire. We need to lead people back to the fullness of Jesus Christ, which can only be found in sacramental community — especially in the Eucharist. But if we really want the conversion of the world, we who are bishops need to seek that same conversion first within and among ourselves.
I began this reflection with the Council of Nicaea. While all true ecumenical councils are important, some seemed to have failed in achieving their goals. The Council of Florence had disappointing results in the 15th century because the Western Church was badly divided, and the Greek Church rejected a reunion. Participants at the Fifth Lateran Council in the early 16th century focused haplessly on the wrong issues. They did too little, too late, to address the conditions that would lead to the Protestant Reformation.
In the years ahead, as we consider the goals that Vatican II set for itself, we must ask: Will history judge the council a success or a failure? It’s a vital question. In opening the event, Blessed John XXIII claimed that “the council now beginning rises in the Church like daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light.” Pope John Paul II, who attended as a bishop, spoke many times about its vital role in a rebirth of Christian faith in the new millennium.
So far the results are mixed. One in every three children born in “Christian Europe” today is Muslim. Except for Islam, religious belief and practice are declining across the continent. So are fertility rates. Pope Benedict XVI told a gathering of Italian priests recently that the “so-called traditional Churches look like they’re dying.” In fact, in Europe’s wealth and selfishness and refusal to have children, an entire civilization ischoosing to die.
In September 2005, Pope Benedict told a group of new bishops to pray for “a humble trust in God and for the apostolic courage born of faith.” In 2002, then-Cardinal Ratzinger warned that “a bishop must do as Christ did: precede his flock, being the first to do what he calls others to do and, first of all, being the one who stands against the wolves who come to steal the sheep.”
Whether history judges Vatican II a success or failure will finally depend on us — bishops, clergy, religious, and laypeople alike — and how zealously we respond to God in living our Faith; how deeply we believe; and how much apostolic courage we show to an unbelieving world that urgently needs Jesus Christ.
We’ve been here before. By human standards, the Council of Nicaea could easily have failed. That council, and all the long history that followed it, may have turned out very differently. It didn’t, largely because of God’s actions through one man — a young deacon and scholar at Nicaea named Athanasius of Alexandria.
Athanasius fought for the true Catholic Faith at Nicaea and all the rest of his life. Arian bishops excommunicated him. Emperors resented him. His enemies falsely accused him of cruelty, sorcery — even murder. As a bishop, he was exiled five times. And in the face of it all, he became the single most articulate voice defending the orthodox Catholic Faith, which is why even today we remember him as Athanasius contra mundum: Athanasius against the world.
He never gave up. He had courage. He had the truth — and the truth won. He became one of history’s best-loved bishops and greatest Doctors of the Church, and the Faith we take for granted today we owe in large measure to him.
That’s the Catholic ideal of a bishop. That’s the Catholic ideal of a believer fully alive in Jesus Christ. And if bishops and their flock choose to live that same apostolic courage once again — starting now — then John XXIII’s hopes for the council as a new dawn for Christianity will rise in the Church as a light to the nations.

This article originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of 
Crisis Magazine.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

By Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the archbishop of Philadelphia. Before his appointment to Philadelphia by Pope Benedict in 2011, he served as bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota and archbishop of Denver. He is the author of two books: Living the Catholic Faith: Rediscovering the Basics (2001) and Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (2008).


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