A year or so ago, one of my siblings asked me, “Are you trying to get fired?” At that time—after decades of church leaders’ mismanagement and cover-up of crimes and sins coupled with the sickening headlines about cardinals’ and bishops’ sexual misconduct and the Pennsylvania grand jury report—some of our ecclesial decision-makers still had their priorities wrong, so I called them out on it. I realize that my challenge for church leaders to focus on faithfulness to God at the risk of being less faithful to the church is risky business practice. Yet multitudes of Catholics, and those who have left, are demanding serious institutional reform; and they are right to do so. Each time the church undergoes reform, it helps us return to the God from whom we have drifted. Jesus challenged His church 2,000 years ago because leaders had their priorities wrong, especially when they referenced church law over God’s law. In the movie, The Two Popes, Benedict and Francis, in lively dialogue, exchange barbs about the church’s purpose and the inability to enact reform or even influence members of the hierarchy. They share a desire to remove the church from the hands of self-promoting ecclesiastics and return it to Jesus, but they employ different means to do so.
As we begin The Year of Our Lord, 2020, our Diocese in Kansas City-Saint Joseph will conclude a Holy Year of Renewal. The year was designated as holy by Bishop Johnston after numerous listening sessions, surveys, and the creation of a vision statement: “One Family, restored in Christ, equipped for mission.” The vision and mission were important to establish in this local church after the resignation of his predecessor, Bishop Finn, who was pummeled by controversy that left our diocese in grave disunity and her members suspect of church officials. Our recovery from that dark and painful sadness is slow and intentional—it can be no other way. The emphasis on restoration in Christ and carrying out His mission is crucial. Though it often gets misconstrued by those who confuse holiness with piety or obedience to God with obedience to ecclesiastical ways.
Though most Catholics in western and northern Missouri had little, if any, idea that the past year was designated as holy, it is worthwhile to think about the significance. “Holy” has a rich and interesting etymology both in old English and ancient Greek; in both, holy is linked with happy, healthy, and wholesome. Restoring, renewing, and revitalizing a parish, a diocese, or a universal church is an incredible challenge yet, if turned over to God, it is a sacred undertaking that involves reform, much as Jesus sought. Pope Francis has initiated such renewal for the sake of ecclesial health and holiness. I pray that his effort finds its way to dioceses and parishes worldwide, like ours. I think it is.
Jesus’ quarrel with the church of His time is not much different from the one Francis has with the church of our time. The church’s Vatican curia and dicasteries of recent centuries mirror the Sanhedrin and Pharisees of ancient Jerusalem: loyal to dogma, doctrine, rules, rubrics, protocol and procedures for protecting itself; concerned about things that Jesus did not value, from legalistic measures to pronouncements by the Magisterium; often rigid in juridical and liturgical interpretations. When asked which of the 613 Jewish Levitical laws is most important, Jesus replied that only the law of love matters; I suspect He would say the same about our 1752 Catholic canonical laws today.
I’m not trying to get fired any more than Jesus was trying to get killed. I just want our modern church leaders, who say that they desire us to be restored in Christ, to follow Him and imitate Him, rather than ecclesial dictates. Jesus’ quarrel with the church was that it made itself, not God, the center. The church will only be holy, happy, healthy, and wholesome when Christ—His message, mission, and ministry of love—is returned to her center and heart.
Twenty-twenty is a perfect year for us, as a church, to more clearly see and recognize holiness, to be renewed in Christ, and restored to His divine vision.