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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

That Meeting in Rome

When the Bishops of the world gathered with Pope John XXII in Rome in the early 1960’s to look at the present reality and the future of the Catholic Church, one of the more profound teachings that emerged was the universal call to holiness and the universal call to the mission of the Church. Holiness was not just something that priests and vowed religious could attain. Missionary work was not just for missionaries. Holiness and mission belong to all of us by virtue of our baptism. Of course, this was not a new idea in 1962. It is clearly present in the life and teaching of Jesus, and it has been written about and practiced by many Christians throughout the centuries. But at the Vatican Council, this teaching was made clear and unequivocal. Yet, as they say in the old westerns. “Talk is cheap.” Was that just something in a document? Do we really believe that and do we really practice that?

Although it has taken more than sixty years and a huge push by Pope Francis, the recently concluded session of the Synod on Synodality finally put this basic proposition into practice for all the world to see. I know this meeting in Rome was saddled with a title that practically screams, “You have to be an insider to understand what this means”; still, the actual event and the process leading up to the event was revolutionary. The process started more than two years ago at the local level; and many of you took part in the listening sessions that were held at Assumption. The material from all these local sessions from around the world helped set the agenda for the Synod (or assembly) in Rome. Bishops, Religious, and Laity set at tables and together helped shape a document that was presented to the Pope. Each invited participant in the Synod had a voice by virtue of baptism. Each had a voice in shaping how the Church will carry out its mission in the future. Although the Document itself may seem long on generalities and calls for further study, it sets a pattern for future church meetings at all levels, and, indirectly, helps us better connect with the contemporary world. It helps identify the concerns, hurts, and needs of ordinary folks, and these concerns go well beyond the issues that have traditionally been the focus of Catholic teaching and Catholic bishops.

Fr. James Mallon in his book Divine Renovation: Beyond the Parish (2020) focuses a lot on this universal call to holiness and mission. He says that at the parish level, once we have accepted our call to holiness and to mission, it is important to keep those two aspects of discipleship in balance. “Sometimes as we grow in holiness, we become disconnected from the mission. We focus too much on our own spirituality and the riches of our Tradition. . . . We spend our time with the rest of the Catholic Club, talking about exceptionally Catholic things.

We do not realize how non-Catholics and non-Christians see us: they have no clue what we are talking about.” Fr. Mallon points to the way most Christians are depicted in movies and on television--as close-minded, judgmental people, with an attitude of moral superiority. We know that this is not true of most Christians; but it is representative of how many outsiders do see us. He says that in a secular culture that no longer has clear norms for behavior or a commonly accepted social structure, “it is difficult for people to come to belief in Jesus without first experiencing a sense of acceptance and love that comes from belonging to a community rooted in Jesus,” a community that is not judgmental and close-minded. He reminds us that Jesus used the image of fishing to describe missionary activity. “When you catch a fish, it does not come out of the water on a plate, cleaned, gutted, breaded, and cooked with a piece of lemon on the side. It is slimy and it wiggles all over the place. You have to deal with that before you can produce the finished dish.” In other words, if we are to embrace our role as missionaries, “we must embrace people in their messiness of their lives, who do not have their lives together and do not know how to speak our language.” Fr. Mallon says this is not about watering down Catholic teaching, but about giving people a sense of belonging first, and then helping them appreciate our beliefs.

On the other hand, he says, when our mission is not rooted in a desire for holiness, it can be hard to distinguish it from the work of many other charities and social service agencies. Ministry becomes less about our calling from God and more about our own agenda and our own ego. “If a parish’s social engagement is not rooted in Christ, politics can co-op faith. We are called to see our politics through the lens of our faith, but when the desire for mission is not balanced with holiness, we end up seeing faith through the lens of politics.”

These are good reminders as we seek to listen to the voice of the Spirit, along with the universal Church.


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