Immersed in Christ: August 23, 2020
Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)
How do you feel about the Church? What is your emotional tone when you say “the Church”? What people are you thinking of? The hierarchy? The priests? Your grandmother? Your “drinking buddies”? People like Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez? In all of the above, who come first to mind?
In the Entrance Antiphon we are obviously worried. “Save your servant who trusts in you.” Not everything we see around us, even (or at times especially) in the Church gives us confidence. But we know the answer to worry – all worry: “I call to you all day long.” If there ever comes a moment in the day when God is not there to call to, we will have something to worry about! Until then we find peace, confidence and security saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord.”
To have “mercy” means to “come to the aid of another out of a sense of relationship.” That is what today’s readings are all about: relationship with each other in the Church sustained by God. The Father has made us his own children. The Son has made us his own body. They have sent the Spirit to dwell in our hearts that we might all be “one body, one spirit in Christ.” The Responsorial (Psalm 138) sums up our faith and our hope: “Lord, your love is eternal. Do not forsake the work of your hands.”
In the Opening Prayer(s) we ask God to “make us one in mind and heart.” This is an echo of the “second Epiclesis” of the Eucharistic Prayer: that, having been made one body by participation in the death and rising of Jesus, we might be “brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit.” We repeat it in the Prayer Over the Gifts: “Merciful God, the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ made us your people. In your love grant peace and unity to your Church.”
This unity depends on union of mind and will, which in turn depends on communal recognition God’s truth: “All truth is from you, and you alone bring oneness of heart” (alternate Opening Prayer). The Church exists to unite and keep us united to God and to each other in communal acceptance of what God says is true and good.
One For All
In Isaiah 22:19-23 God chooses Eliakim to have authority over his people: “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.”
In Matthew 16:13-20 Jesus chooses Peter to have authority in his Church, using almost the same words: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Every right, and every authority, is given by God to enable the fulfillment of some obligation. Eliakim’s obligation was: “He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.” That meant he was responsible for their well-being. And God would hold him accountable for it. The obligation Jesus laid on Peter was to “Strengthen your brothers” in faith and “Feed my sheep.” 1
Authority and obedience are just two sides of the same coin. Exercising human authority is an act of obeying God. If not, it is making oneself to “be like God,” presuming to “know good and evil” as only God can and does.
God’s creative fiat (“Let it be”) determines what things are by giving them existence in a nature he designed for a purpose. God, and God alone, determines the end and purpose of everything that is. Consequently, actions are good or bad in the measure that they foster or frustrate that purpose. When human authorities believe that their fiat can determine what actions or use of things will be “good or evil,” they are blindly assuming that they are “like God.” And many do, consciously or unconsciously, slide or fall into precisely this assumption.
Even parents, when their children repeat too tiresomely, “Why do I have to...?” sometimes make the mistake of saying, “Because I said so!” The parent may know this is shorthand for saying, “I can’t explain the reason to you now, but I am responsible to God for you. That responsibility obliges me to make some decisions, and when I do. God requires you to obey them.” But to give only the shorthand version can send a very wrong message. It may plant a destructive attitude in child and adult both. For Christians, commanding is essentially an act of obeying. And obeying human authority is an act of participating in the authority’s obedience to God. If not, it is idolatry.
All those to whom God gives authority in the Church are “servants of the servants of God.” This makes them, in an official and specific way, what every Christian is as a member of the body of Christ: a “one for the many.” All Christians anointed to Christ’s mission by Baptism have the responsibility as priests to nurture others and “build up the Church.” And as stewards of the kingship of Christ, to work for the common good. But some are also given power through authority. This lays specific burdens on their shoulders.
That is why we pray especially during the Intercessions for those in the Church who bear the heavy duty of authority.
After the second Epiclesis, conscious of the Spirit summoning us to unity, we reach out in the Intercessions to embrace one another as Church, and as Church to embrace the world.
We first pray by name for “N. our Pope, N. our bishop,” and we add, “and all the clergy.” We single these out, not because they are “more important” than the laity, but because our focus is on unity, and the first duty of authorities is to hold the Church together.
Authorities are responsible for keeping the Church united; leaders for moving it forward. A leader does not have to have authority, and not all authorities have significant gifts of leadership. But because authorities have power, and because the way they use it has so much impact on the Church — and also because power puts them in so much danger of corruption — we pray especially for the clergy and bishops in every Mass.2
In the liturgy we pray for the bishop of Rome by his nickname — “pope” which means “papa” — rather than by his sacramental title, “bishop.” This can make us forget that there is no distinct office of “pope.” Doing what the pope does is just an added function consequent on being ordained bishop of Rome. It is significant that when Jorge Bergoglio (now Francis) was elected in 2013 he referred to himself, not as “pope,” but as “bishop of Rome.”
Today, instead of ordaining someone bishop of Rome, we elect an existing bishop pope. This reverses Rome’s consistent refusal during virtually the entire first millennium to elect as bishop of Rome anyone who had been or already was bishop of another see. The first departure from this practice occurred in the election of Marinus II in 882.
In those days they took seriously the repeated condemnations of the movement of a bishop from see to see, a prohibition that constituted canon 15 of [the Council] of Nicea [from whence comes the “Nicene Creed” that we use as our Profession of Faith at Mass, and] canon 5 of Chalcedon,... The Council of Alexandria (338) even called such a translated bishop an adulterer....
Translation was not considered simply a matter of canonical discipline. The legislation involved an implicit theology of the relationship of a bishop with his see and the sacredness and inviolability of their union....
In summary: For centuries in the early Church “the relationship of a bishop to his church was seen as a spiritual marriage.” This theological understanding carried with it two implications: (a) “like the assent of partners in a marriage, the [local] church’s ‘yes’ must be freely given”; (b) the translation of a bishop to another see was prohibited except in very rare cases. 3
We need to pray for our bishop as spouses pray for each other. And we value our bishops for more than whatever gifts or talents they have. The bishops are our historical link with the community that first gathered around Jesus. Our connection with the bishop connects us vertically with all the bishops who preceded him, reaching back to the time of the apostles. Horizontally, it connects us with all the other bishops, and their churches, “throughout the world.” In one word, we need the bishops for unity.
If... I have become so close a friend of your bishop, in a friendship not based on nature but on spiritual grounds, how much more blessed do I judge you to be, for you are as united with him as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ to the Father, so that all things are in harmony through unity.... For if the prayer of one or two has such power, how much more has the prayer of the bishop and the whole Church. 4
Why do we need to pray especially for the clergy and bishops at Mass?
During the Intercessions, pray for union with and unity within the Church.
1 See Luke 22:31-32; John 21:15-17. 2 We would be fools to forget Lord Acton’s words: “Power corrupts....” We take them seriously and pray. 3 Michael Buckley, S.J., Papal Primacy and the Episcopate. Crossroad-Herder, 1998, pp. 90-94. The book came out of an invitation Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and now Pope Benedict XVI, extended to the author “to participate in the symposium sponsored by the Congregation on ‘the primacy of the successor of Peter.’” An earlier version of the book was published by the Vatican under the title “Perpetuum Utriusque Unitatis Principium ac Visible Fundamentum: The Primacy and the Episcopate: Towards a Doctrinal Synthesis,” © Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City, 1997. 4 From St. Ignatius' Letter to the Ephesians, written around 110 A.D. It is used in the Office of Readings for the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.
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