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We Are His Witnesses:
Our Spirit-Filled Mission as the Church
in Southern Illinois

A Pastoral Letter
By
The Most Reverend Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., STD
Bishop of Belleville
June 4, 2006

We Are His Witnesses:
Our Spirit-Filled Mission as the Church in Southern Illinois

Contents:
PART ONE
I. Introduction
II. The Decline of “Common Meaning”
a.) The Liturgy
b.) The Ministry of Bishops
c.) The Priesthood
d.) Women Religious
e.) The Impact of Doubt
PART TWO
I. A New Bishop
II. Our Spirit-Filled Mission
a.) Our Priests
b.) International Priests
c.) Parish Clustering
d.) Deacons, Religious, Lay Leaders, and Parish Life Coordinators
e.) Financial Resources and Stewardship
PART THREE
I. Look to Christ: In Search of Common Meaning
a.) Questions: A Spiritual Inventory
b.) A “Dialogue of the Soul”
II. Conclusion
PART FOUR
Appendix: Questions for Discussion

PART ONE

I. Introduction
“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘peace be with you’ then he breathed on them and said, “receive the Holy Spirit!’” – John 20:19-22

Dear People of God:
Jesus Christ has called us to be His witnesses! As members of the Church we have moved together through the days of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. In our parish communities we have accompanied our catechumens to the Easter Vigil and to the font of the Living Waters bubbling up with eternal life as we experienced anew the powerful Easter Sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation. As we continue to ponder the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on this Pentecost Sunday with great joy. As we read in Acts 2:1-11, this is the day when the Spirit of God empowered the apostles to be witnesses to Jesus Christ; to become the ecclesia, God’s gathered people, the Church. We are confident that the Holy Spirit truly will be our Advocate, our helper, so that we can be witnesses to Christ’s life, teachings, suffering, death, and resurrection as we carry out our mission as the Church in Southern Illinois with confidence, with hope, and with joy.

During this past year, I have moved about the Diocese of Belleville in many diverse pastoral activities. I have had several meetings with our priests, deacons, seminarians, religious, and representatives of the Christian faithful. I have visited each deanery for Mass and conversation with pastoral ministers. I have made pastoral visitations to each of our Catholic High Schools and elementary schools. I have had the privilege of praying with the sick in our hospitals and joining many families in prayer for their loved ones who have died. I have made an effort to contact every household in the diocese when there has been a death in the family. I am getting to know our hard-working farmers at the fall and spring Farm Blessings. I have enjoyed celebrating Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Peter and other diocesan parishes and giving adult education lectures and various diocesan conferences. I have participated in many services at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. I have hosted the first annual “come and see” Saturday morning for young men who might be interested in the priesthood. I have also hosted lunches, dinners, and other visits at my residence for people from all over the diocese. I have shared my thoughts by writing occasional reflections for our diocesan newspaper, The Messenger. Most significantly, I have recenly ordained a new priest for the service of our diocese. I will soon welcome couples to the Cathedral for the inaugural celebration in honor of silver and golden jubilarians. These faith-filled experiences have given me a real awareness of the desire of our faithful people to witness to the wonders God is working in us and through us by the power of the Spirit.

My ministry as your bishop gives me a moving viewpoint which has allowed me to readily recognize that the Spirit is at work in your midst. You understand the message of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI’s first Encyclical Letter on the gift and mystery of love, Deus Caritas Est (DCE), “God Is Love.” I have seen you living that love in your daily lives in our parishes. I know that for you, Christ’s call to love Him and His Father unconditionally and to love all people is real and that you strive to answer that call each day. I know of your love for the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and your devotion to Mary, the Mother of the Savior. Recalling that she was in the upper room with the apostles on the first Pentecost, we invoke her intercession as we heed the call of the Holy Spirit to live our mission as baptized members of the People of God.

How are we to fulfill vocations as Spirit-empowered witnesses? Jesus Christ, the full expression of God’s love for each one of us, is the ultimate answer to this question. We who are baptized into Christ’s Life as members of the Church are called to reflect the love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit by loving God with our whole being and loving one another as we love ourselves, even though, humanly speaking, this can be difficult in certain circumstances.

In this Pastoral Letter I would like to speak to each of you about our common lives as witnesses to Christ. In PART ONE, I will address the challenges to our common efforts caused by tensions in the Church resulting in what I have termed as the decline of Common Meaning. I elaborate on this decline of Common Meaning as it is manifest in the liturgy, the ministry of bishops, the priesthood, women religious, and the impact of doubt. In PART TWO, I reflect with you about the unique opportunities for our mission as the Church that present themselves with the appointment of a new bishop. In PART THREE, I explore ways in which we can work together for the unity and effectiveness of the Church by taking steps toward spiritual renewal and the rebuilding of Common Meaning. In PART FOUR, I have included suggested questions that I hope will lead to lively discussion.

II. The Decline of Common Meaning

The Catholic Church in the United States, and specifically here in our Diocese of Belleville, has many strengths. I have seen this in every parish that I have visited. All around us are signs of vitality, growth, change, and development. There are abundant reasons for us to be confident and hopeful about the future of the Church. The most fundamental reasons for this confidence, of course, are the faith we all share, our unshakeable trust in Jesus Christ, and our knowledge of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

At the same time, we are aware that the Church throughout the world, in this country, and in our diocese, is facing a variety of complex challenges for which easy solutions cannot be found. This is why the Holy Father asks us to look to the depths of our lives of faith. The radical way in which we look at the world and the Church as believers in Christ is the true source of our confidence in the face of every challenge. “We have come to believe in God’s Love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John’s Gospel describes that event in these words: ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in him should…have eternal life.’ (3:16)” (DCE # 1)

The Pope is asking each of us profound and personal questions. Have we each encountered Jesus Christ? Does our personal relationship with Him give us confidence, a new perspective, and a decisive direction in our lives? Are we serene and optimistic in the midst of unprecedented changes in our world, our Church, and our diocese? Few eras in history have been marked by such rapid and far-reaching changes as those through which we have lived in the Church and in society in the more than forty years since the historic Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

In the years before the Second Vatican Council, we Catholics lived in our own spiritual “house,” more or less sheltered from the outside world. The Church lived in a culture in which our unity was manifest in a high degree of uniformity. Now the Church, especially in this country, lives in a culture in which our unity remains of paramount importance. Nevertheless, almost everyone experiences far more diversity in ecclesial life than in the past. Within this context of unity in diversity many Catholics have experienced a degree of breakdown in their shared understanding of the very nature of the Church. The familiar became unfamiliar. Many did not feel a clear sense of direction. This might be called the “decline of Common Meaning.” The decline of Common Meaning has come about in part as the Church in the Western world and Western culture were attempting to assimilate the complex changes mandated by the Second Vatican Council and the larger forces for change in the cultural upheavals in society at-large.

We have certainly not in any sense experienced the total loss of Common Meaning. This obvious reality was brought home to all of us by the great numbers of people we baptized and received into the Church during the Easter Vigil. Our Common Meaning is anchored in Sacred Scripture, the Creed; the Ten Commandments, the definitive teachings of the Church; our Worship, especially the Mass; and in the laws which govern the Church. We all know our identity and the world knows well who we are. We are Catholics! We are members of the largest, oldest, and most influential Christian community in the world.

Nevertheless, the decline of Common Meaning is shaking our communal self-understanding which leads to the danger of divisions, quarrels, and fragmentation. The decline of Common Meaning may be particularly significant for Catholics born and educated in their faith after the end of the Vatican Council in 1965. They have never known the more uniform Church of forty years ago. And yet many of them have developed mature, committed lives of faith. As we will see, the decline of Common Meaning makes it much more difficult for some of us to live as Christ’s witnesses in the genuinely loving relationships to which the Holy Father calls us.

“Common Meaning” may be an unfamiliar expression. However, it is not an unfamiliar reality. Common Meaning has the power to turn a group of strangers into a community. The nearly three hundred million citizens of the United States are amazingly diverse. Yet, we are held together by the fundamental experience of freedom, pluralism, participatory democracy, and government by law. We ask questions that shape our understanding of the meaning of this fundamental experience. We make similar judgments about whether our understandings of our experiences are correct or incorrect. And, finally, we make the commitment live by our shared experiences, understandings and judgments. Thus, no matter how politically conservative or how politically liberal we may be, we know very well what we mean when we say, “We are Americans.” Common Meaning gives rise to community at the deepest level. It is the radical source of every community’s cohesiveness.

Here in Southern Illinois, our farmers have a certain degree of Common Meaning in our rural areas. They share, more or less, the same base of experiences in maintaining a farm in challenging times. They raise similar questions about whether their efforts are meaningful and worthwhile in today’s economy. They remain in farming because they come to the same general understanding that their farming experiences are meaningful and worthwhile. They persevere in the face of great obstacles, including unpredictable weather, and make similar judgments about the value of their common understanding of the shared experiences of farming. And, finally, they live by those judgments with common dedication and commitment to the values and challenges they have all, more or less, accepted. Some of their sons and daughters, however, may leave the farm when they become of age. They may make the judgment that the long hours, the uncertain income, and the distance from a metropolitan area makes a life in farming no longer meaningful for them. They may work in high technology industries in St. Louis because they are no longer bound by the Common Meaning of farming.

The dynamic reality of love animating a family, the loyalty animating the citizens of a country, and powerful faith animating the members of a community of faith are each manifestations of community born of “Common Meaning” (experience, understanding, judgment, commitment). If even one of the key elements of shared experiences, understandings, judgments, and commitments is removed or significantly changed, the sense of community in a family, state or religious body is deeply shaken. If Catholics from a traditional Catholic family in a small town go to a large secular university in a cosmopolitan city and some of them return home as agnostics or atheists, it may well be that their experiences, understandings, judgments, and commitments were radically altered in their new environment, resulting in the decline of Common Meaning and the breakdown of religious communion with their Catholic family and neighbors. They became separated from their base of experiences as people of faith. Gradually, their understanding about the meaning of their lives, their judgments about the purpose of their lives, and finally their commitments about how to live their lives were undone. Their sense of community is now sustained in a world completely alien to their families and friends back home.

The community, or Common Meaning, of the Catholic Church spans centuries — across continents, cultures, languages, and political systems. When the Catholic members of a family, a parish, a diocese, or a country do not share, at the most fundamental level, the same essential experiences, understandings, judgments, and commitments about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, the Sacraments, worship, Catholic doctrine, Church disciplines, moral principles, or the intellectual compatibility between the world of religious belief and, for example, the world of scientific inquiry, Common Meaning may begin to decline and community is likely to be fragmented. This becomes evident when some lay people, religious sisters, brothers, deacons, priests, and bishops feel as if they are living in different “worlds” from one another, even though they are all members of the one Church.

Anyone who closely observes Catholic life in the United States and in Southern Illinois can see the evidence of the decline of Common Meaning.
a.) The Liturgy
Most Catholics embrace the reforms of the Liturgy brought about by the Vatican Council and the various Vatican documents published since the Council. Though Sunday Mass can never be the perfect worship experience of the heavenly Eucharist, the People of God treasure the celebration of the Eucharist, following the prayers, the readings, and the rites in the manner that the Church has prepared them. They fully accept the right and the authority of the Church to determine what we should and should not do at Mass. The relatively small changes in the Liturgy mandated by recent Church documents were easy for them to accept as part of the ongoing reform of the Liturgy.

A smaller group of Catholics, however, finds the contemporary celebration of the Mass very distressing. To them it lacks the awe, reverence, majesty, transcendence, and richness of the Latin Mass. Some of these Catholics do not think it is enough that some bishops have obtained permission from the Holy See to allow the occasional celebration of the Latin Mass. They would like to see the Latin Mass (sometimes even called the “true” Mass) “restored” in all parishes, everywhere in the world, for the unity of the Church and the inspiration of the faithful.

Yet another group of Catholics does not believe the Church’s reforms of the Liturgy have been sufficient. While they may acknowledge the Catholic belief that the Liturgy belongs to the Church, not to a specific parish or an individual priest or bishop, some in this group feel perfectly free to change prayers and Scripture readings at Mass to make the language more “inclusive.” In some rare circumstances Eucharistic Prayers themselves are changed beyond recognition. They may ignore the parts of recent directives (e.g. the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the Instruction on the Eucharist (Redemptionis Sacramentum) with which they disagree. Instead of unleavened eucharistic breads of flour and water they may add honey and other ingredients. They may insist on standing rather than kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer. Norms concerning the use of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, appropriate vestments, vessels, altar cloths, and the like may be ignored. Some may embrace a form of individualism or congregationalism that rejects the authority of the Congregation for the Divine Worship, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, or the local bishop to regulate matters of Liturgy.

Most significantly, a growing number of Catholics feel no need to participate in the Sunday Eucharist at all — with the possible exception of Christmas and Easter. Yet, they unquestionably think of themselves as Catholics.

The conflicts brought about by the differences in these four groups are not necessarily the result of what some might call bad faith. They are the result of the decline of Common Meaning. There is no longer a shared base of experience, understanding, judgment, and commitment about what the Church is doing when the faithful are gathered together under the leadership of the Church’s ordained ministers for public prayer. Because of the decline of Common Meaning regarding Church worship and Liturgy, Sunday Mass which is such a positive experience of communion for most Catholics can become, for some, a painful experience of discord conflict and anger.

“Worship itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is in trinsically fragmented.” (DCE #14)

b.) The Ministry of Bishops
The bishops of the United States are painfully aware that the crisis caused by the sexual abuse of minors by clergy is the greatest crisis in the history of the Church in this country. We are also aware that the manner in which some bishops have responded or failed to respond to this terrible malignancy in the Church has clearly undermined the confidence of groups of laity and clergy in the moral and pastoral authority of the hierarchy. Because of the intolerable nature of the sin and crime of the sexual abuse of children by those considered most worthy of trust, Catholics who hold very different views about disputed issues in the Church have been brought together in their common expression of intense anger and hurt. In the midst of these tragic events many Catholics believe that the bishops themselves have contributed to the decline of Common Meaning.

In the face of this turmoil, the fact that vast majority of Catholics continue to accept the hierarchical structure of the Church and the authority to lead and govern that rests with the Holy Father, the local bishop and the parish pastor is a witness of their abiding faith. While they may have questions, concerns, and even disagreements with some actions and decisions of leaders in the Church, they fully accept and respect these ecclesial structures as developments of Christ’s gift to the Church and as expressions of Catholicism’s unique identity and strength.

A small group in the Church expresses disappointed because they believe that the Pope, bishops, and pastors do not govern with sufficient firmness. They believe that Catholics who openly dissent from or even deny Catholic Doctrine (e.g., clear teachings on abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, married priests, and women priests) should be told unambiguously that their views are not compatible with the Church’s self-understanding and that they should be disciplined or even dismissed from the Church. They may feel the hierarchy is too patient or even passive.

Another small group in the Church takes the opposite position. They see themselves as the Church of the “future.” Not only do they believe that they should be free to hold these and other positions that contradict Catholic teachings, arguing that through history there have always been different “schools” of theology that did not always agree, they also assert that the only way that the Church will ever adapt fully to the modern world is to embrace democratic structures. Lay people, deacons, priests, and bishops, in addition to the cardinals, should elect the Pope. Local dioceses should be able to determine who their bishops will be. Presbyteral Councils and Diocesan Pastoral Councils should have a decision-making voice rather than a consultative voice vis-à-vis the bishop. The same should be true of the Parish Pastoral Council vis-à-vis the pastor. They believe that Catholic doctrine and discipline should be determined by consensus whenever possible. Some may dismiss the hierarchy altogether and create a kind of Catholic “congregational” Church in their parish.

When members of the Church holding such a wide spectrum of views gather for a day of reflection, honest dialogue which may lead more to argument than to consensus, makes the shifting experiences, understandings, judgments, and commitments of the participants very apparent.

c.) The Priesthood

The priests who make up the presbyterate of a diocese are not immune to the decline of Common Meaning. By ordination they are given a share in the ministerial priesthood of Jesus Christ by sharing in the priesthood of their bishop, who, by Episcopal ordination, shares in the fullness of the priesthood. Priests express this unique bond with their bishop when they promise him and his successors “obedience and respect” during the ordination Liturgy. In spite of the painful wounds inflicted by the tragedy of priests and bishops abusing children, most recent studies indicate that the majority of American priests are very happy being priests.

Recent surveys indicate that most priests enjoy serving the Church and the People of God as priests. A part of the happiness of many priests comes from the fact that they embrace the Church as it is, not as it was, or as some might hope it will be. They have a genuine loyalty to the Holy Father who links the Christian community to St. Peter and through him to Christ Himself. They care for and respect their bishop in spite of, or perhaps because of, various differences of opinion that are usually resolved amicably. They are happy to celebrate the liturgies of the Church as the Church requires. They have integrated celibate chastity into their lives. They are men of deep faith in the Eucharist who know that their ministry is sustained by faithful prayer, good spiritual direction, regular retreats, and strong support groups. They are comfortable with their identity as priests. They are happy to be greeted as “Father” and they are at ease dressing as priests and being recognized in public as ordained ministers of the Church. They understand the nature of their ministry and they are not threatened by the growing need to collaborate with the laity and with religious, especially women. They are eager to invite other young men to serve as priests.

There are other good and faithful priests who sometimes give the impression that they would like to live in the Church of the 1940s and 1950s, when the role of a Catholic priest in American society was very clear and the status of a priest in the culture was highly respected. The Church seemed more stable, a priest’s ministry was largely, though not exclusively, sacramental. The theological climate was more serene. Parish life, though very challenging, was somewhat predictable. They are happy as priests but at times they may be anxious wide-spread secularity and the increasing roles of the laity blur the essential distinction between the priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood of the ordained.

There are still other good and faithful priests who sometimes give the impression that they would be happier if they lived in the Church that they think will be in the future, or the Church they thought would have been the Church of the present had the “spirit of Vatican II” been allowed to bring about even greater reforms in the Church. In their view, these reforms would have probably ended the priest shortage by welcoming back to ministry priests who had left the ministry to get married, and allowing married priests and women priests. They may think of ordination in the primarily “functional” terms of assigning a task or ministry, rather than in the primarily “ontological” terms of a permanent change in the spiritual character of the priest as alter Christus (another Christ). They may be critical of the widespread practice of bishops inviting priests from other countries to serve in their diocese. In their view this practice is a “temporary fix.” They believe that it would be better to give pastoral responsibility for these parishes to local lay persons and religious women.

Some of these priests feel that the Church has not been sufficiently dedicated to matters of justice and peace and dioceses do not dedicate a sufficient amount of their funds to works on behalf of the poor. Sometimes priests who think the Church has not adapted sufficiently to the modern world do not place a high regard on formally identifying with the Church by wearing clerical attire or being greeted as “Father.” They may feel that the work of Christ is better accomplished if they are seen as “just one of the folks.” Some priests in this group may rarely, if ever, pray the Breviary, having concluded that the Liturgy of the Hours is a hindrance, not a help, to their lives of prayer. These men seem happiest as priests in their day-to-day ministry with the people and less happy when they must come to terms with the magisterium and the disciplines and doctrines of the larger, hierarchical Church of which they are a part.

It is evident that for the priests in these diverse groups the shared base of common experiences, understandings, judgments, and commitments needed for Common Meaning is diminishing.

d.) Women Religious
The Church in the United States and the Church in Belleville has been and continues to be enriched by the extraordinary gifts and dedication of outstanding communities of religious sisters. But they have also experienced the decline of Common Meaning. Once large religious orders have now significantly diminished in numbers and have very few novices. Within a given community it is possible to find sisters who feel strongly that fidelity to the charism of their foundress and the teachings of the Council call them to focus on ministries long associated with their order and to maintain a recognized habit with veil. A larger group may believe strongly that the community is called to discern new and different ministries that are faithful to the “spirit” of their foundress. In their discernment they may conclude it is best to modify their habit or not wear a habit at all.

There may be sisters who consider Pope John Paul’s Apostolic Letter on the consecrated life, Vita Consecrata, to be an inspiring and challenging resource for the renewal of their current lived experience as religious. Others, because of their experiences, understandings, judgments, and commitments may suggest that the Holy Father’s Apostolic Letter is largely out of touch with their reality. The impact of varying degrees of the feminist critique of American society and of the Church is noticeable. Some sisters may express great discomfort over participating in a concelebrated Sunday Eucharist because there are only men in the sanctuary. Many others have no difficulty with this at all. There are sisters who see the remarkable growth in some newer and more traditional orders as the last gasp of the “old Church.” Other sisters are convinced that in the long run only these more traditional communities will survive. Still others believe all of this is part of the pluralism of the Church of the future, embracing the old and the new.

e.) The Impact of Doubt
When the shared base of common experiences, understandings, judgments, and commitments is intact in the ecclesial community, the Catholic people who live their faith quietly and sincerely day-by-day respect and confidently place their trust in those who exercise pastoral leadership and governance in the Church. They also feel comfortable with the beliefs and traditions of the faith. As Common Meaning declines however, alienation, mistrust, and doubt become inevitable.

The doubt that invades a family, a parish, a religious community, a diocese, or a nation comes in different forms. It may be operational, ideological, ethical, intellectual, or absolute.

1.) Operational doubt may be manifest when people attend Sunday Mass less frequently, when clergy or parishioners show a lack of enthusiasm or interest in new liturgical guidelines from the Vatican or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, when bishops, priests, religious brothers and sisters, or lay people abandon past efforts to resolve differences, when theologians dismiss the pronouncements of bishops about the orthodoxy of their writings, when bishops conclude it is not prudent to give permission for certain theologians to speak in their dioceses, or when parents decide to “home school” their children or withdraw them from leading Catholic universities and enroll them in newer small Catholic institutions that they believe are more faithful to Catholic teachings.

2.) Ideological doubt may be manifest when individuals and groups feel compelled to defend their views against their critics with a forcefulness that was not needed before. Often the tone of this defense shows an awareness that significant members of the community are questioning the definitive Church teachings or dissenting from those teachings with new intensity. If ideological doubt is deep-rooted, a vigorous defense of orthodox teaching or of novel theological ideas may delay a crisis, but it will not prevent it.

3.) Ethical doubt may be manifest when people begin to feel in a deeply emotional way that they have been wronged or violated. “Why are so many people allowed to stay ‘in the Church’ these days when they do not humbly accept her teachings as we do? Why aren’t they punished for rejecting the faith?” “How can the hierarchy continue to ignore our demands for changing the discipline of celibacy when they know the only other option is the denial of the Eucharist?” Ethical doubt can be very acrimonious and may lead to severe conflicts and intense emotional reactions. Since it is associated with feelings of having been betrayed, reason and argument are usually not immediately effective.

4.) Intellectual doubt is manifest when people begin to question the “truth” of their faith. This may be subtle or simple. A person who has not had the opportunity to study scripture seriously reads an article in Time magazine suggesting that many scripture scholars think that the star, the exotic magi, the singing angels, and the shepherds found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke might be more symbolic of a deeper meaning and theological truth than a literal newspaper account of the birth of the Messiah. But the reader may conclude that if there were no “three kings,” then the whole story is probably not “true.” If someone concludes that, in their view, Church teaching is “wrong” on some aspect of sexual morality, intellectual doubt may prompt them to question the authority of the magisterium to teach about anything.

5.) Absolute doubt – often a combination of all the forms of doubt – can be the final blow. There may be no display of emotions, but it is manifest when formerly active Catholics become apathetic and disinterested in the life of their parish and the larger Church. They may withdraw into an interior world and “tune out” religious leaders, the sacramental life, regular prayer, and deeply held beliefs that once gave meaning to their lives. Now these beliefs are a source of pain and disappointment. A devoted pastor retires to Florida in his mid-sixties in good health to leave the “shambles of the Church” in the hands of the “liberal” priests who “have destroyed the Church he served and loved.” A seminarian who has a deep loyalty to the magisterium and the traditions of the Church “shops around” for another seminary and another diocese because he thinks the bishop, the seminary, and many of the priests in his home diocese are not faithful to the “true” Church. A Catholic woman, convinced she is called to the priesthood, joins another ecclesial community that allows the ordination of women. Absolute doubt may cause some Catholics to turn away from the Church altogether and, at the limit, embrace agnosticism, or even atheism.

In parishes where the decline of Common Meaning is widespread and the manifold forms of doubt have taken hold many individuals and groups in the Church may begin to feel at a loss; they lose their bearings. The judgments and decisions of those in positions of leadership or influence (the Vatican, bishops, religious superiors, pastors, theologians, parish councils, teachers, parents, peer groups, the media) are questioned, doubted or rejected altogether. Religious leaders, in turn, see a growing lack of cohesiveness in the communities they are called to lead and serve. New, sometimes extreme, unofficial organizations and groups are formed that set out to “reform,” “oppose,” or, “defend” the Church. These groups are usually small. However, they may claim to speak “in the name of all.”

Once the decline of Common Meaning and subsequent doubt gain influence in a community, the Church may be perceived as merely a “political institution.” People are labeled “liberals,” “conservatives,” “right-winged,” “left-winged,” “true Catholics,” even “heretics.” There is less and less talk of faith, prayer, sin, salvation, grace, the need for Confession and Communion, apology, seeking forgiveness, forgiving, and reconciliation. Spirituality all but vanishes as the focus turns to “power,” “influence,” “control,” and “winning and losing battles.” Emotions rise; disagreements disintegrate into personal attacks. Opposing groups seem unable to carry on respectful and friendly dialogue that might help clarify positions and counter-positions and amicably resolve differences. Instead, foes seem to be out to “destroy” one another by character assassination, slander, leaks, and even deliberate misstatements in the media, all in the name of “the Church.” Open confrontation is almost inevitable. In rare circumstances some may need to be reminded that it is love, not hatred that should animate the ecclesial community.

Obviously, when doubt is this strong it becomes more difficult to be a true witness to Christ. But it does not become impossible. It also becomes more urgent. These are the circumstances in which we must remind ourselves that the Risen Christ, to whom we bear witness, never abandons us individually or collectively. The Holy Spirit is ever present with “warm breath and Ah! bright wings.”

PART TWO

I. A New Bishop
“Love of neighbor...consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern.... Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave.” (DCE #18)

The bishop of a diocese undertakes his ministry with the words of the great St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and Doctor of the Church, (340-397 A.D.) echoing through the centuries, “You have entered upon the office of Bishop. Sitting at the helm of the Church, you pilot the ship against the waves. Take a firm hold of the rudder of faith so that the severe storms of this world cannot disturb you. The sea is mighty and vast. But do not be afraid... . The Church of the Lord is built upon the rock of the apostles among so many dangers in the world; it therefore remains unmoved. The Church’s foundation is unshakable and firm against the assaults of the raging sea.” (Epist. 2: 1-2, 4-5)

Every bishop is inspired by this Profession of Faith which he must make his own. At the same time he hears very clearly the contradictory contemporary voices that surround him in the era in which he lives and in the local Church entrusted to his pastoral care.

When I was installed as your Bishop on the Feast of St. Thomas More, June 22, 2005 I told you that with God’s grace and your support I would strive to be the best human being, Christian, priest, and bishop that I could be. I made my own the words of Thomas More, “I say none harm. I do none harm. I think none harm. If that be not enough to keep a man alive, then in good faith I long not to live.” From the day that my appointment as your eighth Bishop was announced, I have received many extraordinary expressions of welcome, support, encouragement, and gratitude. These have come from priests, deacons, sisters, brothers, the laity, and members of other faiths, and from every region of the diocese. These genuine expressions of affection, cooperation, enthusiasm, and the generous promise of prayers have been the truest signs of the Holy Spirit. They are a reminder that it is Christ Himself and not us who makes us witnesses. It is this providential Spirit that brings our lives together giving us unique opportunities to collaborate for the sake of the Gospel.

This collaboration must be marked by honesty. While the blessings and strengths of our diocese far outweigh the challenges, some of the ecclesial tensions that I have described in PART ONE of this Pastoral Letter are a part of the Catholic Church in Southern Illinois, as they are a part of the Church around the country. The Church of Belleville has not been immune to the decline of Common Meaning and the fragmentation of community.
In the midst of the diverse voices in his diocese, a bishop may be asked: “Whose side are you on?” By the very nature of his ministry a bishop does not view the members of his local Church as competing sides in an ecclesial conflict. Because he has been ordained to the pastoral service and leadership of the Church, a bishop is on the side, if you will, of the Gospel; on the side of Christ Himself, whose grace is present in the lives of all of his people no matter how intense their differences may be.

I must be at the side of each and every person in the community of faith. My goal is to nurture the fruitfulness of grace and to call the members into greater unity. I assure you, as your bishop that I stand at the side of each of you, no matter what position you take on matters in the Church. I stand at your side because I am committed to do all that I can to support you in your faith, to contribute to the resolution of conflicts, and to guide you and those with whom you may disagree in ways that will ultimately lead not only to your happiness in this life but also to your eternal happiness in the life of the world to come.

The fact that I am firmly at the side of each of you does not and cannot mean that I can agree with those who oppose or reject the teachings of the Church. In the First Eucharistic Prayer the Church prays for “all those who hold and teach the Catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles.” As one called and ordained as a successor of the apostles, I firmly hold and teach what the Catholic Church holds and teaches. By this statement I do not mean that since I am a bishop I feel obliged to defend Church doctrine the way a certain kind of politician might feel obliged to defend the “party line” whether he agrees with it or not. What I mean is that I — at the very core of my being where I find my radical self, my identity as a person — I believe what the Church holds and teaches.

This is the key to the understanding of my approach to my pastoral ministry as your bishop: What I will and will not do, what I will and will not support will be determined by this foundation. Here I abide with St. Ambrose, “Take a firm hold of the rudder of faith so that the severe storms of this world cannot disturb you.” I accept and embrace the magisterium of the Holy Father and the magisterium of the Episcopal College, of which I am a part, under the Holy Father.

As your bishop I am called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be a witness to Jesus Christ, to teach, guide and sanctify the community of faith. I am asked by the Church to be the first teacher of the faith in our diocese. This means I must keep striving to be the first listener, hearing the views of diverse groups and even opposing points of view. But when a bishop, in the midst of this genuine listening, is called to make important decisions, these decisions cannot always be made by seeking a consensus, or by a vote determining the will of the majority, or under pressure from any group. My goal must be to act in a way that is consistent with my pastoral responsibilities and ecclesial authority according to my most informed and considered judgment concerning what is best for the Church and the People of God entrusted into my pastoral care.

As I have told you on several occasions, the arrival of a new bishop to his diocese is very similar to the arrival of a new pastor to his parish. The responses to the new pastor can be quite diverse especially because of the “decline of Common Meaning.” The vast majority of parishioners respects the choice of the bishop and happily welcomes their new pastor, knowing that he will serve as well as he can even though his way of doing things will be different from his predecessor. A few, basing their judgment on rumor and speculation, may bring a negative attitude to their very first meeting with the pastor.

Some may take a “wait and see” attitude and measure the new pastor by a few things that are important to them. “As long as he shows an interest in our kids, supports our school, gives a decent sermon, looks in on us when we’re in the hospital, and is careful about spending money, the new pastor is okay in my book.” Others have a much longer and more detailed list of expectations. A few say, “The only thing that matters is that he is a holy man.” Certain parish leaders advise him to make no significant changes for at least a year. Others urge him to make certain long overdue changes as soon as possible. Most are pleased that he “thinks with the Church,” while others are disappointed that he is not willing to “push the envelope” in areas where they think the Church needs to change.

A new pastor, like a new bishop, must necessarily make many prudential decisions in matters great and small about which parishioners can understandably disagree. But after appropriate consultation, careful study, prayer, and discernment the decisions must be made. The majority of parishioners, accustomed to making difficult decisions themselves, fully understand this and accept the new pastor’s decisions. Some of those who disagree with the decisions are deeply disappointed and even hurt. It may take them a while to acknowledge that the pastor is simply exercising his proper role as the bishop’s appointed leader of the community of faith. A very small number of parishioners may become angry and conduct a campaign of negativity that may even be taken to the public forum, without regard for the impact this may have on the parish.

In these circumstances the new pastor must avoid the temptation to counterattack with attack, public criticism with public criticism. If he knows Him in whom he has believed (cf. 2 Tim. 1:12), if he knows the truth of what he has and has not done, if he knows that he has the support and encouragement of the vast majority of the parishioners, and if he knows that some of the parishioners have had disputes with every pastor in living memory, he may well conclude that the best thing to do is to continue with his day-to-day ministry of serving his people as well and as faithfully as he can without saying a word. At the end of the day he can say as Blessed John XXIII did, “I’ve given you my all this day. It’s your Church, Lord. I’m going to bed.” The arrival of a new bishop to his diocese can be very similar to the arrival of a new pastor to his parish.

Since I am a redeemed sinner like every other Christian, I am very aware that in spite of the various gifts with which God has blessed me, I am a flawed, imperfect, and sinful person with many limitations. It is my prayer that, by the grace of God, throughout my pastoral service as your bishop, I will be able to treat each of you with graciousness, courtesy, and Christian love. It is my sincere hope that I will never raise my voice or speak an unkind word to any of you. If I do, I pray that the Lord will give me the ability to repent of my sinfulness and seek forgiveness. On this feast of the outpouring of the Spirit of God’s unconditional Love, I wish to express my regret and sorrow for anything I have done or said that has in any way harmed anyone in this diocese. I assure you that it was not intentional. I sincerely ask your forgiveness. At the same time, if anyone who is reading this Pastoral Letter wishes forgiveness from me for something you may have said or done that has harmed me or my ministry know that I happily extend that forgiveness. I would like each of you to know of my respect and affection for you and of my gratitude to you for all the good you do each day as a fellow witness for Christ. You are the hope of the Church!

“The unbreakable bond between love of God and love of neighbor is emphasized. One is so closely connected to the other that to say that we love God becomes a lie if we are closed to our neighbor or hate him altogether. Saint John’s words should rather be interpreted to mean that love of neighbor is a path that leads to the encounter with God, and that closing our eyes to our neighbor also blinds us to God.” (DCE #16)

II. Our Spirit-Filled Mission
O n this Pentecost Sunday, in the spirit of mutual respect, appreciation, and affection for one another that comes to us from baptism, I would like now to reflect with you about our Spirit-filled mission as a community of faith at the dawn of a century and new millennium.

a.) Our Priests
I am deeply grateful to the priests of our diocese who have welcomed me as the head of the College of Priests with such kindness, graciousness, and support in the manner of Christ Himself. Like every bishop, I am deeply aware of the essential importance of the priests, diocesan and religious, who faithfully serve our people day after day, some generously serving even after the age at which they could retire. In many cases these selfless men proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and celebrate the Sacraments of the Church in several parishes at a time. I can never express my gratitude to them and my appreciation of their ministry too often. They, in collaboration with faithful religious and laity, make the work of the Church possible in the far corners of the diocese. I am particularly appreciative of the collaborative spirit demonstrated by the priests when they come together to address vexing matters such as parish clustering. They always have their attention focused on the well-being of their parishioners and the larger Church.

Because of the “decline of Common Meaning,” it is not surprising that priests of the Belleville diocese, like other local Churches, are not of one mind on all the concerns of the Church today. These differences can at times be very helpful because they provide diverse perspectives that contribute to the final understanding of the best course of action. At other times the differences among priests on matters such as the nature of the Church, the authority of the pope, the bishop, the magisterium, the proper ways of celebrating the Eucharist, the meaning of celibacy, the importance of working for vocations to the priesthood, the role of women in the Church, and other pastoral and theological issues can be a source of painful divisions. These divisions can make it difficult for some priests to see themselves as co-workers with their brothers. I am always gratified when I see our priests making extraordinary and successful efforts to overcome these differences, by building on our foundation of faith.

Sharing the hope of the Gospel, I believe that the Holy Spirit dwelling deep within the being of every priest has a great power to heal. God is more than we know. If we are to cooperate with the healing power of the Spirit it is essential for us who are priests to strive to be faithful to fundamental spiritual disciplines, including maintaining a closeness to Christ through a genuine love for the Mass and Scripture, frequent prayer in the presence of the Eucharist, annual retreat, regular spiritual direction, confession, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, active participation in a priests’ support group, continuing education, and personal time for rest, recreation, and vacation.

This is more difficult to do when our priests are growing older, the number of priests is declining, and some of our priests have serious health problems. This gives us added motivation to renew our work and prayers for vocations to the priesthood. In a very real sense we are all “vocation directors.” During my pastoral visitations to our Catholic schools, I thought there may be more potential vocations to the priesthood in our communities than we think. Each of us, especially parents, teachers and pastors, should be attentive to outstanding men of faith and invite them to consider serving as priests. We who are priests must share our love for Christ and His Church and our priesthood with enthusiasm, self-confidence, and genuine pride and joy. Young people today want to join a winning team! If we look to the future of the Church with the assumption that we will definitely not have priests in sufficient numbers, we can be sure that we will not have them. I am personally making overtures on behalf of vocations both within and outside the diocese. Our hope must be for brother priests imbued with what the great Pontiff John Paul II called the “new evangelization.” Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are Christ’s witnesses. Let us go forward with confidence.

b.) International Priests
Considering our needs, our diocese has been blessed in recent months by the arrival of international priests sent by generous bishops who are aware of our circumstances. In past centuries the Catholic Church in Europe and in the United States generously sent priests to “missionary lands” such as Africa, Asia, and South America that did not have sufficient numbers of priests. These priests made extraordinary contributions in spite of language and cultural differences for them and the parishioners. If bishops in the United States were to decline the pastoral ministry of priests from other countries because some of these priests might encounter challenges in adapting to a different culture, as some have suggested, then it could also be argued that bishops should decline the pastoral ministry of priests from their own communities who do not always adapt well or serve effectively. Just as there are no perfect Christians, there are no perfect priests.

In one of his many pastoral visits to Africa, Pope John Paul II urged the local bishops to be generous in sharing their priests with other countries. The widespread practice of bishops sharing some of their priests with their brother bishops who lead Local Churches that have a greater need for priests than they have is not in any sense “a temporary fix.” It is a profound expression of the catholicity and universality of the Church and of the communio between Local Churches. Pope Benedict XVI has noted that rather than speaking of a shortage of priests we might better speak of the need to distribute the priests we have in a more beneficial way. Perhaps by God’s grace faith-filled, generous priests who come to us will inspire young men from our communities to consider the priesthood during their service here.

These good priests are not in any sense “foreign” priests; they are welcome brother priests. Since in Christ there is no north or south or east or west, the fraternity of the worldwide priesthood is one. Because these fellow-workers in the harvest come from different countries they may be called international priests. As we learn about the Church in their countries our catholicity is enriched. In turn, their catholicity is enriched by their sojourn with us. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are Christ’s witnesses. Let us go forward with confidence.

c.) Parish Clustering
In many dioceses today reflection on the health, well-being and number of priests is always connected to reflection on the demographics of the diocese. What is the Catholic population? Where do the Catholic families live? How mobile are they? How many parishes are there? How close are they to one another? How many priests can one reasonably hope will be available to serve them in ten or twenty years? How many parishes can one priest be reasonably expected to serve? Do present circumstances and future projections indicate that some parishes that are presently clustered together must, at some point, be merged, or even suppressed? If this must be done, what process will be used to determine this? Is any reconfiguration of parishes possible that will satisfy all of the parishioners?

For a number of years now the 119 parishes in the diocese have been aligned into thirty clusters. Every parish has been asked to discuss and prepare cluster proposals that include basic considerations in critical areas of parish life that each parish and cluster will need to address as we move into the future. The current planning efforts look ahead to the year 2008. However, we are already looking beyond that year to 2010 and 2015. While we cannot predict the future, the evidence at hand clearly indicates that in the Diocese of Belleville parishes will need to share the services of a smaller number of priests. In time some parishes may conclude that it is best to ask the diocese to merge their parish with a nearby parish. Others may conclude it is best to ask the diocese to suppress their parish for the good of the larger Church. These difficult challenges are in part the result of the fact that our diocese has many more parishes than other dioceses with twice our Catholic population.

The goal of the clustering process is to provide as many parishioners as possible with the opportunity of participating in the ongoing discussions about what is best for their community of faith. This means that possible proposals must be examined, discussed, debated, revised, and refined in the hope of developing the best recommendations for me with the broadest support. In such a consensus-building process each faith community will necessarily be called upon to make sacrifices. After this process is concluded the parishes are asked to present to me their final suggestions for meeting their pastoral needs in the future. I will study the suggestions carefully and consult with others before making a final decision about cluster proposals in light of the overall mission of the Church.

No reorganization will go into effect until it has been approved by the diocese and the parish involved has received a letter from me. Some of our parishioners who care deeply for their parishes have written to me urging me to bear in mind what they want, need, and desire. I assure you that I do bear this in mind, but I must attend to the conflicting desires, wants and needs of all, as well as other factors in coming to difficult, prudential decisions.

I urge all of our people to generously involve themselves in this cluster dialogue process. This will help us work, pray, think, and reflect together in an effort to develop a variety of responses to the pastoral challenges we face. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are Christ’s witnesses. Let us go forward with confidence.

d.) Deacons, Religious, Lay Leaders, and Parish Life Coordinators
As our priests and parishioners grapple with the clustering process and many other pressing issues in our parish communities today, our gifted and dedicated deacons, religious, lay leaders, and Parish Life Coordinators are making an indispensable contribution to the overall pastoral service of the diocese. I have enjoyed my meetings with the deacons and their wives and I have encouraged them to pursue the best theological and pastoral formation and continuing education possible so they can exercise pastoral leadership with renewed confidence and effectiveness. I look forward to welcoming new deacon candidates at some point in the future.

We are fortunate to have so many religious sisters serving in Southern Illinois in education, health care, social services, community outreach and other ministries. I am enjoying the opportunities of meeting them personally and learning firsthand of their pastoral service. These sisters touch many individual lives deeply and they make a collective contribution that is incalculable. It is impossible to imagine the work of our diocese without them.

The Christian Faithful who constitute the majority of our Church members have experienced a profound renewal in our collective understanding of their ecclesial identity and role in the Church. Though the laity have always been active in various forms of the lay apostolate, the degree and intensity of their participation in the life of the Church have dramatically changed. The People of God have been called to life in the Church in which they are not passive recipients but active participants. Fully respecting the hierarchical nature of the Church and the essential distinction between the priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood of the ordained, the laity has been invigorated by the renewal of their baptismal incorporation into the mystical Body of Christ making them members of “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart.” (I Peter 2:9)

In Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry, the bishops of the United States provide support and encourage the fruitful collaboration of the laity with the hierarchy in the ministry of the Church. Every parish in this country and in our own diocese already enjoys the outstanding service and leadership of numerous dedicated lay people. Most recently, with the implementation of Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, we have further extended that leadership.

One of the most important ways in which deacons, religious and lay leaders have contributed to the life of the Church in our diocese has been in the position of Parish Life Coordinator. In a number of parishes where priests are not currently available to serve as full-time pastors, Parish Life Coordinators have been appointed to care for the day-to-day administration and pastoral care of these faith communities. Those assigned to these positions have served with distinction and enhanced the faith of the parishioners. In the process, the larger Church has been made more aware of the exceptional talents and gifts of the laity; the entire diocese is grateful for this ministry.

When a Parish Life Coordinator is appointed, a threefold ministry often emerges. The position of pastor is filled by a priest called, somewhat inexactly, the “canonical pastor,” recognizing that his duties as pastor of one or more other parishes make it impossible for him to exercise day-to-day oversight of the parish in question. A “sacramental minister” may also be appointed in order to assure that a priest is available for the celebration of the Eucharist and other sacraments. Sometimes the “canonical pastor” and the “sacramental minister” are the same priest. This triadic structure is somewhat new to the Church and it sometimes presents pastoral and organizational challenges because three distinct persons are doing the work usually done by a single pastor. Differences in theological education, spirituality, liturgical vision, personalities, temperament, collaborative skills, and time constraints can be a source of concerns. I am in the midst of an initial consultation regarding these concerns in the hope of refining these pastoral arrangements for the benefit of all. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are Christ’s witnesses. Let us go forward with confidence.

e.) Financial Resources and Stewardship
The efforts of everyone involved in the work of the Church are sustained by the faith, prayers, and generous spirit of the entire ecclesial family. The considerable material resources needed for the life of the Church to go forward would not be available were it not for the contribution of time, talent, and treasure by so many. Not only are our parishes, schools, and other Catholic outreach activities sustained by this support but also the work of the diocese itself is sustained in the same way. I am most appreciative of this generosity.

Each year the Annual Bishop’s Appeal raises nearly $2,000,000 to fund the essential ministries of our diocese by which we proclaim and live our faith. This is an extraordinary accomplishment for which the diocese is justifiably proud. Knowing that the needs are great, many of our donors make the special effort to increase their contribution each year, whether that contribution is great or small. In recent years a growing number of the faithful have begun to consider the Church as a beneficiary in their estate planning by participating in our Planned Giving Program. Our Catholic Community Foundation prudently manages funds from various parishes and diocesan institutions. I urge parishes, schools and other institutions to consider joining us in this unified approach to growth and development.

In past years the Church in Southern Illinois has outdone itself through our diocesan “A Future Full of Hope Campaign” which funded urgently needed ministries for a period of five years. Since this was not an endowment, as those funds are exhausted, many of those ministries are in danger of being discontinued. Our current “Pressing Needs Campaign” is intended, in part, to make additional funds available for these ministries. In recent months I have had the privilege of meeting many people at small gatherings at my residence and at larger receptions. These occasions have provided me with the opportunity to thank many of you for all the good you do for the Church, to assure you that your selflessness is not taken for granted, to assure you that we are good stewards of your contributions, and to talk with you openly and honestly about the complex and, at times, contradictory developments in our Church and our world that will have an impact on the future of the Church in the United States and in Southern Illinois.

Because of the decline of Common Meaning, it is almost inevitable that some developments in the Church will be a cause for concern. It sometimes happens that individuals who disagree with, or are confused, hurt, or angered by events in the Church conclude that the best way to express their unhappiness is to withdraw their financial support from their parish or diocese. They want the Vatican, the bishop, or the pastor to know that they are displeased with some aspect of the life of the Church. It might be more helpful, however, to talk to the pastor or to the bishop about such concerns. In many cases misunderstandings can be corrected and pastoral practices can be clarified. Even if all differences are not resolved, it is good to remain mindful that your contributions do not go to the Vatican, the pastor, or the bishop. They go to the support of those pastoral activities for which they were designated. Withdrawing support only hurts those who might be most in need of the Church’s ministry. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are Christ’s witnesses. Let us go forward with confidence.


PART THREE


I. Look to Christ: In Search of Common Meaning
Our Spirit-filled mission as the Church in Southern Illinois makes us witnesses to Jesus Christ. He alone is the full expression of God’s love for each one of us. In this Pastoral Letter I have shared with you the ramifications of an obvious phenomenon, which I have termed the “decline of Common Meaning.” Though the words may have been unfamiliar, I hope you have recognized the reality in the various examples that I have given and in your own experience. It has had an impact on almost every aspect of Church life. That impact has certainly been felt in our diocese, in our parishes, in our Catholic schools, in our convents, and in our rectories.

It would be much easier for us to do the work of the Church if the fragmentation caused by the decline of Common Meaning could be countered by at least the gradual restoration of Common Meaning. By this I mean neither a return to the Church before the Second Vatican Council nor the embrace of an imagined “future Church.” I mean the integration and synthesis of the authentic teachings of the Ecumenical Council fully accepted by the whole of the Catholic community. But this is not a simple matter. Common Meaning in the life of the Church developed over centuries; its decline came about over decades. There is no prepackaged six-week renewal program that can automatically revive what has declined. The restoration of Common Meaning is a high and distant goal because the members of the fragmented groups in the Church have radically different ideas about what our Common Meaning should be. Some historians suggest that it takes the Church at least one hundred years to absorb the teachings of an Ecumenical Council. But since the radical foundations of our Common Meaning as the Church have not been lost, we have every reason to be optimistic about its renewal. I will conclude this Pastoral Letter with some modest steps that almost all of us can take on the road to the renewal of Common Meaning.

If we as individuals, as members of families, as members of our parishes, as religious priests and sisters, deacons, and as members of the presbyterate wish to know what we might do to contribute to a greater sense of Common Meaning, we must look to Christ, the source of Common Meaning. We need to look into our own interior world. We need to examine the radical core of our spirituality.

a.) Questions: A Spiritual Inventory
One way of doing this is to ask ourselves some rather simple but revealing questions:
• Do I have a sense of awe and wonder in my life?
• Am I aware that I live each moment in the presence of Holy Mystery?
• Do I savor this sense of “the Holy,” or am I too busy?
• Do I really and truly believe in God?
• What difference does God make in my life?
• How did I react when I realized that God is not God the way I would be God if I were God?
• Is the Trinity, the Mystery of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit real in my life or a mere abstraction?
• Who is Jesus of Nazareth to me?
• Do I really know Him?
• Have I ever prayerfully read His story in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
• Have I ever consciously acknowledged Him as the Christ, the Anointed One, and “the Son of the Living God?”
• In what sense is He Savior of the world and my personal Savior?
• Do I recognize in Him and in His call to be His witness the ultimate source of Common Meaning?
• What is the Catholic Church in my life?
• Is it a flawed, human institution with ancient tradition, doing some good in the world?
• Is it the true Church established by Christ for the salvation of the human race?
• Is it a special religious community that I joined when I was young in the hope of “going to heaven?”
• Is it simply my parish, or my group of friends who think the way I do about difficult questions in the Church?
• Do I go to Sunday Mass? Do I go because I am obliged to or because I want to?
• Am I an active member of my parish or do I sit back and let others do all the work and then criticize them when I disagree?
• Do I understand and accept the ministry and authority of bishops and the Holy Father in the Church?
• Do I really pray each day? Do I have my own Bible? How often do I read it?
• Do I treasure the gift of the Eucharist?
• Do I regularly spend time in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament?
• Do I regularly go to confession?
• Do I examine my conscience before I go to bed?
• Are the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes the moral guides of my life?
• Do I acknowledge that St. Paul’s dilemma in his letter to the Romans is also mine? “The things I know I should do, I do not do. The things I know I should not do, I do.”
• What do I think of death? Am I afraid of it? Do I look forward to it?
• Do I personally believe in “the life of the world to come?”
• Do I forgive others easily? Do I usually assume I am right in an argument?
• Do I seek forgiveness from those I have offended?
• Do I ask questions about the world and about my faith?
• Do I regularly read substantial materials that help me understand and live my faith? No? Why not?
• Do I give serious thought to resolving the seeming conflicts between my religious beliefs and the critical thinking of the secular world that often questions religious faith?
• Do I place myself and the Church in God’s providential care?

These and similar questions constitute a spiritual inventory that helps all of us appreciate where we are on our spiritual journeys. Our responses to them reveal the inner world of conversion: our openness to the mystery of God, to Christ Himself, to His Body, the Church, to living by the moral teachings of Christ and the Church, and to developing intellectual maturity in order to have a coherent life of faith. The honest sharing and discussion of our responses to questions such as these in small groups or “wisdom communities” can significantly help us appreciate the obvious but easily overlooked fact that no two Catholics are in the same place on their spiritual journey. In any community some may feel a deep intimacy with Christ but feel alienated from the Church. Some are going deeper into conversion while others are experiencing breakdowns and reversals in their spiritual journeys. This is key to understanding the conflicts that arise in the face of the decline of Common Meaning.

b.) A “Dialogue of the Soul”
Members of parish staffs, priests, deacons, religious and parishioners are often so busy with the practical day-to-day matters of parish life that they feel they do not have the luxury to spend time on such intangible questions. However, when questions such as the ones listed here are explored in a prayerful, non-threatening environment, a kind of “dialogue of the soul” may occur. In an atmosphere of trust and authenticity it becomes possible to share some of the “major truths” of our soul-space. This can allow us to uncover or restore some elements of shared experiences, understandings, judgments, and commitments. When this happens the path to Common Meaning sometimes becomes visible.

It is not possible to proceed down that path without a genuine humility that trusts in the power of God to transform and change us. From the perspective of our Easter-Pentecost faith we must remind ourselves that it is incorrect to think that God will love us if we change, if we overcome sin, and if we become more faithful members of the Church. The truth is that we have the possibility of changing, overcoming sin, and becoming more faithful members of the Church, precisely because, in Jesus Christ, God has already decisively shown His love for us.

This truth makes it possible for us to be open to loving fellow Christians with whom we have significant differences.

“Love of neighbor is thus shown to be possible in the way proclaimed by the Bible, by Jesus. It consists of the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern.” (DCE #18)


The ability to perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love and concern, as well as the desire to express love and concern, is necessary for anyone who wishes to contribute positively to the renewal of Common Meaning. This perspective makes it possible for Catholics of profoundly different points of view to greet each other with the “Kiss of Peace” and mean what they are doing because they know it is not their imperfect human peace that is being extended but the Peace of Christ. Those who differ are able to share their interior worlds in a genuinely caring and trusting fashion. They are not enemies. They are fellow Christians. When a generous spirit of openness and reconciliation is manifest, people will be slow to judge and quick to forgive.

When there is genuine Christian love in the ecclesial family of a parish, the priests who serve a diocese, the chancery staff, and the diocesan community itself, efforts to restore Common Meaning will be marked by genuine respect, graciousness, and reasoned presentation of points of view. They will not be marred by attacks on individuals, questioning of motives, appeals to emotion, the manipulation of groups and individuals, polemics, or the exploitive use of media. After all, when there are disputes in the Church there are differences among Christians. In many instances participants in a true selfless dialogue of the soul realize many of the issues that caused hurt, fragmentation and anger were small matters and misunderstandings. Often different pastoral approaches, different understandings of Church disciplines, and different theological perspectives are not as contradictory and incompatible as they first seemed. Within the careful sharing and honest listening of a “wisdom community” these differences may be appreciated as complementary from a higher viewpoint.

Considerable wisdom, courage, thought, and prayer are needed for such a spiritual exchange. Each participant must strive to be genuinely kind, patient, gracious, and compassionate while maintaining personal integrity. It is this personal integrity that does not allow for the compromise of authentic Catholic beliefs, doctrines and disciplines in the name of an artificial unity.

In this dialogue it is quite likely that some participants might suggest that it would be helpful if the Church could express her belief in the uniqueness of Christ as Savior in a way that acknowledges the sensitivities of people of other faiths. Or they might say that the Church’s teaching on marriage, divorce, and annulment might be more effective if certain issues were clarified. Some may feel a particular decision of the Holy Father, or the Conference of Catholic Bishops, or the bishop, or the pastor is not the one they had hoped for, but they are willing to accept it. Concerns such as these can likely be resolved, at least to some degree.

But there may be other Catholics who say, in good faith, they believe that:
Abortion is not intrinsically evil but something an expectant mother may choose because of her “reproductive rights”;
The Church’s ecumenical outreach since the Vatican Council is “heretical”;
If the “community” affirms a person’s call then then that person, male or female, is a “priest” without ordination by a bishop;
The pope does not have the authority to teach definitively on faith and morals;
The Church does not have the right and responsibility to determine how the Liturgy is celebrated;
Belief in eternal life is “obsolete”;
Bishops’ authority to govern their dioceses must come to them exclusively from the priests and people;
The scriptures are not the unique, revealed Word of God;
Christ was not raised from the dead by the Father;
Christ is not really and truly present in the Holy Eucharist; or that
Any Mass other than the Latin Mass of the Council of Trent is not a valid Mass.

In the face of such direct rejection of clear teachings, Common Meaning is not advanced by suggesting we must all be open to views that might be more “liberal” or more “conservative” than our own, or to suggest that everyone is entitled to his or her “opinion.” If there is to be a true dialogue for the restoration of Common Meaning it is not possible for Catholics, who know and understand what the Church teaches and believes, to withdraw into a private realm of “personal faith,” thus, avoiding questions concerning views that are presented as “Catholic” or as compatible with Catholic teaching, when clearly they are not. This may be the most sensitive issue in the present situation.

Catholics who know the teachings of the Church and those who hold beliefs contrary to the magisterium are not illuminating the path to Common Meaning if they suggest that we should then embrace the view that there are no objective Catholic teachings. There are simply individual Catholics. Some hold “more conservative” views, others hold “more liberal” views. This position confronts us with pressing questions: more liberal or more conservative than what? At the center of these extremes lie the often unidentified teachings of the Church. Thus, what is often implied is that the “more liberal” are more liberal than the magisterium and the “more conservative” are more conservative than the magisterium. At other times it seems to be implied that the authentic teachings of the Catholic Church are simply a set of “more conservative” views.

In order to address this divide Catholics must really know and understand what the Church actually teaches and not confuse a personal devotion, a pious practice, a childhood memory, or a particular theological theory with what the Catholic Church actually teaches and believes. In order to contribute constructively to this process it is important for Catholics to make the time needed to read about their faith. Essential reading would include The New Testament, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the primary documents of the Second Vatican Council, the encyclicals of recent popes, and the primary statements of the bishops of the United States, and important teaching documents of their own bishop. Such reading and study will assist our Catholic people in appreciating the unique gift that Christ Himself has given the Church in the teaching ministry of the Holy Father and the bishops in communion with him. It is precisely this ministry that has sustained our unique Catholic identity through the centuries.

Common Meaning will not be advanced by taking a harsh, superior, or judgmental attitude toward those who hold beliefs in clear contradiction to the beliefs of the Church. It may be difficult or even impossible to persuade individuals to reconsider the authentic teachings of the Church because they are convinced that the Church should be teaching what they believe. Some may even say they reject the teaching office of the Pope and the bishops because they consider this teaching ministry to be “part of the problem.” Only prayer, sensitivity, ongoing dialogue, and the grace of God can bring about the conversion that is hoped for in us all. We are all redeemed sinners. We must each respect the radical mystery of each individual as a self, a unique enfleshed spirit, and the wonder of an unrepeatable human being. Throughout our efforts we must all cling to the Church in hope because we know in faith that the Church is indeed God’s dwelling place on earth.

When members of the Church by God’s grace experience even the beginning of the renewal of Common Meaning and the end of fragmentation, they will know the quiet joy of community, not unlike that described by St. Augustine of Hippo:

“What drew me closest to my brothers and sisters was the delight of chatting and laughing together; of showing our affection for one another by kindly services; of reading together from books that spoke of pleasant things; of joking together amicably; of disputing now and then but without resentment, as one is wont to do with oneself; of awaking by rare contest the pleasure of being one in mind; of mutually instructing one another; of longing for the absent one, and tasting joy at his return. We loved each other with all our hearts, and these marks of friendship that shown on our faces, by our voices, in our eyes and a thousand other ways were among us like argent flames that fused our souls together, and of many made but one.”

II. Conclusion
A re you willing? Am I willing? Are we all willing to be His witnesses? Are we willing to be witnesses of Jesus Christ as we work together for the revitalization of Common Meaning in our community of faith? Our celebration of the Chrism Mass and the Sacred Triduum, the Sundays of Easter, the Ascension of the Lord, and Pentecost revitalize our identity as baptized members of Christ’s Body sharing in the Priesthood of the Faithful. These celebrations deepen our gratitude for the Ministerial and Sacramental Priesthood exercised by the priests in our parishes who are essential in the formation of our Eucharistic communities. I hope they deepen our appreciation of the ministry of the bishop in our midst as well. These days remind us that in washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper Jesus Himself is calling us to be a community of “Foot Washers” relating to one another in all circumstances with patience and graciousness, acting always in good faith with an attitude of service, surrendering ourselves to Christ. Ultimately, when we surrender ourselves in faith to Christ in the Church, we are not giving up something. Rather, everything is being given to us. Through the mystery of the Word made flesh, Christ will manifest the shape of the Church to come through each of us to the extent that we work to live out our communion with each other.

“(I)n sacramental communion I become one with the Lord, like all the other communicants. As Saint Paul says, ‘Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’. (1 Cor. 10:17) Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians. We become ‘one body,’ completely joined in a single existence. Love of God and love of neighbor are now truly united: God incarnate draws us all to himself.” (DCE #13)
Because of the wonder of the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, we know that Christ is with us. We feel His intimate warmth as He continues to breath on us. We are His Spirit-filled witnesses in Southern Illinois and beyond. He continues to need us.


He needs our eyes to continue to see.
He needs our ears to continue to hear.
He needs our mouths to continue to speak.
He needs our hands to continue to work.
He needs our feet to continue to walk.
He needs our bodies to continue to serve.
And He needs our hearts to continue to Love!


The Most Rev. Edward K. Braxton
Bishop of Belleville
June 4, 2006
Pentecost Sunday

PART FOUR


Appendix: Questions for Discussion
Now that you have finished reading “We Are His Witnesses,” you are encouraged to discuss it with your family, support groups, small Christian communities, prayer groups, fellow priests, deacons, members of your religious community, parish staff, parish council, Liturgy committee, trustees, school faculty, students, as well as other members of the community. Please focus your discussions on the ways in which the Pastoral Letter helps you to better understand the dynamism and tensions in the Church today, rather than focusing on your agreement or disagreement with a particular passage.

The following questions are intended to help you enter into a fruitful discussion. Obviously, each reader or group of readers will have their own questions. Please take note of them and include them in your dialogue.


Questions for PART ONE:

1. The Bishop stresses that we are all called to be “witnesses” to Jesus Christ. Do you think of yourself as a witness to Christ? In what sense? If not, why not? What are the challenges of being a witness in your family, place of work, parish, neighborhood, school, rectory, convent, or diocese?

2. The Bishop quotes several times from our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love). Have you read it? Have you read any writings of the new pontiff or of Pope John Paul II?

3. The Bishop indicates that in order to have stability and unity in a community a group of people need to share the same basic experiences, understandings, judgments, and commitments. He states that when one or more of these four elements is not shared there is a danger the community will become fragmented and lose its unity. He uses the expression, “the decline of Common Meaning” to describe this. Do you understand what he is getting at? Can you give some examples from your own experiences? If a husband and wife separate, if a teenager runs away from home, if members of a parish disagree about Liturgy, Church doctrine, or parish finances that they do not speak to one another, would that signal the possible “decline of Common Meaning?” What experiences do you have that Common Meaning in the Church is very strong and not in decline?
4. How much do you know about the Second Vatican Council (1962-65)? Have you read any of the Council Documents (e.g. On the Liturgy, On the Church, On Revelation and Scripture)? If you were an adult during the Vatican Council, are you happy or unhappy with the way the Council has been implemented? If you were born after the Council (1966 or later), do you have some sense of how the Church was before the Council? If you were born after the Council, are your ideas about the Church today similar or significantly different from those you know who were adults during the Council?
5. Discuss sections a.) Liturgy to section e.) Doubt. Do you recognize yourself and others in these descriptive passages? Are your experiences very different from these? What impact has the clergy abuse of minors and the bishops’ responses had on the unity (Common Meaning) of the Church? Do you understand the hierarchical structure of the Church (in which the laity, priests, bishops, and the pope have different responsibilities and authority) and why it is essential for the Church? What are appropriate ways for a Catholic to resolve serious questions and doubts about core beliefs and teachings of the Church? Why do you think there are fewer vocations to the priesthood and the religious life today than in the past? What have you done to encourage young women to consider serving the Church as religious sisters? What have you done to encourage young men to consider serving the Church as priests? What does the bishop mean when he says that we are all “Vocation Directors?”
Questions for PART TWO:
1. What does the Holy Father mean when he says that in God and with God we can love those we do not like or even know? What is your understanding of St. Ambrose of Milan’s famous injunction to Catholic bishops to “take a firm hold of the rudder of faith?” What is your understanding of the office and ministry of a Bishop? Have you ever personally met Bishop Braxton or one of his predecessors? From what sources are your impressions of a bishop formed? Does Bishop Braxton’s unique ministry as teacher, guide, and sanctifier have a real impact on your life? Why is it important for the bishop to stand at the side of each of us and at the same time “hold and teach the Catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles?” What factors contribute to the diverse reactions to the appointment of a new pastor or a new bishop?
2. What, in your view, is the essential ministry of a priest? How do you show your appreciation and support for the priests who serve your community of faith? In your parish, do priests, deacons, religious and laity collaborate and work well together? What are some of the important contributions that deacons and religious sisters and brothers are making in our diocese?

3. In our diocese some priests are pastors of more than one parish. A small number of parishes have Parish Life Coordinators, who are not priests. They have priests assigned to celebrate the Liturgy as sacramental ministers. What are the strengths and weaknesses in these arrangements? Are you happy to see the Christian faithful becoming more involved in the life of the Church? Do you ever sense competition between priests, deacons, sisters, and lay leaders in the community? Do you and others in your parish give generously of your time, talent, and treasure?
4. The parish clustering process is a very important component in planning for the future of our diocese. The bishop has mandated that every parish participate. How involved is your parish in your local cluster group? How much do you know about the issues being discussed in your cluster? Are you looking seriously at the future in order to determine the best way to serve the Catholic people in your community? Do you understand that it is your responsibility to help formulate recommendations to the bishop about merging, suppressing, and erecting parishes?

5. Bishop Braxton expresses deep gratitude to all of us for our generous financial contributions in support of the work of the Church. An important dimension of being witnesses for Christ is our service to the poor and those in need. Are you aware of the many ways in which our diocese does this? Are you generous in your support of your parish and the diocese? Have you and your family ever considered tithing? Do you ever withhold donations in order to penalize the pastor or the bishop for making decisions with which you disagree? Do you know how the funds given to the Annual Bishop’s Appeal are used? This information is available from your parish or the Chancery.

Questions for PART THREE:

The questions for PART THREE are in the body of PART THREE of the Pastoral Letter itself, a.) Questions: A Spiritual Inventory.

1. In “We Are His Witnesses: Our Spirit-Filled Mission as the Church in Southern Illinois” our bishop raises a number of serious challenges. Yet his tone is always hopeful and optimistic. (The Risen Christ, to whom we bear witness, never abandons us. The Holy Spirit is ever present with “warm breath and Ah! bright wings.”) Are you also optimistic about the Church in your home (the domestic church), in your parish, throughout the diocese, the country and the world?

2. Bishop Braxton concludes his Pastoral Letter reminding us of our Holy Thursday commitment to imitate Jesus of Nazareth and become a community of “Foot Washers” relating to one another in all circumstances with patience and graciousness, with an attitude of service, surrendering ourselves to Christ. Are you willing to purify your heart in order to be Christ’s witness? Are you willing to give of yourself for the revitalization of Common Meaning in our community of faith? What are you willing to do? When are you willing to do it? Why not now?

INTERNET INFORMATION

Many Catholics do not receive any Catholic newspapers or magazines in their homes. They do not have the opportunity to read books about their Catholic faith from reliable Catholic authors. Outside of the Sunday homily and parish bulletin, their only source of information about the Church may be the secular media.

The following website information might be helpful to you.
For news about the Diocese of Belleville, including important statements by the bishop: www.diobelle.org

For news about the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, including pastoral statements and teachings of the American Bishops: www.usccb.org

For news about the Holy See, including the writings and activities of the Holy Father and other leaders of the Church at the Vatican: www.vatican.va







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