Saturday, May 21, 2011

The forgotten prophetic dimension

NOTE: Following is the text of Abbot Martin Werlen's convocation speech on Saturday, May 14, for the Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology graduation ceremony. He is the abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Einsiedeln in Switzerland--the motherhouse of Saint Meinrad Archabbey. As you can see, he offers some challenging words for us all. --Br. Francis

Dear Abbot Justin, dear President-Rector, members of the Faculty and of the administration, graduates, confreres, students and guests:

Last year, in the context of our community retreat, we read the Gaudium et Spes. I was really amazed about the prophetic dimension of this last document of the Second Vatican Council, not prepared by the Curia, but really a document of the Council itself.

Where is this prophetic dimension of the Church today? I dare to say: It is forgotten!

Surely, there are some really prophetic documents since the Council, for example the encyclical letter Populorum Progressio by Pope Paul VI. Or the apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte by Blessed Pope John Paul II. But we have somehow forgotten what the last council says in Lumen Gentium No. 35:
“Christ, the great Prophet, who proclaimed the Kingdom of His Father both by the testimony of His life and the power of His words, continually fulfills His prophetic office until the complete manifestations of glory. He does this not only through the hierarchy who teach in His name and with His authority, but also through the laity whom He made His witnesses and to whom He gave understanding of the faith (sensus fidei) and an attractiveness in speech.”
Why did we forget the prophetic dimension? There are many reasons. I want to point out only a few of them. Maybe not even the ones we normally think about.

The Western Church is – in its way through all the centuries – again and again in the danger of over-institutionalization. Let me mention just one example. Ordination does not make a priest a real spiritual father. To be a spiritual father is a charismatic dimension. This charismatic dimension is not often considered--so much that not only celibate life of the diocesan clergy is not understood by many baptized men and women as charism, but also that of religious, but instead merely as a matter of law.

The proclamation of the Gospel is a prophetic task. A prophet – as you all know – is not a kind of fortune-teller. A prophet says the right word at the right moment. The prophet does not destroy faith – as he is sometimes perceived – but he purifies faith and actualizes it. The prophet knows to read the signs of the time in the light of the Gospel. The priest, therefore, clearly has a prophetic vocation.

It is not the Church’s vocation to defend systems or positions of power. Neither is it the Church’s vocation to build a parallel society. The Church’s vocation is to be leaven in our society: The ear at God’s heart, the hand at the pulse of time.

It is the Church’s vocation, as Blessed Pope John Paul II puts it in words, “to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with confidence” (Novo Millennio Ineunte No.1).

Where is the enthusiasm today? Where is this confidence today? At least in Europe we really miss it. We miss it also in documents coming from Rome.

In the apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte we read:
“The ‘purification of memory’ (in the year 2000) has strengthened our steps for the journey towards the future and has made us more humble and vigilant in our acceptance of the Gospel.”
Is this true? Did it become true? Where are the confidence and the awareness that the word is true: “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20)?

The prophetic dimension in the Church is not a new program. It is not going back to earlier stages. “The program already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition.” That’s how Pope John Paul II expresses it (Novo Millennio Ineunte, No. 29). In the Gospel and in the living Tradition. To the living Tradition of the Church belongs the Second Vatican Council, also its clear demand for a liturgical reform.

With the recently beatified Pope I am convinced: “What a treasure there is …in the guidelines offered to us by the Second Vatican Council!” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, No.57).

How is it possible, that we as Church are speechless in so many challenges of our time? The Gospel is not just Good News for past times – the Gospel is Good News for our time! Also for women, also for divorced and remarried people, also for sinners – especially for sinners!

When Pope Benedict XVI in August 2005 during his vacation in Aosta was confronted by the priests of the region with the situation of so many divorced and remarried people, he admitted that the response of the Church is insufficient. But what happened since? Is it a surprise when people of our time don’t consider us anymore to be competent and trustworthy in such matters? The living tradition of the Eastern Churches knows other ways, never condemned by the Western Churches.

I am convinced: Fidelity to the Gospel and to the living Tradition opens ways into the future. Let us have a look at today’s feast day [May 14]: Saint Matthias.

Jesus called 12 young men as his friends and made them apostles. All of them had a hard time living their vocation. One didn’t dare to ask forgiveness. He committed suicide. The symbolic number 12 was no longer complete. What to do? Don’t forget: Jesus himself called the 12– these 12! The Church decided to replace Judas. Courageous. And we celebrate this very courage today. And later on – the Church dared to have more than twelve bishops, and not only from the rank of fishermen.

And let us look at the way Judas was replaced. "In these days [we read in the Acts of the Apostles] Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples and said ...” I don’t want do make a commentary. This could be too dangerous. Instead I leave the word to the living Tradition, to the great bishop and preacher Saint John Chrysostom. I dare to do this because the Church itself gives us this commentary today officially as text for meditation.

John Chrysostom says: “As the fiery spirit to whom the flock was entrusted by Christ and as the leader in the band of the apostles, Peter always took the initiative in speaking: ‘My brothers, we must choose from among our number.'” And John Chrysostom explains – quite reasonable, I think:
“He left the decision to the whole body, at once augmenting the honor of those elected and avoiding any suspicion of partiality. For such great occasions can easily lead to trouble. Did not Peter then have the right to make the choice himself? Certainly he had the right, but he did not want to give the appearance of showing special favor to anyone. … He himself did not nominate them; all present did. But it was he who brought the issue forward, pointing out that it was not his own idea but had been suggested to him by a scriptural prophecy. So he was speaking not as a teacher but as an interpreter. … They spoke with such confidence, because someone had to be appointed. They did not say ‘choose’ but ‘make known to us’ the chosen one; ‘the one you choose’, they said, fully aware that everything was preordained by God. ‘They then drew lots.’ For they did not think themselves worthy to make the choice of their own accord, and therefore they wanted some sign for their instruction.”
Surprising texts – both the Holy Scripture and the living Tradition! And the Church today gives us these texts for meditation and consideration. Amazing!

Amazing also that Canon Law does not have to justify the common practice of appointing bishops. But some dioceses in Switzerland have to justify their practice, where all Catholics – baptized and confirmed – are involved in the process of electing a new bishop. And the Pope confirms the elected.

Are the Swiss Catholics heretics? Not at all – at least in this matter. They don’t have only the Scripture and Saint John Chrysostom on their side, but also the rich Benedictine tradition.

Saint Benedict in his monastic Rule writes 1,500 years ago about the abbot “chosen by the community” (RB 64:1). And that’s the way it is since, in Einsiedeln since 934 and in Saint Meinrad since 1870 – even though with some troubles. And experience – at least in the past – says: it is not the worst way…

Furthermore, Saint Benedict is considered as the father of Western monasticism, patron of Europe and he is patron saint of the Holy Father.

By the way, Saint Benedict has a lot to say about the forgotten prophetic dimension. It is his conviction that God likes to speak through unlikely persons. That’s why it is a Benedictine way of leadership to listen especially to those from whom we expect nothing. Let me mention just two examples.

“Whenever anything important has to be done in the monastery, the Abbot must assemble the whole community and explain what is under consideration. When he has heard the council of the brethren, he should give it consideration and then take what seems to him the best course. The reason why we say that all should be called to council is this: It is often to a younger brother the Lord reveals the best course” (RB 3:1-3). And at the end oft the same chapter, Saint Benedict says: “If, however, there are less important matters to be transacted … the Abbot should take counsel only with the senior monks” (RB 3:12).

That’s really not the way we are used to – some of the newly appointed cardinals – the council of the Pope – are more than 90 years old. Maybe we do not have important matters to deal with… Or maybe that’s the reason why the prophetic dimension in the Church is a forgotten dimension.

Another example. Benedict – I speak about the father of monasticism – knows that guests may sometimes criticize. He writes: “And if indeed … he criticizes or points some things out, the Abbot should consider the matter carefully. For it may be that the Lord has sent him for this very purpose” (RB 61:4). Amazing, isn’t it? Benedict is, of course, aware that it is easier to accept if someone criticizes with humble charity and is reasonable (cf. RB 61:4).

That’s not the way we are used to dealing with critics. Maybe that’s also a reason why the prophetic dimension is a forgotten dimension.

Dear Abbot Justin, dear President-Rector, members of the Faculty and of the administration, dear graduates, confreres, students and guests, we all received the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. We all have a prophetic vocation. And we have the Scripture and the living Tradition with so many saints as good examples.

Duc in altum!” – “Let’s put out into the deep!” (Lk 5:4). That’s what we read on the back of this pectoral-cross, a gift from Pope John Paul II.: “Duc in altum!”

Thank you for listening so someone from whom you expected nothing!

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