February 22, 2019

Christ the Cornerstone

Seeking credibility through ‘nearness, love and witness’

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“Tend the flock of God in your midst, overseeing not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock” (1 Pt 5:2–3).

The publication date for this column is Feb. 22, the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle. The chair (cathedra in Latin) we honor today is the symbol of St. Peter’s teaching authority as the vicar of Christ. When the pope teaches ex cathedra (from the chair), he is speaking with the full authority of Christ given to St. Peter when he said, “Whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16: 19).

All Catholic bishops share in the teaching ministry of Christ’s vicar, the pope. We have cathedrals that house the chair that symbolizes our teaching ministry. Individual bishops don’t teach ex cathedra, but as a body—in communion with St. Peter’s successor—we do teach authoritatively on matters of faith and morals. This is a solemn obligation. It’s also a sacred trust that can be abused or neglected if the bishop is not attentive to the demands of his teaching ministry.

The concern often voiced today about the pope and the bishops damaging the Church’s credibility because of our failures in dealing with the problem of sexual abuse of children is serious.

Objectively, the teaching authority of the magisterium remains unaltered because it is founded firmly on St. Peter, the rock. But it is possible for the impact of Church teaching to be diminished if the sinful human beings who have been entrusted with this solemn obligation of interpreting the word of God fail to practice what they preach. That’s one reason Pope Francis and the presidents of Catholic bishops’ conference from every country or region are meeting at the Vatican this week—to help restore the Church’s credibility.

St. Peter’s first letter advises his brother bishops to teach by example (1 Pt 5:2–3). What was true in the Church’s earliest days remains vitally important today: Those who proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot teach only with words. Unless our lives reflect the truth of Christ’s teaching, our words will not be heard. Unless the Lord’s sayings and parables and instructions ring true in the way we live day in and day out, their impact is diminished.

In his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis writes: “We need to remember that all religious teaching needs to be reflected in the teacher’s way of life, which awakens the assent of the heart by its nearness, love and witness” (#42).

In the same apostolic exhortation, the Holy Father urges us to practice the art of listening, which he says is more than hearing. “Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. Listening helps us find the right gesture and word which shows that we are more than simply bystanders” (#171).

Celebrating the chair of St. Peter means being cognizant of the fact that authentic teaching does not happen in haphazard or one-dimensional ways. It involves prayerful reflection on God’s word, attentive listening to the people with whom we are sharing God’s living word, and teaching by example. Effective evangelization requires credibility that can only be achieved through “nearness, love and witness.”

Pope Francis is right to gather bishops from every conference throughout the world on Feb. 21-24 to address our Church’s response to the sexual abuse crisis. Their first priority must be to protect the vulnerable and respond to the needs of victim-survivors. But full restoration of the Church’s credibility is also a critical need right now.

Pope St. Paul VI, in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Nuntiandi” (“On Evangelization in the Modern World”), noted a question posed to the Synod of Bishops in 1974: “In our day, what has happened to that hidden energy of the Good News, which is able to have a powerful effect on man’s conscience?” (#4). This question about the Gospel’s “hidden energy” needs to be asked again during this time of crisis in the Church. Will the power of God’s word be hidden from full view because of our lack of credibility? Or can we unleash its power by our faithful witness to the teaching ministry entrusted to the care of Peter by Jesus?

As bishops in communion with St. Peter’s successor, we must listen attentively, and we must practice what we teach. Please pray for me and for Pope Francis and all the bishops as we seek to be credible witnesses to the Gospel. †

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