Good Shepherd: Living Christ's Own Pastoral Authority | Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila, Bishop of Fargo | Ignatius Insight | March 29, 2011 | Part Two | Part One
Contemporary Challenges in Exercising Authority
Let us now turn to the third and final part of this presentation, how bishops and priests exercise the pastoral authority of Christ, especially in the triple munera of teaching, sanctifying and governing the Church.
The exercise of Christ's pastoral authority is a true gift from God at the service of both personal holiness and the common good of the Church. At different times throughout the history of the Church, and even in the Gospels, authority has been challenged. Since the Second Vatican Council both the world and the Church have lived through times that question authority and make the exercise of authority taxing (John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Gregis, 43). Today there is skepticism, doubt, dissent and challenges which continue to go against the exercise of authority. Within the Church, this proves especially difficult as the secular culture undermines any authority attributed to God, and makes man into god.
Modern day culture has influenced the Church in the manner in which authority is or is not exercised. While we are in the world, we are not of the world, but of Christ (Jn 17:14-18), and authority must be exercised as Jesus exercised it—in service to the Father, to the truth, and to those entrusted to our care.
In the 2004 Directory For the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops, the bishop is reminded "he discovers the inspiration for his pastoral ministry and for the proper exercise of his triple munera of teaching, sanctifying, and governing according to the model of the Good Shepherd....[T]o bear fruit, the Bishop is called to conform himself closely to Christ both in his personal life and in the exercise of his apostolate, in such a way that the mind of Christ' (1 Cor 2:16) thoroughly informs his thoughts, words and deeds, and the light streaming from the face of Christ illumines his care of souls, which is the art of arts'" (Directory 2). Hence every bishop, priest and seminarian, and yes theologians and all involved in the formation of seminarians, if they are to be illumined by Christ, must ask the question, "Do I desire to be possessed by the authority of Christ or to have my ears itched by teachers suited to my liking, moving away from the truth, and entering into the myths of the present age?" (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
Munus of Teaching
In living the teaching authority of Christ, bishops and priests are called to hand on what they have received from Christ and the Church. Within the hearts of bishops and priests there must be a rapt and attentive listening to Jesus and the Church; a love for truth, who is a person, Jesus; and a deep confidence in the truth that sets one free—"You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (Jn 8:32).
Jesus always used clear, direct language in presenting his teaching. In the Sermon on the Mount one can have no doubt about what Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes, in the fulfillment of the law, and in the cost of discipleship. Jesus was patient and compassionate with the sinner, those who were sick, and those who were troubled by demons. Jesus certainly teaches the primacy of love by word and example, yet he also teaches obedience and the truth.
Jesus never backed away from answering questions, nor did he back away from giving an answer that may have been difficult to hear, for example with the man who runs up to him and asks "what must I do to inherit everlasting life?" (Mk 10:17 ss; Mt 19:16 ss; Lk 18:18 ss). The young man leaves Jesus after hearing his answer. Jesus does not run after the man, but goes on to remind the disciples that with "God all things are possible." I want to make clear that this does not provide us with the excuse to speak quickly without knowledge of the situation or prudence. In teaching, both charity and unhesitating truth must work together for the good of souls.
Pope Benedict XVI reminded priests that they are to be "the mouth piece and heart of Christ." He went on to declare, "The teaching that the priest is called to offer, the truth of the faith, must be internalized and lived in an intense personal and spiritual process so that the priest really enters into a profound inner communion with Christ himself. The priest believes, accepts and seeks to live, first of all as his own (emphasis added), all that the Lord taught and that the Church has passed on..." (General Audience, April 14, 2010).
Bishops and priests in their teaching, preaching, and catechizing are to guide the faithful into the obedience of faith—into the truth guaranteed by God (Catechism of the Catholic Church 144). The deposit of faith is most clearly articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In living the teaching authority of Christ, the bishop and priest have the responsibility to know and love the Scriptures as well as the Catechism, teaching with clarity and faithfulness what has been received from Christ and handed on to the Church.
To be "in profound inner communion with Christ" means putting aside one's personal opinions and seeing with the eyes and heart of Christ. Thus, one can see in the light of Christ that so called "faithful dissent," when this phrase describes a refusal to adhere to the deposit of faith, is really the work of "the father of lies" (Jn 8:44) and not a docile receptive heart to the objective truth revealed and handed on by the Church. There is a value to theological speculation, which leads to a deeper experience of "faith seeking understanding" and enriches the life of the Church. However, this is much different than dissent, which is not faithful. This distinction, beyond the scope of this talk, is vital!
Furthermore, there is never a reason to apologize or make excuses for the teaching of Christ and the Church. Paul reminded Timothy, "...preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching" (2 Tim 4:2). Our world today is in urgent need of Jesus Christ, and while the world sees Jesus as "out of season," we as the servants of Christ and the Church must teach boldly and without hesitancy. The "new evangelization" means following the example of Jesus! With personal conviction we need to rediscover the vigor and boldness of the teaching authority of Christ exhibited by St. Paul, the Fathers of the Church, and the saints and martyrs who have gone before us.
Munus of Sanctification
Turning to the sanctifying authority of Christ we must first look at what does "sanctify" mean. It means "to make holy." In both the Old and New Testament, we hear the words given by God, "be holy, as I am holy" (Lv 11: 44; 1 Pt 1:15-16). While God is the only one who is perfectly holy, in his love for human beings his grace makes them grow in holiness, and this is accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the sending of the Holy Spirit. The sanctifying work of the Trinity continues through the sacraments and sacramentals of the Church.
Benedict XVI reminds us, "...each priest knows well that he is an instrument necessary to God's saving action but also that he is always only an instrument. This awareness must make priests humble and generous in the administration of the Sacraments, in respect of the canonical norms, but also in the deep conviction that their mission is to ensure that all people, united to Christ, may offer themselves to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to him (cf. Rom 12: 1)" (General Audience, May 5, 2010). Bishops and priests, as humble instruments of Christ, lead those who celebrate and receive the sacraments into union with the Father who is the source of all holiness. We can observe that sanctifying authority is received through obedience.
As a faithful instrument, the priest, in exercising the authority of sanctifying, like St. Paul, must hand on what he has received (1 Cor 11:23). This means that the ordained must be faithful to the liturgical books of the Church and the proper celebration of the sacraments, most especially in the offering of the one Sacrifice of Christ. The motive for a priest's faithfulness is not slavish attachment to rules or rubrics, but love for his bride and his desire to offer his bride the Church, not his own personality, but the person of Christ. The sacraments do not exclusively belong to any individual priest or bishop, but are Christ's and the Church's.
Although time does not permit, we must remember to contemplate within our hearts the sanctifying authority that Jesus bestowed on his apostles and the 72 in the Gospels, and thus upon bishops and priests, to forgive sins (Jn 20:22-23), to preach, to heal the sick and to cast out demons (Mk 3:14-15; Lk 9:1; Lk 10:19: Eph 6:12). All of these are important graces included in the sanctification of the faithful entrusted to our pastoral care. We should never be afraid to exercise the authority of Christ by praying for healing and deliverance when the faithful request us to do so. Every priest has the sanctifying authority bestowed by Christ to be victorious over the power of evil in the spiritual battle.
Munus of Governance
Perhaps most difficult for us who lead in the Church today, due to the influence of the secular world with its rejection of God and the authority of God, along with a real skepticism of authority, is the exercise of the office of governance. Benedict XVI reminds us as bishops and priests again to turn to Jesus Christ to learn how to exercise this authority. "... [N]o one is really able to feed Christ's flock, unless he lives in profound and true obedience to Christ and the Church, and the docility of the people towards their priests depends on the docility of the priests towards Christ; for this reason the personal and constant encounter with the Lord, profound knowledge of him and the conformation of the individual will to Christ's will is always at the root of the pastoral ministry" (General Audience, May 26, 2010).
Jesus at times was direct in calling people to conversion – to change their way of acting and thinking. This directness makes many of us uncomfortable today. We should follow his example and language, even if we do not use his precise words. His language is good to contemplate and definitely should challenge us to look at how we correct the faithful, including priests and bishops, and speak the truth especially with those who say they are with Christ and the Church but do not accept the teaching of Jesus and the Church.
One has only to read Matthew 23 to hear the forceful language Jesus uses when speaking with the Pharisees and Scribes. He refers to them as "hypocrites, blind guides, and white washed tombs" and towards the end asks them the question, "You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?" In our politically correct world this type of language would never be tolerated today, and yet the Gospel writers were not hesitant to pass on these exhortations of Jesus.
Furthermore, when Peter began to remonstrate with Jesus about going up to Jerusalem, he did not softly tell Peter, "You do not understand." Rather Jesus spoke the vigorous words, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men" (Mt 16:23). Jesus speaks these words with force to the apostle he has chosen and the one whom he made first among the apostles. In love Jesus makes these direct statements to open the eyes of those whose hearts and minds are hardened. His straight talk, given in love for the person, desires the conversion and holiness of the person to the ways of God.
Jesus provides the Church and her leaders with the criteria for correcting a brother or sister. "If your brother sins against you; go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (Mt 18:16-17).
The steps in this passage are clear and Jesus is teaching us, but do we listen and follow his example? If this criteria had been followed with dissenting theologians, priests, religious and faithful in 1968 with the encyclical, Humanae Vitae, would we still be dealing with the problem today of those who dissent on contraception, abortion, same sex unions, euthanasia and so many other teachings of the Church?
One must honestly ask, how many times and years may a Catholic politician vote for the so called "right to abortion," "murder" in the words of John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (58), and still be able to receive Holy Communion? The continual reception of Holy Communion by those who so visibly contradict and promote a grave evil, even more than simply dissent, only creates grave scandal, undermines the teaching and governing authority of the Church and can be interpreted by the faithful as indifference to the teaching of Christ and the Church on the part of those who have the responsibility to govern. If we honestly pray with the Gospel we can see that hesitancy and non-accountability is not the way of Jesus Christ, but rather it is a failure in the exercise of governance.
Bishops and priests, as an act of loving obedience to Christ, must return to a full exercise of the governing authority of Christ witnessed in the Gospel. If we do not exercise that authority, are hesitant to exercise it, or doubt it, then it only leads to the "father of lies" taking hold of the minds and hearts of the faithful, and their continuing to act in the ways of man and not the ways of God.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his conversation with Peter Seewald in the book Light of the World, made the following observation concerning the sexual abuse crisis among clergy, after speaking with the Archbishop of Dublin. In their conversation they spoke to a mentality prevalent after Vatican II.
"The prevailing mentality was that the Church must not be a Church of laws but, rather, a Church of love; she must not punish. Thus the awareness that punishment can be an act of love ceased to exist. This led to an odd darkening of the mind, even in very good people. Today we have to learn all over again that love for the sinner and love for the person who has been harmed are correctly balanced if I punish the sinner in the form that is possible and appropriate. In this respect there was in the past a change of mentality, in which the law and need for punishment were obscured. Ultimately this also narrowed the concept of love, which in fact is not just being nice or courteous, but is found in the truth (emphasis added). And another component of truth is that I must punish the one who has sinned against real love" (Pages 25-26).As the Holy Father notes love corrects for the good of the person. Correction can be difficult and painful, as parents know, yet as a shepherd I am willing to suffer the rejection and anger of another when I speak the truth for the good of the person and the Bride of Christ. To correct and/or to punish someone who has gravely sinned against real love is an act of servant love and is found in the truth!
In today's world too many people understand correction or punishment as not loving the other or as dominion over the other, and this is the work of "the father of lies." A reluctance or hesitancy to correct and properly punish does not invite the other into the truth that frees and ultimately fails in true charity. As servants of truth, of Christ, we will correct those who sin for their own good and for the love of the other, even if it leads to our own persecution and rejection. In the exercise of the governing authority of Christ, we too, if we have the heart of Christ and the love of Christ, will end up on the Cross with Christ. Certainly this was the experience of St. Peter and St. Paul, St. John Fisher, and so many other bishop and priest martyrs throughout the history of the Church.
In this paper I have attempted to demonstrate, first, that living out the pastoral authority of Christ is best articulated in the image of the good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep, and who has come to serve and not be served. Jesus is the shepherd who fulfills the prophecy given in Ezekiel 34 for he, the Son of God, has shepherded his sheep and teaches us by his example to do the same. This is accomplished in the ordained by having the heart of Christ, seeking in obedient love the will of the Father before all else. In the heart of Christ is the "authority of obedience" which comes about through love and intimacy with the Father. Our authority is received through obedience in love. This is not blind obedience; blind obedience leads us to the impersonal reception of a law given by authority, but Christ listened to the truth in love, and it was this kind of listening that gave power to his authority, it was a new authority (Mk 1:27) because of its source: rapt listening in love to the Father.
Seminarians as future priests are called to have the desires of Jesus, seeking first the will of the Father, in order to have the heart of Jesus. That is best accomplished through their spiritual formation in lectio divina, the School of Nazareth, regular Confession, and a love for the Eucharist.
While the challenges to living out the pastoral authority of Jesus are great, bishops and priests must contemplate the words and actions of Christ in the Gospel to learn from him the proper exercise of their authority as they teach, sanctify and govern. We must come to accept the fact that the exercise of true authority will be divisive as it was in the time of Jesus. Ultimately living the pastoral authority of Jesus in loving obedience will lead us to the Cross as it led him to the Cross, for we will love the Father with the heart of Jesus.
Bishop Samuel J. Aquila is the bishop of the Diocese of Fargo, North Dakota. A full biography can be read on the Diocese of Fargo website.
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