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2005 Msgr. Philip J. Murnion Lecture of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative

Keynote:  Archbishop V. James Weisgerber, Archbishop of Winnipeg
Response by James Post, Voices of the Faithful

June 24, 2005


It is an honor and a privilege to be invited to support the important work of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative. I am grateful for this opportunity. I speak tonight, not as a professional theologian, but as one who has been a pastor in the church for the last 42 years. I was ordained in 1963, so all my intellectual and spiritual formation took place in the pre-Vatican II church, while all my ministry has taken place in the post Vatican II church. I offer tonight insights and learnings from my ministry as pastor.

Forty years ago the bishops gathered for the Second Vatican Council articulated a new vision of who we are as church. Lumen Gentium, the Constitution on the Church, was formulated in response to Pope John XXIII’s call to the bishops to consider:

“…The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into greater consideration with patience, if necessary…”

It takes some effort to remember the 50’s and 60’s, to recall what it meant to be church; so much has changed. A brief synopsis can easily become a caricature. Perhaps the most descriptive phrase of the pre-Vatican II church would be “a perfect society.” This meant that the church was complete in itself; it had little relationship to nor need of the world. The church had the answer to any question that could be asked; nothing new could be expected. Many of the council fathers went to Rome with this sort of vision and many were shocked with proposals of renewal. I was a seminarian at the time and I recall a confrere reporting the judgment of his bishop: Why are we breaking up a winning team?

The council developed a different vision. It spoke of the church as a pilgrim people, a people moving through history and a people being shaped by this journey. This means that the church, while at its heart one and the same, is always a project under construction—semper reformanda—it is never finished. It will only be complete on the last day. There are always new things to learn, better ways to conceive things, development. This is a challenge that faces the church as a community and a challenge that faces each individual member of the church.

As a pilgrim people we are a witness to the reign of God. We are much like our ancestors, the ancient Hebrews, in their forty year trek through the desert. They were led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The church, as a pilgrim, follows the Lord as it moves through history. God is continually shaping and reshaping us so that we will be always a clearer sign and bolder sacrament of God’s saving will for all people. The church has been called into being for the world. This is key to our self-understanding. God loves the world and God loves the church. Let’s look at our own experience. If we love someone and that person does not return our love, we don’t stop loving, but the relationship has nowhere to go. But if you love someone and that person loves you in return; that’s something you can fly with. God loves all people, but many are unaware of God’s love. We are the people who, in God’s providence, know, receive and celebrate God’s love for us and thus we become a sign of his will for all. So as pilgrim people our hearts and eyes are always looking outwards: upwards toward God who leads us and outwards towards the world for whose sake we are given the sacred trust. It is only in relationship to both God and the world, in profound dialogue with God and the world, that we find our identity and move forward.

Who is this pilgrim people? Who is this church? The council tells us that it is the community of all the baptized. We all know the council’s great description of the church given in the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy:

“It is of the essence of the church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly endowed, eager to act and yet devoted to contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it. She is all these things in such a way that in her the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek.”

Every baptized member of the church is a sharer in this great mystery. Each of the baptized is anointed with the Spirit, made one with Christ, who leads them to the Father. All are equal in dignity. As Paul tells us, there is no distinction between “Jew and Greek, male and female, slave or free.” Nor, I would add, between clergy and lay, bishop, or theologian. We are all one in Christ. The Divine Trinity is present in the heart of each believer, loving, leading and drawing him/her more deeply into relationship. The Spirit showers each of the baptized with indispensable gifts for service in the church and in the world; gifts which are immensely rich and wonderfully diverse. Every one of us has a right to contribute and everyone has a responsibility to contribute.

We are also a hierarchical church precisely because of the diversity, the richness and the indispensability of the gifts which the Spirit bestows. To preserve and order the gifts to the common good the Lord established leaders, shepherds, with authority to insure that this gifted community would remain united in faith and in love. The last gathering of the synod of bishops considered the role of the bishop within the church. The synod focused on two scriptural images to assist the church in understanding the role of leadership: the Good Shepherd and Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Clearly, the role of the leader is not to extinguish the gifts or try to manipulate or control, but rather to be a leader who enables and empowers so that all the gifts will flourish as they are used for the good of the church and the world. As St. Paul tells us:

“The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some prophets and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” (Ephesians 4, 11-12)

Leadership is to build up the church.

As John Paul II says in his apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte, all of this is gift, but then the gift becomes a task. We, the baptized, are challenged to grow in the faith and mature in faith, hope and love. Through baptism and ordination we have been made holy and now we must allow this holiness to transform our lives. This, too, is a pilgrimage, a personal journey. Each of us is called to maturity of faith, to a recognition of our dignity, to a discernment of our gifts and to a willingness to share our gifts in the church and in the world.

How can this vision of the council take root in the church of today? How can this vision be translated into mechanisms that will enable us to pursue the mission of being and sharing the Good News with the world? First of all we must realize that this is a new time: as church, we have never been here before. It’s not as though we once knew how to be the church and have forgotten. This is a new time and we must break new ground. Jesus warned us about the temptation of trying to put new wine into old wineskins! Receiving the teaching of the council, implementing a new vision and building new ways of working together certainly create challenging times. This needs to be a time of great creativity, a time for risk taking, a time when mistakes will be made, a time of both victories and disappointments, a time which requires compassionate understanding, forgiveness and great patience. But it is truly a wonderful time.

Growth and change are never easy. It was clear that the reforms envisaged by Vatican II could not be carried out in the context of the 1917 code of canon law so immediately after the council a revision of law was undertaken, resulting in the code of 1983. Obviously the new code reflects some of the vision of the council, but it could not reflect the post-conciliar lived experience of the church as it struggles to implement the council’s vision. Law follows life, it does not create it. The tension between the council’s vision and the code of canon law is one of the characteristics of our time. Church law must also develop to embrace and facilitate the growth and development of the church. We are a pilgrim people.

As North Americans, we live in democratic societies which serve us quite well. When we look to participation in the church, we so often look to democratic institutions as a model: the people decide—one person, one vote—and the majority rules. We know, however, that the church is not a democracy. The church is a gift from God, coming to us from above; we have not created it. The church has been shaped and is sustained by God. As the foundational document of the Initiative, Called to be Catholic, states: “Jesus Christ, present in Scripture and sacrament, is central to all that we are and all that we do; he must always be the measure and not what is measured.” This poses a huge challenge to a culture whose primary value is choice, the freedom to choose. However to receive and to accept in trust, to bow in obedience before God, is central to our act of faith.

At the same time it is important to recognize that many important aspects of democracy are not only compatible with, but essential to the life of the church: recognition of the dignity of each person and each person’s gifts; the essential equality of all; transparency and accountability; awareness that leadership is service to people for the common good; and the irreplaceable importance of listening to one another as we discern the voice of the Spirit. A special session of the synod of bishops, convened on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, concluded that in the teaching of the council the church, in essence, is a communion. Through the action of God we are drawn into the very life of the Trinity and our lives, both individually and communally, must reflect this important truth. The persons of the Trinity, integral to one another, exist in self-giving love. How can the church, as a community, reflect the life of the Trinity? The New Testament is filled with images and metaphors which point the way. The church is the Bride of Christ, redeemed and purified by Christ, loved and cherished by its Savior. Christ is the vine, we are the branches; the church is the body of Christ. In each image, not only are the baptized related to God in Christ, but we are also related to each other in radically new ways. Pope John Paul II, in his letter The New Millennium says:

“A spirituality of communion means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as ‘those who are part of me’. This makes us able to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship. A spirituality of communion implies also this ability to see what is positive in others to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it directly but also as a ‘gift for me’. A spirituality of communion means, finally, to know how to ‘make room’ for our brothers and sisters, bearing ‘each other’s burdens’ and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy. Let us have no illusions: unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, ‘masks’ of communion rather than means of expression and growth.” NMI #43

The Catechism of the Catholic church also provides us with an interesting insight into lived communion:

“In the work of teaching and applying Christian morality, the church needs the dedication of pastors, the knowledge of theologians, and the contribution of all Christian men and women of good will. Faith and the practice of the Gospel provide each person with an experience of life ‘in Christ’ who enlightens them and makes them able to evaluate the divine and human realities according the Spirit of God. Thus the Holy Spirit can use the humblest to enlighten the learned and those in the highest positions.” CCC #203 8.

But how do we institutionalize this vision? How can we make it work? This has always been the great challenge. The Gospel appears to elude structure but it also requires some sort of organizational structure if it is to be preached to the ends of the earth. The council documents point to consultative councils as a way forward: pastoral councils at the level of parish and diocese, presbyteral councils and the synod of bishops.

What has forty years taught us? Implementation of these councils in the life of the church has been uneven and frustration is evident at every level, from the parish pastoral council to the synod of bishops. Participants complain that councils are “merely consultative”; “The leader listens, but then does whatever he wants.” Often participants feel that they have no ownership, that they are not being listened to, that the people have no real power. Such perceptions, whether justified or not, make it difficult to attract the kinds of people whose participation is vital for such councils to succeed. Leaders, who are also accountable to their superiors, can fear loss of control; they can be leery of participants with alternate agendas and differing views in respect to the purpose and power of a council. As one bishop painfully declared: “They say the council is ‘merely consultative’ while I think I am listening to the voice of God!”

Dissatisfaction appears at all levels of church government, including the synod of bishops. How do we move forward? Can consultative councils really work? I believe that they can work, if we approach them and respect them as being part of the mystery of the church. If, as members of the church, we embrace these institutions within a vision of faith they can be very effective. This means that we need to read the work of collaboration and building of communion in the light of Chapter V of Lumen gentium which speaks of the universal call to holiness. In other words, we must approach collaboration from within our newness and oneness in Christ; new wine in new wineskins. That is why shared prayer is so essential to our collaboration, as it is only in remembering who we are that we will be able to successfully work together. We are reborn, radically new in Christ.

For the laity this means a deep confidence, born out of the dignity of baptism, a dignity which inspires awareness of our gifts and the call to use them responsibly in the life of the church in all its dimensions. Collaborative responsibility requires a serious commitment to living the Gospel, to a growth in faith which leads to Christian maturity. It is the Spirit, living and working within each of us, who builds up the body of Christ by enabling us to contribute and collaborate. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“Faith and the practice of the Gospel provide each person with an experience of life ‘in Christ’ who enlightens them and makes them able to evaluate the divine and human realities according to the Spirit of God.”

Sitting on the fence, shooting from the bushes and cynical by-standing are not options for serious Christians. Fear and cynicism must give way to trust. Generous collaboration is called for from all.

Leaders, pastors, on the other hand, can lead effectively only if they are pursuing a life of holiness. Holiness is not just a matter of piety, but holiness means becoming who we are, who we have been made through baptism and ordination. To be pastor means to be shepherd, one who leads by example, one who loves the flock and lives for the flock. Holiness in pastors or bishops requires an openness to others, a confident trust in others and a passionate desire to include all the gifts in the building up of the church. Holiness is incompatible with fear or any sort of manipulation.

John Paul II in his letter on the new millennium encourages:

“Pastors to listen more widely to the entire People of God. Significant is St. Benedict’s reminder to the Abbot of a monastery, inviting him to consult even the youngest members of the community: ‘By the Lord’s inspiration, it is often the younger person who knows what is best.’ And Saint Paulinus of Nola urges: ‘Let us listen to what all the faithful say, because in every one of them the Spirit of God breathes.'” NMI,45

What happens when the leader is not inspired by the council’s vision of the church as communion? Communion can hit a brick wall in an authoritarian autocratic or frightened leader. The laity can feel quite paralyzed. What can be done? We need to return to the challenge of holiness. The council teaches that while a bishop is ordained for leadership in a particular church, as a member of the college of bishops, he shares responsibility for the iniversal church. And so if holiness means allowing the gift received to transform our lives, then holiness for a bishop includes a concern for the leadership of his brother bishops, and a commitment to fraternal correction, which St. Thomas Aquinas tells us is the greatest act of love. Bishops are certainly very reluctant to question one another. However, the imperative of fraternal correction, pastoral charity, would seem to demand that brothers help one another strive towards developing a church of communion. Holiness demands as much, and there will be no communion without holiness, no communion without mutual trust.

A communion based on holiness is a demanding vision and we need to recognize that the cross always stands at the center of such a vision. Creating communion demands trust in the Lord and trust in one another; it demands courage, patience, forgiveness and true Christian hope. Such a life is demanding, sometimes crucifying, but communion can never be built without sharing in the sufferings of Christ. We cannot be the church of Christ without becoming disciples of Christ, without sharing in His suffering.

This communion, which the Lord is building, is imperative because of our mission. It makes mission possible. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells us:

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3,17)

and again:

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10,10).

The church shares in Christ’s mission. Our mission is to bring life to the world. The purpose of communion is not to make our life in the church more comfortable, but rather to allow ourselves to be shaped and fashioned in such a way that we are seen to be the sacrament of Christ for the world. In his letter to the Romans, Paul tells us that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now. We are very much part of a world that is searching for meaning, for dignity and for unity and peace. Within this world and our experience of it, the Lord is shaping us, sometimes painfully, forming us into a communion so that we are both a sign and an instrument of his saving presence, of his life for the world. In the Eucharist we pray: “May this Spirit keep us always in communion with our pope, all the bishops and all your people. Father, make your church a sign of unity and an instrument of your peace.”

One last consideration: a very practical one. We need to develop mechanisms, instruments of communion. The church gathered in council requires, at every level, from parish pastoral council to synod of bishops, a process which enables and facilitates the interaction implicit in our communion. As a priest, I was part of a diocesan pastoral council presided over by a wonderful, well-meaning bishop. He was an unpretentious man and thought of himself as just another member of the council. He never seemed to realize that when he weighed into a discussion, the discussion ended. He never seemed to understand that many people find it difficult to publicly disagree with the bishop. For me, this was a constant irritant. Now, I find myself doing exactly the same thing. Other people don’t see me the way I see myself.

I believe that in this matter, the church has been very well served by religious women. They have taken seriously the vision of Vatican II and have worked hard and long to become real communities. Religious communities of women saw clearly the need to develop new processes which would respect the kind of communion they were trying to develop, processes which are built on respect for each person, a need for each member to express her concerns, willingness to listen and hear each other and an ability to build consensus. Religious women have called forth a very talented group of people who are trained as animators or facilitators. Such resource persons and their skills are key to building communion and they are available. One of the first things I did in each diocese I have been called to lead is to organize an intensive training session for a group of leaders to become skilled in the facilitation and animation of groups. What a difference this can make. Not only is there a clearly articulated goal for each gathering, but there is a process which enables everyone to speak, knowing that they are being heard by the others. It is truly a work of the Spirit. Such instruments enable the kind of communion that can build trust, both in the leadership and in the other participants.

History tells us that it takes about a hundred years for the church to receive the teaching of a council. We’re still very much in early days and we need to continue to strive with great energy to implement the vision given us by the council.

Pope John Paul II never tired of telling us that the council was the Holy Spirit’s providential preparation of the church for its mission in the third millennium. In his spiritual testament made public after his death he writes:

“Being on the threshold of the third millennium, in medio Ecclesiae, I wish once again to express gratitude to the Holy Spirit for the great gift of Vatican Council II, to which, together with the entire church—and above all the entire Episcopacy—I feel indebted. I am convinced that for a long time to come the new generations will draw upon the riches that this council of the 20th century gave us.

As a bishop who participated in this conciliar event from the first to the last day, I wish to entrust this great patrimony to all those who are and who will be called in the future to realize it. For my part I thank the eternal Pastor who allowed me to service this very great cause during the course of all the years of my pontificate.” Much remains to be done. The gifts, the energy and good will, and especially the trust of all members of the church, are required.

In the 1966 edition of Walter Abbot’s The Documents of Vatican II, Albert Outler, a Methodist observer at the council, commenting on Lumen gentium says:

“. . .the real meaning of On the church has still to be deciphered—and translated into action in the polity and program of the Roman Catholic Church. This now becomes the paramount task in the years ahead. It is certain that the council intended this constitution to be the major resource in the renovation and reform of the Catholic Church—and in the further progress of ecumenical dialogue. It is equally certain that history’s verdict on Vatican II will turn largely on how far this intention is realized.(p.106)”

This continues to be the Lord’s challenge to the church.

Also online: Full text of James Post’s response [1]


James Post is a co-founder and president of Voices of the Faithful, an organization of Catholic laity formed in 2002.  In his “otherlife” Jim is a professor at Boston University where he teaches courses in strategic management, non-profit organizations, corporate public affairs, and business ethics.  He is an expert in the study of business, government, and society and has published more than 15 books and 100 articles on corporate responsibility and public affairs.  He has consulted with many businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies, including the World Health Organization, the U.S. Agency for International Development, Rockefeller Foundation, the President’s Commission on Sustainable Development, and served as a member of the Nestle Audit Commission, a precedent-setting effort to implement the WHO’s international code of marketing conduct.  VOTF now has more than 35,000 members in 200 affiliates throughout the United States and other countries.  Jim is married to Jeanette A, Post, and they have three children and three grandchildren.  Jim holds a degree from St. Bonaventure University (B.S.), Villanova University (J.D.) and State University of New York (MBA, Ph.D.).

Archbishop James Weisberger was born in Vibank, Saskatchewan and ordained a priest on June 1, 1963.  He served as dean of arts of Notre Dame in Wilcox, SA, and then as the archdiocesan director of the pastoral and social justice offices.  He was the rector of Holy Rosary Cathedral and pastor of Holy Trinity Parish, both in Regina, as well as Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Fort Qu’Appelle, which included pastoral ministry and neighboring aboriginal communities.  In 1990 he was elected general secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), a position he held until his ordination as the Bishop of Saskatoon in 1996.  He was installed as the sixth archbishop of the Archdiocese of Winnipeg on August 24, 2000.  He has served in various position within the CCCB, uncluding the role of president, and has also worked on and been a consultant on sexual abuse committees and conferences.