Monday, June 8, 2009

Catholic Theological Sources For A Pastoral Life

(The following is my synthesis paper for year one of the Deacon Formation Program)

The image of Christ on the Cross is the most powerful icon of our faith. The Cross symbolizes the activity that is the pastoral life of the Church. In this eloquent icon is a reflection of what Christ expects all disciples to do if they are to follow “The Way:” Sacrifice self for the needs of others, pick up your cross and follow Christ’s many teachings. But even more starkly present in the image is the embodiment of Christ’s Greatest Commandment, the so-called “Love Commandments.” In the vertical beam of the Cross is the Commandment, “You shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30) The imagery is Human to God. Earth to the Heavens. Love shared upward. In the horizontal beam of the cross is the Commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) The imagery is Human to Human. The Kingdom of God here on earth. Love shared person to person. As one envisions the words of Christ and their ramification on pastoral ministry one can clearly see the cross of Christ in the reflection.

Is this image a theological source? Perhaps not. But it is a reminder of the many sources that make up “The Way” of Christ. Sacred Scripture is the primary theological source that grounds and guides the activity that constitutes the pastoral life of the Church. In the four Gospels are the words of Christ during his human sojourn. Christ the teacher is the central source of our faith and serves as a guide for everything we do pastorally. Monika Hellwig in Understanding Catholicism summed up Christ the teacher most beautifully, “He is a man sharing our humanity. Therefore we can imitate him, join in his life project and empathize with him. He is at the same time, in ways beyond our scrutiny, empathy and imagination, uniquely the Son of God, sharing the divinity of the Father. Therefore we can worship him and place unconditional trust in him.”

Christ’s teachings in the New Testament are the cornerstones of our faith, grounding and guiding the pastoral life of the Church. From Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) to the Eschatological Discourse known as the Judgment of the Nations (Matthew 25:31-46), we find Christ’s blueprint for how we are to prioritize and conduct our pastoral life. Believing in Christ comes with it an important pattern of behavior we must emulate if we are to make it to and through the gates of Heaven.

Over the past year, we have seen the many needs in our community today. Our pastoral experiences have opened our eyes to the many needs in our own parishes. All of these needs require works, sacrifice, presence, compassion, love, etc. “The Way” of Christ is not easy, but leads to our salvation. Pastoral ministry allows us all to live out our faith in ways that have the ability to inspire others to find a closer relationship with God. It is more about walking the talk than about talking the talk, “So, also faith itself, it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17) Works of charity or mercy, both corporal and spiritual, are crucial to the pastoral life of the Church. For the diaconate, it is our main mission to model works of charity or mercy as one of the three pillars of faith ministry, along with the Word and Liturgy. By creating a living faith, we are better able to bring the call to all to create the Kingdom of God here on earth.

An experience this year helped me to see clearly the role we all play in the pastoral life of the Church. It is not just the priest or deacon who is pastorally plugged in, the laity (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity - Vatican II) also plays a greater role than ever before. As Christ told the Apostles, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19) The baptized of our faith have a responsibility far beyond attending Mass regularly and accepting Communion.

My experience happened one Sunday during Lent. While listening to the homily, a woman ran from the Church screaming and crying. I was focused on the homily and did not see that an adult caused this noise. My wife did. I thought it was an unruly child being escorted from the interior of the Church. But Mary said, “You need to go help. That was an adult.” When I realized what was going on I walked out of the Church and saw a fellow parishioner shutting the outer doors to the Church from the other side, so I did the same thing on my side and joined him in closing the center doors. We then proceeded to the commotion near the entryway to our Church. There on the floor sat a woman in her 50s writhing in emotional pain, crying and declaring, “Life isn’t worth living. I’ve just lost my job. I’ll probably lose my house… Oh, I’m in so much pain.” She was being held and consoled by our female choir director on one side and supported by one of our female lectors on the other side. As I approached, I knelt before the three and felt that I was in the presence of one of the most holy sights I’d ever witnessed. Tears began rolling down my face as I felt her pain. She looked at me and said, “I feel so embarrassed.” The women said, “You have nothing to be embarrassed about.” And out of my mouth came the words, “We’re all family here.” As we said these words, she began to breathe and what must have been a panic attack seemed to subside. The homily was ending and the choir director needed to get back inside to start the offertory song. She asked if I would stay with her. She wanted to go into the restroom to freshen up. I offered to help her get up and walked with her to the restroom. I noticed the other parishioner who helped shut the door went back to open the doors. As I waited for her to come out of the bathroom, this same person introduced me to a parishioner who also is a psychiatrist. She finally emerged from the restroom. Out of my mouth came, “This is my friend (name). He can help you.” The two went to a quiet part of the church, but as she left she turned to me to say, "I want to go to communion." I told her I’d come for her when communion began. As I walked back to my seat, a parishioner said, “What was that all about?” Out of my mouth came the words, “I guess Father’s homily about Christ’s 40 days in the desert got to her.” He said, “Wow!” When communion began I went down to get her. She and the doctor were finishing up. I placed my hand on her shoulder and asked her how she was doing, she said, “I am in so much pain.” These words came out of my mouth, “Just remember, Christ took on the pain of all humanity and gave the ultimate sacrifice to help us to deal with our pain and our burdens. He’s there for you.” I asked her if she wanted to have Father give her a call to talk things over. She said yes. And we proceeded upstairs for Holy Communion. Afterward, I asked her if she wanted me to stay with her, but she said she was OK to be by herself. So, I went back and joined my wife.

The experience taught me that laity and clergy share pastoral responsibility together. No one is more important than the other. To quote Richard McBrien from the book Ministry, “Church is to be a sign of God’s Kingdom in the World.” What guides us in our pastoral efforts in Church are Christ’s words, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40-41) The experience also taught me the power of the Holy Spirit and to be effective pastorally one must empty oneself of all pre-suppositions and let the Holy Spirit take control. The words came out of my mouth, but I believe the words were the work of the Holy Spirit. Not of me.

Sacred Tradition and Sacraments of Faith additionally help to not only ground and guide our pastoral life, but help interpret it too. The Last Supper is reenacted in the Eucharist, or as Reverend Joseph Champlin puts it in his book Firm, but Kind and Gentle, “The Eucharist is the Divine Christ before whom we bow in adoration, yet also his Body and Blood which we eat and drink in Holy Communion… ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” (John 6:53) The Nicene Creed is the spoken litany of truths of our faith pronounced by the entire faith community at Mass. The Our Father are the words Christ taught us to pray to the Father. Our Catholic faith “mission statement” is found in Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” Acts Of The Apostles and the rest of the New Testament provide further interpretation of Sacred Tradition and provides a well-spring theological source for understanding the mystery of faith: the resurrection. It also helped to establish the Church, as we know it today.

Four Councils (Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon) helped to define Jesus of Nazareth as “pivotal in history and in the human relationship to the transcendent God,” according to Hellwig. “The Catholic understanding of the faith is heavily indebted to (these) four councils.” After all; our primary role in our pastoral life is to bring people closer to God.

The Vatican II Council not only reaffirmed the laity’s role in pastoral ministry, but also reestablished the permanent diaconate, the faith community’s servants. Underlining this service are Christ’s vital words for all pastoral ministry, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” (Matthew 20:28)

An important theological source for the Catholic Church guiding our pastoral efforts is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. As I discern my internship for the coming year, I was encouraged by our Formation Coordinator to look into the L’Arche community in Seattle. One of my best friends growing up had a brother named David who dealt with what are now termed mental disabilities. Interestingly enough, I was going to play a baseball game in Bellevue last summer when a middle aged man walked up, smiled and said, “Are you going to play baseball?” I said yes and asked him if he liked baseball. He said he did. I asked him if he ever watched games at the field we played on? He said, no. I encouraged him to stop by and watch us sometime. As he walked away, he turned and said, “goodbye.” In that instance, I knew it was David. It was the same, simple joyful conversations I remember having with him when we were both in our teens. My father-in-law passed away in 2003, but for 20 years he was a strong supporter of the L’Arche community in Spokane. As I discerned the internship that would stretch my burgeoning pastoral skills, L’Arche kept calling my heart. The CCC (1700) declares, “The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God.” “The divine image is present in every man (person). It shines forth in the communion of persons, in the likeness of the unity of the divine persons among themselves.” (CCC- 1702) The dignity referred to in CCC broke forth in my heart when listening to a core member of Tacoma’s L’Arche community during visit this year. The communication between an employee and the core member was a beautiful representation of Christian listening and the presence of God. I was moved to tears and in that moment knew L’Arche was where God was calling me to serve. I spent an afternoon at L’Arche Seattle and knew in a way I cannot put into words that this is where God wants me.

The Magisterium and Ex Cathedra declarations by the Pope help to provide further theological sources that ground, interpret and guide pastoral life in the Church. Hellwig suggest we ponder the organic and evolutionary nature of the faith, “No formulation, solemn and official though it be, can cancel the task of further reflection from the living experience of believers.” So, a theological source could be our own hearts. However, no “living experience” can contradict Scripture, Tradition, the Magisterium and teaching authority of the Holy See.

Finally, to be effective pastorally, one must possess communication skills, theological competence and social awareness. According McBrien, one must be grounded in the Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity and the Moral Virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude. But most of all we must be gentle and patient just as our Savior is. As Champlin reminds all pastoral ministers, “Christ seeks not to discourage, but to encourage, to heal the crushed reed and nourish it back to health, to nurse the faint flame until it becomes strong and bright.” Again, quoting from Sacred Scripture we have our theological motto for successful pastoral ministry, “a bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not quench.” (Matthew 12:20 – Isaiah 42:3)

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