There is growing awareness that we are living in a time of reform and renewal in the Catholic Church.
Yet there is also a real sense in which all times are times of reform. This is because, as individual believers and as a Church, we must always be striving to be transformed in the image of Jesus Christ.
“Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on earth,” the Second Vatican Council said. “The Church is always in need of this, insofar as she is an institution of men and women here on earth.”
This week in Rome, Pope Francis hosts an unprecedented summit of the leading bishops from every nation to discuss the scourge of child sexual abuse in the Church.
I am praying that this meeting will give new urgency to the issue of preventing abuse and helping victims find justice and healing. I am also hoping this meeting will focus new attention on the need for Church leaders to be responsible, accountable, and transparent in our handling of abuse allegations.
The moral failures we have seen are symptoms of a deeper and more widespread need for rebuilding and revitalizing the Church — not just Church institutions but also the “Church” that is each one of us.
Renewal and reform are a coin with two sides. The one side is individual, the other is institutional. The two cannot be separated and each depends on the other.
No change in the Church’s institutional organization and authority structures will be effective unless there is also a renewal in our hearts and minds, unless each one of us decides again to live our faith with greater integrity, new devotion, and new excitement.
Right now, we hear many voices calling for many changes in the Church. It seems that everyone, inside the Church and outside, has ideas for what the pope should do, for what the bishops should do.
But we need to understand how authentic change takes place historically and how to distinguish between true and false reform in the Church.
In that light, last week’s announcement that Francis will canonize the Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman seems providential. Among Newman’s great works was the definitive study of how doctrine develops in the Church.
True reform, as Newman saw it, is not revolutionary but evolutionary, building on the foundations and doctrines established by Jesus and handed on through the Church’s tradition.
Reform means returning to the original “form” and correcting what has “de-formed” the Church. This means going back to Jesus Christ and the simplicity and purity of the first witnesses to the faith.
Dante, the great Christian humanist, wrote in the 14th century: “The form of the Church is nothing else than the life of Christ in word and in deed.”
This is important to remember.
Jesus is always “the form” — the ideal for the Church and everyone who belongs to the Church. That means the pope, cardinals, and bishops. That means clergy, religious, and laity. We are all called to take the life of Christ, his teachings and actions, as the pattern for our lives and ministries.
In this time, we need to keep going back to the sources — to the Gospels and to the witness and writings of the saints, especially the Church Fathers.
We learn from the saints how important it is to be united with St. Peter, the pope, the “rock” upon which Christ built his Church.
We cannot be faithful to Christ and the Gospel without a loving fidelity to his Church. We see this again and again in the lives of the saints.
Venerable Madeleine Delbrêl lived and ministered for nearly 20 years in a deeply secularized French town run by Communists.
She said that to stay faithful to Christ in a society without God, we need to have a strong sense of mission. But, she added, we need an even stronger sense of obedience and love for the Church.
Delbrêl saw Rome as “a kind of sacrament of Christ-Church.” And once she made a pilgrimage there to renew her faith.
“I arrived in Rome in the morning,” she later wrote. “I went immediately to the tomb of St. Peter. … I remained there the whole day, and I left again for Paris in the evening.”
What a beautiful and simple gesture of love for the Church, something we can all reflect on during this time of renewal and reform. It is another reminder that the Church will be reformed as each one of us is reformed.
Pray for me this week and pray for the Holy Father and bishops gathering in Rome. I will be joining you in those prayers and I will be praying for you and your families.
Let us pray, too, for the intercession of the Blessed Mother. Through Mary and with St. Peter, may all of us go to Jesus and renew our fidelity to our calling as his disciples.
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