No longer does the Church exercise temporal powers over domains. The Papal States are back in the hands of secular powers. The saintly soldiers of the military orders have all laid down their arms. Rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, then, what is the role of the Church in the world today?
Her role is the same as it has always been: the salvation of all peoples. But how does she put this into practice? And if we are Church, how do we put it into practice? Perhaps these verses from Isaiah the prophet (coming soon to a Mass near you) can shed some light on these questions.
For a child is born to us, a son is given to us;
upon his shoulder dominion rests.
They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
His dominion is vast
and forever peaceful,
Upon David’s throne, and over his kingdom,
which he confirms and sustains
By judgment and justice,
both now and forever.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this!
Frank, you say, that’s Isaiah talking about the Messiah to come. Nice job, dear reader, for you stand on the mountain of the inspired writings of St. Matthew’s Gospel, where the connection between Isaiah’s prophecies and the coming of Our Savior were brought into the light. Did it ever occur to you that Isaiah might have thought he was just talking to King Ahaz about the near future? Inspired, yes, but still seeing “through a glass and darkly?” And when he heard the news, King Ahaz did what many political leaders do when offered unsolicited advice from subjects. He ignored it.
But what the prophet Isaiah did was something the prophets did in the past, and something the Church does now. He provided wise counsel, which took bravery (heroic), in an effort to bring about peace (a laudable goal). “Yeah, Frank, that is what Advent is all about. Immanuel comes and all that. But you must not have gotten the memo that says only the Messiah can bring about these things.”
It’s time for a quote from the Patroness of this blog, St. Joan of Arc:
“About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.”
Picture Jack Palance holding up his index finger telling Billy Crystal in the film City Slickers about “one thing.” Joan told her inquisitors this at her trial, but she wasn’t smoking a cigarette or doing one-armed push-ups at the time, so they did what King Ahaz did and ignored her. Then they burned her at the stake for purely political reasons (she was on the wrong side), regardless of the truth she told.
But this melding of Jesus Christ and His Church into one, with the titles from Isaiah’s prophecy, is what I am bringing to your attention with this post. Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Prince of Peace. “Frank,” you recoil in abject horror, “the Church as counselor, etc.? Acting in the Person of Christ? You are giving me the heebee jeebees, man.”
That is probably what Governor Quinn, Chief Executive of the State of Illinois was thinking when he met with several bishops who were doing what they are called to do recently. Providing the counseling that informs the conscience of those within the fold. Matthew Archbold brings this episode into the light for us in his blog post from a few days back over at National Catholic Register.
Therein, Matt quotes the bishops from a letter they wrote that the Chicago Sun Times published regarding the type of counseling they provided Governor Quinn,
“We share the Governor’s concern for the poor,” they wrote. “From our point of view, however, this was a meeting between pastors and a member of the Church to discuss the principles of faith, not the works of faith. On several occasions, the Governor has referred to his Catholic conscience and faith as the justification for certain political decisions.”
The letter continued: “As Catholic pastors, we wanted to remind the Governor that conscience, while always free, is properly formed in harmony with the tradition of the Church, as defined by Scripture and authentic teaching authority. A personal conscience that is not consistent with authentic Catholic teaching is not a Catholic conscience. The Catholic faith cannot be used to justify positions contrary to the faith itself.It is a matter of personal integrity for people who call themselves Catholic to act in a manner that is consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
The bishops said they were particularly concerned about Quinn’s influence on others “since he holds a highly visible and influential position.”
The letter concluded: “This concern on our part, as pastors of the Church, was the fundamental and primary topic of our conversation with Governor Quinn.”
Go read the rest, when you have a chance. However, spare me disparaging examples where “the bishops” have failed in these duties in the past, and try to find joy in the fact that these few, these happy few, provided the counseling in this instance that their roles within the Church, and to society, demand they practice. After all, the Church’s teachings are His teachings, and you know where they lead, right?
Heaven (yay!)…by way of the Cross (ouch!).
If you need something to pray about as the Solemnity of Christmas heaves into view, pray that our shepherds have the courage, the faith, and the love of Christ, to fulfill the duties that God has bestowed upon them. That they place the care and feeding of souls, as tough as this burden is to bear, at the forefront of all they do.
For the burden our shepherds bear in this regard is quite heavy, and not something that I envy at all. Especially when you consider Our Lord’s words when he was celebrating the feast of the Dedication (Happy Hannukuh!). Do you remember them? From John’s gospel (10:22-30) we read,
The feast of the Dedication was then taking place in Jerusalem. It was winter. And Jesus walked about in the temple area on the Portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him,
“How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus answered them,
“I told you and you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me. But you do not believe, because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.
The Father and I are one.
“The Father and I are one” and “my sheep hear my voice.” Earlier, in the same chapter, Our Lord explains our relationship to himself as sheep are to their shepherd. And these words, if there is such a thing as the Shepherds Leadership Academy, would be emblazoned over the doorways of its halls,
If you think this kind of “leadership by example” comes easy, to either the sheep or the shepherds, perhaps you haven’t looked in the mirror lately. Or asked your children what they think of your parenting style. Or looked at the way you lead the folks who are under your responsibility at work. Would you be a martyr for them, for example? For your children, sure. For the folks who work for you? Maybe. For complete strangers? For foreigners?
I was thinking about skipping Mass the other day with thoughts like these bouncing inside my brain. Blessed with a parish that is just a short walk from my workplace, and with Mass that meshes perfectly with my lunch break, sometimes I get complacent about how miraculous this is. But on that day, I just had a feeling that playing hooky would be fine, you know?. It was kind of rainy, and kind of cold, you see. And I was almost convinced to bail on the idea of going.
But 12 o’ clock rolled around and force of habit, I just stood up, put on my coat, and started walking. The whole way over to the parish, the new version of the Gloria was lilting through my mind. Does that ever happen to you? The same tune was playing in my head this morning when I walked up to my office from the parking lot.
But as I walked to Mass that day, I really was wondering, why? I mean, I know why, but why then, and why today too? Why are you calling me to come to you personally today, Lord? And then the readings reminded me of the yearning that the world simply cannot fulfill. Advent and the prophet Isaiah go together like gravy and mashed potatoes. Isaiah putting down on paper (lamb skins, papyrus?) what is just as true today as it was when he was called to prophesy to the leaders of Israel 800 years before the Messiah came.
Readings that explain what we yearn for, and what the Church is meant to be for us. And since God and Jesus are one, and he is the good shepherd, and St. Joan notes that Christ and his Church are one (he is the Groom, after all, and She is the Bride, and the betrothed are one) then that is a lot of mind-blowing tidbits to consider, don’t you think?
And what of our priests and bishops? These ordained shepherds of the flock are charged with fulfilling the roles described in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, whom we understand as describing traits of the Messiah,
The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him:
a Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
A Spirit of counsel and of strength,
a Spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD,
and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.
Not by appearance shall he judge,
nor by hearsay shall he decide,
But he shall judge the poor with justice,
and decide aright for the land’s afflicted.
Long story short, this is what Advent is all about. It is the story of the Light coming into the world. But the Light did not depart, because the Church is the keeper of the light. The Bride of Christ, the Church, is the bearer, and sharer, of the light. And today is the continuing story of that light restoring sight to the blind, which oftentimes is exactly what I am. I often forget that I am “the Church” too. For believers and non-believers alike. For as John proclaims in the Good News,
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him.
How much of that “not knowing” is a result of my own actions, or lack thereof? Pondering that thought often is a profitable thing to do. Especially when coupled with the following simple, effective, and transformative, prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, Holy Son of the Father, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Amen. How about a heaping of today’s O Antiphon?
O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.