Sede Vacante thoughts

Off line, some folks have mentioned that I haven't posted much about Benedict XVI leaving the Chair of Peter and who his successor might be.  While that's true on my blog, I have written a little on these topics in my parish bulletin. Should you be interested in what I said there, here are two recent letters. 

February 15, 2013

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Can’t tell you how many times folks have asked me this past week about the pope’s resignation:

“Did you see it coming?”
 (Well, no – and neither did anyone else.)

 “Who do you think will be the next pope?” 
(Along with the rest of the world, I didn’t expect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to be the present pope so just how accurate might be anyone’s prediction this time around? And who would have guessed that this pope would be the first one to resign in 600 years?)
“Do you think the next pope will be conservative or liberal?” 
(Seldom have these labels been less helpful than in the situation at hand.) 

“Do you think the next pope will change the Church’s teaching on [fill in the blank]?" 

 Now, there’s a question worth taking a look at it! 

After the pope announced his intention to resign, the New York Times ran a story online with the title:

Pope’s Successor Is Likely to Share His Doctrine 

If that ‘s news to you, if it surprises or disappoints you, then you have a lot to learn about the Catholic Church and its teachings.   The Catholic Church is, of its nature, conservative.  By conservative here I don’t necessarily mean right of center but rather that it’s the nature of the Church to keep, to retain, to preserve the story, the mystery, the truth and the wisdom of the past so that the present generation and those who will come after us might benefit from our heritage and tradition.  It’s of the nature of the Church that successive popes share the same doctrine, even if there might well come some change in our understanding of it, in our way of articulating its truth or in our way of exercising it pastorally in the life of the Church and the world.  If the next pope failed to share the doctrine of his predecessors, he would fail to be Catholic.

So, to ask if the next pope will “change the Church’s teaching” on: war and peace; marriage; abortion; immigration; health care; economic justice; capitol punishment; religious liberty; ordaining women; a preferential option for the poor; or [fill in the blank] is to ask the wrong question.

The better question to pose about these important, critical hot-button issues is this: How will the new pope guide the Church in addressing these concerns afresh and bringing the scriptures and tradition to bear on them -- through what we pray will be a long, healthy and Spirit-filled papacy for the next Vicar of Christ. Some Church teaching is non-negotiable, that is to say that at its core it will not change.  How we understand such teaching, how we present it and how we minister and live it out in our daily lives  -- that’s the challenge that faces every pope, every bishop, every pastor and every Catholic person.

Over the last three months I’ve spent three sessions with our Confirmation students.  I do this every year under the title “Ask Fr. Fleming Anything You Want.”  The questions the students submit on index cards are as predictable they are challenging. The challenge I face in these classes is the one I mentioned above: how do I hand on the teachings of the Church in light of the scriptures and our tradition in a way that helps teenagers grasp and appreciate the wisdom in our heritage?

Some of the student’s questions relate to Church teaching on sexuality.  I come at these questions from a natural law perspective with the hope of providing a balance to what’s often a rather shallow cultural take on these issues.  It’s good to see how just being faced with the Church’s teaching on an issue can give young people pause (long enough, I hope) for them to at least weigh their youthful, maturing convictions against a measure tested over several millennia.

And there’s always an index card in the pile asking if I agree with everything the Church teaches.  As I told the students just a few weeks back, my task is not to talk about questions I might have or to take sides on issues, but rather to introduce them to what our Church teaches and help them understand it.

In the United States (perhaps throughout the world) the teachings of the Catholic Church are probably better known than those of any other faith.  People within and outside our communion have some idea of “what Catholics believe” and “what Catholics don’t believe.”  Unfortunately, that knowledge is often at least partly misinformed and lacking sufficient and appropriate pastoral nuance.  Some of the basic Catholic “dos and don’ts” are pretty well known but just as often misunderstood.  And this may be as true of  every-Sunday-go-to-church Catholics as it is of their unchurched neighbors who depend on the daily paper or the internet for religious information and instruction.

Whether right or left of center, there are few Catholics (lay people or clergy) who don’t have some questions, misgivings or disagreements with even the more substantive of Church teachings (see the third paragraph on the reverse side) and on matters of lesser significance as well.  Needless to say, this all presents an interesting, demanding and challenging environment in which to work as a Catholic pastor.  Your prayers for my brother priests and me are most appreciated!

Do I mean here that there will be no change ahead in the Catholic Church?  For the answer to that I invite you to take a look at the Church over the past 50-75 years and ask yourselves, “Has there been change?”  Indeed there has been and the changes we’ve witnessed and experienced have reached into virtually every nook and cranny of Catholic life.  Of course in our world of instantaneous change, what’s happened in the 50 years since Vatican Council II may seem, to many, to be ancient history – but it’s not.   Indeed, it’s our history – and it’s our future.  The Church will continue to change if only because it’s made up of human beings - but some things will not change: the Scriptures, the Sacraments, the Creed and the heart of Tradition.   Still, how we understand even these substantive elements of our faith and how we teach them and celebrate them and live them – all of this may and will grow and develop as God’s Spirit continues to enlighten the Church.

What I love and treasure about my Catholic faith is sometimes and even often troubled by the Church’s sinfulness: our collective failure to be the Body of Christ we are called to be in the world.  Yet, I have spent my life gladly and happily in this Church:
           - where the grace of God sustains us; 
           - where Christ is the heart of our faith;
           - where the Holy Spirit is the breath in each of us and the source of our hope for unity;
           - where the Scriptures are the font from which our tradition of wisdom flows;
           - where God’s mercy is always greater, wider and deeper than our failures;
           - and where the Gospel’s invitation to seek, find and reconcile with God is extended to all. 

I mentioned above how meeting the teachings of the Church can invite our young people to look again and weigh their own ideas and stands against a different measure.  I suspect that just such an exercise might be helpful for all of us.  I’ll be writing more about this and would appreciate your response, comments and questions.
                                                                                Fr. Fleming

March 1, 2013

Dear Brothers and Sisters, 
At the moment and for a while, we have no pope.  Benedict XVI has stepped down from the Chair of Peter and its next occupant has yet to be elected.  As I listen and read, it seems to me there are, as if often the case, roughly two kinds of folks in the world: those who believe the Pontiff Emeritus to have been without fault and those who can find no good in the man.  Surely, both positions are off the mark.  No one, not even the pope, is perfect and regardless of what some might hold, Benedict XVI loves God and the people of the Church with all his heart and soul. I trust that he did faithfully and prayerfully what he believed God asked of him.   

I can’t help but think of the words of Jesus outside the temple when he interrupted the scribes and Pharisees who were about to stone the woman caught in adultery.  No, I’m not comparing Benedict to the woman in the story but I suspect that he would be among the first to acknowledge his need for the merciful intervention of Christ in his life.  I don’t believe the resigned pontiff is one who thinks he is without sin and I’m confident that he receives the sacrament of reconciliation more often than most of us, myself included.  I think of this gospel scene because there are plenty of stones on the ground, within our reach, and we may be quicker to pick them up and take aim than our own holiness merits.  What was it Jesus said?  “Let the one who has no sin be the first to cast a stone…”   

Benedict would dismiss the praise of those who think him perfect.  I suspect he may be more aware of his personal faults than are many of us of our own.  He’s an elderly man who has spent his life, and in a particularly demanding way the past eight years, in service of our Church.  Was his papacy perfect?  None is.  Were there mistakes, even serious ones, in his administration?  I’d be surprised to find that there weren’t: not every word and deed is infallible.  Will the next pope have much to build on and find changes that need to be made?  Of course.  Will we speak and act as Christians as we bid Benedict farewell?  For this we can pray.  (For some good reading on Benedict’s legacy to Americans, see this piece by Elizabeth Scalia: Pope Benedict's farewell lesson is one Americans should heed.)   

I do have some thoughts about a particular cardinal I’d be pleased to see step out on that balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the end of the conclave.  I’ve never met him but the little I happened to have learned about him since last fall (long before Benedict’s historic resignation) has much impressed me.  On the other hand, who would wish such a position on anyone?  I certainly hope that no cardinal who wants to be the pope will be elected because such a man has both grossly overestimated himself and his abilities and has little or no sense of the tension between the universality of the Church and its local and particular issues and concerns.  If there’s one thing I would look for in the next pope it would be his deep appreciation and respect for the role of each bishop in his own diocese and a papal desire to share as fully as possible with the college of bishops the work entrusted to the one who holds the office Peter in the Church.   For this, not for a particular candidate, do I hope and pray.   

The cardinals go into the conclave shadowed by the sexual abuse crisis, keenly cognizant of serious administrative missteps in the last decade and burdened by the knowledge that in some parts of the world there is widespread disagreement among Catholics on serious and critical points of doctrine.  From a few more than a 100 men they are charged with choosing one to shoulder the ministry of healing a wounded Body of Christ and with empowering a new preaching of the gospel to a world which has in large measure come to ignore it.  May the man who takes on this work be one who leans not only God and the Holy Spirit but also on his brothers and sisters in the faith.                                                                                                             Sincerely,                                                                                                             Fr. Fleming  
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