Just southeast of Rome stands the small church of St. Mary in Palmis, better known as the Church of Domine Quo Vadis. It takes its name from the legend of St. Peter’s meeting with Christ as he flees persecution in Rome. “Lord, where are you going?” Peter asks. “To Rome to be crucified again,” the Lord replies. Whatever the actual origin of the name, there is a certain familiarity about this Petrine encounter with Christ: It ends in the reversal of what Peter originally had planned. The rest is history.
As the church prepares for Easter and a new successor to Peter, the ancient question remains power- fully relevant, not only for the papacy but for us all. It is not easy at the moment to get a clear sense of where the church is heading. What we do know is that with his resignation, Pope Benedict has separated the office from the person. Even for a moment, he has created a space of reflection, an opportunity to hear Christ ask us the question, Quo vadis? Even more searchingly, in this moment we must ask not only “Where are we going?” but “Where do we desire to go?”
In his act of resignation, Pope Benedict reminded us that the true head of the church is Christ. This is not a pious formula but a profound act of faith. In difficult times it can be tempting for the church to become enthralled to anxiety about its success or survival. When it does this, it shows itself no different from other human institutions. It can for- get its own origin and mystery, the daily miracle of its life and sacraments, its reality as “the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery.” As the pope withdrew into the prayer, reflection and silence of his Lenten retreat, the whole church might follow his example by taking time to let the Spirit prepare us for the election and reception of his successor. It may also be a time to acknowledge and understand what could be called our “ecclesial desolation.”
Attending to Desolation
St. Ignatius Loyola was not the first to identify “desolation” and “consolation,” but he teaches us to use them as a school in which God teaches us. One of the great insights of his Spiritual Exercises is not to flee from desolation but to attend to it. God is at work even in a dry, painful and dark time, confronting us with our fears, resistances and un-freedoms, often deep and subtle. No matter how much we love the church, it would be hard not to feel, at least from a European and North American perspective, that we have been living in a time of desolation. This does not detract from the astonishing goodness, commitment and courageous witness that so many “ordinary Catholics” give—the sure sign of the Spirit’s faithfulness. I would identify three desolations that are present in the Western church at the moment: hierarchical leadership, the wound of abuse, and mourning. Of course, they are all related.
Leadership. Although the hemorrhaging of membership may indeed be due to the secularization of culture, it may also be a symptom of desolation within the institutional structures of the church. This is a subtle desolation because Catholics intuitively understand and revere the hierarchical nature of their church. The desolation may have less to do with the structure per se than with its own secularization. Increasingly, bishops and priests find themselves acting like chief executive officers, with a strange confidence in condemning and disciplining, enhancing their retro-liturgical plumage rather than living out of the sacrament they bear.
As the Second Vatican Council and successive popes have taught, the church is not a corporation but a communio of the Spirit; its discipline does not come from coercion, fear, threat or persecution, but from love of Christ, his mission, his people and his truth. This love means that leadership is always marked by respect for others, their charisms and their dignity; it always begins by presuming their good faith. Ultimately, only leadership like this can be a source of grace to the community, gathering its gifts for the service of the whole Body of Christ and the struggle against evil.
The wound of abuse. We need to acknowledge deep desolation and the wound in the church’s heart caused not only by the crisis of abuse but by the way in which it is addressed. We need to accept that it is not the enemies of the church who have exposed this wound, but the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth. It is the same Spirit who gives us the grace to act with integrity.
Abuse cannot be addressed by safeguarding procedures alone, necessary though they are. A purely juridical process can never be adequate. To attempt to blame others or a lax secular culture is not only a dangerous denial; it is a sin against the victims and against the Spirit who is their advocate. Though intensely personal, abuse is about an institutional failure and the ecclesial culture that supported it. Only through a deep, humble repentance that begins and desires a sustained metanoia of ecclesial soul and culture can there be healing and renovatio.
The church must reclaim itself as the body of Christ, not some international corporation. Here the church needs to believe in itself. It needs to use its own spiritual, sacramental and imaginative resources; it needs a profound conversion. Only when it does this can it truly witness to the world, a world that itself is desperately in need of another way.
Mourning. We live in a church that is mourning. There is a sense that something has been lost. This is not only a loss, as is claimed, in the sense of mystery and transcendence, which we desperately need to recover, but it is also that sacramental intimacy and familiar reverence that marks Catholicism’s incarnational “at-home-ness” with heaven and earth. For some it may be mourning the loss of a past security and glory; for others an unfulfilled future glimpsed at the Second Vatican Council and the lost opportunities or seeds that never flowered. With a younger generation it may be for something they were never given but know they miss.
Mourning can generate anger toward those who we feel have taken something away from us. One can detect this in a strange anger that marks the Western Church at the moment. We see it in the internal polemics between different schools claiming to have the answer to our problems, but mainly it is directed against a secular culture, as if it is the secular world that has betrayed and robbed the church of its mission. Anger stops us from seeing the good in others; it stops us from seeing the great good and noble desires of our own culture, hearing its deeper longings, recognizing its fears and deep anxieties and recognizing its own searching. Only anger at the loss and desecration of human life, the exploitation of the poor, the destruction of creation and suffering ignored can serve the Gospel of Christ.
A decisive moment in the conversion of St. Augustine was his recollection of the words of the angel at the empty tomb: “Why seek the living among the dead?” A church that lives from the resurrection does not need to mourn; it needs to follow its risen Lord with joyous, calm and unshakable faith along all the unknown roads of history. It carries within itself the Easter proclamation, “All time belongs to him.” No matter how bleak the age, the church cannot go back; it must never lose its Easter eyes—with these it sees the abundance of graced life even in the desert.
A New Sensibility
If we can pause and take time, we will see that the daily funeral rites performed by the secular media (and some internal voices) have more to do with their own pathologies than our church’s reality. There is life, and it is coming in ways both familiar and new; a new spiritual and ethical sensibility is already forming. This sensibility is not afraid to draw upon the deep wells of the church’s traditional devotional life and to explore fresh forms. Many, churched and un-churched, young and old, have a deep desire for a sacramental life and vision, a Catholic vision, that heals the deep alienations that run through our postmodern life—a vision that makes sense of who we are, our purpose and our responsibilities to cherish the world that God has given us. They already are at home in the church; they are waiting for it to rediscover its freedom and generativity before a secular world. The secular world, too, is waiting for a church it can believe in, even if it chooses not to enter.
When we are freed from our Eurocentrism or America-centrism, our fears and desolations, we can begin to see the Spirit already preparing our future. Where can we begin? Once again, the question “Domine quo vadis?” is not a bad place to start—Christ was on his way to Rome.
The see of Peter. The papacy is God’s great gift to the church, but it needs to continue to evolve if it is to realize the fullness of its service. It has become too trapped in an ultramontane ecclesiology and a quasi-secular, monarchical exercise of power. While effective and prophetic at its best, it can also be impoverishing for the life of the church. All the popes since the Second Vatican Council have been aware of the need to develop a fuller theology of the papacy, both Pope Paul VI and Pope Benedict have helped us deflate its mystique, and Pope John Paul II, while showing its extraordinary, often prophetic power, was not afraid to initiate theological reflection about it. That needs to continue. With this must go a reform of the Roman Curia—not just in terms of structures, but in terms of ethos. It needs to be less about governing the universal church than about serving it. Subsidiarity is not just an important principle for the relationship between secular structures; it is an ecclesial one as well. As Pius XII observed, without prejudice to the hierarchical nature of the church, the principle applies to its life. Indeed, it is present from the beginning, as we can see from St. Paul. The office of Peter must maintain a serious and sustained theology of collegiality, which translates into effective practice and finds articulation within canon law. The council laid the foundations, but the full building is far from complete.
Collegiality. Collegiality needs to be given effective structures within the life of the local church. Only in that way can the full grace of the church’s hierarchical structure and its capacity to offer leadership to national and local cultures be fully realized. Pope John Paul II spoke about the “spirituality of communio” and the renewal and conversion of the use of the grace of power for the service it entails. Unless this happens, authority will be more diminished in the church.
With a development of collegiality, attention must be given to the gifts and charisms of those who are appointed bishops. They need to be men who can offer significant and creative leadership and that means using all the gifts of God’s people.
They need to be able to hold the community to its principal mission of witness to the Gospel of Christ, rather than allowing it to fall into division and dispute about things that are not essential or whose symbolic value has been exaggerated.
Internationally, nationally and locally the church increasingly needs to understand how to strengthen and nourish its own internal life while meeting the demands of the secular culture. This certainly means greater transparency and accountability enshrined in the church’s ethos and law. Above all, the bishop must be less an executive administrator than a demonstratively caring spiritual and pastoral leader. The gifts of administration already exist within the community, especially among the laity, and the bishop should not hesitate to use these gifts fully as part of his own ministry. He must have a deep, compassionate understanding for his priests and his people, the struggles and the circumstances of their lives, nourishing them with the light of Christ and the ever creative consolation of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, he must show this love for all within his diocese, prepared not only to call them to the truth of Christ, but to defend them before all those forces that diminish or oppress them. Above all, especially in our present cultures, he must be a man who can speak in a familiar way about God and the things of God.
Theology. Surely it is time for us to leave behind the rather false and arid polemics about the Second Vatican Council and the hermeneutics of continuity or discontinuity. We are now at the moment of a new appropriation of the council, whose riches we have barely begun to unfold. Part of the problem over both interpretation and practice has been that the theology after Vatican II has not kept pace with the council’s insights. Often the council glimpsed a truth but lacked the theology to develop it or to explore its consequences. Since the council, arguably the theological vitality and creativity of the church has been reduced. This needs to be restored, as does the ecclesial role of theology.
Too often, in its migration to the university, theology has lost its sense of service, not just to the academy but to the church and its mission. It needs to claim its own freedom and legitimacy within the campus, without sacrificing its subject to the gods of secular reason. Theology must not allow itself to forget that only in service of the mystery of Christ and his church is it preserved from vacuity.
We need to discover or recover a new relationship between the ecclesial charism of theology and that of the magisterium—local as well as Roman. Above all there is need for a clearer and effective theology of the sensus fidelium, which is not just a passive assent to Christian truth but an active wisdom manifest in the faithful praxis of Christian life and witness. Without this the church will never have a mature theology of the laity or realize the full effectiveness of its magisterium. Unless the church trusts theology, its mission and its risk, it will fail in its evangelical task. It will cease to have a conceptual command of the cultures in which it lives; it will be inarticulate and incomprehensible before them, lacking sufficient means to address the complex issues of the time with insight, reason, humanity, understanding and truth.
Glimpses of an Emerging Church
At first these may seem rather internal concerns, but without them the gifts that Christ and the Holy Spirit bestow upon the whole community will always be frustrated. Running through the Second Vatican Council is the vision of an open church, attentive to the ways in which the Spirit is working in all aspects of human endeavor, its political, cultural and religious traditions. At the heart of the council’s vision is a vital but simpler church that lives out of the Trinitarian mystery. The miracle of its sacramental life renews this church and makes it less an institution and more a familiar mysticism of presence, persons and communio. It is a church where communio finds daily expression not in retreat from the suffering, violence and injustice that mark the world, but in a profound loving solidarity with it; a communio of love that is primarily at the service of the poor, weak, forgotten and abandoned.
Here the Euro-American centrism of the church must give way to the church emerging in the developing world, which will constitute the majority of its membership by the end of the next papacy. It must give voice to their concerns, which are often far from those of the secular West. It must raise its voice against exploitation in defense of economic and social rights, especially the basic rights of human life and the rights of women and children. Now is the time for the church to discover its prophetic voice on behalf of the developing world, especially its vision of ecological justice and the care of natural resources that all members of the human family can enjoy and cherish now and in the future as the gift of God’s good creation. This church is not afraid of the world; nor is it afraid to be poor before it, because it knows that it does not need worldly power to achieve its goals. It is prepared to spend itself in service—recognized and unrecognized; it is not preoccupied with itself or its own survival but has the needs and the future of humanity as its task.
It is a church that follows the incarnate and risen Christ into all the depths of history and the empty places of the human heart, and always with love. Living from the truth of Christ, it understands and cherishes the supreme gift of life in all men and women, whatever their race, religion, state or status. It rejoices in those structures, human as well as divine, which allow life—all life—to flourish. When the church lives this, then it lives most deeply its own sacramental life, offered without charge or contract to a secular world whose soul is slowly starving. Such a church can teach the evangelical counsels and the precepts with authority: how to share the resources of creation, live materially simpler but spiritually richer lives in solidarity with all women and men, reverencing our own bodies and those of others, rejecting all the ways of instrumentalizing and brutalizing creation and one another.
The council understood how only a church that lives out of a kenosis of love and joyous self-sacrificing gift can realize this vision. For such a church, secularization is not a threat but a call. It is not a utopian church or a church that has some dreamy, humanitarian ethic. Following the crucified Christ, it can never underestimate the reality of our wounded state, but it is not afraid to suffer for and with the world, living with all the tortured realities of our sin but understanding the quieter victory of hope, love and grace, “laboring and working” in the vineyard of the Lord until he comes. Above all, the church that the council glimpsed was one that knew that even when the secular world formally denies God, and informally ignores him, he is always present.
It will take a humble, free, mystical church to see this, to go even into the darknesses where God has been hidden or discarded. When it takes this next step, even on the Holy Saturdays of the secular world, it will find him where he is not expected to be; it will discover that there are many who bear his name and hear his voice. They have been waiting so long for the church to find them.
Maybe, as the church inaugurates a new papacy, we will not be afraid to love this church, as it is, as it desires to be, as God wills it to be. Maybe we will glimpse again the greatness of the church’s heart and mission.
Listen to an interview with James Hanvey, S.J.