The issues confronting the church in our time are many. I have chosen three of them, well aware that this choice is doubtless both biased and incomplete. And I am also certainly under the influence of the situation in northern Europe, where the churches are exposed to the eroding influence of secularization. Nevertheless, I will risk a brief analysis of the contemporary Western person.
1. The feeble perception of sacramental reality: The contemporary person is in love with rites and ritualization, but is allergic to the Christian sacraments.
The Western churches of established Christianity are passing through a profound crisis in their perception of sacramentality. It is as though the Western person has a blind spot. In pastoral ministry, priests are tempted to fall back and focus in their ministry on word and diakonia (service). The situation is aggravated by the decline in the number of priests.
In any event, sacraments are no longer the center of gravity for Catholic pastoral care. Indeed, although contemporary men and women still understand the power of the word and the relevance of diaconal service in the church, they understand and appreciate far less the reality of the sacramental world. As a result, liturgy risks being dominated largely by an excess of words or of being merely a way to recharge one’s batteries for diakonia and social action. The church seems to be nothing more than a place where one speaks and where one places oneself at the service of the world. The sacramental life is shifting from the center of the church to its periphery. Is it, perhaps, a matter of a slow and unconscious Protestantization of the church from within?
In any event, this orientation could have serious consequences for the nature of the church, of the ordained ministry and of the sacraments. It could even destroy the proper Catholic conception of preaching, which is not primarily marketing rhetoric, and of diakonia, which is not mere philanthropy.
The causes are doubtless many and varied. In any case, it is not, as some contend, the loss of symbolic sensitivity that is at stake. For never has there been such an infatuation with rites as in our day: they sprout like the luxuriant vegetation of a tropical forest. One invents—and markets—secular and cosmic rites or rites linked to natural religion for all the great passages of human life: birth, puberty, marriage and death. Have we returned to the times of the Celtic druids or the mystery religions?
What is at stake here is the historical and Christological foundation of Christian sacramental rites that uniquely distinguish the sacraments of the church from universal human symbols and rites. Moreover, rites of natural religion all come up against—without being able to resolve them—three problems confronting all of us: finitude, death and sin. These rites are not able to provide conversion of heart; rather, they promise only therapeutic illusions and/or the self-redemption of man or woman.
Thus we proclaim the word and we practice diakonia. But we also guard the most precious treasure of the Catholic Church: liturgy and the sacraments. Does not the Constitution on the Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council affirm that the liturgy is far from exhausted, that it is the source from which everything flows and that it is the end toward which everything it undertakes for the salvation of humankind converges?
2. The need for participation: Modern men and women love participation and have difficulty with authority.
The theme of collegiality in the church is, whether one wants it to be or not, at the top of the agenda in ecclesial public opinion and in the media. It is, moreover, eminently conciliar. While the world is expanding and is increasingly diversified, it also wants to be more and more one. Here is an enormous challenge for the church in the future: to remain firmly one but generously diversified and inculturated. This is also the perennial paradox of the church: the relationship between Peter and the Eleven, between the Petrine primacy and the collegiality of the bishops. This paradox is congenital and spans the millennia. For the third millennium, the problem of collegiality will certainly be one of the great challenges facing us.
The church will never be sheltered from tensions on this point. Some dream of solving the problem by exalting one of the two poles to the detriment of the other: either by elevating the primacy of Peter to the detriment of the episcopal college or by reducing the role of Peter in favor of the bishops. Yet the solution cannot be to dance on one foot. It is in the reinforcement of the two poles: both primacy and collegiality. An expanding world—with all its differences but in search of unity—needs a strong Peter and a strong episcopal college.
We do not as yet have the instrument perfectly suited to achieve this equilibrium; our tools to activate collegiality are not ready. We must find a more precise and effective configuration and articulation among four components: the Roman Curia, the conferences of bishops, the synods and the consistory of the cardinals.
What my brother cardinals have proposed regarding a certain decentralization vis-à-vis the local churches—in the procedure for appointing bishops, the administration of justice in the church and also regarding the relations between the Curia and the episcopal conferences—merits serious and benevolent examination, even if a resolution is not immediately achievable.
The synod of bishops is certainly the privileged instrument of collegiality. But its functioning has to be perfected. As it now functions, it does not allow for real debate in the episcopal college around Peter. The first two weeks offer an interesting geographical map of the problem, as John Paul II phrased it one day. The third week—that of the small groups—is too short and poorly directed: it does not permit a true confrontation of ideas. The reports in plenary session that follow are, quite frankly, disappointing. As far as the fourth week is concerned, it is overtime work that painfully produces a few propositions. Fortunately, the Holy Father saves the day by writing the post-synodal exhortation.
It is necessary to foster a true culture of debate in the church. It is true that the synodal fathers themselves could be more frank and more pertinent in their interventions. The fault does not lie only in the method of procedure (ordo procedendi). For everything there is a season, said Ecclesiastes. There is a time for homilies and a time for synodal interventions.
Should one fear debate in the church? If all the synodal fathers place the love of the church above their personal preferences or those of their constituencies, if they have the courage to shelter themselves from undue exterior influences, if they live in a profound faith in the Petrine ministry and in the assistance of the Holy Spirit, a culture of debate in the church would be beneficial and even indispensable. One must not forget that a synod, before being a matter of the management of the church, is first of all of the order of celebration. The Holy Spirit is there.
3. The human person hesitates before the True, is impotent before the Good, but loves Beauty.
To evangelize contemporary men and women, it is certainly necessary for the evangelizer to be solidly rooted in Scripture and tradition. But it is equally necessary that the evangelizer have a profound affinity with the culture of the time. It would be a serious fault in the training of our seminarians and priests and also of our laity, if we were to be confined by pusillanimity to an in vitro educational curriculum. It is absolutely necessary that evangelizers be made aware of the immense richness of contemporary culture: science and technology, the life of the mind in its diverse currents, literature, arts, the theater—in short, the entire enthralling life of the world today. Our priests and committed laity certainly need a solid framework of biblical, dogmatic and moral knowledge that resists the autumnal tempests of an aging civilization menaced by cultural osteoporosis. They have no less need of nerves sensitive to the variations of their cultural environment: supersensitive nerves.
In the same train of thought, I ask myself whether we are using sufficiently one of the doors that leads to God—the door named Beauty. Indeed, God is Truth, Holiness and Moral Perfection, but God is also Beauty. One can find God through the door of truth, for truth attracts us. But many of our contemporaries are little Pilates who ask: What is truth? and remain outside the door without entering. God as Moral Perfection and Holiness also attracts us. But many will say: Moral perfection attracts me, but I’m incapable of it, and they remain outside that door marked by their moral weaknesses. But beauty disarms: it is irresistible for contemporary men and women. Young students discuss and study courses on questions of dogma (the True) and morality (the Good). But after a performance of the Passion According to Saint Matthew by Johann Sebastian Bach, they are disarmed and left speechless. The church has so many beautiful things to say and to show to the world, not only in its artistic heritage, but also in so many saints who shone with beauty. (To name only two, there are Francis of Assisi with his Canticle of the Sun and John of the Cross and his poems.) There is much more here than aesthetics. For those who would still doubt, allow me to remind them that beauty has everything to do with truth: Beauty is the splendor of truth. And beauty has everything to do with the good. The Greeks even made it into one single word: kaloskagathos. Beauty can make a synthesis of the true and the good. Truth, Goodness, Beauty. Here are three names and three access roads to God. But Beauty has as yet been explored very little in theology and catechesis in our day.
Is it not time to attend to this lacuna?