Aparecida on Initiation

brazil-popeThe next section of our chapter on formation in the Aparecida document asks us to consider “Initiation to Christian Life and Permanent Catechesis.” The outline doesn’t tell us much:

i. Initiation to Christian Life

ii. Proposals for Christian Initiation

iii. Permanent Catechesis

But the key word here is “initiation.” Christian life, the true discovery of Christ, and of the Trinity, is not automatic.

We discover, says this chapter, several different kinds of people in need of formation. There are those who have never heard the Gospel, to be sure. But then there are baptized children: how do we make sure that we follow him on their Baptism by truly drawing them into the fullness of Christian life?

So too there are “insufficiently evangelized baptized adults.” Some of them come to Church, some regularly and some irregularly) and some of them don’t.

The real insight of this section is to recognize that all of these are problems of “initiation.” “Evangelization” is also a good word, but “initiation” ties it more deeply into formation. The goal is not just to tell them the good news, but to launch them into the kind of encounter that leads to conversion, discipleship, communion, and mission. How do we get people started?

And then, in permanent catechesis, how do we follow up on the insight that we need constantly to be restarted?

***

Perhaps we should note some repetitiveness in this section of the document. I think it is intentional: we need to be very clear on the core of the formation process.

So our chapter on “The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples” has four main sections:

6. The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples

     a. A Trinitarian Spirituality of Encounter with Jesus Christ

     b. The Process of Formation of Missionary Disciples

     c. Initiation to Christian Life and Permanent Catechesis

     d. Places of Formation for Missionary Disciples

When we get to part “d” next week, we will finally consider “places of formation”: actual programs we can run. The heart of Aparecida’s message, however, is that programs mean nothing if we don’t know what the programs are about.

Formation must be very forthrightly about “encounter with Jesus Christ,” ongoing “conversion” and repentance, “discipleship” and continued study, “communion: with the Church as a whole and with her members, and “mission.” It must form us spiritually and intellectually, as well as for mission (“pastoral formation”) and community (“human formation”).

And most of all, formation must lead us to Christ. So part “a” is about encounter, part “b” is about a process rooted in encounter, and part “c” is about “initiation” into that encounter. Let us never talk about programs and “places of formation” until this point has been thoroughly driven home!

***

What does it look like to be truly “initiated”? Aparecida gives a fantastic description: having as center the person of Jesus Christ, our Savior and fullness of our humanity, source of all human and Christian maturity; having a spirit of prayer, being a lover of the Word, practicing frequent confession and participating in the Eucharist; cheerfully being a part of the ecclesial and social community, showing solidarity in love, and being a fervent missionary

Despite the subsection title, there are precious few “proposals” in this section. Aparecida doesn’t tell us what to do. It tells us what to try to accomplish.

Let us be clear: this is the task before us. It is up to us, those who are serious about the Catholic spiritual life, to be creative, and find the means to meet these ends. More than that, it is up to us who are initiated to share that initiation.

That means talking about prayer – about “having a spirit of prayer,” infusing our lives with prayer. It means talking about the Word, Scripture, which is the lifeblood of our prayer and which teaches us what it means to be a Christian. It means encouraging frequent confession: by doing it, offering it, and talking about why it is a good. It means encouraging true participation in the Eucharist: frequent Masses, truly prayerful Masses, a spirituality that knows how to enter into the liturgy of the Mass – and, of course Eucharistic adoration.

Do our parishes do this? Do our other Catholic organizations clearly promote these things? How could they? What organizations should we, my friends, be founding to promote these things?

How could we, simply and straightforwardly, encourage “cheerful” participation in our Catholic community. Solidarity in love? And fervent mission?

What could you do to promote an initiation into the encounter with Christ that leads to conversion, discipleship, communion, and mission?

What organizations can you imagine that would get people going in Christian life?

Aparecida on Respecting the Process of Formation

brazil-popeLast week we looked at the fundamental elements that must be present in every step of formation: the encounter with Jesus Christ, conversion, discipleship, communion, and mission. But Aparecida then goes on to discuss the steps, listing five “criteria” for good formation:

1. Comprehensive, kerygmatic, and ongoing formation

2. A formation attentive to diverse dimensions

     a. The human and communal dimension

     b. The spiritual dimension

     c. The intellectual dimension

     d. The pastoral and missionary dimension

3. A formation that is respectful of process

4. A formation that makes provision for accompanying the disciples

5. A formation in the spirituality of missionary action

We need to remember these aspects of process if we are to properly form both ourselves and others. Let us think about how we can promote better formation in the Church.

***

The first criterion, “comprehensive, kerygmatic, and ongoing,” is like “length, breadth, and height”: it ensures that formation is in no way flat.

Once again, Aparecida insists on the kerygma, the “basic Gospel message”: let nothing in formation leave behind the simple proclamation that Jesus saves. There is nothing “comprehensive” or “ongoing” about a formation that leaves behind the heart of the message. We could call this the dimension of “depth.”

But formation also needs to have the other dimensions. “Ongoing” means it needs to continue through time – perhaps the “length” of our life. Not just at the beginning, nor just in the middle, but all the way through.

That makes “comprehensive” like the dimension of “height”: formation needs to attend to all areas of life.

***

The next criterion considers four key areas: “human and communal, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral and missionary.”

These criteria come from St. John Paul II’s exhortation on priestly formation, Pastores Dabo Vobis. It’s nice, on the one hand, to consider them in relation to priests. We don’t want priests who are pastoral but can’t think, who are spiritual but lacking in human formation, or vice versa. A good priest must be “good” spiritually, intellectually, pastorally, and humanly.

And so too must the rest of us be. This is Aparecida’s first contribution to Pastores Dabo Vobis’s four “pillars” of priestly formation: priests need formation, yes, but so do the rest of us! And we need our faith to penetrate all aspects of our life: not just one, but all four.

***

But Aparecida makes another great advance on Pastores Dabo Vobis, with a couple extra words.

Pastores says “human” – Aparecida adds “and communal,” as it to define what human formation means. It doesn’t mean you should learn to play an instrument – or not exactly, anyway. It means you should learn how to be part of a community, how to deal with other people. That’s the heart of “human” formation.

And to “pastoral” Aparecida adds “missionary.” Perhaps we see here best of all what Aparecida (and Pope Francis) mean by the insistence on this word. We all know that “pastoral” can often mean wishy-washy. But that isn’t the real meaning of the word. A truly pastoral priest – or layman – is not someone who leaves people in their ignorance and sins, but someone who is so passionate to share the light of the Gospel that he’s willing to be patient.

***

The next two sections say that real formation needs to be “respectful of process” and “make provision for accompanying the disciples.”

“Respectful of process” means that formation needs to recognize that it’s dealing with people in need of formation. In intellectual formation (my day job), we have to realize that the people in our class don’t yet know what we have to teach them. We have to be patient, begin at the beginning, build upwards.

We have to be gentle, recognizing that it’s hard to learn what you don’t know. But for the same reason, we have to be persistent: since they don’t yet know what they ought to know, it’s up to us to push them to see new things.

But the same dynamic is true in all areas of formation: formation of ourselves or of others; formal or informal; intellectual, spiritual, missionary-pastoral, and human-communal. In working on our own human formation, for example, we need to be patient with ourselves – and also aware that we have a long way to go, and need to keep moving forward.

***

And so we need to “make provision for accompanying the disciples.” We need to accompany those in formation both for its own sake – because Christianity is inherently communal – and because formation, by its very nature, is something we need help with.

We who care about the spiritual life need to think about how we can accompany our neighbors through their lifelong formation.

And so we must form ourselves and others “in the spirituality of missionary action,” always going out, always leading ourselves further by also trying to lead others more deeply into the love of Christ.

How could our community better form its members? In what areas could we personally help the formation process?

Aparecida on Fundamentals of Formation

brazil-popeWe are reading through Aparecida’s presentation of “The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples.” The chapter has four steps: it begins with the “Trinitarian Spirituality of Encounter with Jesus Christ,” then examines the “Process of Formation,” next more closely examines “Initiation” and what follows after, and finally considers the “Places of Formation.”

The second chapter, on Process, has two parts. The second is perhaps what we are more inclined to think about, and what seems to be the focus of many formation programs: the “diverse dimensions” of formation (human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral), care for “accompanying the disciples,” and an emphasis on turning the formed into formators, through a “spirituality of missionary action.”

But first Aparecida again points us to fundamentals: “fundamental aspects of the process.”

     6. The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples

          b. The Process of Formation of Missionary Disciples

               i. Aspects of the process

                    1. The encounter with Jesus Christ

                    2. Conversion

                    3. Discipleship

                   4. Communion

                   5. Mission

In a sense, the document is repeating what it says in the previous section (and we examined last week): that all our “processes” have to be focused on Jesus. Let us not get ahead of ourselves, more worried about process than about the real goals of the process!

***

These five “fundamental aspects,” Aparecida underlines, “appear differently at each step of the journey.” That is to say, they are not five steps; we do not “move on” from encountering Jesus, then get to conversion, then discipleship, communion, and mission. Instead, every step of our journey must re-engage these five fundamental aspects. These, together, are the measure by which we gauge whether each new step is a step forward, or off the path.

Then too, these five aspects are “closely intertwined and draw nourishment from one another.” Without a sense of mission, our encounter with Christ is sterile; there is no conversion without communion, no true discipleship that isn’t about conversion, etc.

***

Again Aparecida underlines the “encounter with Jesus Christ.” “Without the kerygma,” that is, the basic Gospel message, the basic proclamation that Jesus is Savior, “the other aspects of this process are condemned to sterility, with hearts not truly converted to the Lord.”

Everything we do must constantly return to Jesus Christ.

***

But so too, everything must focus on real conversion, a real change of heart. Formation is not just about learning new things, and not about just any kind of personal change, but about the kind of change we call conversion.

Aparecida helps us measure our focus on conversion by pointing us back to the constant remembrance of Baptism and Confession.

Baptism is, fundamentally, an act of repentance, of rejecting our old ways, dying to the world’s standards, and embracing the new life of Christ. John the Baptist’s Baptism did not have the power of Christ’s, but it reminds us what that power was about. John told them to repent!

We have to keep alive that sense that our life is rooted in Baptism, rooted in repentance, and conversion. The fundamental instrument of that repentance is Confession. Any part of formation that does not fundamentally lead us back, and deeper, into Confession, is a kind of formation that has missed the mark.

***

All true formation must also always be about “discipleship,” which Aparecida defines as “constantly maturing.” Disciple means “student”. True formation means maintaining that attitude; life-long formation means never ceasing to be a student of the Lord Jesus.

Aparecida says our discipleship must be a constant maturing in knowledge, love, and following Christ. Any formation that doesn’t lead us to know, love, and follow the Master always more and better is not real formation.

***

The fourth fundamental aspect of true formation is “communion.” Just as true formation leads us deeper into the encounter with Christ, it also leads us deeper into the Church. That includes the teachings of the Church, as part of discipleship, but communion points us deeper. Communion means we learn always love our neighbor more and better; always to find ourselves more in relationship with other Christians.

We begin to see better how these five elements are “closely intertwined and draw nourishment from one another.” True conversion draws us to better love, deeper communion with the Church, both local and around the world. Deeper communion, deeper love, points us right back to conversion, as we want to love better. True discipleship points us towards both. And a true encounter with Christ both leads us to conversion, discipleship, and communion, and is then fed by those things. The deeper we love, the more truly we will encounter him.

And so too, will we be sent forth in mission, to draw others to encounter, conversion, discipleship, and communion.

 Are we moving forward in all these ways? When we think about evangelization, do we tend to overlook any of them?

Aparecida on “Places of Encounter with Jesus Christ”

brazil-popeThis week we begin our more detailed examination of Chapter Six of the Aparecida Document, “The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples.” There is a lot of talk about this topic right now, including a popular book on Forming Intentional Disciples and a big recent conference on the formation that should happen in an “Amazing Parish.” Aparecida has much to add to the conversation.

The chapter on formation begins with the question of truly Christian spirituality:

6. The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples

     a. A Trinitarian Spirituality of Encounter with Jesus Christ

          i. The encounter with Jesus Christ

          ii. Places of encounter with Jesus Christ

          iii. Popular piety as a place of encounter with Jesus Christ

          iv. Mary, disciple and missionary

          v. The apostles and the saints

True spirituality will be truly Christian: focused on Jesus Christ, and fully Trinitarian: we know the Father through union with Christ, and we are united to Christ not by merely human effort, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, dwelling in our hearts.

***

This clear focus on Jesus and the Trinity is already a great contribution of Aparecida to the discussion about formation. There can be no formation without a clear focus on the goal.

But Aparecida’s greater contribution is in its discussion of “places of encounter with Jesus Christ.” I fear some of our recent conversation has been too jealous of Protestants, embracing the language of “personal relationship” (whatever exactly that might mean) and then looking to Protestant methods like “discipling” and even “welcomers” at the Church door.

Aparecida’s approach is more traditional, and more Catholic. The Tradition has some fantastic resources of its own!

***

The first section on “places of encounter” walks us through the standard practices of Catholicism, quoting abundantly from the wonderful magisterium of Pope Benedict XVI.

We encounter Christ in Scripture, where he speaks to us, and especially in the profound encounter with Scripture we call lectio divina. We encounter him in the liturgy, where we enter into the communal experience of Scripture as presented to us by the Tradition. Sunday Mass, understood as participation in the life of the Church, is itself a profound encounter with Christ.

We encounter Christ in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which is both our perfect worship and our perfect union with Christ himself. We encounter him, too, in Confession, where he enters into our moral struggle.

And we encounter him through the experience of Christian love: in the parish, in the soup kitchen, even in political action, when we let the love of Christ move us to action.

***

But after reviewing all of these, Aparecida plunges us even deeper into Catholic wisdom with three sections on “popular piety.” A long list helps us define the term: patron saints, novenas, the rosary, the Way of the Cross, processions, songs, saints and angels, solemn promises, family prayer, pilgrimage, the crucifix, candles, pictures of Mary.

Pope Francis has identified this as his favorite section of the whole document. Perhaps the key insight is in these words: “Popular piety delicately permeates the personal existence of each believer.”

The “popular” part of popular piety is its connection with our own particular circumstances and passions. The liturgy, lectio divina, and the Eucharist all insert us into the life of Christ – but popular piety brings Christ into our lives. It is all the ways that a particular people brings Christ into contact with their particular concerns.

Maybe this is what Protestants mean by “personal relationship.” But notice the difference between chatting with Jesus-my-buddy and popular piety. Popular piety is at the same time more passionate, more expressive of our deepest feelings, and also more reverent of the mystery of God and the Word-made-flesh.

***

Aparecida, speaking from a place of pilgrimage in Brazil, speaks especially about pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is deeply personal, both along the way, and at the end.

Along the way, pilgrimage gives us the time to think, to actively focus our life towards our goal. The opportunity, too, to work, to make our faith about putting one foot in front of the other.

The end of a pilgrimage is a shrine, an expression of Christ’s contact with our particular culture. It casts us more deeply back into the encounter of Christ with our world: whether it’s a shrine to great missionaries (like the North American Martyrs, or Mother Seton, here in the mid-Atlantic) or of our culture’s particular devotion to some aspect of the life of Jesus or Mary.

How could we make our faith more personal through popular piety? Where could you go on pilgrimage?

Aparecida on the Journey of Formation

brazil-popeFor the next several weeks we will consider chapter six of the Aparecida document, in some sense the heart of the document, “The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples.” How do we go about forming serious Christians?

This is the last chapter of Part Two, “The Life of Jesus Christ in Missionary Disciples.” Part One, remember, took stock of the cultural situation we face, “The Life of Our People Today.” Part Three will consider “The Life of Jesus Christ for our People”: the tasks that fully formed missionary disciples face in bringing the life of Christ to the world.

Today we will consider the broad outline. In the next weeks we will delve deeper into the particular proposals:

     6. The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples

          a. A Trinitarian Spirituality of Encounter with Jesus Christ

          b. The Process of Formation of Missionary Disciples

          c. Initiation to Christian Life and Permanent Catechesis

          d. Places of Formation for Missionary Disciples

***

The first key word is “itinerary.” Formation is a process – as Section B will repeat. It is a long road, in two respects.

First, it is a long road for those who are being formed. To take formation seriously, to take Christian discipleship seriously, is to realize that we need to commit to the hard work of forming missionary disciples. We need to commit to the beginning of that path, which is real evangelization. And we need to commit to all the steps along the way, all the steps that lead from various kinds of initial enthusiasm to serious mature Christian faith.

And so, in another way, formation is also a long road for the formators. Pastors of souls have a lot of work to do. This goes for bishops and priests, but also for parents, teachers, friends, and everyone engaged in bringing people forward in their Christian life. And remember, the central insight of Aparecida is a Christian who is not working to help others grow in holiness is a Christian not truly devoted to Christ.

This “formative itinerary” means the long haul of establishing programs: not just fancy programs, but also the little “programs” that are daily, weekly, and annual routines, taking time with people, dealing with real issues. And even harder, dealing with real people. Figuring out how to do that needs commitment to the long haul. Formation is an “itinerary.”

***

At the heart is “A Trinitarian Spirituality of Encounter with Jesus Christ.” Aparecida’s take on this beautifully unites the old and the new.

On the (apparently) new side is an emphasis on the “kerygma,” and the encounter with Christ. Gregorian chant, Christian culture, moral discipline: these all have an essential place in true Christian formation. But all of this means nothing if it does not lead us to Christ himself. If evangelization is not Evangelical, it isn’t evangelization; it isn’t even Christian.

But in the process of discussing this, they put in a footnote to the Athanasian Creed. (This has the fingerprints of the Jesuit author, Cardinal Bergoglio!) The Athanasian Creed is an old and very unhip statement of Trinitarian faith. Aparecida cites it by its other name, Quicumque Vult, from its first words: “Whoever wants to be saved,” it begins, “must hold the Catholic faith. Unless one preserves this whole and undefiled, without doubt he will eternally perish.” Yikes.

The Quicumque Vult goes on to give the driest statements on the Trinity: “Father eternal, Son eternal, Holy Spirit eternal. Yet not three eternals, but one eternal,” etc. And then an abbreviated form of the Apostle’s creed, focused on Jesus.

Aparecida’s point is that there’s nothing new or Protestant about being Christ-centered. The fustiest parts of our tradition say that no matter how morally rigorous you (think you) are, and no matter how old-fashioned your cultural preferences, it all means nothing at all if you do not love Jesus, and the Holy Spirit who leads us through Jesus to the Father.

***

The last three sections of this chapter take us through the details of getting to know Christ.

First, a long section on “process,” which is to say, serious formation needs to cover all the bases, from beginning to end, and from top to bottom.

Second, a section on “initiation and permanent catechesis.” Again, the need to take seriously that getting started in the Christian life – including getting straight about what Christianity even is – is a challenge, and a different challenge for different people. But we need to take seriously, too, that once we get started, we need to continue formation throughout life: permanent catechesis.

Finally, a section on “places of formation.” In some ways this is the punchline: alright, how and where do we undertake this? The answer is: a lot of ways, a lot of places.

How are our lives ordered to leading other people to Jesus Christ?

Aparecida on the Communion of Vocations

brazil-popeAs we continue to explore the Aparecida Document’s insights on “The Communion of the Missionary Disciples in the Church,” today we pause to consider the section on “Missionary Disciples with Specific Vocations.”

 c. Missionary Disciples with Specific Vocations

     i. Bishops, missionary disciples of Jesus High Priest

     ii. Priests, missionary disciples of Jesus Good Shepherd

          1. Identity and mission of priests

          2. Pastors, inspirers of a community of missionary disciples

     iii. Permanent deacons, missionary disciples of Jesus the Servant

     iv. Faithful laymen and laywomen, disciples and missionaries of Jesus, Light of the World

     v. Consecrated men and women, missionary disciples of Jesus, the Father’s Witness

This beautiful section brings together a general insight with several specific insights.

***

The general insight is that the communion of the Church (and our formation as holy members of the Church, the ultimate goal of Part Two of the document) is built up by the diversity of vocations.

This is, of course, the great insight of St. Paul, one of his central insights: “For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and everyone members, one of another” (Rom 12:4-5; see also 1 Cor 12 and 14, etc.).

The communion of the Church is not built up by treating everyone the same, but by recognizing the distinct tasks we each fulfill in the one Body.

***

Thus Aparecida leads us in celebrating the distinct vocations, and encouraging each to live their vocation more fully. It further emphasizes this by underlining what is common in the distinct vocations. All are missionary disciples, called to follow Jesus as disciples and be sent out in his name as missionaries.

And so Aparecida, taking this insight a step further, considers each vocation under distinct aspects of the mission of Jesus. Each vocation is a way of making present a particular aspect of Jesus Christ.

***

Bishops, then, are called to think of themselves as “missionary disciples of Jesus High Priest.” They must first think of themselves as priests, consecrated above all to offering the sacrifice of the Mass and bringing the people into union with Christ.

They must think of themselves always, also, as High Priests, that is, the leaders among the priests, the ones given “highest” responsibility. A bishop who loses his priestly identity, or forgets his call to leadership, loses his way of holiness and of conformity to Christ.

He also loses his sense of communion. The bishop is not merely called to be an  individual Christian. He is called to live a vocation in and for the Church.  Already, this section underlines the main theme of Aparecida: we cannot be true  disciples without being missionaries, giving our life to bring Christ to others.

 But let us note, too, that we who are not bishops ourselves lose sight of the communion of the Church, and our call to service within it, if we make ourselves High Priest. It is the job of the bishop to lead. It is not the job of anyone else to scold the bishop for the way he leads. To do so is precisely to lose our sense that he is high priest, not I. It is to place ourselves outside of the communion of the Church.

***

Priests, says Aparecida, are called to be conformed to Christ as Good Shepherd. Again note the emphasis on service. Priestly holiness is not focused on the self, but on care for the sheep.

Christ’s image of shepherd wonderfully underlines this call: the priest can never complain that his sheep wander in the wrong direction. He should expect that! But he is nonetheless called to shepherd them back: to follow them wherever they wander, to gently guide them, to give his whole life to their sanctification.

Aparecida quotes a priest: “My mass is my life and my life is a prolonged mass!” But it takes that aspiration deeper by showing that a truly priestly identity views these profound words precisely in relation to the sheep they are called to shepherd, the Church gathered at the mass.

***

Deacons make present “Jesus the Servant.” Ah, if only we had space to lament the loss of this essential vocation of serving the material needs of the Church!

Lay people are called to be “Light of the World,” to go out into all of creation and “show” the true and glorious nature that God has created. Lay holiness reveals reality.

And consecrated people are called to be “the Father’s Witness,” always leading us more deeply into the gentle embrace of the God who created and redeemed us.

***

The more we live our own vocations, and love the vocations of others, the more deeply we enter into the communion of the Church.

Are there ways we think of ourselves in leadership vocations that are not ours?

Aparecida on Ecclesial Places for Communion

brazil-popeWe are now deep into the central second part of the Aparecida document, “The Life of Jesus Christ in Missionary Disciples.”  On our way to the last chapter of that part, on formation, we have considered what it means to call the Gospel “good news,” and how Jesus calls us to holiness.  But the last chapter before the one on formation is on the Church as communion.  We are made holy not just as individuals, but as members of the Church, loving one another and entering more deeply into the Body of Christ.

After laying out the general theme of communion, this chapter contains two more detailed accounts of how that communion is lived out: in particular “ecclesial places,” and in the various specific vocations.  Today we look more at the places.

Ecclesial Places for Communion

i.      The diocese, privileged place of communion

ii.      The parish, community of communities

iii.      Basic ecclesial communities and small communities

iv.      Episcopal conferences and communion between the churches

***

The parish comes second.  Aparecida will call the parish, “the privileged place in which most of the faithful have a concrete experience of Christ and ecclesial communion.”  But first it will talk about the diocese.

Perhaps we don’t think much these days about diocesan life – but today it is more important than ever.  The first-century martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of Pope Francis’s favorite saints, said, “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”  Ignatius repeats this theme in various ways in all of his writings.

The bishop, in fact, is important precisely because of the importance of the diocese as a local community of the Church.  The bishop leads the diocese, and represents its unity.  Schism with the bishop is a loss of communion with the local Church itself.

***

To understand why requires a brief meditation in political philosophy.  Aristotle calls the city the “complete community,” because it is there that, for the first time, we can fully live life.

The family is of utmost importance, of course, the foundation of everything else.  But families need to join with other families: to find spouses and friends, to provide for themselves, and above all to have a cultural life, with everything from music to museums to sports.  It is on the level of the “city” that we live a fully human life.

In the modern context, we can simply say that a “diocese” – the Church’s analogue to the city, built on the old Roman administration of cities and their outlying districts – roughly encompasses all the people who cross paths in the course of an ordinary week.

Now more than ever our life is not lived just on the level of our neighborhood, or parish.  We live in a diocese.  (Of course we also cross diocesan borders – but the diocese is meant to mark out, roughly, the broader borders of a complete human life.)

The diocese gathered around its bishop simply signifies all of life being lived out in communion with the Church.  So central is this experience to the living out of Catholic faith that the tradition gives the diocese itself the name “church” so that the universal Church can be called a communion of the local “churches.”

***

But of course we experience the Church most tangibly at the level of the parish.

The gathering of the parish actually expresses deep insight about the truly human, and truly Christian, life.  We come together around the altar as a people.  We discover Christ, not merely as individuals – as important as individual prayer also is – but above all as members of the Body, gathered to hear the Word of God and receive the sacraments, and solidfied as a people by our activity as Church.

And where, too, we most concretely learn what it means to love one another, by loving our actual neighbors.  Parish life, in a sense, really is Christian life.

***

But Aparecida reminds us that the parish is a “community of communities.”  We also live our life in smaller groups, which the Latin Americans have long called “basic ecclesial communities.”  These “basic communities” can be formal or informal, a group that meets regularly with an agenda, or simply a gathering of friends.

The deeper insight is that we learn what communion means also through Christian friendship.

***

Finally, of course the Church also transcends the local community.  The heart of the bishops’ conferences and their international activity  is precisely the recognition that the Church is communion, working together, standing together as the Body of Christ.

Do we live out communion practically?  How could we be more committed to our dioceses, our parishes, and our Christian friendships, as well as the wider Church?  

 

Aparecida on the Communion of Missionary Disciples

brazil-popeThe next three weeks we will examine chapter five of the Aparecida document, on “the communion of the missionary disciples in the Church.” We are learning, in Part Two of the document, about “The Life of Jesus Christ in Missionary Disciples,” and we on our way from the chapter on holiness to the chapter on formation.

But Aparecida pauses for a long chapter – the second longest, after the one on formation – on communion, the Church. The context explains the importance of the chapter. What does holiness mean, and how do we achieve it, form people to it? We cannot rightly answer those questions without a vivid appreciation of the importance of the Church in our lives.

Aparecida rightly approaches the Church through the lens of “communion.” The Church is hierarchy, yes, and sacraments. But even more fundamentally, the Church is communion, the body of Christ, the spiritual conjoining of Christ and all those who are united to him. This is the central teaching of the Second Vatican Council: the Church is communion. But it is an utterly traditional teaching, a restatement and more vivid appreciation of the Council of Trent, of the medievals, the Fathers, and Scripture.

To envision Christianity without communion – true communion, with the universal Church – is to envision a Christianity without Christ, because if we are joined to Christ, we are joined to all others who are joined to him.

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This chapter passes through five sections:

 5. The Communion of the Missionary Disciples in the Church

     a. Called to Live in Communion

     b. Ecclesial Places for Communion (i-iv)

     c. Missionary Disciples with Specific Vocations (i-v)

     d. Those Who Have Left the Church to Join Other Religious Groups

     e. Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue

          i. Ecumenical dialogue so that the world may believe

          ii. Relationship with Judaism and interreligious dialogue

The first section states the theme, as we have above. The next four discuss the living out of that theme. Sections b and c are long, and we shall discuss them at greater length in the next two weeks. Here we merely outline.

The idea of “places” for communion makes communion concrete. We live in the Communion of Saints, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We pray for the souls of the Church in purgatory. We obey the teaching of the Church, and love her Tradition. But these can all fade into mere ideas if we don’t live it out practically.

At the heart of Jesus’s preaching is love of neighbor. Simply put, it means that true communion in the Church is either lived in relation to our neighbor, or not at all. Neighbor is a brilliant term. In English “neigh” is from “nigh,” or “near” – the point is more vivid in Greek and Latin.

Christ’s insistence on the “neighbor” is simply an insistence on “place” in our living communion. Yes, we love the universal Church. But as material beings, we love it by loving the people who are near to us, the ones we actually see and deal with. This is where we discover what communion really means. More on that next week.

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The next section considers “vocations.” The insight is straight from St. Paul: to love the body is to recognize that there are different parts, with different roles. The communion of the Church is not a “heap” of identical members – not a pile of fingers, which would be no body at all – but a rich interrelation of different vocations.

This is the second aspect of living communion: to embrace our own vocation, to accept the vocations of others, to love the appropriate diversity within the Body of Christ. Like love of neighbor, this is what makes communion real. We will discuss it more in two weeks.

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As the sections on “places” and “vocations” discuss communion within the Church, so the sections on “those who have left” and on “interreligious dialogue” discuss our relation with those outside the Church.

The simple insight is that the way we think about these things is entirely related to how we think about communion.

We see – for fallen-away Catholics, for non-Catholic Christians, for Jews, and for those of other religions – the tragedy of being, in various ways and degrees, separated from the body of Christ.

And we see our call to invite them back, not only to a certain dogmas or practices, but to the communion, and indeed, neighborliness, that those dogmas and practices undergird.

Are there areas of your life that you need to think about in terms of communion?

Click here for the entire series on the Aparecida document.

Aparecida on Christian Holiness

brazil-popeThe central second part of the Aparecida document is on “The Life of Jesus Christ in Missionary Disciples.” Its practical goal is really its last chapter, on “the formative itinerary”: how do we form ourselves, and those entrusted to us, to be real Christians?

But we cannot rightly understand that formation, cannot approach our Christian life correctly, without understanding what it is we are trying to do. Thus there are three chapters leading up to that “formative itinerary.”

The first, as we saw last week, is on joy and the good news. We need to see that Jesus is the bringer of joy – a truth that points in two directions: both that our natural desires are meant to be fulfilled, and that the only way they can truly be fulfilled is in Jesus.

The next two chapters consider “The Vocation of Missionary Disciples to Holiness” (our topic for this week) and “The Communion of the Missionary Disciples in the Church.” We could summarize these as love of God and love of neighbor, or union with Christ and with his Church. We will see next week that true union with Christ cannot happen apart from his body the Church.

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But first, and most centrally, we must see that our vocation is to holiness, nothing more and nothing less. We cannot be real missionaries, or disciples, without being holy – nor can we be truly holy without thereby becoming missionary disciples. Real mission is entirely about our transformation in Christ.

Aparecida is insistently Christian, and Christo-centric, in its understanding of holiness:

4. The Vocation of Missionary Disciples to Holiness

     a. Called to Follow Jesus Christ

     b.  Configured to the Master

     c. Sent to Announce the Gospel of the Kingdom of Life

     d. Enlivened by the Holy Spirit

The first section simply underlines that holiness is about Jesus, and Jesus is about holiness. Holiness is not something we do on our own, not some sort of spiritual gymnastics. Holiness is nothing more nor less than union with Christ.

Again, this formulation points in two directions. On the one hand, it undercuts all Pelagianism, all sense that we are the source of our own holiness. Asceticism, for example, has an important place in the Christian life – but unless it is entirely understood in terms of union with Christ, it becomes a path to self-destruction. True asceticism is only about following Christ.

On the other hand, emphasizing that holiness is inseparable from the call to follow Jesus also undercuts a kind of Protestantism, or extrinsicism, that pretends that Jesus saves us without transforming us. The only way to know Jesus is to follow Jesus, to become holy as he is holy. We are called not to let him do it for us, but to follow in his footsteps: through the Cross to the ascent into heaven.

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The next section delves deeper by saying we are “Configured to the Master.” The word “master” can convey (especially in the older languages) the idea of Jesus as teacher, as well as the rich Biblical picture of him as our king.

But it is not enough to say Jesus is our master, our teacher, or our king. We don’t understand what these words really mean unless we realize that he transforms us, from the inside out, to become what he is: sons and daughters as he is son, divine as he is divine, holy as he is holy.

“Imitation of Christ” is an important idea – but only if we understand that we are like Christ because Christ himself configures us to himself, transforms us, changes us from the inside out, to be what he is.

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We are then “Sent to Announce the Gospel of the Kingdom of Life.” The key word, really, is “sent.”

This is, of course, the central theme of the Aparecida document, with its emphasis on mission.

This is the internal core of mission: the idea that we are so configured to Christ, so profoundly follow him, that we do what he does. We live entirely to spread his message, to love what he loves, to be his friends. And we are so enlivened with his holiness that we ourselves speak his word. A disciple who is not active is no disciple at all.

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Finally, we are “Enlivened by the Holy Spirit.” There’s an unhealthy tendency to oppose devotion to the Holy Spirit against devotion to Christ. But in real Catholic theology, they are inseparable. Holiness is to to be transformed by the Spirit of Christ, enlivened by his life. This is the real good news: that Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit, the giver of true divine life.

Where do you find yourself separating holiness from union with Christ?

Click here for the entire series on the Aparecida document.

Aparecida on the Good News of the Gospel

brazil-popeThe central second part of the Aparecida Document explores “the Life of Jesus Christ in Missionary Disciples,” examining holiness, communion, and formation. But before it engages these discussions, its first chapter (chapter three of the document) is on “The Joy of Being Missionary Disciples to Proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The heart of these chapters is that the Gospel really is good news – the five main sections of the chapter examine different kinds of “good news”:

3. The Joy of Being Missionary Disciples to Proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ

    a. The Good News of Human Dignity

    b. The Good News of Life

    c. The Good News of the Family

    d. The Good News of Human Activity

        i. Work

        ii. Science and technology

    e. The Good News of the Universal Destiny of Goods and Ecology

    f. The Continent of Hope and Love

We need to discover the joy of the Gospel, a joy that gives life both to us and to those with whom we share the Gospel. Without this joy, without discovering why the Gospel really is good news, we have nothing worth preaching, nor the joy that can sustain us in mission.

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There is a careful balancing act here. On one side stands religion: the highest truth is that only God can satisfy our hearts, and only Christ can give us the freedom to know God as Father. We must let nothing stand in the way of our discovering this, the “one thing necessary.” We mustn’t be too like Martha, “anxious and troubled” about things that don’t ultimately matter.

On the other hand, religion is falsified when it does not truly bring liberation to us, in our humanity. The joy of Christ is not a denial of our humanity, but its fulfillment. To know the Father who made us is to find the fulfillment of everything he made. To know the Son who became incarnate is to discover that our humanity really can be a place of meeting the Father. To know the Spirit who sanctifies us is to know that we – what we are, our real humanity – really can be sanctified. There can be no dualism that leaves our humanity behind in our quest for God.

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Thus the Gospel of Jesus Christ is also “the good news of human dignity.” To know Christ is to know how precious the human person is. Political “rights” talk can never do justice to the Gospel – rather, the Gospel reveals the inner truth of human rights. The deepest truth is that human life is of infinite dignity, because it is made, in its humanity, to know God. Our real dignity is not the “right” to be left alone, but the right to be cherished as one created and redeemed for eternal union with God.

So too the Gospel is “the good news of human life.” We are pro-life, St. John Paul emphasized in his great encyclical “The Gospel of Life” not only because we think abortion is a crime, but because we think human life is a great good. Everything about life is ordered to meeting Christ: even birthday parties and days on the beach.

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Thus next in the document comes “the good news of the family,” marking out one of the key areas of human life. The family is the place where life begins and where life mostly happens, and around which life revolves. It is the place of moral growth and of celebration, and it is the first and primary place that we learn to find joy outside of ourselves. Family is a gift from God, made to lead us to God.

So too “the good news of human activity,” both work and science and technology. This is just another aspect of being human: and this too comes forth from God and is meant to lead us back to God.

Finally, “the good news of the universal destiny of goods and ecology,” which is a concrete way of saying, the good news of political community, of living not just for ourselves, but as part of a greater community. Obviously there is a lot to work out here, in the social doctrine of the Church. But by calling it “good news,” Aparecida emphasizes that the God who made us for himself also made politics as a place of meeting him.

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This chapter ends by calling America to be “the continent of hope and love.” Hope and Love are virtues of our relationship with God – but they are also virtues of our relationship with others.

A truly Catholic world is a world of good news, a world of affirming the infinite dignity of human life.

This gives us a lot to think about, about what evangelization means. It is not just about sharing a marginal bit of doctrine. It is about sharing the truth that everything authentically human is a place of meeting with God.

How does your life communicate to those around you the good news of human life?

Click here to read the entire series on the Aparecida document.