Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
It is reasonable and appropriate at times for any organization – community, family, foundation, country, and yes, even the Church — to look back on its roots, reassess its faithfulness to the mission, and ask whether a course correction is needed. Ecclesia semper reformanda: the Church must always be reformed. This does not mean turning back or changing course, throwing the baby out with the bath water, as it were, to use proverbial language. It does mean that even a reform at times needs to be reformed, that no one moment or era in history can define for all time what is to be the way for the organization to be its best self.

As a Church, our one foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord, as an ancient hymn proclaims. He is the rock, human and divine, on which we rest. Yet Jesus did, in fact, call Peter and, through succession, the Holy Father, Vicar of Christ on earth, in communion with the Apostles and their successors, the bishops, the rock. He promised that his presence would never leave the solidarity of this leadership, these helmsmen if you will, so that the ship might remain on course despite storms and strong headwinds along the way.

The bark of Peter was a favorite image which the early fathers of the Church evoked in describing the progress of the Church on the seas of time, recalling Noah’s odyssey during the great flood. Pope Francis is known for his commitment to hearing voices from all sides, and often points of view, inside and outside our ecclesial communion, that seem to clash or be at least difficult to reconcile. His commitment to synodality — an ongoing process by which all are accounted for and engaged in conversation about how best to be loyal to our mission — is also accompanied by a conviction that the uniquely Petrine role, guaranteed by Jesus himself, is to ensure unity, so that the ship will not shatter on the shoals, and that no one be lost at sea.

Amidst the chaos and cacophony of our world, people understandably see clarity, consistency and order, especially in their spiritual lives, which deal with the ultimate human questions about our purpose, our meaning, our destiny. The role of leadership is to provide a sure focus on vision, on priorities and on our final goal. Everyone knows that the Church exists fundamentally for the salvation of all human beings, to accompany us on our journey to heaven. As such, the reform, custody and business of the Church, as it were, is to continue to draw everyone into this work in progress.

In our own Diocese, we have been seeking to involve more and more participants in the process of understanding our mission and building our sense of common purpose, forming deeper bonds of spiritual communion, including the voices of everyone, especially those in the margins. One of the main functions of leadership is not to dictate or control how this progress takes place, but to hear those voices and to walk the walk, in a way that the coaches of sports teams or troupes of professional artists and performers typically do.

We have been re-envisioning parishes not only in terms of geographically defined territories, under the pastoral guidance of one pastor or parish life coordinator, but as families connected to other families, coming together to identify and share goals and resources. On a very practical level, the starting point is often a dialogue or conversation about the quantity and quality of sacramental ministry. Given demographical factors such as population, attendance, distance or proximity of churches, seasonal variances, availability of clergy (health, age, mobility, etc.), are there ways to schedule Mass times so that more people can be in contact with one another and the priests who lead them in prayer? This is a clear role for local leadership to be engaged in, not only in planning and scheduling, but in catechizing and preparing the faithful for better worship and access to the sacramental life.

Change in Mass times and locations for worship is often most difficult for those of us accustomed to the habits we have adhered to over the years. The call to leave our comfort zone — or time, or space — in the best interests of the larger community can be difficult, involving significant sacrifice. It is not only a challenge to those more advanced in years, but also younger people, and those with young families. It takes quite a lot of discipline and cooperation to get a family together on a Sunday morning and to arrive in time — intact! — for a scheduled Mass. A shoutout to all who do this so well every Sunday!

Many young people, especially those who are not married, are much more mobile than generations past and find their social and spiritual needs less dependent on traditional times and places. We have launched a series of gatherings throughout the Diocese on evenings throughout the week in unlikely places that include churches at off hours but also restaurants and pub-like venues — okay, bars to be frank — where the topic of conversation may go much deeper than what is the best beer. At these assemblies we have combined confession, Eucharistic adoration, social interaction and serious discussion of topics like the pursuit of holiness, vocations, prayer, healthy relationships, dealing with suffering, depression, workloads — in short, everything that is a part of the lives of young people today. Such endeavors, of course, involve coordination on a more regional basis, beyond single parish boundaries.

Another challenging area is the form or style of worship and need to understand more deeply what the mystery of the Eucharist is all about. We know, as the catechism teaches, that the Mass is an unbloody sacrifice of Calvary, re-presented in the form of a meal. Is the altar around which we gather primarily a table from which spiritual bread is distributed to all who gather — recalling the Last Supper — or is it also a real participation in the slaying of the Lamb of God on Calvary, whose blood is poured out into the chalice from which we drink? Of course, it is all this and more, but our disposition in attending and participation will very much be determined by our understanding of what exactly is going on.

It is no secret that there is much debate going on about how different forms of the Mass — the liturgy following Vatican II, the so-called usus antiquior (older usage) and the ways they are celebrated — better capture the mystery of these elements that inspire the awe, reverence, joy and praise of being truly in God’s presence, specifically the real, sacramental presence of the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ. The conscious way in which both priest celebrant and community engage at the Mass, sing with one voice, contribute with their own presence and prayerfulness, have much to do with the power of the Mass to evangelize and change lives. As I have indicated before, a re-reading and reflection on Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II, would contribute to our awareness of how we have followed the Council’s guidance over the years and where we may yet need to be reformed.

Follow Bishop Ed on Facebook: facebook.com/AlbanyBishopED and Twitter: @AlbBishopEd