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‘Quo vadis?’

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This Latin interrogative sentence became memorable as the title of a Hollywood film that won multiple Oscar awards, including one for Peter Ustinov playing the role of the Roman Emperor Nero. The spectacle and the love story perhaps distract from the context and the import of the question.

According to the traditional story, St. Peter is escaping Nero’s persecution of the Christians when he meets Jesus on the road. “Lord, where are you going?” he asks. Jesus answers, “To Rome, to be crucified again.” Peter returns to Rome, to bear witness to the faith he failed to proclaim on Maundy Thursday.

By a happy coincidence, a new Pope presided over this year’s celebration of Easter, the season of hope and renewal in the liturgical calendar.  Writing in America (March 18, 2013) as the papal conclave convened, James Hanvey, SJ, the Lo Schiavo Chair professor of Catholic Social Thought at the University of San Francisco, posed the “Quo vadis” question to the prospective new Shepherd: Where does he want to take the flock?

The question also requires a response from the faithful who make up the Church: Where do we desire to go? Pope Benedict’s resignation, according to Hanvey, separated the papacy from the person, reminding us “that the true head of the Church is Christ.” Is it heretical then to believe that the Divine Will is also manifested through the collective conscience of the faithful who constitute the Body of Christ?

In the West, the faithful have been giving feedback to the Church, by voting with their feet. Another article in the same America issue cites data from the 2008 Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate: Twenty-three million American Catholics had “de-converted.” But the Church also attracted six million converts, testifying to the “commitment and courageous witness that so many ‘ordinary Catholics’ give—the sure sign of the Spirit’s faithfulness.”

The dropout rate notwithstanding, Paul Kennedy, author of “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” rejects the notion of a “dead or decaying church.” Writing about the work of the St. Thomas More Chaplaincy at Yale, in whose soup kitchen he serves lunch every Wednesday, he sees a Catholic Church that is vibrant, helpful, intellectual, working to “fulfill the message to love God and to love and reach out to one’s unknown neighbour.”

Kennedy does not discount the criticism leveled at the “church of hierarchy, tradition, formalism.” Nor does Hanvey trivialize “the symptom of desolation within the institutional structures of the church,” which he attributes less to the structure itself than to its own secularization.

To carry out its evangelical mission, the Church needs to address the same mundane tasks that business and governments face: the recruitment, training, retention, supervision and appraisal of personnel and the competition for resources, market share, and territory. Even the apostles had to worry about dividing loaves and fishes for their hungry flock. While keeping its eye firmly fixed on eternity, the Church must establish priorities and time-bound goals.

But the Church is not just a multinational corporation or a nation-state, although it assumes some of their trappings. It is in peril, Hanvey suggests, when bishops and priests act like some chief executive officers, more intent on “condemning and disciplining, enhancing their retro-liturgical plumage rather than living out of the sacrament they bear.”

The controversy over the “Patay” political message displayed in tarpaulins by the bishopric of Bacolod offers a case in point. Joaquin Bernas, SJ, defends the constitutional right of the bishops to urge their parishioners to reject pro-reproductive health candidates in the elections. But he opposes the tarpaulins for pastoral reasons. Branding as pro-death those who supported the then RH bill in good faith does not promote Church unity.

Nor does it foster Christian charity. As a community of Spirit, Church discipline, Hanvey stresses, 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. Even the disclosure of clerical abuse must be seen, not as the design of enemies, but as the working of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, “who gives us the grace to act with integrity.”

Hanvey and Kennedy share with us a welcome Easter message: Current Church controversies should not dishearten us. “The angel asks the disciples at the empty tomb on Easter, ‘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.”

Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management. E-mail:edejesus@yahoo.com.


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