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Current issue: Vol.1, No. 3 July 2001

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Bishops: Pastors or Agents of Globalization?

By Fr. Francesco Pierli

The author reflects on the recent Synod of Bishops' Lineamenta. He recommends that ministries be de-clericalised, the roles and ministries of all members of the people of God be re-defined, and that the Church hierarchy be more receptive and adaptable to the changing realities of the world.

Anyone with any knowledge of Church affairs knows it! Because of a strong clericalism cultivated in the Latin Church during the second millennium, ordained ministry has engulfed all of the others, to the extent that "ministry" has come to signify purely the activity carried out by the clergy. The other Church personnel, both religious and lay, have come to be considered priests' helpers who would only carry out what the priest could not do - always mere executioners, never directly involved in decisional activities. With a meaningful symbolic image, we may compare non-priest Christians to sacristans: their duty has been to keep the church clean, light the candles, ring the bells, always do what they have been told, ready to carry out the smallest parish priest's dictates!

The Bishops' Synod ought to offer an opportunity to re-define the roles and ministries of all members of the people of God inside an ecclesiology of communion, sharing, and responsible approach in all ministries and in line with the requests of modern life.

It means putting all ministries on the line, having them related to one another and to the global mission of the people of God in the world. Vatican Council II and the theological reflection of the last 40 years, plus the many local experiences of bishops and dioceses, could offer immense material.

But it is not so! Instead, the drafters of Instrumentum laboris seem to have chosen another methodology, the pre-conciliar one. Every ministry is closed in itself, under the control of a Roman congregation that directs it at its own discretion. If we wish to link up the various ministries, underlining the inter-dependence and concerted nature, then even the present structure of the Curia would show its crucial limits and inadequacies.

Christianity is finished!

As I read Instrumentum laboris, I thought of bishops such as Ambrose, Augustine, Martin de Tours, and others. They were people of great human traits, with vast experience of their world, in whose structure they had to lead their Christian communities in a way that would bring faith alive to them. Their election was not a bureaucratic deed ordered by a Curia a thousand miles away from the conditions and sensibility of the people. The local community had a primary role in the election. Bishops were chosen not because they were pious or obedient to Rome, but rather because of their human and spiritual standing, integrity and courage, experience of civil life, leadership ability, and the blending of faith and life. It was in this way that they could lead the people of God, a missionary people, to bring to their society a dynamic and transforming presence.

What happens nowadays? People have no real voice in the election of bishops, which remains a choice from the top. Instrumentum laboris simply seems to want to consolidate the status quo and so pretends not to see. In this way, it doesn't help the Church to grow, making the Church more local also in the choice of their pastors.

Many of the present bishops studied in Rome. They have an excellent knowledge of the Code of Canon Law and are well grounded on the institutional aspect of the Church. Their formation was based on the directives of the Council of Trent for seminaries, where the emphasis was on separation from the world. They are perhaps experts in the internal life of the Church, but are mystified by the missionary mandate and the Church's presence to and in the world. Often alien to local and global culture, they were formed in a world in which the key words were "preservation and unchanging fidelity" to tradition, while today what is absolutely necessary is "creativity and re-invention." It is no wonder if, as we read in Paul VI's Evangelii nuntiandi, the greatest scandal of the modern era is the rift between faith and culture, faith and daily life.

Also, we cannot forget the fact that many bishops can become financially vulnerable if they do not agree with Rome. To disagree with the regional or episcopal conference's brother bishops may be no big problem, on the condition that they are in accordance with Rome. The horizontal episcopal brotherhood is of little consequence; what really counts is the vertical one.

The third millennium, the great absentee

One of the utmost revolutionary assertions of Vatican II is found in chapter four of Gaudium et Spes. The Church "gives and receives from the world." The world is not just an object of the Church's attention, but is an active subject for the attainment of the Kingdom of God through its evolution, human values, science, work, and the organization of the human family. Certain aspects of human history are so pregnant with the Kingdom to be signs of the time, thus true commandments for the Church, too. If the Church does not follow them, and does not adjust to them, she puts herself outside of God's will.

Yet, in spite of the proclamation of principles, the "world" brought very many changes to the Church in the second millennium.

For example, the dominant monarchic structure of authority had a great impact on the Church as well as theology and ministerial roles. The pope-king was a great deal more than just a slogan. The absolute monarchic structure inspired the pyramidal set-up of the Church, which still prospers in spite of the dead social-cultural models that created it. The cardinals were princes of the Church; many bishops were counts, marquis, etc. Many symbols of power, from the mitre to the shoes, gloves, and rings, are all borrowed from the socio-cultural world of that time.

For this, a re-thinking of ministry must take into consideration the ever-more universal and wide-spreading democratic system. To assert that the Church is not a democracy - to say that she does not operate on a parliamentary system - does not exempt the Church from by-passing and rising above the concepts of ministries as intended by a monarchic and oligarchic world. This is the law of the history of salvation that we call incarnation and enculturation.

We cannot consider untouchable the idea of a ministry tied up to a historical period and cultural models that are now superseded. Instrumentum laboris mentions it in the first chapter, but seems to forget it when it comes to the more doctrinal and pastoral parts of the text. Or perhaps it uses a homiletic or exhortative tone, totally inadequate to the seriousness of the challenge at stake. Nor do the problems get solved by piling up quotations from documents of councils, popes, or Roman congregations.

Texts are irrelevant because human perspectives have changed, people's conscience and the Church's auto conscience have changed, so that Instrumentum laboris is a pile of quotations rather than a real new document able to help ordained ministers enter the new millennium. All the great historical, theological, spiritual, and pastoral production has been ignored, as also all the experiences of other Churches such as Orthodox and Protestant.

Vatican II aside

Many are under the impression that there is an attempt to re-write Vatican II, doing away with its most original intuitions. To me, such impression seems well-grounded. Instrumentum laboris is clear proof. One of the great novelties of Vatican II in Lumen gentium was the re-discovery of the concept of "people of God" along with that of "ministerial Church": a messianic people, missionary and maker of history.

All ministries, then, ought to be re-interpreted from inside the reality and mission of the people of God, as a concrete attainment of them. It is because of this that No. 10 of Lumen gentium can declare without a shade of doubt that ordained ministry is at the service of the mission of the people of God.

In pre-Vatican ecclesiology, the pope came first, then the people as the object of his attention and zeal. Not so in Vatican II. "First" are the people of God, in chapter two of Lumen gentium, and "then" the hierarchy, in chapter three. They are first and second not only chronologically, but also ontologically. "First" come the people of God: messianic, apostolic, catholic, one; and "then" the various parts and ministries in their internal life and relation to the world. The various ministries help the people to live their identity and ministry.

Not so in Instrumentum laboris. The ordained ministry becomes again an absolute, with no other reference but Christ. That this is not an oversight, but rather a strategy, can be proven by the fact that the same vision can be traced in Pastores dabo vobis and in Consecrated Life, the documents of the last two Bishops' Synods. Thus, the Instrumentum laboris will make clericalism even more deep-rooted.

The other great experience of the Council was the suffered, but very important, experience of the dominance of the bishops over the Roman Curia. Many theologians previously marginalized by the Curia, or even publicly condemned, became qualified voices heard by the councilor fathers. Really and truly it appeared that the pope with all the bishops, and the bishops with the pope, were at the helm of the Church.

Now the Curia returns to be an absolute over all the bishops. The document never mentions episcopal conferences while it quotes many documents of Roman congregations. Not even continental synods are ever mentioned. It appears clear that the Synod of Bishops is nothing more than another instrument in the hands of the Curia to "run" the College of Catholic Bishops - more a remnant of the Roman centrality of the second millennium than a new instrument of the third millennium. Let us hope that this is the last act of this anachronism and that the originality and intentions of Vatican II are finally recovered.

Bishops between globalization and localization

In the Church today, and in society at large, a great revolt has emerged against the negative effects of globalization, that is the domination of a few over the rest of the world, particularly the poor. We missionaries were among the first to react against the International Monetary Fund's and the World Bank's infamous structural adjustment programmes and other forms of financial globalization. We missionaries are extremely sensitive to the problem of localization and speak of enculturation as a fundamental aspect of localization and therefore as a powerful counteraction to globalization that seems aimed at destroying cultural differences.

The theological concept of the episcopacy as a sacrament, finally established by Vatican II in Lumen gentium, was a strong proclamation of the local. The bishop is, in fact, Christ's mediator in a given place and space. Communion with Rome's local church does not imply forgetting the local in favour of the Roman, as was done in the second millennium. Communion means symphony, synergy, never uniformity; it is not listening to a single voice coming from a single instrument, but a polyphony!

There exists the danger, already experienced in the second millennium, of seeing the bishop as the pope's representative, who imposes on his diocese the characteristics of the Church of Rome. This would, indeed, be more of a globalization than catholicity, which respects the plurality of creation. In fact, globalization has negative sides also in the Church if it isn't corrected by catholicity, and the bishops ought to be key figures in the service of catholicity as an integral expression in the life of the various local churches. It is sad that in Instrumentum laboris catholicity is dealt with more as a globalization than a pentacost.

The people of the Church will look attentively to the Synod's conclusions, for they will reveal fundamental aspects of the Church, such as the exercise of authority and the relationship between the Universal Church and local Churches. Should we lose the unique opportunity of this ecclesial event, the restlessness of people inside the Church could grow all out of proportion, something nobody wants.

Fr. Francesco Pierli is founder and director of the Social Ministry Course at Tangaza College, University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. This article is an edited version of an earlier piece he had written.

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