July 2006 - Volume 10, Issue 12
Most In Need Of Changing
Last Ascension Thursday, about 25 students from Saint Joseph High School in Trumbull gathered with me in the school library for conversation. It was quite a wide-ranging discussion covering everything from The Da Vinci Code to liturgical styles. Their questions and comments were focused, well-informed, and marked by civility.
But one question stood out among all others. A senior asked, "Bishop, if you could change one thing in the Church, what would it be?"
In the few seconds that elapsed before I responded, many possible answers registered within me. Then came the only really correct answer - and not really from me but from the Holy Spirit. "What I would most like to change in the Church is myself," I answered. "Surely if I were a wiser, holier bishop, the Church in Fairfield County and even beyond would be better off. There would be greater progress and few problems - and the problems we do face would serve only to strengthen the Church, not to weaken it."
I really don't know all that influenced this impromptu response, except my awareness of my own unworthiness and weakness. I also know that holy pastors like Saint Augustine and Pope Saint Gregory the Great were deeply conscious of their utter need for God's help and mercy in discharging their responsibilities. Meditating on their writings, I can only conclude that if such is true for them, then how much greater is my need!
So in addition to praying for a deeper share in the wisdom and love of the Good Shepherd, I must daily pray for the virtue of humility. That virtue does not render us ungrateful for the gifts of grace and nature that God showers upon us, but it does give us that "poverty of spirit" necessary for clear-eyed realism.
And clear-eyed realism is a good thing.
Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, recommends a combination of what he calls "professional will" and "personal humility." At one point, Collins offers a sobering summary of qualities in each category. One example will give you the idea. Under the heading of "professional will," he states that the leader ". . . looks in the mirror, not out the window, to apportion responsibility for poor results, never blaming other people, external factors, or bad luck." The corresponding trait, under the rubric of "personal humility," tells us that the leader ". . . looks out the window, not in the mirror, to apportion credit for the success of the company - to other people, external factors, and good luck."
In my more reflective moments, I recognize that the progress in Catholic Charities, Catholic schools, vocations, religious education, finances, development, and so much more is due first and foremost to Divine Providence, to the mercy of the Lord at work in our midst (not luck!). And it is also due to others who are the Lord's instruments - the dedicated and skilled people in the Catholic Center and in parishes, diocesan institutions, and ministries.
When progress lags, setbacks are encountered, or a crisis erupts, I have to look in the mirror, not to feel sorry for myself, but rather to know how to ask God's help, forgiveness, and mercy, and the help of others. Being mortal, there are times I'd prefer not to do so!
To the business community, Collins drives home the point that all too often it's one's inflated ego that gets in the way and prevents progress. But Jesus' teaching is even more radical. "Unless you deny yourself and take up your cross each day," Jesus says, "You cannot be My disciple" (Matthew 16:24). Self denial is not the surrender of our human dignity but its reclamation. When we allow the Lord to rid us of self-centeredness, then we become capable of receiving God's love and the love of others. We also become capable of appreciating the love, good will, talents, and contributions of those around us.
How providential that Pope Benedict's first encyclical is both an analysis and a celebration of love. Love, of course, is a difficult word because it means so many things. But Pope Benedict found a way to help us relate all the meanings of this word to the highest and best love there is - the pure and utterly generous love of God. God's love has no trace of the ego. He gains nothing by loving us. We gain everything if we allow Him to deflate our egos so we can be filled with His love.
The Second Vatican Council stressed the call to conversion and holiness for all the baptized. No matter what our state in life - lay, ordained, consecrated - we all are called to share in the holiness of the Triune God, so that we may truly love one another. To strengthen our beloved Church, the correct place to begin is with ourselves. Policies, procedures, best practices, standards, theological models - all these play an important role and are recognized as good by a Church of both faith and reason.
But the heart of ecclesial life is holiness. The more our lives are rooted in God's utterly generous love for us, the more we will build up the Body of Christ.
Participating in God's love is holiness. And holiness makes the difference.
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