Somerville Lecture - Bridging the Gap: Overcoming our Differences

By  Archbishop James Weisgerber
  • December 7, 2006

Winnipeg Archbishop James WeisgerberEditor's note: The following is the text of the sixth annual Henry Somerville Lecture in Christianity and Communications. Titled "Bridging the Gap: Overcoming our Differences," it was presented by Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg on Nov. 30 at the Newman Centre in Toronto and on Dec. 1 at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo.

I am happy to take this opportunity tonight to address you not as a professional theologian, but as the pastor of a diocesan church. I would like to share with you the vision that guides me in my responsibilities as pastor of a particular church and as a member of the College of Bishops, which, together with the Pope, guides the universal church.

In his last testament to the church, published after his death, Pope John Paul II speaks with great gratitude about the Second Vatican Council. He declares that it is a providential gift of God, a gift which enables the church to walk confidently into the future. It is to the council and its wisdom that I look for vision and inspiration in my task as bishop. The council, held at the beginning of the 1960s, so obviously shares in the optimism and excitement of the time. While there were great tensions generated by the Cold War, there was a sense that the human race was making great strides, coming into its own.

Pope John XXIII captured much of that spirit in his encyclical letter Pacem in Terris where he speaks of wonderful new developments: the end of colonization, growth of economic democracy and the increasing recognition of the importance and rights of women. He predicted a "new springtime" for humanity. Technological progress and social stability promised a new world in which poverty, disease and ignorance could be defeated.

As the council approached the end of the third session (1964) a fatigue set in; the bishops were away from their dioceses for great parts of three years, so much of the agenda had not been completed. There was a desire for an end. There was, however, one major piece to be completed. The fathers of the council clearly recognized that the world was waiting for a new expression of the church's relationship to the world. And so, in the fall of 1965 the council convened for its fourth session. It produced Gaudium et Spes, which according to John Paul II was his key to interpreting the entire council.

For centuries the church had been struggling with new realities: modernity, democracy, the Enlightenment. These were new ideas and frightening and threatening ideas, and more and more the church isolated itself from the world. The church tended to see itself as above, apart from the world, which it often treated with disdain. In Gaudium et Spes the council declares firmly that the church is called into being for the life of the world. The council says: "The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the followers of Christ."

The church sees itself as a sacrament of Jesus Christ for the world; our life as church is never just about ourselves. The church is a visible sign, for all to see and it is called to embody God's saving will for the whole of the world. God loves all that is created and Jesus died for all. In the Gospel of John, Caiphas, because he was High Priest, prophesied that Jesus would "die to gather together in unity all the scattered children of God." St. Paul speaks of the church as the first fruits, the seed, the visibility of what God desires and will do for the world; the church is sort of presage, a foretaste of the great harvest of the Kingdom.

From this perspective the church is light, to be put on a candlestick for all to see; a city built on a mountain; salt and yeast for the world; its life intimately connected to the world. It is not only that Christians must love others, especially the poor and marginalized, but we must become a people whose lives and whose lives together inspire the world.

The bishops had hardly returned to their dioceses when the world with which they were familiar began to be shaken to its roots. A new sense of the person, of the rights and dignity of the individual, a new feeling of freedom and liberation from societal constraints conspired to sweep away what was for so many the familiar and comfortable values and structures of their lives. A social revolution began and we continue to be held in its grip.

In the light of the monumental cultural and social changes of the last 40 years the prophetic nature of the council becomes clearer. The Holy Spirit has indeed inspired a vision of church which can guide us in these turbulent times. In 1985 a special assembly of the World Synod of Bishops was convoked to review and assess the progress made in implementing the vision of the council. Those gathered affirmed the intention of Pope John XXIII who, during his opening address, distinguished between "the substance of the ancient doctrine" and "the way in which it is presented." The council was not a rupture with the past, a revolution, rather it was the church taking a giant step towards a new maturity.

The synod agreed that the foundational idea of the council was to understand the church as a communion. I would like to examine with you the meaning of the "church as communion." The church, in reaction to the innovations of the Protestants, had concentrated for centuries on building up and developing the institutional, clerical and authoritative aspects of its nature. The council, while in no way contradicting that the church is an institution, stated clearly that the church is so much more than an institution and at the heart and soul of this new vision is the church as communion.

The church is about persons in relationship. The church is the assembly of the baptized, called by the Father, made one with the Christ Jesus, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Through Baptism we are drawn into the very life of the Trinity. We become the sons and daughters of God. St. Augustine says: "Let us rejoice and give thanks: we have not only become Christians, but Christ Himself… Stand in awe and rejoice: We have become Christ." We are made holy, a new creation, born again! "Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven!"

We share in the one priesthood of Jesus, offering our lives as spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to the Lord. The Spirit endows the baptized with countless gifts for the building up of the church. St. Paul never tires of extolling the wonder and the newness of the gift and he exhorts his hearers to allow the gift to radically transform their minds, their hearts, their way of life, everything!

As disciples we are called to respond, to accept the gift God offers. We are called to allow our hearts, our minds and our lives to be shaped by this new creation. We are made holy by the gift of the Spirit. We must allow the Spirit to transform our lives. We do this through prayer, through reception of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation. The Risen Lord knocks, He beckons, we must open our lives and we must follow.

The council declared that the liturgy, in particular the Eucharist, is at the heart of the communion, for it is in the Eucharist that the work of our redemption and transformation continues and it is in the Eucharist that we can both glorify and thank God for the gift and come to a deeper recognition of our new creation. Through this intimate union with God, the Christian disciple becomes the sacrament, the living sign of God's desire for all. God wants us to be people filled with joy, living in freedom and security, our hearts turned towards our God in wondrous gratitude for all the gifts we receive.

If Baptism establishes us in a new relationship with God, the sacrament also creates a new relationship with one another. We are not only made daughters and sons of God, we are also made sisters and brothers. It is in the person of Mary that the Scriptures point to this new creation. In the Synoptic Gospels we read of someone telling Jesus that His mother and brothers and sisters are at the door. Jesus responds with the unsettling words: "Who is my mother or brother or sister? The one who hears the Word of God and keeps it, that person is my mother, brother or sister." Jesus is not belittling His mother, rather He is pointing to Mary's true greatness: she has entered into the new creation, the new communion. This communion is not built on ties of blood or clan, race or nationality, but rather on faith's gift.

John gives us the poignant scene at the foot of the cross where in giving Mary to John as mother and John to Mary as son Jesus is establishing a new relationship, the church of communion. As we struggle to allow the reality of our Baptism to transform our relationship to God, so, too, we must struggle to allow our Baptism to transform our relationship to one another.

In the baptized disciples of Christ there is a God-given dignity and a radical equality. Among us, St. Paul tells us, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female; we are all one in Christ. This reality is not one of dull uniformity, but rather of rich diversity. If there is a wonder of diversity and variety in creation, how much more will there be rich diversity in the new creation. The baptized receive different gifts: different talents, different understandings, amazing passion for different things. Just look at us: there are contemplatives and activists, theologians, teachers, catechists; we have people who are passionate about protecting life, others deeply involved in protecting the environment; there are those who care for the aged, the infirm, the vulnerable and there those many, many unsung heroes, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers who literally pour out their lives for their children.

The challenge is to recognize the other and to acknowledge and thank God for the charisms and gifts God gives to the other. We are incomplete in ourselves, we need the other and the gifts of the other, precisely because they are "other". To quote John Paul II: "A spirituality of communion implies the ability to see what is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it directly, but also as a 'gift for me'" (The New Millennium, 200l). This is a daunting task and an extremely daunting task given the new context of radical individuality within which we live.

The glue which binds the church of communion is God's love for us which enables us to love one another. That love is not a starry eyed emotion, but rather a determined decision to be brother and sister and to be there for the other. In his letter to the Corinthians St. Paul is completely down to earth and a contemporary translation of the New Testament affirms this practicality: "Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn't want what it doesn't have. Love doesn't strut, doesn't force itself on others, isn't always 'me first,' doesn't fly off the handle, doesn't keep score of the sins of others, doesn't revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end."

History has shown us how easy it was and is to divide and separate. How tempting it is to demonize and dismiss someone who does not look or think or act the way I do. Love means trying to understand, going the extra mile, giving the other the benefit of the doubt, presuming the other has good will and, of course, the willingness to exercise perhaps the most frequently mentioned virtue in the New Testament: forgiveness. In the communion created by the Holy Spirit as a sign of God's desire for all we are unique, diverse, equal but unquestionably one. Communion is inclusive, there are no insiders or outsiders, there are no winners and losers.

Our tradition tells us so clearly that communion with God leads to communion with each other and communion with one another is impossible without communion with God. Just last week, Pope Benedict concluded his weekly audience with the remark: "…what is at stake is a relationship of communion: the relationship – to call it in some way – is vertical between Jesus Christ and all of us, but also 'horizontal' between all those who are distinguished in the world by the fact of 'calling of the name of Jesus Christ, Our Lord.'" And in his great encyclical letter God is Love, Benedict says: "Only if I serve my neighbour can my eyes be opened to what God does for me And how much God loves me" (no. 18). And, he adds, to serve my neighbour is to encounter Jesus and in meeting Jesus we behold God.

To lead this church of communion and to strengthen it and keep it gathered in unity the Lord has given the community leaders and shepherds who are bishops and pastors. We are an ordered church. The role of the shepherd is to keep God's people in communion: firmly united in faith and in love. Through the sacraments -- Baptism, Eucharist, Penance -- the bishop represents Christ the Head of the Church as Christ keeps alive and strengthens our communion with God and with each other.

The sacraments remind us that our new life in Christ is always a gift, a reality we receive. Communion in the life of God is a gift we receive; it is God's initiative and God's work. The bishop is charged with the responsibility of keeping the church in the truth of the Gospel. He guards, proclaims and hands on the faith of the church which we have received from the Apostles.

But the tradition which is handed on is a living tradition. In the mystery of the church the Spirit is alive and active in the lives of all the baptized. As we live and move in history new questions arise, new insights, urgent new questions often bump up against the truths of the faith. We can be deeply challenged. Theologians benefitting from new research seek ways to express the faith in language and images more accessible to a newer generation. The People of God, envisaged by the council, can be an unruly bunch. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it this way: "In the work of teaching and applying Christian morality, the church needs the dedication of pastors, the knowledge of theologians, and the contribution of all Christians and people of good will. Faith and practice of the Gospel provide each person with an experience of life 'in Christ' who enlightens him and makes him able to evaluate the divine and human realities according to the Spirit of God. Thus the Holy Spirit can use the humblest to enlighten the learned and those in the highest positions" (no. 2038).

It is the task of the bishop to listen carefully to the people and to listen to the tradition, to the other bishops of the world, in particular to the bishop of Rome, and then with authority articulate faithfully the teaching of the church. If the church is indeed the sacrament and visible sign of God's plan for the world it will be a busy and complex reality. Jesus died to gather together in unity all the scattered children of God. As His Body we continue His mission; we are called for the world.

Nothing amazes nor inspires me more than the myriad ways in which our communities serve the poor. We have shelters for the homeless, battered women, persons with HIV/AIDS; we have food banks and clothing banks and soup kitchens; we have groups that are politically active around all kinds of issues, environment, immigration, pornography, human trafficking, etc. We have people passionate about questions of life, others generous in their concern for people in the developing world. And this simply scratches the surface of involvement.

The passion for one's cause can so easily cloud our ability to appreciate the work of others or make us impatient or disappointed with those who seem to be doing nothing. As one gets closer and closer to the needs of the poor we can become exasperated by those who don't have the same passion or commitment. Judgment and dismissal of others can so easily lead to isolation and distancing oneself.

When I arrived in Winnipeg I invited, through parish bulletins, all those involved in social outreach to gather together for a meeting. A large number of people gathered, but, I later discovered, these were only a fraction of the people involved. What amazed me is that few knew any of the others. Those involved generally felt tired and discouraged and very isolated. It is the bishop's role to keep the Church together in love. Someone recently described the bishop's role as keeping everyone in the conversation. Strong opinions, passionate involvement are great gifts, but they must not be allowed to lead to factions and division.

As Benedict XVI very recently said: What is important, however, is that the charisms co-operate together for the building up of the community and that they not become instead a motive for division. To this end, Paul asks himself rhetorically: "Is Christ divided?" He knows well and teaches us that it is necessary "to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call" (Ephesians 4:3-4).

The relationship we are to have with each other is not just one of toleration. Every Sunday we come together to eat at the common table. We recognize that we are gift for one another. A condition empowering us to do the work of Jesus is our willingness to recognize, embrace and accept in love all those who gather together for the Eucharist. In the end, it is all about holiness. Holiness is God's gift, creating us anew to be his children and brothers and sisters. Our task is to become who we already are: to see ourselves and each other in this vision of faith and then to have the willingness to courageous live as God's children in the communion of the Church.

Living in communion with God and with each other in unity and peace is never easy. It is here that we meet the Cross. Letting go our comforts, our biases, our egos for the sake of communion is sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the business of the church.

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