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The silence of the shepherds

Leaders must lead while they can still have an impact

  • Fr. William Grimm, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • September 6, 2012
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Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, Jesuit biblical scholar and former archbishop ofMilan, died on August 31. More than 20,000 people attended his funeral after ten times that number had filed past his bier in Milan Cathedral, a measure of the love and respect that people had for him. Many of us had hoped that he would succeed John Paul II as pope.

A few days before he died, the cardinal gave a final interview in which he said, "The Church is 200 years behind the times. Why doesn't it stir?" He called for a more pastoral approach on the part of the official Church to Catholics whose marriages have failed.

He mourned the fact that, "Our culture has become old, our churches and our religious houses are big and empty, the bureaucratic apparatus of the Church grows, our rites and our dress are pompous. Do these things, however, express what we are today?"

Yes, Your Eminence, they do, and increasingly so. There are many people in the Church who want it to be 200 or even more years behind the times. They ask why it should become part of such a terrible age as this and long for "that old-time religion." They are succeeding at pulling the Church back from engagement with the real world.

People with such an attitude are presently in charge, men (no women of course) nostalgic for the age of Louis XIV when the exercise of centralized absolute power was proclaimed a divine right and disagreement was treason.

The most recent manifestation of that attitude has come from the man who actually did succeed John Paul, when he said in an August 26 address that those who question are Judases who would do well to leave the Church.

Since in this pontificate the exodus of people from the Catholic Church in Europe, North America, Australia and elsewhere is accelerating, Pope Benedict is apparently getting what he wants. It is not clear, however, that what Christ wants is the locking of the doors to the rooms of his Father’s mansion.

There are, of course, people who stay in the Church while hoping that we can present a credible faith to men and women of the 21st century in their "joys and hopes, their griefs and anxieties." Cardinal Martini was one of them. And he was not alone, even among bishops.

However, his final testament is disappointing in one respect. Though he was generally much more outspoken than most bishops, like many of them he saved his most trenchant comments for the end of his career and life.

Too many bishops who really want a Church for the modern world remain silent or merely grumble while in office, choosing after they retire to follow the old saying, "One who tells the truth should keep one foot in the stirrup." In other words, don’t say anything until you are sure you can avoid repercussions.

Bishops are not chosen because they are likely to be forthright in calling the structures of the Church to accountability and change for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel and leading the People of God. They are chosen by the "head office" precisely because they can be expected to be "good company men." So, it may be unfair to expect more of them.

Yet, there are probably still at least a few bishops in the Catholic Church who upon reading Cardinal Martini’s remarks nodded in agreement. Will we have to wait until they are safely retired or dead before we hear what they really thought? Are there none out there brave enough to speak out and act while they are still in a position to exercise some degree of leadership?

Unless such leaders appear, the Catholic Church is likely to struggle on to the 19th century, but will lose the 21st century along the way.

Father William Grimm is a Maryknoll Missioner and publisher of ucanews.com
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