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William Grimm, a native of New York City, is a missioner and presbyter who since 1973 has served in Japan, Hong Kong and Cambodia.
Putting an end to prelates' purposeless pontificating
Published: March 03, 2015 05:21 AM
Putting an end to prelates' purposeless pontificating

On February 25, the 34th anniversary of an appeal for peace by Pope John Paul II at Hiroshima, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan (CBCJ) issued a message marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. This followed a practice that began with the 50th anniversary in 1995 and continued with the 60th in 2005.

In case you were wondering or worried, rest assured that the bishops are still in favor of peace.

This year’s message did contain some critical comments on the attempts by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to remilitarize Japan.

But, like most messages by most of the world’s bishops’ conferences, this one will provoke little interest or discussion, let alone action. In fact, like most such messages, it is likely to remain largely unread.

That might not bother the bishops. One cannot help but wonder if episcopal conference declarations are actually meant more for Roman than local consumption. "Look, Curia, we’re doing something!"

Of course, there is also an element of self-satisfaction involved. It can let bishops think that they actually have done something significant, sending a message to the world, a world that in fact is generally not interested in their existence, let alone their message.

Unfortunately, all over the world bishops seem to think that if they issue a message, they have fulfilled their vocation to teach and lead. What, if anything, happens after that is not, it appears, their concern.

Back in 2001, the CBCJ prepared a remarkable message called Reverence for Life: A Message for the Twenty-First Century from the Catholic Bishops of Japan. It dealt with many issues affecting human life today and remains relevant 14 years after its publication.

However, when a reporter at the press conference held to announce its publication asked if the bishops intended to mandate preaching on the message or planned to make it part of the curriculum at Catholic schools, etc, the bishop who led the presentation did not even understand the question.

Not only had no one thought about what could or should be done once the message was published, it apparently never occurred to them that the publication should result in anything at all. In fact, Reverence for Life seems to have been forgotten by the bishops as well as by anyone else who had become aware of it.

If messages from bishops anywhere are to resonate with the rest of the Church as well as with society at large and thus bear fruit, several things are necessary.

The first is relevance. Bishops, either singly or as conferences, must address issues the rest of the Church considers important as well as those the bishops as a group or individuals think important. That requires, above all, the simple exercise of asking the rest of the Church and listening to the responses. The call by Pope Francis to involve the entire Church in the process for the Synod for the Family is one step toward this.

The second is the involvement of outsiders in the preparation of documents. Representatives of the intended audience must be involved in the creation of a message if it is to avoid being incomprehensible to the very people whom it should touch.

The third is plain speaking. The rule should be (as it should be for homilies as well) that if your grandparents would not understand what you say, you must redo it. Jargon, unexplained presuppositions and flowery rhetoric guarantee that the message will not get across.

The fourth is humility. People neither need nor like to be preached at from on high. A tone that says "this is the best understanding we have reached based upon reflection, study and prayer and we offer it for your consideration" will probably produce a more positive response than orders about what to think about complicated issues will do.

And finally, practicality. General principles will bring people no further than they already are. After all, they probably know those principles already. To give one example, most likely all Japanese Catholics are in favor of peace. What they want are calls to action and some practical ideas of what form that action might take.

I do not know when the Japanese bishops will next issue a message about peace. Perhaps the 75th anniversary of the war’s end will be the occasion. I hope and expect they will still be in favor of peace. In that case, I want to propose a paragraph that they might use to finish up their message, something that might actually bear some fruit.

"Therefore, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan calls upon the Catholic universities of Japan to cooperate during the next two years in organizing a Program in Peace Studies to be implemented as part of the curriculum at one or more of those schools. The program should begin no later than the third academic year following the publication of this message. The CBCJ pledges its moral, and to the extent possible and desirable, its material support to this effort. It further calls upon the Catholics of Japan to share their experience, expertise and material aid in making this effort succeed."

This or some similar call for concrete action would be something new in the Church, not just in Japan, but in every country that has bishops’ conferences addicted to pontificating without purpose.

Maryknoll Fr William Grimm is publisher of ucanews.com, based in Tokyo.

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