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Church Reform Wishlist: Open Letter of Introduction

Oscar Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa;
Giuseppe Cardinal Bertello, governor of Vatican City;
Francisco Javier Cardinal Errázuriz Ossa of Santiago;
Oswald Cardinal Gracias of Mumbai;
Reinhard Cardinal Marx of Munich;
Laurent Cardinal Monsengwo Pasinya of Kinshasa;
Sean Cardinal O’Malley of Boston;
George Cardinal Pell of Sydney.G8Cardinals

Your Eminences,

Know that the Church is with you in prayer during these first days of dialogue, discussion and deliberation on how the people of God can be best served by the college of Bishops and its structures of universal governance, including those particular to the bishop of Rome.

[Know also that the Beards for Bishops Campaign applauds Pope Francis for including two of our most beloved members, Cardinals Marx and O’Malley, in your number. Clearly, His Holiness knows bearded men are wise men!]

It seems that you have consulted broadly among your episcopal peers in your respective regions. It is not clear to what extent, if any, consultation was extended to deacons, presbyters, lay ecclesial ministers, theologians, religious and the lay faithful. Perhaps you devoted a day to reading Catholic blogs from around the world – and if you did, you simultaneously have my gratitude and my pity.

It seems as if everyone is working on their reform wishlist! Some that I found interesting including John Allen, and the interview with Cardinal Maradiaga on Salt and Light was encouraging. I found Tom Reese to be a little skeptical when he warns that

if the press release says that [you] had a wonderful discussion with the pope and [you] agreed that collegiality and subsidiarity should be the guiding principles for curial reform, you can be assured no one has a plan and they wasted six months.

Personally, I expect your work to take some time. However, after a generation of waiting on some questions, it would be reassuring to see some indication of movement. I trust in the Holy Spirit and in your good will, but as a theologian, a minister, and a member of Christ’s church, have the duty to share my hopes and concerns (cf. CIC 212).

I admit, it does seem a little like sending a Christmas wish list to Santa Claus. I would need a book to spell out the rationale behind each of these suggestions. In many cases there are incompatible alternatives, but either choice would be an improvement. Most of these are small things, tinkering with structures even, that need only to reflect the more important principles and ought to serve the conversion of heart and change of mind. Some are obvious to me based on my study, that i forget they are not so obvious to the public, or even to theologians not studied in ecclesiology or ecumenism. These are, in fact, some of the effects of change, the signs that reform in the more important areas is trickling down to the practical, nitty-gritty. It is also just a list! But before i get to it, I can assert that this list intends to adhere to the following ideals and principles, and is not exhaustive:

Each change is rooted in the tradition of the church – historically, and/or ecumenically (or, apostolic and catholic tradition). We do not really need brand new structures, so much as looking to our past and to the current practice of other apostolic and catholic churches, and adapting those practices for our current needs.

Neither I nor most people I know are much interested in reforms of dogma and doctrine, though the development of doctrine, of the articulation and understanding of unchangeable truth, is always welcome; the focus is on discipline, custom, culture, and administrative practice.

Ecumenically, we should formally commit to the Lund Principle: “churches should act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately.” In other words, that which can be done together should be done together. Too often we only seem to do the minimum, not all that is allowed or encouraged, but only what is required.

Let him be anathema who says, “Tinkering with structures is not sufficient, all we need is prayer, or holier priests.” Whatever virtue there may have once been present in such pietism is usually overshadowed by this being used as a cop out by people afraid of change, transparency, and the light of day. I agree it is not enough to merely tinker with some structures; they must be overhauled from the ground up. However, prayer without action is merely words, like the letter without the spirit, or the dead kind of faith James warns us about. Pray and Act, rather than Pray not Act, should be your watchword.

Any changes which have been approved in principle, or recommended by various authorities in the church, including official ecumenical dialogues, should be enacted – most have been delayed too long already (e.g., Paul VI and married Eastern presbyters in the US; or the Synod of Bishops on women as instituted readers).

Likewise, some policies already on the books should be more clearly enforced (e.g., only clerics should wear clerical clothing – not seminarians; or the requirement that everyone engaged in formation for pastoral work take a required course in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue).

A healing of memories should take place, perhaps the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission at various levels. There have been many wrongs, some lesser and some greater, committed because of the wrong attitudes of clericalism, careerism, triumphalism. this has happened at the parish level and at the highest levels of the curia. I know pastoral associates and former presidents of pontifical councils treated poorly or fired just for being ‘too pastoral’ and not buying in to the system of clericalism.

Finally, take to heart Pope Francis’ admonishment that all of these are secondary to the need for a conversion of heart, a change of attitude – always the first step in both ecclesial reform and ecumenical reconciliation, two goals which are inseparable from the Gospel.

His Holiness is right, of course, “the people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.” Presbyters especially have a vocation to parish ministry and to advising the bishop in the care of the diocese; it is deacons who have a particular vocation to assisting the bishop in his ministry of governance and administration at the deanery, diocesan, and supra-diocesan levels.

Thank you for your prayer, your humility, your leadership, and your dedication to the Church. Accept these suggestions from a loyal son of the Church in the spirit in which they are given, out of love for the Church and frustration in its failings and imperfections. And of course, out of humility: this is a work in progress, and the work of many is better than that of one, so I hope friends and colleagues will add their voices to mine, even in disagreement.

I am, as ever, your servant…


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Church Reform Wishlist: The College of Bishops

The College of Bishops:

  • Zero tolerance for bishops who covered up sex abuse. Remove them.
  • Bishops are diocesan ordinaries. No more titular bishops for dicasteries. Even the practice of auxiliary bishops should be reconsidered. Ordaining a personal secretary or a bureaucrat as a bishop diminishes the office of bishop, even if the individual is worthy of the office.
  • Smaller dioceses: Dioceses in Italy are about the same geography and population of a deanery/vicariate in the US. The ratio of Eastern (Catholic and Orthodox) bishops to faithful seems to hover at around 1:10,000. In the Latin church it is about 1:250,000.
  • Restore the ancient practice of elected bishops. “Election” need not mean simple democracy, but a clear participation of the clergy (both diaconate and presbyterate), the lay ecclesial ministry, any resident theologians, and the leadership of the laity.
  • Only after the above reform, restore the ancient practice of bishops being ‘wed’ to a  single diocese – no more moving on up and out. This makes no sense if a bishop is appointed, but an election makes it possible.
  • We need to make better use of the archbishops/metropolitans, including an increased role in the election of bishops from their province. If there were smaller dioceses, and more bishops, the metropolitan would take on some of the load currently at the diocesan level.
  • Titular patriarchates (Venice, Lisbon, East Indies) should be eliminated. Despite their historical origin, they only serve to confuse.
  • The synod of bishops and the conferences of bishops need to be strengthened. There needs to be a regular standing structure in place to balance the primacy of the papacy. Primacy and synodality belong together, neither one without the other, at every level of the church.


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Very Rev. David Neuhaus, SJ

Very Rev. David Neuhaus, SJ


The Synod of Bishops is meeting in extraordinary session for the Middle East for the first time in church history, and one of the few synod fathers who is not a bishop is our guest presider and presenter this evening, Jesuit David Neuhaus, Patriarchal Vicar for the Hebrew-Speaking Catholics in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

The Patriarchate is the diocese covering Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon serving the 70,000 Latin Catholics living in this area. In Israel, only 2% of the population is Christian, and the majority of these (about 90%) are Arab. There is a small but significant number of Hebrew-speaking Catholics, however, that requires special attention and holds a unique place in the Church.

Like migrant workers anywhere, these families are made of the first-generation workers, many now parents, who came to Israel looking for work, but maintaining their primary identity with their country of origin. Many of these are Filipino. Now, their children, who have been born and raised in Israel, are “culturally” Jewish – they speak Hebrew, go to school in Hebrew, know the popular religious imagery and stories of Judaism as a child in the States or the UK would know basic “cultural” Christian stories and images even if not a Christian (Christmas itself being a great example). The vicariate then ministers, primarily in catechesis, to these children who are Israeli, ‘culturally’ Jewish, but religiously Christian. Like Jews in a secularly Christian culture, the biggest threat to these Christians in a secularly Jewish culture is assimilation.

It was one of the first places in the world granted blanket approval for the liturgy and sacraments to be celebrated in the vernacular, as early as 1955. At the time, the liturgy had to be in one of the three sacred languages: Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. If one of those three happened also to be the vernacular, in this case Hebrew, you were set. Eleven priests serve the 500 members of the vicariate.

Fr. David is one of a rarer sort, a convert from Judaism. Born in South Africa the son of German Jews, he migrated to Israel at the age of 15, less than two weeks after the assassination of Stephen Biko. There his first encounter with Christianity was with an 89-year old Russian Orthodox babushka whose principal character marker was joy. He met with her regularly until her death at 93. When he told his parents, as a teen, that he intended to become Christian, I can imagine there was a little scepticism mixed in with the expected disappointment. They told him to wait a decade, and if he still wanted to convert then, he could. Ten years later he began the formal catechumenate process.

Conversant in Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, English, and French, Fr. David was drawn to the Melkite liturgy, but also to the Jesuit community, where he eventually applied to be part of the province serving the Holy Land, based in Lebanon. He is the only Israeli citizen in the Church’s flagship religious order.

He shared with the community about the church in the Holy Land, his vicariate, and about the Synod on the Middle East. The purpose of this special assembly of the Synod was  

“…to confirm and strengthen Christians in their identity, through the Word of God and the sacraments; and to deepen ecclesial communion among the particular Churches, so that they can bear witness to the Christian life in an authentic, joyful and winsome manner. Essential elements in this witness in our lives are ecumenism, interreligious dialogue and the missionary effort.”

This gathering of the Synod is remarkable for several reasons. For the purpose of this Assembly, the Middle East indicates 18 states, a region with a total population of approximately 356,174,000 people, of whom only 5.7 million are Catholic, representing 1.6% of the total population. The region is home to seven of the 23 Churches sui iuris that comprise the Catholic Church.

It is perhaps the first time that the Catholic bishops of the Middle East have met as a group. The Assembly itself is predominately representative of the Eastern Catholic Churches: of the 185 Synod Fathers, 140 are Eastern Catholic. In addition to the regular participants, there are 36 experts and 34 auditors, plus three special guests: an Israeli Rabbi, a Lebanese Mufti (Sunni), and an Iranian Ayatollah (Shi’ite). This marks only the second time that a Jewish leader has spoken at a Synod assembly, and the first that Muslim leaders have done so.

Working languages of this Assembly are Arabic, English, French and Italian; scheduled for only 14 days, it is the shortest gathering of the Synod in its history.

Despite streamlining in the meetings since Pope Benedict’s election, there still are some organizational challenges. There is no real order to the speakers’ interventions, for example: Fr. David gave his five-minute speech between the Maronite bishop of Sydney and the Chaldean bishop of Kirkuk, Iraq.

The main concern is the coherence of Catholic presence in the Middle East, the question of dialogue is most pressing in terms of Islam and religious freedom. With Judaism, our dialogue flourishes in the west, where Judaism is a minority, but in Israel where Christianity is the minority it is harder to ‘get on the radar’. Many Israeli’s can go most of their lives never having met a Christian, as a Christian, and those who encounter the work of the vicariate are often surprised to find Christianity taught in Hebrew, rather than an imported western language and culture. The challenge of dialogue can be partially in the overlap of culture and religion, ethnicity and identity in the region, a challenge to separate the religious from the political, at least to an extent. A the same time there is unique opportunity for bridge building in a place where most Christians are Arab, east can meet west and  Arab can meet Israeli, all under the roof of the Catholic Church.

In terms of ecumenism in the Holy Land, Fr. David shared an anecdote from the visit of some (western, Anglophone) pilgrims. He took them to a particular holy site, which is administered by an Orthodox monastery. After knocking for several minutes, an irritated monk opened the door and demanded to know what they wanted. At first he refused entry, but eventually allowed them to look around, “but no praying!!” He proceeded to follow them around, suspicious that they might commit the apparent sacrilidge of Catholic prayer in an Orthodox holy space.

“Some of you may be wondering about the reception we have just had,” our Jesuit starts. “Consider the first arrival of Latin Christians, the crusades – the sacking of Jerusalem and the wholesale slaughter  of men, weomen and children – Muslim, Jew and Christian alike. Then consider the controversy of the erection of the Lutheran/Anglican diocese, and even of the Latin patriarchate in the last century. We (Latins) have not always been the most Christian when coming to these places.” He continues with the history and information about the site as the monk, who had been listening all along, slips out the back. Just before they get ready to leave, he asks them to wait, “I have prepared something for you” and offers refreshment. Before they finish, he invites them to pray.

The healing of memories was one of the key themes of John Paul II’s approach to ecumenism, and it starts with us and an honest look at our common heritage. Some debts may be too great to pay, but cannot be ignored. Some small acts of honesty can go a long way in a place so sensitive to such memories.

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