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Community of disciples in mission

A Church that practically reduces the priesthood to the ordained ministerial priesthood will never grow into a missionary Church

Full text of CBCP President Bishop Pablo Virgilio David’s homily during the closing Mass of the Philippine National Synodal Consultation at the Carmelite Missionaries Center of Spirituality in Tagaytay City on July 7, 2022

We did not choose the Gospel for this final day of our national synodal consultation. God chose it for us: it contains Jesus’ mission discourse in Matthew chapter 10—a most fitting conclusion after 4 days of communion and participation. Now, the mission. We actually read its first part in yesterday’s Gospel reading about the choice of the twelve apostles and the very first instruction that the Sender gave them as he sent them out on a mission: “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

I am inclined to believe that this is the text from which Pope Francis had drawn his idea of going out to the “existential peripheries,” an expression that we heard over and over again from practically every metropolitan synodal synthesis report.

People will look back many years from now and recognize the aspiration for greater synodality in the Church as the main platform of the papacy of Pope Francis. I am sure you have also heard about that pre-conclave speech that Pope Francis allegedly delivered to his fellow cardinals, when each candidate was asked to deliver a 3-minute speech each, articulating how each one understood the present state of the Catholic Church, where Jesus wants to lead us, and what he expected of the next pope.

Those speeches were supposed to be confidential. But there was one that leaked out, apparently because one cardinal had been so moved by it, he immediately shared it to his diocesan media point person. And so it circulated in South America in Spanish. Pope Francis has neither owned it nor denied it, but one look at it, I knew immediately that it was authentic, and that it was what got him elected into the papacy. Why? Because he has actually repeated the same thoughts over and over again in his homilies and audiences. Listen to the things that he said, as Candidate Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina:

“The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries not only in the geographic sense but also the existential peripheries… When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referential and then she gets sick.”

“In Revelation 3:20, Jesus says that he is standing at the door, knocking. Obviously the text is referring to him knocking from outside in order to enter.”

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Take note that this was the year Pope Benedict had declared as ‘Year of Faith’. In his apostolic letter entitled porta fidei, Pope Benedict used the image of opening the door of faith to let Christ in! It looked like Bergoglio was reacting to it in his speech. He knew that the opposite was actually the case in Europe and in many other parts of the world: how, many people in modern societies are closing their doors to the Christian faith. And so the lines that followed fell like a bombshell on the electing cardinals when he said, “But I think of the times when Jesus is knocking from inside so that we will let him come out. A Church that is self-referential tends to keep Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him come out.”

He ended his speech with a final paragraph, which was in answer to the question, “What kind of a man do you expect the next Pope to be?” His answer was, “He must be the kind of man who, (drawing) from his contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, can help the Church come out of herself to the existential peripheries. A man who can help the Church to be the fruitful mother who lives from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”

This was the same message that Pope Francis communicated to us Filipinos when he visited us in 2015, in the aftermath of the devastating Typhoon Yolanda. Remember how Cardinal Chito Tagle responded to his challenge and said in his final speech, “Holy Father, we will heed your invitation. We will go with you—not to Rome, but to the PERIPHERIES of society.” Binigyan natin ng Tagalog equivalent ang salitang ito mula noon: Laylayan ng lipunan.

Pope Francis has been consistent in challenging Christians to outgrow the tendency to develop that personalistic me-and-my-Jesus kind of spirituality. Don’t we often hear this from some fellow Christians in the form of a question, like “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior? Or, have you allowed Jesus to become a part of your life?”

It does sound pious indeed, but I think they are missing something very fundamental about Christian life: that it is the other way around: not about us making Jesus a part of our lives, but about Christ making us part of his life and mission, part of his body, the Church, by the grace of baptism.

The shift from the individual Christ to the corporate Christ (what St Augustine once called the totus Christus) calls for a total change of paradigm, which is what I take metanoia to mean—a call to conversion. It is a call to communion with Christ, our Shepherd, so that we are empowered to participate in his life and mission. And so, shepherding or pastoring becomes a common aspiration, not just of the ordained, but of the whole Church acting as Corporate Christ.

You see, the downside of referring exclusively to us ordained ministers as “Pastors,” meaning “Shepherds” is precisely the tendency of the laity to think of themselves as a passive flock, a mindless herd.

The Gospel’s narrative about followers who are transitioning from disciples to apostles is really about the whole Church, not just the 12. This is what we proclaim in the apostles’ creed about the Church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” PCP II already broke new ground when it spoke of the Church as a “community of disciples” but it never went to the extent of stretching that ecclesiology to also speak of the Church as a “community of apostles,” obviously because we have also tended to clericalize apostleship.

While bishops are indeed successors of the apostles, this title might make us forget that we succeed the apostles precisely to lead the Church to grow into a community of missionary disciples, meaning, an apostolic community. A few months ago we concluded our celebration of the 500th YoC with a Year of Mission. We emphasized that mission is not a mandate only of missionary congregations; it is the business of the whole Church, both local and universal. In fact we can dare say a Church that is not in mission is not a Church.

A Church that practically reduces the priesthood to the ordained ministerial priesthood will never grow into a missionary Church. In that mode of thinking that has practically revived the clericalization of the temple priesthood of the old dispensation, the laity will never imagine themselves as part of what Vatican II calls common priesthood of the faithful.

They will tend to remain as followers of the clerics whom they will expect to play the role of “Alter Christus,” as if they had been ordained to substitute for Christ. The most tragic thing that can happen to the Church is when we bishops and priests also forget that we have been ordained to the ministerial priesthood precisely to assume the role of nurturing the rest of the Church to grow in the common priesthood of the faithful.

And so, should we be surprised when our people continue to think of the Church as some place to go to rather than as someone they belong to? Look, even our vocabulary betrays us. Because we define ourselves as the celebrants and concelebrants of the Eucharist, the laity will in turn define themselves as audience. They will come to Church to hear mass or attend Mass (magsimba) because we clerics say we will celebrate the Mass for them.

St. Augustine expressed it so well when he said to the faithful of his diocese, “For you, I am a bishop, but with you I am a Christian.” It was his way of saying, I cannot be a good ordained minister for you if I cannot, first and foremost, see myself as a fellow Christian with you—a fellow member of the body of Christ.

Whenever I preside at Mass, I remind myself that it is Christ present in his body, the Church, who is reenacting the paschal mystery in the Eucharist. And so it is the whole Church, acting in the name of Christ who is offering it. I am merely tasked to preside at the celebration in such a way that Christ becomes genuinely present, not just in the sacred species but most specially in the whole Church that celebrates, in the intimate communion of the body with its head, and of the members with one another? We, the ordained, are supposed to be facilitators of that communion that alone can empower the whole body of the faithful, ordained and lay, for participation in the life of the corporate Christ, and represent him in our shared mission to witness to the liberating good news of the kingdom of God.

This will never be realized if our laity are conditioned to think of themselves permanently as followers, or worse, as onlookers. They will never take part in the Church’s corporate mission of shepherding the last, least and lost in this world if we, the ordained, define ourselves as the shepherds, and them as flock. In that kind of a paradigm, they will clericalize us, put us on pedestals and expect us to evangelize them, to lead them, to bless them, to tell them what to do, because we call ourselves their Christ substitutes.

Then you can imagine their disillusionment when they hear of clerical administrative and sexual abuses, when they get to realize that we are as human as they are. In a clericalistic Church, the laity will never think of themselves as part of a Church that evangelizes, saves, and leads, a Church that is gifted to give, blessed to be a blessing, a community of disciples in mission, like “salt of the earth and light of the world,” or like a little yeast in a mass of dough.

Mission is about the Christian community consciously getting out of itself to heal, to give life, to liberate from the evil one. In short, to proclaim a good news that empowers and gives hope. It is what it means to evangelize, but all in the name of Jesus, and always consciously prioritizing the ones Jesus himself would prioritize.

When our lay Catholics volunteer for ministries in the Church, we presuppose that they had been guided to discern the gifts that the spirit has bestowed on the community through them. They serve the Church in various capacities—in worship, in formation, in social action, etc. But they do so only so that, as members of a servant Church, they will serve society, they will work for the renewal of the face of the earth. Only when they go out to the world does the mission begin. If every ministry has no other purpose than for the Church to build herself up, then the Church becomes self-serving and does not become missionary.

I remember how my late father used to do free legal service for the poor during his weekends. When I entered the seminary, I remember how a formator asked us how many of us had parents who were members of their parish mandated organizations. Everyone raised his hand except me, and I felt very embarrassed. The formator even rubbed it in by telling me to talk to my parents and convey the message, that if they were serious about having a son who will serve the Church as a priest, they should also be involved in serving the Church—perhaps by volunteering to serve the Church in mandated organizations. I remember my mother reacting when I conveyed the message. She said: “God gave me 13 children and I have to raise them up into good Catholics and good citizens without the help of housemaids. Your father is out there extending free legal service to the poor. Ask your formator if he doesn’t think of these as service to the Church too? If he does not, then you might as well leave the seminary.” I did not tell him, of course.

It was not until later that I realized that that is what indeed makes the Church deteriorate—when every form of service or ministry is intended to serve the Church. We forget the very essence of our mission to go out, to witness to the Gospel in the workplace, in the marketplace, in the roads and byways, the way Jesus did. It is to work for the renewal of society, as part of a servant Church.

So why do we count as ministries only the tasks of lectoring, altar serving, catechizing, choir singing, etc? We have so parochialized ministries, we have forgotten that these are supposed to be charisms concretized into forms of service or ministries, bestowed by the Spirit precisely to realize the mission of the Church. We often get volunteers and assign them to “ministries” they are not fitted to. We fill up ministries like empty bozes in an organizational structure, not knowing that some of them have become totally irrelevant. How can a pandemic strike the whole world and not force the Church to come up with ministries aimed at addressing the physical and mental health issues of people? Where there is a need and the ministries do not exist, surely the Holy Spirit will give us the audacity to invent them. The same Spirit will give us the common sense to abolish the ministries that have outlived their purpose because of given circumstances.

We have Catholic lay people deployed in secular society and all over the world as service-providers, as professionals, as artists, as educators, as scientists, etc. Can we not organize and form them to consciously carry out their professions as their vocation to participate in the Church’s evangelizing mission in the world?

We have all sorts of leagues like Catholic Women’s Leagues serving the Church. But do we put up Catholic politicians’ guilds formed in the Catholic social teachings who will serve, not their pockets but the common good of society? Can you imagine if all our Catholic laity became conscious participants in the Church’s mission to make a little difference in society through the forms of service that they can do best—as farmers, laborers, caregivers, social communicators, businessmen, etc?

Can you imagine if we prepared our Catholic OFWs to consciously serve as the missionary presence of the Philippine Church in countries where they find themselves deployed as domestic helpers, as construction workers, as service providers, as health care workers, etc? Even without such a conscious preparation, Pope Francis is already jokingly calling our OFWs “smugglers of the faith.”

As a concluding thought, let me return to the mystery of the Eucharist that we celebrate, the Sacrament of God’s enduring love in Christ who offers his life, his body and blood, as bread and wine, as food that heals, that gives life, that cleanses, and liberates from the virus of evil. St. Augustine tells us this is not the kind of food that you receive so that you can digest it change it to become part of you. No. This is rather the food, which, when you receive it will change you to become part of Christ.

And as members of the corporate Christ animated by the same spirit, we also become the food that we eat. We become ourselves a body broken for broken people, taken and blessed, broken and shared in order to heal, to give life, to cleanse and to liberate. We are to learn generosity from him who has revealed to us the face of a God who cannot be outdone in generosity. Listen to the tender words of Hosea put in simpler language:

“It was I who taught you to walk, my child…I took you in my arms, it was I who lovingly wrapped you in swaddling cloths every day. I carried you in my arms like a mother who raises her infant to her cheeks and caresses it with sweet kisses. It was I who stooped to breastfeed you with my milk, I was the one who nurtured you back to health whenever you got sick.”

This is what I imagine God doing at each Eucharist. Feeding us with his own body and blood so that we can be sent to do the same. Kaya nga tinawag na Missa ang Eukaristiya. Sa dulo ng pagdiriwang isang habilin ang ipinahahayag ng pari o ng diyakono sa wikang Latin: Ite missa est. I think the confusion began when a T was added to the ES and became third person. It became a formula for dismissal: “Go, the Mass is ended.” Missa is the female past participle of mittere, the origin of the word missio, meaning sent. If you put it rather in the second person without the T, what it says is: Go, you are being sent.

Dear brother bishops and representatives from all the local Churched in the Philippines, you are hereby being sent to represent the Synodal God in the Body of Christ, taken, blessed, broken and shared in a healing, life-giving, cleansing and liberating kind of communion, participation and mission.

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