No Hierarchy of Power but Only a Hierarchy of Service

Light of truth

Question: Jesmi Paul

How do we feel with the Church (sentire cum ecclesia) in the times of crisis?

Answer: Jacob Parappally MSFS

The saying, “sentire cum ecclesia” which means to think or feel with the Church originates with St Ignatius of Loyola. He had used this expression in his Spiritual Exercises to instil obedience to the Church and the Pope. Indeed to feel with the Church is the vocation and duty of every member of the Church because the Church cannot be separated from its member who is a part of the Body of Christ. When everything goes well with the Church and when it fulfils its role as the sacrament of Christ, the light of the nations, and is admired and respected even by its critics it is easy for a member of the Church to think and feel with the Church.

When the Church makes a positive impact on the lives of people all over the world, when its leaders and other members stand for values of freedom, equality, justice and human rights and side with the poor and the oppressed every member of the Church feels proud to think and feel with the Church. However, in a time of crisis when the Church is attacked by both the enemies of the Church as well as those members who feel betrayed by certain attitudes and actions of the leaders of the Church a large majority of the faithful feel confused, pained and disheartened. To think and feel with the Church is to stand for what is true and holy in the Church and what always the Church teaches and lives all over the world.

To think or feel with the Church is not only an intellectual acceptance of the teaching of the Church but to identify oneself with the Church’s commitment to proclaim Christ and live the gospel values especially in situations where these values of love, justice, equality, fellowship, reconciliation and peace etc. are called into question. Sentire cum ecclesia or think and feel with the Church also would mean that each member of the Church takes responsibility to live, preserve the life-promoting and enhancing word and sacraments and proclaim them with the power of the Spirit.

Crisis in the Church: An Opportunity for Change
The evolution in the Christian religious consciousness in understanding the meaning of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and the demands it makes on the Church creates crisis in the Church. The problem with the growth and evolution of the religious consciousness or the understanding of faith is that it is not consistent, systematic and sustained. It is not consistent because at no phase in the history of the Church can one see that all believers understand equally and fully the meaning of their Christian existence, the demands it makes on them to live Christian life, the way of believing and living as a member of the Church, the exercise of leadership in the Church, the relation of the Church to surrounding religions and cultures, to the political powers and so on. It is not systematic in the sense that there is no systematic progress in living Christian life and understanding the Christian doctrine and practices in different parts of the world. Some communities of Christians may live and practice Christian life very close to the original spirit of the early Church with a deeper understanding of the Christian mysteries and with an enlightened leadership following the servant-leadership of Jesus. There are Christian communities formed of persons who may not have a long tradition of Christian faith. Many of them might have received it only in their recent past. There are others who follow the belief system of the Church blindly without seeking any understanding of their faith and are often scandalized even by a radical following of the gospel values by some of their members as also by unbecoming behaviours of the leaders of the Church. There are some enlightened lay people, religious and those in the hierarchy who have a deeper experience of Christ and the Church and enlightened understanding of Christian doctrines and dogmas. However, it is very difficult for an ordinary believer to feel with the Church when he or she is not convinced about the stand of the official Church on certain issues of life.

In the recent past, there were many scandals in the Church concerning priests and bishops. There were cases of paedophilia and other sexual abuses, power struggles, financial mismanagement and corruption, arrogant and sometimes inhuman behaviour of some Church leaders. There were also attempts of some bishops, priests and lay leaders to cover up truth about the criminal and unbecoming behaviour some Church leaders for fear of scandal that would affect the credibility of the Church. In fact, the good intention of the leaders not to disturb the faith of the people by being silent about the criminal activities especially of those in hierarchy or covering them up eventually ends up in public scandal affecting the credibility of the entire Church. In such situations how can one feel with the Church? One can still feel with the Church because the Church does not condemn those who have wounded the Body of Christ and blunt the effectiveness of its witnessing mission but pray for their conversion, repentance and readiness to repair the damage they have done to the entire Church.

The time of crisis in the Church is also an opportunity for the Church to be self-critical about its life and mission. Many crises in the Church seem to originate from an arrogant and autocratic exercise of leadership in the Church contrary to the servant-leadership demanded by Jesus from His disciples. Although it is more than 50 years since the Vatican II Council, many in the hierarchy continue to follow the pre-Vatican style of leadership of domination and control and exercise their power without any accountability to the people whose servants they are. Many of them fail to realize that there is no hierarchy of power in the Church as in the secular society but only a hierarchy of service. With the re-awakening of the laity to the demands of their Christian existence and mission as well as the self-understanding of the hierarchy as the servants of the people of God need to be actualized in the Church today. The ministry or service of a priest or a bishop needs to be with an attitude of servant-leadership to fulfil their duties of common priesthood and to increase the holiness or wholeness of the Church. The spirit of the early Church that was re-captured in Vatican II and was made relevant to the present challenges of the modern world by reading the ‘signs of the times’ must be the criterion for any self-evaluation of the Church today.

Authentic Christian leadership according to the gospel values and the spirit of Vatican II can be exercised only through a participatory Church. Even when the decision-taking is done by the Christian leader, the decision-making process is to be done together with the rest of the people of God who have their right and duty to do so. Therefore, their participation and active involvement in the life and mission of the Church are not to be considered as a concession made to the rest of the people of God by the hierarchy. When the cultic and jurisdictional roles and functions of the hierarchy are misused or abused to control and dominate people in order to nurse one’s ego and the ‘will to power,’ the servants of the people of God become their masters. Such an attitude of arrogance among the members of the hierarchy evokes, anger, frustration and eventual distancing of some faithful from an active participation in life of the Church. Such wounded faithful are no more able to feel with the Church or at least become indifferent to the attacks on the Church by the forces that are bent on destroying the credibility of the Church. Those who are deeply wounded by the arrogant behaviour and high-handed actions of some priests and bishops would not even hesitate to join hands with those who are looking for opportunities to discredit the Church. Though the essential experience of God in Jesus Christ is primarily through word and sacraments, it is very particularly experienced through the intensity and authenticity of relationship among the members of the community of the Church and especially through the self-emptying love and service of its leaders. In such a community one cannot but think and feel with the Church!

Vocation to think and feel with the Church
To think with the Church or to feel with the Church is to identify oneself with everything, “what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:3b) in the Church. It is not just thinking and feeling with the hierarchy of the Church but feeling with the entire ‘people of God’ which includes the hierarchy who are called to minister or serve the entire people of God. It is accepting the responsibility of being a disciple of Christ within the community of the Church which is the Body of Christ and by living and witnessing to all what the Church believes and teaches and making them one’s own. By this self-understanding of the believer as the member of the Church it is his or her bounden duty to preserve, defend, nurture, and proclaim the apostolic faith guided by the Spirit and under the guidance of the legitimate teaching authorities of the Church.

To think and feel with the Church means also that we love the Church. We have seen that everything in the Church is not lovable as the members of the Church both in the hierarchy and the rest of the people of God do not live always following the guidance of the Holy Spirit. However, the Church as the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit established by the Father is the Sacrament of Absolute Communion. While remaining always open and docile to the promptings of the Spirit, the Church needs constant conversion and renewal as the members of the Church share the same vulnerability, weakness and failures like other humans. R.John Neuhaus says that sentire cum ecclesia means: “To think with the Church, but also to feel with the Church. In short, to love the Church…. And, for all the inadequacies and sins of the Church and her leadership in our time, it means always doing one’s best to support, and never to undermine, the effectiveness of her teaching ministry. If we love the Church, as a lover loves the beloved, then we will her to be, we will her to flourish, we will her to succeed in the mission she has been given by Christ” (Zenit News, May 23, 2006).

To think with the Church also means not to think with the powers of this world which is oppressive, exploitative and dehumanizing. Referring to sentire cum ecclesia, recently canonized Saint Oscar Romero said in 1980, “St Ignatius would present it today as a Church that the Holy Spirit is stirring up in our people, in our communities, a Church that means not only the teaching of the Magisterium, fidelity to the Pope, but also service to this people and the discernment of the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel.” Therefore, the vocation of each member of the Church is to be a sign of the Church by standing for liberation and wholeness and to live a life holding the values of truth and justice, love and fellowship, equality and reconciliation. To feel with the Church means to stand for the values of the Kingdom as the Church is called to live and proclaim Christ and his values at all times!

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