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Posted June 30, 2005

Archbishop urges better use
of consultation structures in church

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

Turning the church into a real communion means making better use of the church's consultative structures, Archbishop V. James Weisgerber of Winnipeg, Manitoba, said June 24 in an address in Washington.

Implementation of parish and diocesan councils, priests' councils and synods in the church "has been uneven and frustration is evident at every level," he said.

To make such structures work, he added, openness and commitment are needed on the part of bishops, priests and laity.

On the leadership side, he said, "communion can hit a brick wall in an authoritarian, autocratic or frightened leader. The laity can feel quite paralyzed."

On the side of the laity, "sitting on the fence, shooting from the bushes, cynical bystanding are not options for serious Christians," he said. "Fear and cynicism must give way to trust. Generous collaboration is called for from all."

Archbishop Weisgerber, a former general secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and current co-chair of its Sexual Abuse Review Committee, delivered the eighth annual lecture of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative. His address, on "Building a Church of Communion," was given at The Catholic University of America.

The lecture was renamed the Philip J. Murnion Lecture this year in honor of the late New York priest who was a leading figure in the initiative.

Responding to Archbishop Weisgerber's talk was James E. Post, a professor of management at Boston University and co-founder and president of the Catholic lay group Voice of the Faithful.

Before the lecture Father Eugene F. Lauer, director of the National Pastoral Life Center, which houses the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, presented the Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Award to Boston College for its Church in the 21st Century Project, a creative effort to address pressing church issues that surfaced with the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

On behalf of Boston College, Jesuit Father Joseph Appleyard, vice president for mission and ministry, accepted the award, which is named after the archbishop of Chicago who founded the initiative in the 1990s to help end polarization in the church.

Archbishop Weisgerber focused on the vision of church as a pilgrim people of God, as spelled out in the Second Vatican Council, and said baptism makes each person holy and calls each one to holiness. "Each of us is called to maturity of faith, to a recognition of our dignity, to a discernment of our gifts and to a willingness to share our gifts in the church and in the world," he said.

"To preserve and order the gifts to the common good," he added, "the Lord established leaders, shepherds with authority, to ensure that this gifted community would remain united in faith and in love."

While North Americans are tempted to look at their participation in the church in terms of democratic models, he said, the church itself, created, shaped and sustained by God, is not a democracy.

He quoted from "Called to Be Catholic," the Catholic Common Ground Initiative's foundational document: "Jesus Christ, present in Scripture and sacrament, is central to all that we do; he must always be the measure and not what is measured."

In a culture where freedom and choice are primary values, it is a real challenge "to receive and to accept in trust, to bow in obedience before God," he said.

"At the same time," he said, "it is important to recognize that many important aspects of democracy are not only compatible with, but essential to the life of the church." He cited recognition of the dignity of each person, the fundamental equality of all, transparency, accountability, leadership as service and "the irreplaceable importance of listening to one another."

The challenge of the church, as a community, to live out the Gospel and to reflect the life of the Trinity in its own life, calls on all to develop a spirituality of communion, he said.

He said the Second Vatican Council looked to consultative councils as one way to give organizational structure to that spirituality of communion, but the church's 40 years of experience with such councils, from parish councils to the world Synod of Bishops, has been mixed.

He said he believes such councils can work "if, as members of the church, we embrace these institutions within a vision of faith."

That means placing the work of collaboration within the framework of "the universal call to holiness," he said.

"For the laity this means a deep confidence, born out of the dignity of baptism, a dignity which inspires awareness of responsibility for the life of the church in all its dimensions. Collaborative responsibility requires a serious commitment to living the Gospel, to a growth in faith," he said.

"Leaders, pastors, can lead effectively only if they are pursuing a life of holiness," he added. "Holiness is not just a matter of piety. . . . Holiness in pastors or bishops requires an openness to others and a confident trust in others."

One of the demands of holiness in bishops is to be concerned about the leadership of their fellow bishops and to engage in fraternal correction, helping one another to "strive toward developing a church of communion," he said.

In his response, Post welcomed Archbishop Weisgerber's description of the kind of leadership needed for the church envisioned by Vatican II. Looking at the sexual abuse crisis that sparked the establishment of Voice of the Faithful to promote more effective and accountable church leadership, Post said the role of such leadership "is especially important in a time of crisis."

He said he shared the archbishop's concern about making consultative structures in the church more effective.

"Participation is essential to a church in crisis," he said. "A lack of participation was critical to the development of the crisis."