Posted August 28, 2003
Father Philip Murnionís Letter to Bishops
on the Eve of His Death
My Brothers in Christ:
In the final public address on Oct. 24, 1996, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin spoke these moving words. "A dying person does not have time for the peripheral or the accidental. He or she is drawn to the essential, the important ó yes the eternal. And what is important, my friends, is that we find that unity with the Lord and within the community of faith for which Jesus prayed so fervently on the night before he died."
The cardinalís final commitment to promote that unity within church in the United States was shepherding the Catholic Common Ground Initiative.
For the past seven years, as many of you know, I have been privileged to staff the many projects of that initiative: conferences, lectures, meetings, publications. But, true to Bernardinís vision, what remains central to the initiative is honest and respectful dialogue among the participants: a dialogue ground upon a common faith in the Lord Jesus present to his church in word, in sacrament and in the members of his body.
Now, in Godís providence, I too write this reflection as a dying person, with no time for the peripheral or accidental. In many ways the crisis in the church and the ensuing polarization, which so preoccupied Cardinal Bernardin, have only grown more acute. Your own credibility and ability to guide Godís people have been severely compromised, sometimes because of negligence and lack of wise leadership, sometimes because of factors beyond your direct responsibility.
It is tempting in such difficult times of anger and even attack to throw up the bastions and to retreat to the company of those deemed supportive or, at least, nonthreatening. May I suggest, instead, that it is rather time for bold initiatives. I do not presume to know all the dimensions of such undertakings. But of this I am convinced: They must emerge from the deepest discernment of Godís will and the widest consultation of Godís people.
In his splendid apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte, the Holy Father charts a pastoral vision for the church in the new millennium. The pope strongly urges practice of "the ancient pastoral wisdom which, without prejudice of their authority, encouraged pastors to listen more widely to the entire people of God." (No. 45). Thus, in the mind of the pope, there is no contradiction between legitimate authority and careful consultation. I would suggest, further, that consultation, listening and dialogue only enhance true authority because they issue from a lived trust and they serve to increase trust. It is imperative that we work together to restore the trust that has been eroded.
If I were to sum up my final plea to you, it would be: "Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue!" I do mean this as a facile or pious slogan, for I am only aware of its cost and conditions. It is for this reason, I think, that the pope places dialogue within the context of an entire theological and spiritual vision and practice. In his letter the Holy Father advocates and advances a "theology and spirituality of communion," for they "encourage a fruitful dialogue between pastors and faithful." Indeed, does not the living out of such a spirituality of communion require dialogue as its very life-breath: the dialogue of prayer with Jesus Christ, the dialogue of mutual building up on the part of the members of Christ?
A spirituality of communion and dialogue is as demanding in its asceticism as a spirituality of the desert or the cloister. Like them, it also requires its own appropriate structures. The Catholic tradition knows well that spirituality and structure are not opposed. Here, as elsewhere, it affirms the "both/and" of charism and institution, invisible grace and visible embodiment. Both are essential, though only one is eternal. We can ill afford to be less Catholic than the pope himself who insists: "The spirituality of communion, by prompting a trust and openness wholly in accord with the dignity and responsibility of every member of the people of God, supplies institutional reality with a soul."
For more than 20 years I have been blessed by working with many of you in different programs of the National Pastoral Life Center. I know from experience that many have sought diligently to consult and communicate with your priests and people alike. But in this time of crisis, of both possibility and peril, we face the urgent need imaginatively to expand present structures and to create new ones that will enable us to draw more effectively upon the rich wisdom of those baptized in water and the Holy Spirit. Permit me, then, with the last breaths the Spirit gives me, to implore you: Do not be afraid to embrace the spirituality of communion, this "little way" of dialogue with one another, with your priests, with all Godís faithful. Doing so, you will touch not only the hearts of your brothers and sisters, you will draw closer to the very heart of Jesus, the Lord and brother of us all.
You are ever in my thoughts and prayers.
(Rev. Msgr.) Philip Murnion