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Posted March 7, 2007

Book: The Practical Prophet
Author: Bishop Ken Untener
Paulist Press. New York. 2007. Pp. 278

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Most Rev. Kenneth E. Untener, bishop of the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan, for twenty-four years until his untimely death from leukemia, was a true pastor, a practical theologian, and a prophet who, like the Old Testament prophets, sought to call his church back to its roots. He was a prolific and inspired author and speaker, and his writings and talks spanned a wide variety of topics and concerns. From this “Little Books” of reflections enjoyed by millions of people, to words of wisdom and guidance for pastoral professionals, Bishop Untener’s writings have touched, inspired, and challenged Catholics in all walks of life.

The Practical Prophet collects a selection of Bishop Untener’s writings under the headings “Vision and Creative Imagination,” “Liturgy and the Word,” “Ministry of Mercy,” “Consistent Ethnic of Life,” Ministry of Prophet,” and “The Wider Church.” Each section is introduced by a member of the “Theology Squad” assembled and trusted by Bishop Ken as his advisors.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Cardinal Dearden: A Gentleman of the Church
America (November 26, 1988)

The long line of bishops started down the aisle of the Detroit cathedral. John Dearden’s funeral was over. In the midst of this procession, applause began to come forth from the congregation, swelling to a sustained thunderous ovation that sent chills up and down one’s spine.

The applauding congregation was a very diverse group of people. Among them were lay people of every kind, the presbyterate of Detroit (hardly a homogeneous group), religious, and a number of priests who had left the active ministry during the cardinal’s tenure. Why were they applauding so?

There echoed in my mind the memory of a similar ovation given to this man by an equally diverse group twelve years earlier.

The Call to Action. The year was 1976. To celebrate our nation’s bicentennial, the U.S. bishops had planned two major events — a eucharistic congress by Cardinal John Krol in Philadelphia and Cardinal John F. Dearden in Detroit. Preparations for the Call to Action included hearings in designated regions and small-group discussions in parishes around the country. From this process there emerged concerns and recommendations from the grass roots on issues such as racism, the laity, women, sexuality, divorced Catholics, birth control, the quality of preaching and youth.

In October 1976, over 2,000 delegates and observers and 110 bishops met in Detroit to discuss and vote on the recommendations. During these discussions things were said that seemed shocking to some (Cardinal Dearden later defended the process by pointing out that lay people had not had the opportunity to speak up on these things for a long time, and so one should not expect them to express all their thoughts and feelings in a calm and orderly fashion.)

Toward the end of the four-day conference, after people had expressed just about every point of view (including protesters waving signs that read “Get rid of the Red Cardinal”), Cardinal Dearden was called upon to address the participants. As he came forward, they rose to their feet in a thunderous ovation that lasted several minutes.

They were applauding him, of course. But they were applauding even more for the church for which he stood.

Vatican II: A Paradigm Shift. Vatican II was not simply part of the ebb and flow of the church’s tide as one age follows another. It was more like the sea rising to a new level and breaking through the rocks and cliffs of the shoreline, forming a larger sea with a new configuration, changing the topography. We have not yet been able to chart this sea or fully understand it.

None of the twenty preceding ecumenical councils, form the first in AD 325 to the twentieth in 1869, were like Vatican II. Their length (some lasted only two weeks), their procedures (handled by a small controlling group), their participants (a fraction of the bishops of the world), their purpose (to deal with very specific problems, often disciplinary), and their decrees (usually in the form of condemnatory canons) set them in a different category. They were called to put out fires. Vatican II was called to build one, to do this it brought together for the first time the bishops of the entire world.

What happened at Vatican II might be compared to the great plates shifting beneath the earth. They don’t move fast or far, but when they move the effects are monumental. At Vatican II, the great plates beneath the church shifted in a way that hadn’t happened since perhaps the first century. We have experienced some of the vibrations, but we have not yet experienced or understood the full effects of this shift.

Cardinal Dearden understood the shift more than most, and he expressed it in his episcopal leadership. In so doing, he helped us catch a glimpse of a church that has not yet come to be.

The People of God. Through his experience at Vatican II, Cardinal Dearden came to understand at a very profound level that the mystery of the church lives in the entire people of God. That sounds simple enough — we would all get it right on a multiple-choice test. But John Dearden understood the depth of that statement — he had helped to shape the documents that expressed it. He really believed that it was so. And he lived it out.

The mystery of the church lives in the entire people of God. This is a truth easy to say, hard to live – especially if one is in a leadership position. Consider the implications.

The church does not have a written constitution. Rather, it has a living tradition, sustained by the Spirit. As Venerable Bede put it, “The Church gives birth to the Church every day.”

If this mystery is not contained in a written constitution, where does one find it? Who “carries” it? Who passes it on from generation to generation?

In years past, we would surely have answered: the hierarchy. They hold it, protect it, and pass it on to the lay people. The Baltimore Catechism spoke of the indwelling of the Spirit in the church and then explained this exclusively in terms of the hierarchy teaching, sanctifying, and ruling the faithful.

Vatican II gave a radically different perspective. The mystery of the church lives in the entire people of God.

About a year ago, Cardinal Dearden came to the Diocese of Saginaw and gave a presentation, which was videotaped, on Vatican II. At one point, he spoke of the genesis of the second chapter of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), “The People of God.” He explained that in the winter of 1963, after going through several drafts, the first three chapters of the Dogmatic Constitution were entitled: (1) “The Mystery of the Church”; (2) “The Hierarchial Structure of the Church”; (3) “The People of God, Especially the Laity.” The implication was that the mystery of the church (chapter 1) lived first of all in the hierarchy (chapter 2) and was handed down as a source to the people of God, understood primarily as the laity (chapter 3). “But then it was decided,” Cardinal Dearden explained, “even before we got to the fall session, that there was a basic deficiency in this. We needed to put in a chapter between the first and second to show that the mystery of the church lives in the entire people of God. So we pulled out the first and third chapters the elements that enabled us to constitute a new second chapter entitled simply “The People of God.” This represented a major shift. The structure of the document is almost as significant as its content. . . .it is very much misunderstood, even to this day.”

Table of Contents:

1. Vision and Creative Imagination

2. Liturgy and the Word

3. Ministry of Mercy

4. Consistent Ethic of Life

5. Ministry of Prophet

6. The Wider Church