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"In fact, we are a Church of love"

This is the "platform" speech of the fictional contender for the papacy, Luis Emilio Cardinal Menendez y Garcia in Andrew Greeley's new book, White Smoke: a Novel About the Next Papal Conclave (New York: Tom Doherty, 1996; pp. 140-143). This speech is so germane to the issues AARC has been discussing that I asked for permission to put it on the web in its entirety. I am posting it with Father Greeley's knowledge and permission.

This excerpt is the first of a projected series of stories, poems, and other creative works, rooted in the Catholic imagination, that remind us of God's love and inspire hope in our future.




by Andrew Greeley




I have been asked to speak about the future of the Church. That may seem an odd subject for a historian whose specialty is the past and not the future. And indeed it may indeed by an inappropriate subject for me to discuss. Nonetheless, the historian has a perspective from his knowledge of the past which enables him to evaluate the present in which we live, necessarily if I may say so . . .
and in which we must work at the construction of the future.

On the basis of my knowledge of the past history of the Church I am compelled to say that the present is one of the most exciting and challenging times we have seen in the last nineteen hundred years. It is, to use the Greek word, a kairos, an appropriate time, a pregnant time, a time of great grace and promise which we must not ignore.

Only now do we begin to realize what a critical turning point in our history was the Second Vatican Council. Only now do we begin understand where the spirit of that Council may lead us if we have the courage and the faith and the confidence to follow that spirit which is also the Holy Spirit. Like the council we must be open and sensitive to the "signs of the times," we must understand that each bishop in his own diocese should speak for the whole Church to his own people and for his people to the whole Church. Like the Council we should realize that a large number of our lay people are well-educated, intelligent, and dedicated and eager to help us. Like the Council we must listen to the Spirit wherever the Voice of the Spirit is to be heard. The pope must listen to his brother bishops, the bishops must listen to their brother priests, and the priests must listen to their people. Only when we are ready to admit the possibility that the Spirit speaks wherever She wishes to speak and that therefore we must listen always and everywhere, will we be able to discern the work of the Spirit in the world.

Today because of the marvelous resources of instant communication there is hardly a place in the world in which the Spirit cannot speak to all of us.

Above all we must not be afraid. We must not be afraid of our well educated laity; we must not be afraid of the artists, scholars, and thinkers whose background is Catholic and from whom we can learn so much, even if just now they are angry at us; we must not be afraid of the new cultures from all over the world we are only now beginning to appreciate; we must not be afraid that the Lord will not continue to protect us; we must especially not be afraid of the demands of women who have always given so much to the Church and now as fully equal human beings can give us so much more; we must not be afraid of the new insights into the nature of human nature that science has made available to us. We must not be afraid to make ourselves the patrons of social justice all over the world. We must not be afraid to change, as Cardinal Monastero said so well the other day. We must change in order to remain the same. We must not confuse what is essential in the Church with that which is mutable, no matter how ancient it may be. The Church has presented itself to the world in many different forms since it left Jerusalem. No custom and no tradition which is not of the essence of our message, no matter how old, should escape reexamination. And no custom and no tradition, no matter how new, should be abandoned until we carefully consider the costs of doing so. We must be willing to experiment, to modify, to refine before we change.

We must be open, sensitive, and above all hopeful. We must be ready to dialogue with everyone. We must question no one's good faith. We should not fear that we will be contaminated and corrupted by those who disagree with us. While we must certainly recognize the presence of evil in the world and the threats to human dignity and freedom that evil poses, we must also recognize the goodness and good will in the world and become partisans of goodness and good will.

It must be admitted honestly that many of our people have a negative impression of our institution, as of course do many who know us only from outside the Church. They view us as harsh and unbending, as narrow and uninformed, as arrogant and unsympathetic. Are we prepared to say that there are no reasons to justify that view of us? Are we prepared to say that there is nothing in our manner, our style, our institutional organization, our narrowness of vision which has given them that impression?

I for one am not ready to say those things. I candidly believe that we are our own worst enemies because we have often seem to worship not the Father in heaven but our own institutional being. We should not, my fellow Catholics, worship the Church, we should not make the Church an end in itself. The Church clearly is only a means. When the means gets in the way of the end it has become the object of idolatry. When we seem to want to impose that idolatry on others, we appear to many to be religious imperialists. Are we so sure that we never act like idolaters and religious imperialists?

I am not.

We must listen to our critics, to those who hate us, to those who will not listen to us, because God's spirit might well be telling us through them something we desperately need to hear. Can we not say even to them, come reason with us? Come, let us know each other better and let us part if not in agreement at least in mutual respect?

We must learn that it is not enough merely to preach the truth. In the world in which we live today, we must also seek to persuade. If we are content with laying down our rules and regulations, our laws and our doctrines, then we may be preaching to empty halls. I do not say that we should stop preaching what we believe. I merely say that we must preach in a way that women and men of good faith and good will be able to see that there is a point to be made for what we say and that we are not merely arrogant and doctrinaire. I am not suggesting that we compromise any of those things we believe in, but only that we change our way of talking to those who do not believe the same things, especially when for one reason or another they are of the household of the faith. It may be that, if we do that, we will find less disagreement than we would have thought. And more insight.

It will be very difficult to change a style of communicating with others that was appropriate for another era but which is utterly destructive of our message today.

I believe that we have no choice but to go in the directions of which I have spoken, better sooner than later, but surely later -- with many wasted opportunities -- if not sooner.

Will there be chaos if we attempt to follow this new way of being Catholic, a way which I believe is as old as St. Mark's Gospel?

My friends, I have studied the history of the Catholic Church for thirty-five years. I cannot find a time when there has not been chaos. Chaos is part of the human condition. The divine guidance in which we believe guarantees only that we will not, as you say in English, self-destruct. A church which is human will always be in chaos. When it does not seem so, the reason is that the dangers and the possibilities which come with chaos, have been so effectively repressed that they are not visible. They are still there, however, and may at any time explode.

The present crisis in the Church I believe is the result of the fact that after the Second Vatican Council many of us who are leaders lost our nerve. We tried to repress rather than to understand the energies, some of them admittedly terrifying, which the Council unleashed. But we could not repress them and thus we lost our ability to focus and direct the changes. We stopped being leaders because we no longer had the courage to listen carefully to our followers. The worse failure of a leader, any leader, is the failure of nerve.

That, I submit, must change. We must not isolate ourselves from our people any longer.

So many of our lay people believe that ours is a Church of rules, that being Catholic consists of keeping rules. They do not find an institution which is like that very appealing. Nor should they.

In fact, we are a Church of love. Our message from the Lord himself even today is the message that God is Love and that we are those who are trying, however badly, to reflect that love in the world. I find that in my own city that notion astonishes many people. How we came to misrepresent that which we should be preaching above all else is perhaps the subject for many doctoral dissertations.

More important for us today, however, is the reaffirmation that we exist to preach a God of love, we try to be people of love, and we want our church to be, insofar as we poor humans can make it, a Church of radiant love.

Does such a Church have a future?

How could it not?

(Thunderous applause).


The illustration is a medley of images from a video I taped on 24 April 1994 during Father Andrew Greeley's 40th anniversary mass at Old St. Patrick's in Chicago.

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