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The Life of the Church as Communio: Let Us Embrace Again This Gift of God

Presidential Address -- Bishop Wilton D. Gregory
Bishop of Belleville
Washington, D.C. -- November 10, 2002

My Brother Bishops, My Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

Last month, I was privileged to travel to Rome for the Holy Father's twenty-fifth anniversary as Universal Pastor of the Church.As a young priest in doctoral studies in Rome, I enjoyed the thrill of standing in St. Peter's Square in the early evening of October 16, 1978 when Karol Wojtyła was presented to the world as Pope John Paul II.I very much looked forward to returning to Rome to celebrate the extraordinary gift that our Holy Father has been to the Church and to the entire world during the past quarter of a century.

In making the trip, I knew that there would be many events during the week-long celebration that would be special for me:being present as the Holy Father signed, on the day of his anniversary, the Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Gregis, Shepherds of the Flock, on the ministry of the Bishop in the Church today; concelebrating the anniversary Mass with the Holy Father in St. Peter's Square at the same hour of his election some twenty-five years before; taking part, together with an enormous gathering of the faithful, in the Mass of Beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta; witnessing the Creation of the new Cardinals, among whom was my former neighbor and dear friend, Justin Cardinal Rigali.

Each of these events did, in fact, touch me deeply. Each, in its own way, prompted in me a real satisfaction in and thanksgiving for the Catholic Faith that God Himself helped me to embrace in my youth.But there was more.As important as each of those events was for the strengthening of my faith, what gave me the greatest pleasure was the recurring recognition at each event that as different as each of the tens of thousands of us who were gathered in Rome happened to be, we were one in the communion of faith we shared in Jesus Christ.As unique as we each were as persons - in our gifts, our cultural, linguistic, and racial heritages and our familial and societal experiences, together we were one body, one communio or communion in Christ, celebrating the grace and the goodness of our common faith.

It is on this theme of communio that I wouldnow like to reflect for a few moments this morning, particularly on the need we have today of developing and promoting a genuine "spirituality of communion" as the foundation and impetus for our mission and activity as disciples of the Lord Jesus.I do this not only because of my recent experience in Rome, but principally because our Holy Father identified this need almost three years ago in his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte as "the great challenge facing us in the new millennium" (n. 43).Not surprisingly, the Holy Father returned to this theme last month in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Bishop's ministry, stating that "the Bishop, in his own spiritual journey, has the primary duty of promoting and encouraging a spirituality of communion, and tirelessly working to make it a basic educational principle wherever human and Christian formation takes place" (Pastores Gregis, n 22).

"Brought here together by Christ's love, by love are we thus bound"

There is a hymn that all of us have long carried in our hearts and have brought often to our worship at the Eucharist, especially at the time of Holy Communion.It is a simple tune, but one that expresses beautifully and faithfully who we are in Christ:

Where charity and love prevail,
There God is ever found;
Brought here together by Christ's love,
By love are we thus bound.

We are, brothers and sisters, a communio, a communion in Christ, brought about by the redemptive gift of Christ himself.By our Baptisms, we have each received an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that unites us to Christ.St. Paul, reflecting on his own Baptism and life in Christ, provides the definitive description of this new life in his letter to the Galatians:"I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me" (Gal 2:19-20).In Baptism, then, we have been joined to Christ.But much more happened in that moment:By that joining we were given a share in the Lord's own communion with his Father - now our Father - and the Holy Spirit.And, what's more, the union that we now have with God, accomplished by God's love for us, has also fashioned us into a communion with one another.We are a communio, created by God, in which we each belong to God and to one another in love.Brought here together by Christ's love, by love are we thus bound.

The Three Challenges That We Face on the Way to Communio

It is precisely because this is what God has made of us - and had always intended for us - that we have the deepest desire within ourselves and the responsibility to recognize and to embrace the communion that we are.To accomplish that, we need, with God's help, to foster within ourselves an inner life or spirituality of communion.We need, in other words, to see ourselves - and our brothers and sisters - as God sees us.How can we do that?Relying on the Holy Father's own vision of the path to a spirituality of communion in Novo Millennio Ineunte (n. 43), let me identify three challenges that face us on the way to communio.To the extent that we meet each and all of these challenges, to that extent, with God's grace, will we find ourselves ready to embrace and to live the communio that we are in Christ with one another.

The first challenge that each of us faces on the way to communio is to see the mystery of God as Trinity - as Father, Son and Holy Spirit - dwelling within us.So often, our vision of ourselves is limited merely to the human.We see ourselves only in terms of our own strengths and limitations; or in terms of the tasks we have before us on any given day; or in terms of the relationships with others that we choose or refuse. God's presence in our lives, however, should move each of us to meet and embrace the divine within.

Do I ever stop to dwell upon the fact that I have been created in the image of the Eternal Father, and that that image is the essential part of who I am - I am before all else God's son or daughter?

Do I treasure the fact that by Baptism I have been freed from a life of sin and re-fashioned into the very image of Christ himself, the Father's only-begotten and beloved Son; that the Father loves me with the same love with which he loves his Son; and that because Christ dwells in me I am now capable of returning that love to the Father?

Do I know that by the power of the Holy Spirit living in me I have both the God-given desire and the divine ability to live more and more in the image of the Lord Jesus; that my true goal in life is to be able to say with St. Paul, "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me"?

The very life of God - Eternal Father, Son and Holy Spirit - is at work in me.The communion that they share with one another is the communion to which I am called.My entrance into it is my complete embrace of Christ the Lord.It is Jesus Christ alone who is "the way" to the Father, the way to truth and life.

Do I dwell enough on that mystery of God's presence in my life?I need to!Any genuine communion that I would ever hope to have with my brothers and sisters in faith must be rooted in the communion I already have with God in Jesus Christ.

The second challenge that each of us faces on the way to communio is to recognize that my brothers and sisters in the faith are a part of me.Once we have come to see the presence of God dwelling in us, how can we not recognize that that same communion with God is at work in each of our brothers and sisters in faith?They each share the same God-given communion with God in Jesus Christ that you and I enjoy; and because of this we belong to each other and are one body in Christ.I am a part of my brothers and sisters; and they are a part of me.Together we belong to the one communion in God to which we each have been called, a communio and Church that is nourished daily in our communion with the Lord at the Eucharist.

Saint Paul speaks eloquently of the reality that we are in Christ in Chapter 12 of his first letter to the Corinthians.Finding the Church at Corinth fractured and full of division and strife, Paul calls the members of the Church back to who they are in Christ; and, as you know, he does it wonderfully.By getting his disciples at Corinth to look at how beautifully God created the human body as an organic unity of many diverse parts, Paul helps them to appreciate that the same is true of the communion they have in the Church.Reflecting on this passage in Saint Paul, Pope John Paul reminds us:"The unity of the Church is not uniformity, but an organic blending of legitimate diversities.It is the reality of many members joined in a single body, the one Body of Christ" (NMI, n. 46).

Our communion as Church has a divine origin and constitution.Belonging to the Church means accepting the communio that God has given us as the divinely instituted hierarchical communion that it is.The Church is not something that we can re-create or re-invent, either in terms of its Apostolic structure or of the faith that has been handed down to us.When we fail to embrace this communio completely, we leave ourselves open, like the disciples in ancient Corinth, to espousing false diversities and rivalries that fracture the communion in Christ that we are.(Cf. 1 Cor 1:10-17)

The third challenge that each of us faces on the way to communio, perhaps the most difficult, is to move beyond the recognition of the communion we have with God and with one another and to live it.This means embracing the ability that I now have in Christ "to see what is positive in others, and to welcome it and prize it as a gift of God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it directly, but also as a 'gift for me'" (NMI, n. 43).Each of us needs to ask of ourselves, How do I really look at my brothers and sisters in the faith?Not just those whom I would invite to my table as friends, but all of my brothers and sisters in the family of faith?Do I see them as gifts that deepen my understanding of God and of myself and of communion, or as threats to the happiness that I want to achieve?Or worse, do I not pay them any attention at all?Have I marginalized them from my living, because I do not like or cannot receive the gifts that God has given them for me?Living in communio means seeing my brothers and sisters in the same way that God sees us in our true relation with one another in his Son.In Christ, you are a part of me; I am a part of you.

Living in communio in Christ also means "'mak[ing] room' for our brothers and sisters, bearing 'each other's burdens' (Gal 6:2) and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy" (NMI, n. 43).How do I live with my brothers and sisters in the faith?Am I willing to risk being my sister or brother's "keeper"?Or does taking care of my own interests exhaust whatever energy I have?Do I let the communion that I have with God fill me with the same love that filled the Lord Jesus when he laid down his life for you and for me?God is love and that kind of love is within reach because of Jesus Christ.Or is the love that I demonstrate more self-directed and, therefore, not love at all?The very heart of communio is a love for others that is completely selfless after the example of the Lord Jesus.That, of course, is why Saint Paul, after teaching the Corinthians about their communio in Christ, calls them to embrace love as the "more excellent way" of living with one another (I Cor 12:31).

The Present State of the Communio of the Church in the United States

With these truths about our communion in Christ as a context, let me offer a few observations on the present state of our communio in the United States.

In our recent history, nothing has damaged the communio of our local Churches - and indeed of the whole Church in the United States - more than the crisis of the sexual abuse of minors.The sense of unity and common purpose between Bishop and the diocesan community, between Bishop and his priests, and even among us ourselves as Bishops, was deeply affected.

Among those with whom we Bishops have an urgent obligation to re‑establish communio are the victims of sexual abuse by clergy.Our solid steps to prevent future abuse must be accompanied by a healing and reconciliation with those who were abused.I understand that this is not something that will always be sought immediately by those who have been harmed nor will it be easy for any of us.The victims among us have lived with their pain and their grief too long; too many have experienced that some of us did not act like Good Shepherds when they came to us.That, however, does not release us from our responsibility to continue to seek reconciliation with them.Let us pursue and fulfill that obligation of actively reaching out to the victims in our midst with perseverance and with love, all the while praying to the Lord that our brothers and sisters who have been victimized will, with God's grace, find the strength in their hearts to forgive us for what they have suffered.

If the scourge of sexual abuse is to be effectively eliminated, then the energy of the whole Church needs to be directed to this end.Bishops, clergy, religious and laity must together make this goal a common purpose of our communion in faith.We all - and I speak not only on behalf of the Bishops in this room but, I know, on behalf of your faith communities at home - all of us want to keep children safe and the clergy and all church personnel free of predators.

Diocesan administration alone will not achieve the goal of eliminating this abuse.Much of what we adopted last year in Dallas must be implemented in each parish to be effective.Pastors and people, along with us Bishops, need to act decisively if this goal is to become reality.I very much look forward to the audit report of the Office of Child and Youth Protection in January as a measure of how well we have fulfilled the promises we made in Dallas.Welcome, too, will be the report of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in February on the nature and scope of crisis we have faced, along with a first effort of the National Review Board to provide a context for our understanding of the crisis.It is my fervent hope that other institutions in our society that have responsibility for children will replicate these efforts.

Rather than being something that divides us, the sexual abuse crisis can and should become a rallying point not only to make the Church a safe environment for all children, but our whole society as well.The pain that has been experienced over the harm done to children in our midst must be transformed into a united commitment to the well‑being of all children in our nation, a commitment that will both flow from and build up the communio that we are.

There is also important work before us Bishops with our priests and our laity if we are to see our communio strengthened.We need to find more effective ways to foster and to nurture successful participation and dialogue in the very fine and effective structures given to us in Canon Law:the Council of Priests and the Diocesan Pastoral Council.As the Holy Father has stated,"The theology and spirituality of communion encourage a fruitful dialogue between Pastors and faithful:on the one hand uniting them from the beginning in all that is essential [to the faith and to the Church], and on the other leading them to pondered agreement in matters open to discussion" (NMI, n. 45).We can do better talking with and listening to one another as members of the Church.As Bishops, let us commit ourselves to being models of and catalysts for a discourse that builds up rather than fractures or divides our communion.

Twenty years ago this week I attended my first meeting of our Bishops' Conference.I was appointed an Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago, but not yet ordained.I was astonished by the welcome that I received, the spirit of cordiality that was present, and the sense of camaraderie that I discovered.I was awed by the kindness that I experienced among all the Bishops.Bishop Thomas J. Grady, Bishop of Orlando made an impassioned intervention for a greater spirit of geniality among those engaged in public debate within the Church and in public discourse in general.His words are still pertinent.Even we Bishops need to reflect on our own need to accept just criticism, to apologize, and to forgive; not only in our relationships with the faithful, but in our commerce with one another.

How we Bishops exercise our ministry influences one another.Our actions are not isolated; our mistakes affect one another, sometimes more than do our individual triumphs.Being a Bishop in the Church means belonging to and respecting the nature of the Collegium that we are, with and under Peter.Of course, we each have independent responsibilities, but the effectiveness or failure of our discrete service touches one another, oftentimes in the deepest of ways.We are united in the one ministry of Jesus Christ, but we bring to that ministry the unique gifts that the Spirit has given each of us.We can do better, I think, in the way in which we recognize and revere those gifts in one another.May the way in which we live and work with one another be a life-giving source to the communio that we have been called to serve.

Saint Luke tells us that on the day that the Church was born in Jerusalem, the city was filled with people from all over the world.When the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, they began to speak as the Spirit encouraged them.To the amazement of everyone in the city, each stranger heard and understood the message spoken by the disciples, as if the disciples were speaking in the very language of the stranger.With the outpouring of the Spirit, the babble and cacophony that had characterized the city only moments before gave way to a concordance of speech and understanding.A diversity of peoples was gathered together into a communio and the Church was born.(Cf. Acts 2: 1-3)

That Pentecost, my brothers and sisters, was our beginning.It is also our destiny.The Holy Spirit that has been poured into each of our hearts is the life of God within us.It is the divine gift that draws us into the communion of God's love and fashions us into the communio of love that we are in Christ the Lord, the Church.Let us embrace that gift.Let us cherish and nourish it, because it is the gift that God has destined for us from the beginning.Only in a faithful response to this call can we sing in truth and with understanding:"Brought here together by Christ's love, by love are we thus bound."

God bless each and every one of you!

November 11, 2003 Copyright © by United States Conference of Catholic Bishops


United States Conference of Catholic Bishops DC, US
Bishop Wilton Gregory - Bishop of the Diocese of Belleville, 202 541-5413



Communio, God, Church, Catholic, Bishop Wilton Gregory

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