The Hierarchy – 16th Sunday Ordinary Time

16th Sunday Ordinary Time Mk 6:30-34

457979939Just recently, I, as a deacon, had the pleasure of playing golf with a bishop, a priest, and a layman. Yes, all four of the church’s ecclesial ranks were present at one time in one place, and I was bemused by the entire experience. None of us were especially good golfers, but there’s something about the outdoors, sunshine, and a common frustrating task to bring people together. We had a marvelous time. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, I asked the bishop a theological question that has been eating at me for some time. “Bishop,” I asked, “is there golf in heaven?” Without missing a beat, he declared solemnly and firmly, “No!” So, I said, if I die and find myself on the first tee of the Ever After Golf Course? He shook his head with a smile. “Sorry, you missed the cut.” Rats. I guess I’ll need to get golf out of my system while I’m here!

I tell this story because I was thinking about how the Church has tried to follow Jesus’ example of the good shepherd over the centuries. From the beginning of the Church, it became clear that the remaining 11 apostles, despite their enthusiasm, could not do everything for everybody. Early in the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that people started to complain – the widows were not getting what they needed, and others were likewise neglected. The apostles got together and decide to appoint deacons to help with serving tables and the community at large, leaving the apostles the role of praying and ministry. So literally within weeks of the Resurrection, we have the followers of Christ attempting some kind of organizational structure. This loose arrangement of “bishops” and deacons was the norm for the next hundred years.

As the faith spread, once again it became clear that the needs of the people exceeded the capacity of the bishops and deacons to help. The most logical area of demarcation was liturgical, so priests were appointed whose purpose was to celebrate the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, within the area controlled by each bishop. This decision further focused the role of the bishop to one of administration and teaching, although it is interesting that the bishop reserved the role of ordination and confirmation to themselves. As the role of priest became more and more important, the role of deacon diminished, almost to the point of disappearance. Gradually the diaconate was seen as simply a step to priesthood. This was remedied at Vatican II, when the permanent diaconate was re- established, and the role of each Holy Order was clarified as this:

  •  Bishops: administration and teaching, the guardians of the deposit of faith
  •  Priests: liturgical and sacramental, leading the people in prayer
  •  Deacons: servants of the Church, encouraging the people to serve the world by
    example

Notice that Cardinals are not a specified Holy Order. They are ordained Bishops appointed to a role in the Church. In a similar way, the Pope is an elected role, usually chosen from among the Cardinals, but not necessarily, nor even historically. In fact, in the history of the Papacy, 34 deacons have been elected Pope, including Pope St. Gregory the Great. However, since the Pope is also the Bishop of Rome, St. Gregory, along with those other 33 deacons, each had to be ordained a priest and then a bishop shortly after election!

So, in the end, the simple image of the good shepherd Jesus provides us is perfectly realized in the Church’s hierarchy. Teaching, praying, and serving – bishop, priest, deacon. Now lest you get the wrong idea, it’s not as if I’m not allowed to pray or teach, any more than a priest is restricted to simply leading prayer. The roles are icons primarily, illuminating dimensions of Christ’s ministry for the good of the Church.

Of course, people being people, or better stated, men being men, the Church’s hierarchical structure has often caused more harm than good. Hierarchies look like mountains on paper, and when it comes to men, there’s something about a mountain. Ego, power, prestige, control – it takes a man with incredible humility to resist these siren songs, and to be honest, many could not, and many cannot. The Church has been damaged by such men over the centuries, and we still struggle to strike the right balance between necessary structure and a humble, prayerful stance. It’s a bit ironic that one who does so like Pope Francis stands out as such an exception!

But let’s face it, the Church is not equivalent to the hierarchy, while you folks in the pews are spiritual spectators. The Church is the entire people of God, and, as emphasized at Vatican II, the hierarchical structure of the Church exists to serve the whole People of God, not to dominate or control it. This follows Jesus’ example in today’s Gospel perfectly. From the depths of compassion, Jesus teaches, serves, and as we’ll hear next week, feeds the people. The part that is often underplayed, however, is the expectation that having been taught, served, and fed, the People of God will go and do likewise. This has been slow in coming, and even after 50 years, there still exists a solid minority in the Church who believe that nothing is worth doing if it’s not led by an ordained person, preferably a priest.

Many people are concerned about the future of the Church, and I hear a lot of these worries. You may be one of them. But ask yourself this question. What is it that you’re worried about specifically? Is the concern the slowly decreasing number of priests and religious? Or the slowly decreasing number of Church-goers? Are you worried that other religions, particularly Islam, seem to be gaining numbers? Do you hunger for the days when the hierarchy was quick to condemn bad behavior by Christians and non- Christians alike? Are you sad that many in your family have stopped going to Church? These are all concerns I’ve heard in the past year – there may be others.

To paraphrase Jesus after the storm at sea, “Where is your faith?” Please don’t take that as a scolding comment. Search yourself. Does your faith come from the Bible? Does your faith come from identification with the Catholic Church? Does your faith come from within, from a certainty of the presence of God in your life? Is your faith subject to the latest scandal? The latest Gallup poll? These are important questions because they speak to what your faith is built upon, sand or rock. If you want your faith to be rock solid, it needs to start with how deep you let God into your heart. This is the unique power that St. Paul acquired after his conversion. He spoke of being “in Christ”, a profound meshing of his life with Christ, to the point that there was no distinction. This gave him the ability to tell St. Peter that the Gentiles were just as faith-worthy as the Jews, and to act in that vein.

 It’s deceptively simple, brothers and sisters. The future of the Church is in your hands. It’s in the hierarchy’s hands too, yes, but it’s in all of our hands, since we’re all the People of God. Teach, pray, serve – it’s Christ’s mandate and the heart of what it means to follow him. It’s what a shepherd does, and you’ve all been graduated from sheep to shepherd. Congratulations! Now let’s go out there and save some souls, shall we?

© Deacon Peter Hodsdon St. James Parish, Solana Beach

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