At Synod 16 many frank discussions were held in which the participants discerned and evaluated together the present state of the Archdiocese of Detroit. The discussions brought to light what might be called the “capital vices” and “core virtues” of our local Church — those bad habits and good habits that affect our witness to Christ. A look at these good and bad habits will help us identify both what has to change and what we are called to become.
Our bad habits are those attitudes, misunderstandings, or deceptions that hold us back from unleashing the Gospel. Five of these stood out in particular at the Synod.
A worldly notion of the Church. Too often the Church is viewed, even by Catholics, as simply a human institution, and the Catholic faith as merely a lifestyle enhancer. In this outlook the Church’s value is based primarily on its contributions to society, whether in education, health care, advocacy, or service to the poor. The priest is seen as a kind of ecclesiastical civil servant. When this outlook prevails the Church’s mission can become captive to human plans, and the clarity of our witness to the Gospel is compromised. Cardinal John Henry Newman observed that perhaps one of the reasons Christ’s disciples in a particular time and place seem to escape being persecuted is that they have conformed themselves to the thinking and behavior of their society. They “have taken the world’s pay, and must not grudge its yoke.” What is lacking in such a worldly mindset is a humble recognition that the Church belongs to Christ as his body, his beloved bride. It is Christ who directs the mission and activity of the Church and who will bring her without fail to her final destiny. All of us, clergy and laity alike, are servants of the Lord who will one day render an account of our service to him.
Spiritual lethargy. The second vice is closely related to the first. If the Church is viewed as a human institution, then it is easy to become overwhelmed by the challenges that face us. The feeling that we have to carry the burden of a struggling Church contributes in turn to weariness, discontent, and defeatism. It may seem as if we are pushing a rock up a steep hill and getting nowhere. Where there has been such lethargy, dear brothers and sisters, let us repent! It is a little like a marriage that has become stale: it is time to “return to our first love” (cf. Rev 2:4), to go through a “marriage encounter” between ourselves and Jesus — or perhaps to fall in love with him for the first time. If our ardor has cooled, let us ask the Lord to touch us once again with a burning ember from his altar (cf. Isa 6:6) that we may be rekindled in our zeal for him.
Status quo mentality. There can be a kind of institutional hardening, a resistance to change. We may consider that certain institutional forms, customs and practices have carried us in the past and we do not want to put in the effort to reform them. Pope Francis speaks of “the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way.’” Instead he urges all local Churches to “be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities.”
Fear. The fourth bad habit can sometimes be more hidden. We can be subtly influenced by a combination of fears: fear of taking risks, fear of failure, fear of losing control, fear of going beyond our comfort zone. But yielding to fear keeps us in spiritual bondage (cf. Heb 2:15). How often Scripture tells us, “Fear not!” How often the Lord assures the fearful of his steadfast love and his help (cf. Isa 43:1-2). We must choose not to be guided by fear. Whenever we become aware of fears and anxieties influencing us, we can bring them before the Lord in all honesty and ask him to replace them with apostolic courage.
A complaining attitude. A common temptation in reaction to problems is to lament that we no longer have the power or prestige we once had. We don’t have as many priests, as many resources, as much money, as much support. Like the Israelites in the desert, we can take on an attitude of “murmuring,” finding fault with God and others. But complaining leads only to discouragement and paralysis. God thinks we have enough, because we have him. “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).
To read more of the archbishop’s letter, or to catch up on sections you’ve missed, visit www.unleashthegospel.org.