Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Power of the Laity in the Tradition of the Catholic Church

The current crisis in the Church might be compared to the Arian heresy of the fourth century. I have made this argument in other places on this blog in the past--that there are some in the Church represented in every sector both lay and cleric that I believe are in heresy. These have rejected the miraculous, the Divinity of Christ, His Resurrection, and His founding of the Church--yet they continue within and the damage they do is great.

In the atmosphere of a church seeking to reconcile with the elements that have separated from us--the faithful have been made to endure all sorts of silliness and in some cases evil in the spirit of not repeating the mistakes of the past. Heresy is a word that one seldom hears in the post Vatican II church except in the cases of ultra right wing Catholics. But heresy is very much a part of the tradition of the Church and to ignore its presence in the modern church can only do great damage to the Body of Christ.

There is an old Latin saying that says, "Every heresy comes from the altar" and another that says that the laity always save the church. The temptation of the laity is to think that they are powerless to change the current condition and indeed this is a grave temptation and one that ignores the reality that without the laity the church is beheaded.

The tradition of the Church going back to the election of St. Ambrose is that the laity do have real power in the church that is exercised through them by the Holy Spirit. It is time to revisit the story of the election of St. Ambrose and for the faithful to present the best that the Church has to offer as candidates for the priesthood and episcopacy. This can be done concretely by sending letters to the Apostolic Delegate in the United States and to the Holy See itself. If we are not doing it then we are leaving it to members of the clerical club to do it.

There is another power that the laity have and unfortunately do not use--prayer. Prayer is incredibly powerful. Jesus said that if we had faith we could say to a mountain be moved and planted in the sea and it would obey us! If we all join our prayers for reform in the church it will happen! If we sit back and feel like we can't make a difference and therefore ignore the condition of the church, our parish, our diocese, then things will only get worst.

If everyone who reads this post would pray concretely for change and reformation in the church--change and reform will happen. The reason many of us feel hopeless from time to time is because we have bought into the heretical teachings that we have been fed (even if we have fought off accepting them--the seeds have been sown), the only way to overcome these teachings is to act in faith that Christ is all powerful and we are members of His Body the Church.

Here is the account of the election of St. Ambrose as bishop. What would happen if there were similiar popular acclaim today in Boston, Philadelphia, Phoenix and any other open diocese in the U.S.?

Election of St. Ambrose by the People of Milan and Confirmation of the Emperor

The Arian Bishop Auxentius of Milan, who banned Catholic congregations from worshipping in the diocese's churches, died in 374, and the Arians and Catholics fought over the vacant position which exercised a metropolitan's jurisdiction over the whole of northern Italy. Ambrose had only been in Milan for three years at the time of the bishop's death and he expected that there might be trouble over the selection of his successor.

So, Ambrose, who was a Catholic in name but still a catechumen, went to the cathedral to try to calm the rival parties. During his speech exhorting the people to concord and tranquility, a child is said to have cried, "Ambrose for bishop!" The cry was taken up by both sides, neither of which was anxious to decide the issue between them. The local bishops had asked Emperor Valentinian to make the appointment but he turned the dubious honor back to the bishops. Now the matter was out of their hands. Ambrose was unanimously elected bishop by all parties.

The election of Ambrose, the one in charge of the local police, heightens our awareness of a truism: all clergy are recruited from the laity. It is better to choose an irreproachable person esteemed by all, than a savant who sows discord. The choice of Ambrose was a bold one, but it surprises no one but us.

Our attitudes towards vocations seems different than that in the early church. We today see a vocation as the story of a soul-- discernment of the vocation privately, preparation in a seminary, and gradual growth into the clerical role. For the early Church it was above all the call of God expressed by the Church. To our taste, the secret history of Ambrose's soul did not count enough. But we forget that it is the Holy Spirit through the Church that calls.

What did Ambrose think of this call? At first he protested (just like the prophets) saying he was not even baptized, and fled rather than yield to the tumult. St. Paulinus of Nola wrote of the incident:

"Ambrose left the church and had his tribunal prepared. . . . Contrary to his custom, he ordered people submitted to torture. When this was done the people did not acclaim him any the less [saying]: 'May his sin fall on us!' The people of Milan, knowing that Ambrose had not been baptized, sincerely promised him a remission of all his sins by the grace of baptism.

"Troubled, Ambrose returned to his house. . . . Openly he had prostitutes come in for the sole purpose, of course, that once the people saw that, they would go back on their decision. But the crowd only cried all the louder: 'May your sin fall on us'" (Paulinus, Life of Ambrose, 7).

The people, however, continually pursued him and insisted that he take the see. The emperor confirmed the nomination and Ambrose capitulated. Beginning on November 24, 373, Ambrose was taken through baptism and the various orders to be consecrated as bishop on December 1 or 7--one or two weeks later. (Talk about fast track!) (The dates vary somewhat depending on the source.)