A Good Shepherd in the City of Brotherly Love
Archdiocese of Philadelphia sets standard for spiritual renewal
BY Jim Cosgrove
August 3-9, 1997 Issue | Posted 8/3/97 at 2:00 PM
Joop Koopman: You signed the July 4 statement,We Hold These Truths, prepared by Father Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson, which indicts the nation's High Court. What prompted you?
Cardinal Bevilacqua: Colson and Neuhaus are pointing out something that is not particular to them. They're reflecting what many analysts are saying about the United States: Our culture is on a slippery slope; the morals of our nation as reflected, in particular, in the media culture and many aspects of government life, are creating an erosion of our American way of life—our traditional way of life— and are affecting so many aspects of family life. This is portrayed in the media culture, but it has its origins in many of the Supreme Court decisions.
The statement seeks to reclaim, as it were, some of the nation's highest goals.
It calls us back to the truths that made our Founding Fathers—such outstanding protagonists of a moral way of life. They said that we can't have a nation that isn't founded on the Ten Commandments—on God. That's reflected in the Declaration of Independence, and even in the Constitution. The First Amendment is a support for religious life, not an attack on it. What the statement is calling for, and what so many are calling for now, is the moral renewal of the whole nation. It is a hope-filled declaration.
What do you make of the Supreme Court striking down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act?
I was very disappointed. It is another reflection of some of the ideology of the courts. I strongly disagree, for example, with Justice Antonin Scalia, both morally and legally. Until 1947, the Court had maintained that in order to restrict any kind of religious activity, there would have to be a very compelling interest; and when we did restrict it, it had to be the least restrictive act possible. Now, why Scalia and others have lowered the criterion, I don't know. It exposes all of us.
They might outlaw wine in some counties!
That's right. Theoretically, they could do so many things and say: “We have a reasonable cause to restrict—nothing very compelling, but we have good reason for it.” That's not enough. There was the Texas case of the church being a historical monument, and the ordinance forbidding expansion. It could easily spread into other areas. The first part of the First Amendment says you don't establish one religion; the second part says you promote religion. There's to be no law against religion. The First Amendment is not protecting government from religion, it's protecting religion from government.
There is a school of thought embodied by David Schindler, for example, that argues that the nation's very founding was flawed, that the seeds of this present derailment were always there.
I can't say that this is a phenomenon that just began, but I don't know if it was there from the very beginning. The critics say that even our Founding Fathers based their teachings on a flawed philosophy—John Locke, the Enlightenment, for example. But there's a lot in John Locke, and there's a lot of things in the Enlightenment that are very good. Equality, fraternity, and liberty…. That's wonderful. The abuse of it is what should be attacked.
I can't go all the way back and say the seed was there. You can go back if you want to do that. The seed goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. You have secularism with Adam and Eve—“I want to be God.”
Could you describe your road to the priest-hood?
You have to understand my personal vocation did not involve any special enlightenment. Almost every priest will say that. Some will say they had a very strong religious experience, but most won't. No angel appeared to me. I didn't get a letter from God. It happened in a very providential manner thanks to a priest who moved to a neighborhood that was not Italian. It was completely German-Irish. We were a very poor family, and this priest came over for a visit. I was only five years old. I use the expression that spaghetti and meatballs were a sign of my vocation because my mother asked him: “Do you like spaghetti and meatballs?” He said, “I love it, but the cook is a German, so I never get it.” She said, “Come over.” And that's how it began. He changed our whole family. We were not going to Church. We were raised in an Episcopalian church without knowing it wasn't Catholic. My mother didn't know; she had met a nun—someone who looked like a Catholic sister to her.
She looked like the real thing.
Yes. So, when we did go to church it was an Episcopalian church in Brooklyn. But we moved to Woodhaven, N.Y., and again my mother met a nun, but it was a Catholic nun this time who sent this priest and that's how it happened. My family took a liking to the priest, and he took a liking to me. I said: “I want to be like you,” not knowing what a priest was. I was transferred to a Catholic school, and then I went to the minor seminary, and later to the major seminary, and here I am. I don't know when I received the vocation. It's a process—for me, at least, it was.
Any doubts and fears along the way?
It's hard to imagine anyone who doesn't have doubts, fears, and obstacles. One of the obstacles from the very beginning was poverty. I didn't know I was poor at the time, but there was the matter of tuition for the minor seminary. We couldn't afford it. So this priest paid for the first year, and I got a scholarship for the remaining years.
There was another obstacle in the attitude of my father. He had grown up in a kind of anti-clerical environment in Italy. He couldn't understand why I would want to become a priest—not that he fought me, though.
The war presented another confrontation. I was in seminary during the war. People wondered why we were not in the service. A number of us were bothered. But, actual crises of vocation—no.
What role did the Eucharist play for you?
When I was growing up and wanting to be a priest, everything centered around the Mass. In fact, it was kind of a myth. I believed that in seminary you did two things: You learned to say Mass, and you read the lives of the saints. That's what you did for six years. But we never studied the lives of the saints. We did study the Mass, but it was only in the year before ordination. Yet the center of everything was the Mass, even in the minor seminary. Even though you were commuting, you were expected to go to Mass every day.
Mass was considered a very, very sacred act. I remember a certain anxiety about it as we were approaching the last year. We spent one full year on learning how to say Mass, and go through dry runs, waiting for the day that this acting would become a reality.
Studies today show that belief in the Real Presence is down.
At that time, there was none of that doubt. Everyone believed in the Real Presence—everyone. It was also devotional; emotional in a very good sense. It was part of your very nature. It's like the relationship with your parents. How do you express that? It's very intensely emotional, in a very good sense. The Eucharist was very dominant in our lives.
That's a loss, wouldn't you say?
The whole atmosphere of the Church was strong on the Eucharist. The 40 hours were very popular devotions, and large crowds came out. There was a lot of the symbolism, children's processions, and so on. Corpus Christi was a very big day for us. All of that enhanced the fact that everything centered around that one sacrament. Even as a child, I knew a lot of the eucharistic hymns of St. Thomas. We knew them in Latin. We didn't know what we were saying, but they sounded good. People knew them by heart.
Do you think we can ever recover some of that?
I would say it would be very good. That's not going backwards. That's going forward. There should be a great focus on the Eucharist and also on the Blessed Mother— but the Eucharist has its own particular priority.
That is at the heart of your renewal program here in Philadelphia.
The two major devotional pillars of our renewal are the Eucharist and Mary. That has been, I think, one of the major reasons why we are seeing so much progress.
There are so many programs, so many specialists. What makes yours successful? How do you touch people?
We didn't follow any program. There are many programs, and many of them are good. If you compared ours to some of these more formal programs, there'd be a lot of similarities. Ours is a little bit different in the sense that we began six years ago. Ours is a nine-year renewal.
Up to the millennium.
Up to the millennium. It's a novena of years. Each year has its theme, and these last three years connect with the universal celebration. It fits in perfectly.
This is the year of Jesus.
Jesus and evangelization. We felt very strongly that three years would not be enough to really renew. We felt that there was a danger that if we waited to the end, we could end up with a series of celebrations preparing for the year 2000. What I wanted was an internal, spiritual renewal and that's why we started early. It took several years before it actually caught on. It's like the seed you plant. For a long time, you don't see anything, but, all of a sudden, a little piece of green comes up. That doesn't mean the entire process begins then. A quiet time— that's very necessary—preceded it, and so it is with us. Our first year was one of prayer. The second year was one of listening.
You involve the parishes?
Oh, yes. The major course was directed at the priests. That keeps it going, because without the renewal of the priests, you're not going to have renewal. But, everything is done locally, in the grassroots, in the family of the parish. It's primarily a spiritual renewal, but also a structural renewal. We had to begin a lot of programs, like parish pastoral councils. Most parishes did not have them.
You have to have an infrastructure before you can have a renewal of the whole body of the parish, which in turn renews the archdiocese. The people had to learn. They didn't know what a parish council was and they had to learn, and priests had to learn. They had to consult and to listen. That was a difficult adjustment, but it began to work and, after a while, the priests who were not used to this began to appreciate it.
Don't misunderstand me, don't think this is perfect. It isn't that everyone was wonderful. It isn't that. Some parishes do not cooperate as much, but that's to be expected.
Each parish had to come up with a complete self-evaluation. What are your high points? What are your weak points? What do you think you can accomplish? I'm putting it very simplistically. It went through a series of categories: liturgy, social programs—can we do everything with the resources we have? Some had to say: “No. We can't do everything.” Then, what should we concentrate on?, etc. That's all been completed.
That's right. It's like when an accreditation team comes in to a university. To prepare for that, you better study yourself. That's what each parish did. Sometimes it was difficult, because parishes were afraid to admit certain things. But when they finished, it was like taking pride: “Look what we did.” They prioritized. They've become realistic, acknowledging that they can't do everything.
Some parishes could do more than others, based on personnel resources, the makeup of your parish, the poor, the finances. What started to come out was one dominant theme—spirituality. That's the most important thing. We have to become spiritual and we have to do things. We have to do it together—clergy and laity. That's the beginning of the true concept of Church. The priest is not the Church, the lay people are not the Church—but together we are. Evangelization is becoming more and more the priority. A word that many never heard of before. Funny thing is, it's a Protestant term, but now they began to get used to it. Now, we've moved to a cluster plan—another step.
Are parishes combining?
Not necessarily combining. It has primarily nothing to do with closing parishes and merging. That could happen after the cluster comes up with its recommendations.
We try to answer this question: “What do we have in this community in which we are all involved?” In most communities, there are four or five parishes. Sometimes there were overlaps. Which cluster should this parish belong to? We worked it out. What can we do together in this community, while maintaining the autonomy of each parish?
That's right. Certain things we can do together. Other things we cannot do together because it would destroy the autonomy of the parish, just as any family can do a lot of things together with other families, but there are a lot of things they better not do together. That's what the parishes are learning.
Some, especially in poorer sections, unfortunately see it as heralding their closure. That could be part of the resolution or the recommendation on how to become more effective as a Church in a particular community. There can be difficult recommendations. Overall, communio is one of the major goals of the whole renewal. We are all individuals—but we are one at the same time.
That reality has both practical and spiritual dimensions.
That's right. Just think of the derivation of the word. Very few people understand it correctly. You would think it comes from cum and unio combined together. It doesn't. It comes from cum and munos.
Responsibility. Munos is one's charge or responsibility. How do we carry out our common responsibility together? First we must know our responsibility. What's our goal? That's why communio is so important in the Church—it makes for unity, but also for diversity. That's what people have to learn, gradually, and every parish and diocese too.
Later this year you'll take part in the Synod of the Americas. What are your expectations?
The word that comes to me immediately, again, is communio. That's going to be a dominant aim of the Synod, as with every synod. How do we carry out the mission of the Church together? We were asked to submit themes for the Synod. The first one I proposed dealt with pastoral care among Hispanics in all the Americas. We could all be called Latin America in the year 2050. A second suggestion I made was to put a premium on the renewal of Christian family life in the New World in the 21st century. A third was promoting the Gospel of Life.
We're learning more and more about each other, but we need greater solidarity. We're going to learn that we've got the same problems. We are going to be involved together in carrying out the evangelization of the Church in both North and South America, and combat the breakdown of the family, particularly in our country. Latin America is not immune to this, but maybe a little bit behind us. Then there is the issue of proselytizing. What is common to both of us, too, is the tension between individualism versus concern for the common good. But we have to be people of hope. I hope that that's what comes out of the Synod—that we look forward to the third millennium, not with an abstract hope, but with concrete plans on how to live the life of Jesus Christ and to renew society.
Not just the Catholic community?
I mean everyone—evangelization in the broad sense of the term. In the strict sense, it's conversion, missionaries, and so on—and that's fine. But, in a broad sense it's what Paul VI said about bringing the Gospel message to all the strata of society, all of them, wherever you go. It's really trying to apply what the Holy Father is calling for with his insistence on the new evangelization. It's an echo of Pius X, who said to renew all things in Christ.
You have to renew all the culture. You have to renew the media. You have to renew the legislators. Everyone has to be renewed. And what is new, though it's not really new, is that everyone must be involved in it, not just the bishops, the Pope, the religious—but particularly the laity, who form 99.99 percent of the Church.
Recently the bishops came out against Timothy McVeigh's death sentence. The Pope seems to be against capital punishment. Why can't the Church just come out against it?
We have not yet reached a point where we say that if you believe in the death penalty, you're not a Catholic. I don't think the teaching has gone that far. It's not anything defined. We're just saying that we have learned a great deal. It took me a while to adjust to it too. Many, many years ago, it was part of the whole environment. When you hear some of the cases, you almost think the death penalty is not enough. It takes an act of great faith to realize that even a murderer is a human being. Our support—especially ardent support—of the death penalty is a revenge complex. It's not because it's a good deterrent, because too many studies show that it doesn't deter. Is it a satisfaction? No. It's not enough. Some people see it as closure. You can have closure in other ways. So, from a practical point of view, it doesn't make sense. But much more important is the fact that a human life is at stake. A human life is always a great value.
There was Dutch Schultz, a notorious mobster and murderer, who lay dying and a priest heard his confession and anointed him. People didn't like that. It's often within human nature to be very selfish. “He doesn't deserve it.” They were playing God. That's so often what we want to do. We want to play God. We do not like that God is infinitely merciful. We want him to be infinitely merciful to us, but we play a vengeful god when it comes to someone else. I thank God every day that none of us is God.
We'd be in trouble.
We'd be in a lot of trouble. Only God can be God. Because it's incomprehensible for us to imagine that infinite mercy. That's what we have to convey to our people. Being against the death penalty is a sign that we have to become divine. It's a sign of infinite mercy that we can never reach ourselves.
Bishop Donald Wuerl recently called for closer collaboration with theologians. What's your take on this?
Ex Corde Ecclesiae brought that out very strongly—and there are a number of documents, going back many decades, that speak about the collaboration between the Magisterium and theologians. Theologians must get involved with the day-to-day issues of the Church. They can't confine themselves to abstract theories and principles. We have to deal with the environment and culture of today; the poverty of today; the justice issues of today. We have to deal with all the questions of human life, whether it be cloning, in vitro fertilization, or partial-birth abortion. We need theologians.
It's not just a matterof bringing them in line.
It shouldn't be. It should not be an authoritative relationship. That's not collaboration. Ex Corde Ecclesiae brings it out indirectly in saying that it falls on universities to become involved in the life of people.
With the local Church?
Yes, but it's hard to collaborate unless you're very clear on what the role of the two parties are. You have to have something in common and you have to have something that distinguishes you. Otherwise, you don't have collaboration. What the two have in common is that they are Church. We both—bishops and theologians—have the responsibility of preserving the revelation of Jesus Christ and passing it on. The whole tradition of the Church has been revealed by the Father through Jesus Christ and entrusted to the Church. We both have to safeguard that. But one does it officially, and is the final determinant—the bishop, with other bishops and the Pope. This is the official teaching. The theologian assists that process by explicating, by researching, by expanding, by getting new insights in what is still the same truth.
Theology, for the most part, is too abstract, academic, removed.
The abstract is very important. But, how do you concretize it? How do you apply it? There are two analogies that strike me, although both of them limp. One is the United States government. We have a Constitution, which is like Revelation. Here's the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, the deities if you will, and this is what we're handing on. If you follow this Constitution, the United States will be a civilized nation. Now, how do you apply it each day? Well, you have your legislators. They're the ones who take the Constitution and apply it by way of individual laws. In the case of confusion, the Supreme Court steps in as the official teacher. I say the analogy limps because the Court does not always give the correct teaching.
But, here is an analogy with the Magisterium and the bishops. Another image involves the university world. The professors are very powerful people. Even though they deal largely in the abstract, they have influenced a whole civilization in this country. Why? Because there's something different about them. They have a following—much more so than theologians—that attends their classes. Students get absorbed in what these intellectuals are saying in the abstract and they apply it when they go out into the world. They bring it into the courtrooms, into the halls of Congress, into the hospitals, and into the corporate world. All this humanistic secularism is given practical expression. There's a whole “army of evangelizers”—and I put those words in quotes—that take abstract ideas and they live them out.
Oh yes, but, they do apply them. What I'm saying is that theologians don't have that gift. They don't have the resource of literally millions who come into their classes and apply their teaching.
Is there a remedy?
Theologians have to show us the meaning of Church teachings; they have to form our laity. That is the most critical thing today, and in the next millennium— that our laity realize it must be formed intellectually, and then go out and live it. They have to go into every place where they work, teach, and play. I'd tell people even in the beauty parlors. I don't care where you are. In the diners, in the offices, at the truck stops. You have to bring your faith wherever you are.
That's what we're trying to do in the renewal. People can't keep their faith at home. In Congress? You better live the faith. If you're in the operating room, you live your faith. Wherever you go, you have to live it. I'm not saying you get on a soap-box, but you must witness your faith by the way you live.
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