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Fr. Earl Fernandes

Fr. Earl Fernandes

In the first two articles of this series, we explored the foundations for the Beacons of Light initiative being undertaken in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, first describing the Church as the Family of God and then offering characteristics of an evangelizing community. Each “Family of Parishes”, formed through the process, is called to make known the joy of the Gospel. The experience of being a “family of parishes” will be new and will bring challenges and blessings. Here, I would like to describe Beacons of Light as a journey and to show how this journey is rooted in our belief in the Triune God.

Growing up, almost every one of us took a family trip or journey – with hopes for renewal, filled with many joys, along with a few mishaps. As the Archdiocese of Cincinnati journeys into the future, we do so together. The Greek word synodos means “to be on the journey together” as in a caravan or religious pilgrimage (Lk 2:41-44).

We are a “pilgrim Church,” journeying toward the heavenly Jerusalem. Significantly, in Lumen Gentium (LG 9-17), the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council treated the “People of God” before treating the hierarchy. If a pyramidal view of the Church, with the bishops and priests on top and the laity on the bottom, had dominated previously, now all the baptized, with their distinctive roles, could understand their vocations as a service to the Church.

Synodality is a way of living the faith in a permanent way at every level: in the parish, the family, and at the peripheries. All Church members, not just the clergy or experts, are to be engaged in this way of living. Synodality describes the journeying together in history of the People of God toward the New and Eternal Jerusalem.

Pope Francis calls us to be a synodal church, a church that walks together. He spoke of this in 2015, stating that it is “precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.” (Address during the Ceremony Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops, October 17, 2015) Echoing Pope Benedict XVI that synodality was a “constitutive element of the Church,” he described it as “nothing other than the ‘journeying together’ of God’s flock along the paths of history towards the encounter with Christ the Lord.”

A synodal church is one that listens and “which realizes that listening is more than simply hearing.” This involves listening not only to each other, but also to the Spirit to know what “he says to the churches.” (Rev 2:7) Listening affirms each person’s dignity and expresses respect for the voices, legitimate desires, problems and sufferings of the People of God.

The process of listening begins with the People of God, who, in virtue of their baptism, share in the prophetic office of Christ. Priests and bishops, attentive to the voice of the flock, listen to God to act rightly and to give credible witness to the apostolic faith. The process converges to a point of unity in faith, facilitating an encounter with the Lord in Truth.

But what would be the theological foundations for understanding the Church as a Family of God that journeys together? That is, if parishes will be grouped together into “Families of Parishes” in order to discern a future together that best serves evangelization, on what theological basis would this be done?

We begin almost every prayer with the sign of the cross, invoking the Trinity. While next month, we will delve deeper into the theological foundations of Beacons of Light, our belief in the Trinity is a good starting point. There is a clear Trinitarian imprint on the understanding of the Church in the documents of Vatican II, which describes the Church, as “a people made one with the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (LG, nn. 2-4) One speaks of a “Trinitarian synodality” ad intra, referring to the dynamic relationship of the Persons of the Trinity as a communion of love, and a “Trinitarian synodality” ad extra, in which the persons of the Godhead “journey together” toward all of creation, the Church, and humanity in history. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the model for all forms of synodal living, and, therefore, of a model of living as the Church.

The Scriptures allude to this in the Divine “We” in the story of creation (Gen 1:26), in the visit of the three guests to Abraham (Gen 18:1-5), and in the journey of God toward His people through the covenants of the Old Testament, culminating in the Messiah, who offers salvation to Jews and Gentiles alike. The New Testament, especially the Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38), recounts the Incarnation as a Trinitarian action – a journeying together: the Father sends the Spirit to overshadow the Virgin so that the Eternal Word of the Father might become incarnate. In the Trinity, there is communion and reciprocity among the Persons and an outpouring of love toward humanity.

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit journey together in harmony. The Triune God journeys together toward all of humanity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit journey with us as we discern the way forward for our Archdiocese. In turn, we as “Families of Parishes” must journey together, open to what the Spirit says and guided by the living Word (cf. Ps 119:105).

El camino que le espera a la Arquidiócesis de Cincinnati con el proceso Faros de Luz no será fácil. Requerirá discernimiento tanto a nivel individual como comunitario. En la Alegría del Evangelio (Evangelii Gaudium), el Papa Francisco invita a todas las iglesias locales a entrar en un proceso decidido de discernimiento, purificación y reforma para que el impulso misionero de la Iglesia sea más intenso, generoso y fecundo, y agrega que es importante “no caminar solos, contar siempre con los hermanos y especialmente con la guía de los obispos, en un sabio y realista discernimiento pastoral” (EG, 30; 33).

Tres palabras que nos ayudan a comprender el discernimiento son: reconocer; interpretar; y elegir.

Reconocer. Los individuos y las Familias de Parroquias deben poseer un sentido de autoconciencia para ayudar a reconocer, nombrar y enfrentar situaciones y dificultades en la vida. Muchos hoy en d a pueden tener una buena educación en general, pero son analfabetos en lo que respecta a la afectividad. Por tanto, existe una gran necesidad de formar personas y comunidades que valoren honestamente la propia identidad y reconozcan los movimientos interiores del Espíritu, especialmente los que traen alegría y los que perduran.

Interpretar. Los individuos y las Familias de Parroquias no solo deben reconocer los desafíos, sino también aprender a interpretar las experiencias, especialmente a la luz de la fe. A medida que los individuos y las comunidades intentan comprender el sentido de sus experiencias y cómo evaluarlas, la jerarquía de verdades de la fe católica ayuda en el proceso de discernimiento.

El Papa Francisco, en Evangelii Gaudium, nos llama a todos a discernir: “Cada cristiano y cada comunidad discernirá cuál es el camino que el Señor le pide, pero todos somos invitados a aceptar este llamado: salir de la propia comodidad y atreverse a llegar a todas las periferias que necesitan la luz del Evangelio” (EG, 20).

El proceso de discernimiento y deliberación es fundamental. Las personas y las parroquias deben usar tanto la fe como la razón para sopesar los pros y los contras respecto a propuestas y decisiones. Los laicos están llamados a cumplir con las responsabilidades de su bautismo trabajando por la santificación del mundo y comprometiéndose en la misión evangelizadora de la Iglesia, ofreciendo conocimientos de sus experiencias profesionales, personales y espirituales.

Los religiosos y religiosas están en una posición única para iluminar las dimensiones trascendentes y escatológicas en algunos temas. Como colaboradores del obispo y los sacerdotes, especialmente los párrocos, los religiosos y religiosas pueden ofrecer su sabiduría teológica, espiritual y pastoral, aplicando su experiencia de pastorear y acompañar al rebaño y permanecer como Cristo en medio de ellos.

Elegir. El discernimiento exige poder elegir. Conscientes de su deber de escuchar al rebaño, los pastores deberían tener el “olor de las ovejas”. El arzobispo carga consigo la responsabilidad personal y específica a nivel local de ser testigo de la verdad y preservar tanto la unidad como la integridad de la fe y de su rebaño. En  última instancia, el arzobispo tiene la responsabilidad final en cuanto a decisiones canónicas; sin embargo, sus decisiones fluyen y se dan, solo después del consenso y de su propio discernimiento en oración.

Por ejemplo, en el proceso Faros de Luz, agrupar las Familias de Parroquias requirieron la recopilación de ideas y datos tanto de hombres y mujeres laicos, párrocos, consejos pastorales y el personal, para luego colaborar en posibles agrupaciones. Se solicitó información adicional de los decanos, el Consejo Presbiteral y los encabezados de los distintos departamentos arquidiocesanos, junto con los sacerdotes y los directores de escuelas. Después de un período de comentarios públicos de tres semanas, surgió  un consenso para darse las agrupaciones finales al que el arzobispo consintió. Posteriormente, cada Familia de Parroquias propondrá su propio plan pastoral y lo presentará  al arzobispo para su consentimiento.

Este consentimiento, este elegir, nunca es una afirmación de poder, sino que sigue siendo un servicio a la Iglesia en el nombre del Señor Jesús. Fundamentalmente, el discernimiento es de naturaleza comunitaria que expresa la corresponsabilidad que tienen los creyentes; exige que sus miembros tengan una conciencia eclesial que conduce a la comunión. La palabra clave es “corresponsabilidad”.

En 2009, el Papa Benedicto XVI comentó:

Es necesario mejorar el enfoque pastoral, para que, respetando las vocaciones y roles de los consagrados y laicos, se promueva gradualmente la corresponsabilidad de todos los miembros del Pueblo de Dios. Esto exige un cambio de mentalidad, particularmente en lo que respecta a los laicos, pasando de considerarlos “colaboradores” del clero a reconocerlos com verdaderamente “corresponsables” de la existencia y acción de la Iglesia, favoreciendo la consolidación de un laicado maduro y comprometido. (Benedicto XVI, “Discurso de la conferencia pastoral de la diócesis de Roma sobre el tema: ‘pertenencia eclesial y corresponsabilidad pastoral”, 26 de mayo de 2009)

Hay que tomar decisiones y elegir cosas que probablemente no serán fáciles. Se anticipa que todos los involucrados experimenten algo de dolor, pero si es un proceso compartido, nuestra iglesia local estará en mejor posición de llevar a cabo la misión de evangelización y nuestras parroquias serán verdaderamente Faros de Luz.

The road that lies ahead for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati with Beacons of Light will not be an easy one. It will require discernment, both at an individual and communal level. In the Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis invited every particular church to enter into a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform so that the missionary impulse of the Church might be more focused, generous, and fruitful, adding that the important thing is “to not walk alone, but to rely on each other as brothers and sisters, and especially under the leadership of the bishops, in a wise and realistic pastoral discernment.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 30; 33)

To recognize. Three phrases that help us understand discernment are: to recognize; to interpret; and to choose. Individuals and Families of Parishes must be able to confront situations and difficulties in life; they need to be able to recognize and name these difficulties. At the same time, they also must possess a sense of self-awareness. Many today are well-educated in the sciences and have a refined background, but are illiterate when it comes to affectivity. Hence, there is a serious need to form people and communities in recognizing the interior movements of the Spirit and to have an honest assessment of one’s own identity. There must be a recognition of those movements of the Spirit which bring joy and which last, and those that do not.

To interpret. Individuals and Families of Parishes must not only recognize challenges, but also learn to interpret experiences, especially in light of faith. As individuals and communities attempt to understand the meaning of that which they are experiencing and how to evaluate experiences, the hierarchy of truths of the Catholic Faith can assist in the discernment process.

Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium (n. 20), calls all of us to discern: “Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel.”

The process of discernment and deliberation is critical. People and parishes will need to weigh the pros and cons, using faith and reason, when making proposals or decisions. Laity, across the spectrum, are called to fulfill the responsibilities of their baptism, to work for the sanctification of the world, and to take part in the evangelizing mission of the Church, offering insights from their professional, personal and spiritual experiences.

Religious men and women, are uniquely positioned to illuminate the transcendent and eschatological dimensions of some of the issues that arise. As co-workers of the bishop, priests, and especially pastors, offer their theological, spiritual and pastoral insights, possessing the experience of shepherding and accompanying the flock, standing as Christ in their midst.

To choose. Discernment demands being able to choose. Mindful of their duty to listen to the flock, pastors must have the “smell of the sheep.” Locally, the Archbishop ultimately has a personal and specific responsibility to witness to the truth and to preserve the unity and integrity of the faith and the flock. After careful discernment, flowing from the unanimity of the consent emanating from the deliberations, he will have to make decisions, but his choices will come only after input from the people and clergy of the Archdiocese and after prayerful discernment.

For example, in the Beacons of Light process, the grouping of parishes into “families of Parishes” demanded gathering insights and data from lay men and women, through their pastors, pastoral councils, and staff, and working together to look at possible groupings. Input was sought from the Deans, Presbyteral Council, and heads of Archdiocesan Departments. Priests and School Principals were invited to offer their insights. Finally, after a three-week period of public comment, the Archbishop decided to finalize the groupings. Later in the process, each Family of Parishes will propose a pastoral plan, and the Archbishop will have to decide whether to approve that plan.

This consent – this choosing – is never an assertion of power but remains a service to the Church in the name of the Lord Jesus. Ultimately, discernment is of a communitarian nature and an expression of the co-responsibility that believers have; it demands that its members have an ecclesial conscience leading to communion. The keyword is “co-responsibility.”

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI said:

It is necessary to improve pastoral structures in such a way that the co-responsibility of all the members of the People of God in their entirety is gradually promoted, with respect for vocations and for the respective roles of the consecrated and of lay people. This demands a change in mindset, particularly concerning lay people. They must no longer be viewed as “collaborators” of the clergy but truly be recognized as “coresponsible”, for the Church’s being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity. (Benedict XVI, “Discorso all’apertura del convegno pastorale della diocesi di Roma sul tema: ‘appartenenza ecclesiale e corresponsibilit  pastorale,’” May 26, 2009)

Difficult decisions and choices must be made. No one cannot expect to experience some pain in the process, but, if the process is a shared process, then, in the end, it is hoped that our local church will be in a better position to carry out the mission of evangelization and that our parishes will truly be Beacons of Light.

How does a parish share the good news of Jesus?

Last month, I reflected on the Church as the Family of God. We need to think not only of parishes as families, but of multiple parishes as extended families or “Families of Parishes,” as we move from maintenance to mission. Beacons of Light is a means for channeling our resources in a way that best serves the mission of evangelization.

What are characteristics of an evangelizing community? First, we are a Church that goes forth. We are missionaries. Going forth demands courageously leaving our comfort zone. In an interview in 2013, Pope Francis said:

“Instead of just being a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.” (Antonio Spadaro, Sept. 21, 2013)

Second, the community of missionary disciples shows initiative. The Spanish word primerear captures this idea of being proactive rather than reactive. In Evangeli Gaudium the Holy Father writes:

“An evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative; He has loved us first, and therefore, we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast.” (EG, 24)

Here in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, we cannot afford to wait for people to come to us; rather, we must seize the initiative and become “spiritual entrepreneurs.”

Third, the evangelizing community is engaged with its members. Pope Francis sometimes uses the word balconear, which means to stand on the balcony to see what is happening without personal engagement. The Pope proposes Jesus as the opposite of this sort of person:

“Jesus washed the feet of His disciples. The Lord gets involved and He involves His own, as He kneels to wash their feet. He tells His disciples, ‘You will be blessed if you do this.’ An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances. It is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others.” (EG, 24)

The priest cannot do everything. He must encourage his people to get involved by identifying and utilizing the talents and gifts of his flock.

Fourth, a community of missionary disciples accompanies others. Speaking in Assisi in 2013, Pope Francis said:

“I repeat it often: walking with our people, sometimes in front, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes behind: in front in order to guide the community, in the middle in order to encourage and support; and at the back in order to keep it united and so that no one lags too far behind, to keep them united.” (Pope Francis, Cathedral of San Ruffino, Assisi, Oct. 4, 2013)

A father of a family must lead his family, spend time with his family and offer encouragement, keeping the family together. Accompaniment entails guiding, encouraging, supporting and uniting. The pastor must lead the process, accompanying his own people, learning about their joys, sorrows, hopes and needs, and offering encouragement. This demands listening and empathizing on his part. At the same time, the parish community walks with him, with each member playing a role in strengthening each other, serving as bridges, rather than barriers, in a united effort to evangelize.

Fifth, the evangelizing community is fruitful. Commenting on the parable of the weeds and wheat, the Holy Father says:

“An evangelizing community is always concerned with fruit, because the Lord wants her to be fruitful. It cares for the grain and does not grow impatient with the weeds. The sower when he sees weeds sprouting among the grain does not grumble or overreact. He or she finds a way to let the word take flesh in a particular situation and bear fruits of new life, however imperfect or incomplete these may appear.” (EG, 24)

Fruitfulness demands discernment and patience. The parable of the weeds and wheat speaks of discerning what is from the Son of Man, who sows good seeds in the field, from the weeds, sown by the devil. In Greek, the word for weeds is zizania, which refers to rye grass. Zizania looks like wheat initially, but only when it is mature can one discern the difference. Jesus warns of the need to be patient and discerning because things are not always initially clear.

Patience and discernment allow us to move forward. It is particularly necessary for all of us to help the faithful understand why Beacons of Light is happening and to accept the reality of change.

The final characteristic of an evangelizing community is joy. The Eucharist is the sacrament of Christian joy. In the Eucharist, the joy Jesus has won is not only preserved and shared, but perdures. The Church celebrates the Eucharist with the spousal joy of one promised to Christ. It is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

Families of Parishes, nourished by the Holy Eucharist, will have the courage to go forth, to seize the initiative, to be engaged and to accompany others so they might bear lasting fruit. They will be evangelizing communities, marked by the joy that comes from the Gospel and the Eucharist.

Understanding the Mission of the Church

The Church is a sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among all men and women who are called to bring the joy of the Gospel to the whole world. One scriptural image used by the Second Vatican Council which may be helpful for understanding the forthcoming parish groupings and the Beacons of Light process is that of the Church as the Family of God – “the house of God in which His family dwells; the household of God in the Spirit” (cf. Eph. 2:19, 22).

The image of the Church as a family is ancient, and the idea of a family as a “domestic church” has re-emerged in recent times. Parishes are communities of families, gathered under a pastor, a “father” of the family, in communion with the bishop, to worship God and to build the Kingdom. The family is a place of belonging, a privileged place to experience love and growth, an original sign of Christ’s love for His Church, given to us by God the Father. It is both a building block of society and a critical means by which we are introduced into a decisive relationship with God.

The family exists to generate life and deepen the companionship between believers as they journey toward their common destiny. Family stability is critical for the future. This is true not only of our individual families, but also of our parish families. Every family, including a parish family, has a mission to build up the Church and increase the Kingdom of God in the world; to be a community of love in which people experience a sense of belonging; and, to be a beacon of light and hope to others.

In the Family of God we continually meet and encounter Christ who, according to Pope Benedict XVI in Deus caritas est, “gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” In our personal families, we learn to confront difficulties and face the realities of life, enlightened by His Presence. In family life, we encounter Christ in each other. In both our individual families and parish families, our companionship comes together in a space, in our daily living and working together, on a common journey with a common goal: our destiny with God.

The Church can be understood as the Family of God. Jesus addresses God as Father and the early Church addressed its members as adelphoi (brothers and sisters). The Church is not principally an administrative grouping, organized and occasionally re-organized like a company; rather, its distinctive characteristics are prayer and the Eucharist. Believers are called by name to be part of this family and are drawn together and constituted as a family by the Holy Spirit. No family is perfect, and there are always members of the family with different temperaments, but there is one fundamental bond: faith.

The Church, constituted by God, is mandated to evangelize. Every family and every parish must have a missionary outlook. We must radiate Christ to the world, and yet, we are experiencing profound change, which makes the task of evangelizing more challenging. Pope Francis frequently says, “we live not so much in an epoch of change as in a change of epoch.” Acknowledging this and the current reality of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, which includes demographic shifts and fewer priests, it is essential to adapt to effectively carry out the Church’s mission in a changed environment.

Beacons of Light is not principally about a priest shortage; it is about the mission of evangelization. At the beginning of his Pontificate, Pope Francis described his dream for the Church in The Joy of the Gospel: “I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”

I invite you to dream about how our parishes can be evangelizing communities, beacons that radiate the light of faith and respond to the needs of the whole Family of God.

Father Earl Fernandes is the pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola Church in Cincinnati and holds a doctorate in moral theology from the Alphonsian Academy in Rome.