The 1999 Commencement Address of Jan Cardinal Schotte
Cardinal Schotte (pronounced "Scotty") holds one of the most important posts in the Church. He presides over the Synod of Bishops, a forum that Pope Paul VI established in the wake of Vatican II to allow bishops from around the world to come to Rome for what is often weeks at a time to discuss various issues facing the Church and to offer counsel to, and receive guidance from, the Holy Father on those issues.
Cardinal Schotte calls the Synod for each world region or topical issue, sets the Synod agenda, prepares Synod recommendations, counsels the Holy Father on the terms of the Synod, and assists him in preparing the Synod document to be given to Synod representatives.
A member of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, (known as the "Missionaries Society"), Cardinal Schotte is a Belgian native. After serving as head of his religious order, he has worked in continual service for the Holy See, beginning first as an attach‚ for Pope Paul VI, and then as a member on numerous pontifical commissions, until his ascendency to the General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops in 1985. He frequently accompanies His Holiness on missions throughout the world and represents the Holy See at various international delegations.
Following is the complete text of his Commencement Address:
Given the patron saint of this College, Thomas Aquinas, I am sure you are well aware of the following story associated with his university days. Because Thomas always sat in silence listening at the feet of the renowned doctor, Albert the Great, his fellow students were accustomed to call him "the Dumb Ox of Sicily." Before long, this title came to be known by the great master. Recognizing the unusual brilliance of his pupil's mind, Albert broke forth, "You call him 'a Dumb Ox', but I assure you that the bellowing of this ox will become so loud as to resound throughout the whole world!" We all know how those prophetic words came true.
Various aspects of this story can serve as an introduction to my reflections on the Church and her credibility and relevance today. To mention a few, they teach that many find it easier to criticize than to take the time to really get to know another person; that, for one reason or another, people can be mistaken in their perceptions; that the seemingly insignificant and ridiculed, in God's hands, can confound the wisdom of the world, and that a true master is able to look beyond appearances and recognize greatness.
Every period of history has posed challenges for the Church, resulting from the particular circumstances in which she lives. Today, signs are appearing in certain countries and regions of an increasing disappointment with the Church, even to the point of some people rebelling against her or outright rejecting her. Where contemporary culture in general manifests a certain skepticism towards all established institutions and authoritative structures, the Church seems to be enduring a major portion of this negative reaction, perhaps because people have higher expectations of the Church.
Every generation gives special attention to certain mysteries of the faith which become in turn the subject of public opinion or criticism, and thereby are placed in the public arena for people's reflection. This was true in the past for major questions concerning the Holy Trinity, the person of Christ, supernatural grace, the relation between science and faith, and others. Each new period of history brings new discussions, new conflicts - and sometimes new confusion - but also new growth.
The Church under Accusation
Today, all energy and passion seem to be focused almost exclusively on the Church as an institution and on her inner workings at all levels. People are heard to say, "The Church has lost credibility in today's world" or "The Church is no longer relevant." Such opinion is illustrated in certain news media which seem to go to great lengths to cast the Church in a bad light. In view of these negative reactions, however, I would like to ask the question, "Has the Church ever had total credibility with public opinion in any age?" or "Has there ever been a century when the Church, in her poverty and weakness, was truly and totally cherished by every one of her Faithful, not to say by the general public?"
Without idealizing the past, one knows that the Church has always endured criticism at every moment in her history from those within the Church as well as from those outside the Church. Today, as in the past, there are those who find fault with the Church or use painful events in Church life to justify bitterness and defection. And yet, at the same time, those same people cannot totally hide their true sentiments, which are a mixture of frustration and disappointment on the one hand, and, on the other, nostalgia and love for the institution from which they expected so much.
The quarrels people have with the Church, and those among Church members, have a great similarity to conflicts within a family; there is a mixture of love and alienation. In the Church, as in the family, one should not forget that the slamming of doors and the yelling of adults frightens the children and leaves these little ones wondering what is happening; the little ones do not understand.
The Church also has her "little ones," namely, the ordinary faithful who suffer in silence when their Church is attacked and do not fully understand what is taking place. Do people have the right to take these "little ones" hostage for their selfish or superficial motives?
In the Church, as in the family, internal quarrels, breakdowns in communication and problems in relationships always have at their core a subconscious expectation of truth and honesty. What counts, therefore, is not to look at the appearance of things, but at the underlying reality.
The Human Side of the Church
It would be presumptuous to pretend that everything in the Church is perfect. Structures and procedures sometimes pose difficulties. Tensions can arise in the exercise of authority. The human weakness of Pastors can sometimes be a stumbling block and even a reason for scandal. However real they may be, such imperfections cannot be sufficient reason to reject the Church. Instead, such failings are associated with the human condition assumed by Christ in the mystery of the Incarnation and ultimately taken upon Himself on the cross.¶St. Paul mentions that Christ's death was "a stumbling block for the Jews" (1 Cor 1:23), because they felt it was incredible that someone who ended his life on a cross could possibly be God's Chosen One. St. Paul also taught that Christ's death was "folly for the Greeks" (I Cor 1:23) because their deities, totally beyond human feeling, would not involve themselves in human affairs. For both the Jew and the Greek, Christ was too human. For some, is that not the same argument today?
The imperfections of the Church's members, whether they be bishops, clergy, or laity, are the Church's continued identification today with the sins of humanity. These she draws to herself so as to apply to them the fruits of salvation. One person has said that if people are scandalized by the human failings of Church members today, they would have been equally scandalized at seeing the bruised and bloodied Christ hanging upon the tree of the Cross. At that time, His divinity was all but covered by His pains and agony.
The Sociological Aspect
Related to the above aspects which look upon the Church in too human a way, some insist on applying to the Church a sociological measurement, namely, statistics, opinion polls, majority acceptance, an applause meter, or the ultimate - the Nielsen ratings! Some would hold the Church in esteem solely for her power to have an impact on society and her prestige in the eyes of people, rather than for her courage in preaching the "foolishness" of a Crucified Christ (cf. 1 Cor 1:23). A shift is taking place in public perception whereby the Church is increasingly being seen exclusively for her apostolic activity on behalf of the needy and oppressed, as a kind of philanthropic United Nations, an institution to help advance economic development or social progress.
Viewing the Church in this manner totally neglects the fact that the Church has a divine nature underlying her human structures and institutions. Though the Church has an organizational system, she is not an instrument of some horizontal humanitarian religion, but first and foremost a community of sinners, saved in the blood of Christ, and therefore, a people dedicated to the worship and praise of God, and because of him, dedicated to the service of others! In over-emphasizing service of others, some can limit the definition of Christian living solely to the obligation of loving one's neighbor. If the Church were nothing more than a philanthropic United Nations, it would follow that her hierarchical structure would be hopelessly out-dated in a democratic society, where all its citizens decide the system of government and continuously adapt the workings of government to the ever-changing circumstances and mentalities of the times.
Perhaps the above understanding could be illustrated in the way many Church buildings are constructed today. In the past, Church architecture was not purely functional, but sought actively to engage the person in approaching the spiritual. The various aspects of the Church building were intended to communicate religious truths and assist the person to communicate with the divine. Architecture was imbued with the mystery of God's presence among his people.
Today, many of our places of worship are constructed as multiple-use buildings. As a result of accordion walls, dividing panels and moveable furniture, the building can be adapted to various functions, becoming at any one time a space for liturgical celebrations, a meeting hall, a concert theatre, an exhibition site, or a marketplace. In such an arrangement, man takes precedence, and the various needs of people become the determining factor in the architectural plan of the building, its basic orientation, and its function. The architectural area is no longer exclusively "worship space," the point of meeting between God and His people. On the contrary, it loses its spiritual significance; the building becomes purely functional, totally identified with the various human necessities of society, or totally focused on the assembly itself.
Some might object to this assessment and quote a line from St. Irenaeus, "The living human being is God's glory." Where this is indisputably true, it is only part of the quote from St. Irenaeus. He later adds: "But the meaning of man's life is to see God." We risk forgetting the ultimate aim of all human existence, and in doing so we reduce Christian hope to an all inclusive but worldly utopia. Instead of placing our trust in the power of Jesus Christ to transform the human heart and to renew the Church, we rely exclusively on the efficiency of our programs. To avoid difficulties, one must always look at the Church properly, from two perspectives - human as well as divine.
The Incarnation and the Church
The Church exists in the world and the world is present in the Church. Whatever tensions exist in the world, they have their effect also in the Church. We know that the Church cannot escape from the disturbances of the world, since it is subjected to the laws of history. And yet, we delude ourselves in dreaming of a Church with a peacefulness likened to the still surface of a tranquil mountain lake.
The Infinite God became man. Jesus Christ was born in Palestine, as a member of a Semitic people, in a small country, occupied by the Romans. He spoke the Aramaic language and walked the roads and by-ways of His land. He totally experienced the human condition, except sin. The writer of Hebrews recalls, "Therefore, he (Christ) had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted." (Heb 2:17-18). In short, Jesus Christ was totally incarnate.
The Incarnation, however, is not limited to Christ's earthly years; it is a lasting and enduring reality. God's Plan is that the mystery of the Incarnation continue in the Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ. That Church is vulnerable as was her Lord; that Body is made up of sinners. This is known by everyone, yet people continue to have an idea of the Church which expects her to be beyond all human weakness and tension, passing through history as a hot air balloon floats over the prairies and the mountains. People dream that, like the balloon, she will be able to regulate her ascent and descent according to the obstacles along the way. They envisage the Church as if the Son of God never walked the earth. They see the Church exclusively as divine!
The Church as the Body of Christ
Saint Paul, on his way to Damascus, came face to face with the mystical identification of Christ with His Church. The Book of Acts, Chapter 9, relates that Saul, still breathing threats and murder, set off to persecute the disciples of the Lord (cf. Acts 9:1). During his travels, a bright light causes him to fall from his horse, and he hears the words: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" And Paul asks: "Who are you?" And he receives the response, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting." How could Jesus, the Head, remain silent when His Body was being persecuted?
This mystical experience leads to Paul's conversion and determines his whole mission as an Apostle. He comes to a knowledge of the unity of the Church. He travels from one community to another, driven by the urgency to build up the unity of the Church through union with her Lord.
During his imprisonment, he moves from concern for the organic unity of the Church to a deeper vision: that all the local communities of Christians comprise a single Body, the Body of Christ, where reconciliation is offered to Jews and pagans alike and where the people are brought together through intimate union with God and wholesome concern for man. His letters to the different Christian communities abound with forceful images: the Church is the Temple of God, the Body of Christ and the Spouse of the Lord. To the Ephesians he delivers the key to his vision of the Church: "Christ loved the Church and sacrificed Himself for her to make her holy" (Eph 5:25). Have we not lost this profound vision of the Church?
As mentioned above, too often people limit their idea of the Church to one single aspect. Concentrating only on the external, institutional reality makes the Church too human, while putting an emphasis on her invisible, internal reality makes the Church too divine. This same reasoning was operative by those who wished to put Christ to death. The Scribes and the Pharisees judged Christ as too divine, "We have a law, and by that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God" (Jn 19:7); the Roman court judged him as too human, "We found this man perverting our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ a king" (Lk 23-2). And on both counts, he went to the Cross. How many people do the same today to the Church, by judging the Church exclusively from one perspective, and not viewing the total picture?
Like her Lord, however, the Church stands firm and will not perish. She will continue to be that mystical reality of human and divine elements. Rejecting the Church as a whole or in part will not diminish her or change her nature. Passively belonging to the Church is, however, not sufficient. Every day each of her members must seek to express love for her and sustain her because she is and always will be the Body of Christ, divine and incarnate. With this full and complete understanding of the nature of the Church various aspects and elements characterizing Church life take on their true significance. However, the Church's credibility and relevance can once again suffer, if a true balance and proportion are not respected in viewing the Church and her teachings. I like to refer to the problem as one of "zooming in."
One of the more exciting developments in modern photography is the availability of the zoom lens. It allows for instant isolation of details that are blown up into close-ups. "Zooming in" on a square centimeter of human skin can make it look like a piece of orange peel and a potato skin becomes a moonscape. Concentrating on such a small detail, detached from its wider background, has the potential of leaving it a free-standing object or turning it into something it is not. Without the necessary wider perspective, the resulting details are meaningless. This would be an "unnatural" use of the "zoom lens," because the object was not intended to be viewed in this manner; it is the whole which is important.
This improper use of the zooming technique can also apply to some people within our Church who place an inordinate focus on one or another aspect of the Church or her message or moments in her history, with the result that these aspects lose their true meaning because they are detached from the whole. The same happens in the case of Sacred Scripture. By taking sentences from the Gospel out of context, their meaning is distorted. In such a way, persons often adapt them according to a biased frame of mind or to the fashion of the moment. By wrongly "zooming in" on parts of Scripture or Church teaching, any subjective interpretation can be called up and given the appearance of truth.
In the present climate of anti-Church or anti-Pope sentiment, an amazing anthology of teachings and Scripture quotations are being used to justify criticism of the Church and her leaders. A typical example regards the compassion or mercy of Jesus. Particular quotations from the Gospels are invoked to extol compassion as the litmus test for the credibility of Pope and Bishops in their teachings and pronouncements. Mercy and compassion are being propounded as the miracle prescription for all the ills besetting the Church today. These terms are used to justify all sorts of wrong- doing, particularly with regard to respect for human life in such evils as abortion, reproductive rights and euthanasia. Mercy and compassion have been "zoomed out" of context! How could compassion be true compassion, and mercy be true mercy, if there is no longer any law to be observed, or any sin to be forgiven, or any conversion of heart to be achieved? How can compassion be extolled as the paramount pastoral attitude, when the transcendence of God and his law is no longer acknowledged?
Ways for Overcoming the Crisis
No single recipe exists for overcoming these difficulties. When the Apostles complained about their inability to cure a boy, Jesus responded that such ineffectiveness can be overcome only through fasting and prayer (cf. Matt 17:21). What was needed was prayer in union with that of the Lord Jesus. This is also true today. But other ways are important as well. On an occasion such as this, as graduates face the future and the rest of us seek to fulfill our vocations in life, the following five recommendations seem to have particular relevance.
1. Read The New Testament Daily. Only the reading of the New Testament - without "zooming" - will lead to a discovery of the true nature and meaning of the mystery of the Church. St. John the Evangelist and St. Paul have particularly moving insights into the Church. The beautiful passages of these two men on the love of Christ and the love of His Church were not written in times of success. St. John wrote while in exile on Patmos; St. Paul wrote the most optimistic of his letters, the Letter to the Philippians - often called the "Epistle of Joy" - while in prison in Rome. Times of trial and adversity can serve to acquire a true understanding of the Church's nature.
2. Be Realistic. The Church has received her mission from the Lord Himself. She cannot change her basic mandate. Especially in troublesome times, she must consistently proclaim the truth about her nature and her mystery, even when that message does not appeal to the masses. Scripture reminds us that when the Lord announced the Sacrament of the Eucharist, He lost the masses (cf. Jn 6:66). This fact, no doubt, hurt Him deeply, but He knew that His mission was not to be a King of bread for the masses, but "to give His life as a ransom for many" (Matt 20:28). The Church is totally dedicated to the service of this mystery, in the past, today and always.
3. Cultivate A Sense Of Prayer. No one can enter into the deeper meaning of the Church's mystery without a willingness to learn and be receptive. Understanding and loving the Church cannot take place if a person nurtures attitudes of self-sufficiency and pride. What is needed is humility. A true Gospel-inspired humility consists in a person recognizing the need of redemption. Without this humble spirit, achieved in prayer, people run the risk of seeing themselves as their own redeemer.
Prayer brings an awareness of dependency on God and a need for the Church, the Sacrament of Salvation. Prayer leads to a trust in the action of the Holy Spirit and in His power to constantly renew the Church. By not praying, a highly critical attitude of the Church and an absence of a much needed critical attitude in one's life can come about. Such a want leads to impatience with the Church and complacency in personal matters. Prayer is part of the faith life of Thomas Aquinas College, and it must remain part of your daily lives. Never can there be any excuse for not praying every day.
4. Believe In Unity. The highest example and source of the mystery of the Church's unity is the unity of the one God in the Trinity of Persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (cf. Unitatis Redintegratio, 2). The unity of the members of the Church derives from this communion. Through Baptism the Christian becomes a participant in this communion. Jesus prayed for the unity of His disciples in these words: "Father, keep those you have given me in your name, so that they may be one as we are one" (Jn 17:11). The unity of Christ's followers in the Church is a divine hallmark which makes it possible for all to believe in the redemptive mission of Christ. This unity must not be confused with a popularly defined "common ground, with the common denominator in the different positions defended in discussions, nor with the precarious juxtapositioning of differences. Unity consists in the common search and acceptance of God's Will. Believing and working for that kind of unity builds up the Church.
5. Live A Eucharistic Spirituality. The Second Vatican Council referred to the Liturgy as the source and summit of the Church's life (cf. Sacrosanctum concilium, 10). The Church is forever young because through the celebration of the saving mysteries of the Lord's passion, death and resurrection, she is constantly revitalized. At Mass, the Church's members experience the most sublime moment of union with the Lord attainable in this earthly life, and receive the pledge of eternal union at the heavenly banquet. Through these saving mysteries, the Church's members view their Christian vocation better and are given the strength to fulfill it in the Church and the world. It stands to reason, then, that the Liturgy is an indispensable part of the Christian life, requiring a proper formation. In this way, there will be eliminated an excessively horizontal or sociological view which consists in wrongly looking at the Mass as simply an act of the assembly gathered, or viewing the priest as simply a "presider" over the assembly, or seeing the altar as simply a table for a meal. Instead, by adding the vertical or divine dimension, the Liturgy, particularly the Mass, is rightly seen as Christ's act of worship to His Father, which goes beyond the group gathered. In this way, the words and gestures of the Mass are understood not to be the possession of the individual priest nor of the assembled worshipers, but a part of the patrimony of the Church, which needs to be faithfully respected and passed on intact to succeeding generations. At Mass, because the priest acts in the name of Christ, he stands before the assembly as mediator with God. And in virtue of Christ's act of loving surrender to the Father on the cross, commemorated in the sacred rites, the altar is a place of sacrifice.
This real presence of Christ at Mass through the consecration of the elements of bread and wine continues outside of Mass in the same Sacrament, where Christ in the Eucharist becomes the center and focal point of the community of believers. It is not difficult to understand, then, that a parish - or a college - becomes a true community when it is a Eucharist-centered community, a community which properly celebrates the Eucharistic Liturgy and is dedicated to Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. A Eucharistic spirituality is the unmistakable sign of true sons and daughters of the Church.
These five ways cannot be separated; they form a unity. The Church needs to be looked at realistically, as the Lord has established her. She has both divine and human elements which need to be properly viewed. Understanding the Church cannot be achieved without true prayer; not the prayer in which we tell God what He should change in the Church, but the prayer in which God manifests His design for the Church; not the liturgical prayer through which the community is manipulated, but a liturgy in which praise is given to God; not the prayer rooted in a superficial and partial reading of the Scripture that justifies each group's interpretation of the Church, but a prayerful reading of S
Just as Thomas Aquinas was misunderstood by his classmates, was misjudged for his ponderous silence which made others think he was dull, and was ridiculed because of the bodily imperfection of being overweight, the Church often-times is mistreated and misunderstood by those who do not take the time to go to the heart of her identity and meaning. In the final analysis all difficulties in the Church must be viewed from the perspective of faith. The Holy Spirit is the power, Christ is the Light in understanding and loving the Church, and in avoiding the trap of ideological biases which are destructive of everything the Church is called to be.
Like St. Albert the Great, people are to look beyond appearances. The Church is indeed relevant, for it is Christ who established her as the Sacrament of Salvation. The Church is and will remain credible because she offers her members the courage which comes not from intellectual pride but from the humble acceptance of the power of prayer in and through the Lord Jesus Christ.
At this the last commencement exercise of the Second Millennium at Thomas Aquinas College, we are all aware that the students of today are educated here to be the witnesses for Christ in the Third Millennium. Let there be no doubt about it: the Third Millennium needs the Church and needs faithful and committed Catholics who will make a difference in the life of the Church and in the world with all its many challenges.
To you, Graduates of the Class of 1999, I say: Be such Catholics who make a difference wherever the Lord will lead you; be men and women who refer to God rather than their own ego; who are focused on the Lord Jesus, rather than on the trends of the day; who trust in the guidance and strength of the Holy Spirit, rather than in technology and efficiency. The future belongs to God, yes, but also to you, provided you walk with His Son Jesus, speak His Word and live His Life.
“We’re aiming for the truth in all we learn here, and developing the skills to apply that truth. This formation will keep me strong for life.”
– Aileen McCarthy (’14)