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Mahony offers welcome signs of hope

Catholics straining for hints of energy and daring in the church today would do well to turn their eyes to the West Coast of the United States, and Los Angeles’ increasingly interesting Cardinal Roger Mahony.

In 1997, Mahony issued a pastoral letter on the Sunday Eucharist, “Gather Faithfully Together,” which stirred the ecclesial waters. At a time when Rome is furiously scrambling to reassert much of the uniformity in rites and language that Vatican II set aside, Mahony’s endorsement of the council’s liturgical vision cut against the grain.

His emphasis on the full, active and conscious participation of the laity, and on discovering the presence of Christ in the assembly as well as in the consecrated eucharistic species, triggered a predictable avalanche of criticism from the Catholic right, including a highly public call for disobedience to Mahony from EWTN’s Mother Angelica. Less visibly, however, Mahony’s letter offered enormous hope and encouragement to the legions of scholars, parish workers and pastors striving to carry forward liturgical renewal. He helped articulate what Capuchin Fr. Ed Foley elsewhere in this issue calls the “centrist voice” in the church.

Now Mahony has issued another pastoral letter, this one the result of three years of conversations with Los Angeles priests. In it the cardinal welcomes the growth of lay ministry since Vatican II, construing it not as a stopgap response to the priest shortage, but an authentic flowering of the call of all Catholics to ministry, rooted in baptism. This affirmation will reverberate widely among the 29,142 full- or part-time professional lay ministers in the United States today, men and women who have given their lives in service to the church.

Nowhere does the letter suffer from the angst that so often permeates Vatican documents on the subject; there is no fear that the relationship between lay and ordained ministers is a zero-sum game, as if any gain for the former is a blow to the latter. On the contrary, Mahony suggests it is precisely today’s ordained priests who most welcome the collaboration of laity in carrying out Christ’s mission.

Equally important, Mahony has convoked a synod to elicit the participation of all the archdiocese’s Catholics in shaping ministerial strategies. Doing so suggests a leader interested in developing consensus rather than imposing decisions by fiat -- a leader, in other words, who realizes the tired phrase “the church is not a democracy” does not mean it must therefore be an autocracy.

Mahony’s willingness to break ecclesiastical taboos was also clear in his recent Lenten apology, when alone among his brother bishops (including John Paul II) Mahony singled out a group arguably the most marginalized by the church today -- gays and lesbians. “We all need to see the face of Christ in one another, offering respect and understanding,” he said. “We must continue our many efforts at all levels to bring people together in a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation.”

Taken in tandem with other stirrings -- such as Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini’s call for greater collegiality at last fall’s European synod, and the recent embrace of democracy and pluralism from the Quebec bishops -- Mahony’s leadership is a sign that despite 20 years of steadily conservative episcopal appointments, there is no monolith of opinion in the bishops’ ranks of the Catholic church. That should make for some very interesting conversations as we near the end of a long papacy.

In the meantime, it will be fascinating to watch the synodal process unfold in Los Angeles, as that multiethnic, multilingual, ever-fractious church struggles to come together. As Brazilian poet-bishop Pedro Casaldáliga once said, expressing the hope that the synod summons: “I don’t want the church to be a democracy. I want it to be something better than a democracy. I want it to be a community.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000