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Waiting in Joyful Hope

The local church and the Incarnation

My new ministry at the Archdiocese is slowly giving me a new appreciation for the concept of "local Church". You see, my main task is to process requests from priests who want to transfer from their diocese to ours, whether temporarily or permanently. I'm seeing more and more that this is not merely an administrative task, but a deeply theological one, rooted in the Incarnation of Christ.

Before the Word became flesh, it would not have been possible to say "Here he is" or "There he is". But once the Son assumed our human nature within Mary's womb, it *did* become possible to point towards Him and say "there goes the Lamb of God". This is a very important point, one that was denied centuries ago by Patriarch Nestorious of Constantinople (of not-so-blessed memory). He taught that Mary only gave birth to Jesus' human nature, and so should only be called "Mother of Christ". In 431 A.D. the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus, however, taught differently: the two natures of Christ were truly united, such that Mary could truly be called "Mother of God". Even today, people have trouble with this concept: how could Mary be called "Mother of God" if God is everywhere? And yet this question simply helps define the mystery itself: an omnipresent reality which, nevertheless, must be said to truly be in one particular place in a special way such that it is not in elsewhere in that way at the same time.

As with Christ's physical body, so it is with his mystical body, the Church. The term "Church" refers to a broad reality, almost an abstraction, but one that is at the same time found in here and there throughout the world. It is possible to use the term "Church" and to use it intelligibly. And yet, it is impossible to point to any one thing and say "that is the Roman Catholic Church" as though were exhausting the content of the mystery: rather, we can only point to particular expressions of the Church, stating that the Church really is present there, without being able to then necessarily exclude the presence of the Church elsewhere. This is the foundational insight for the concept of "local church''. The Catholic Church does not believe in the presence of an "invisible community of believers" that is merely an abstraction apart from its concrete expression. The reality of the Church, while ultimately founded in the plan and mind of God, nevertheless has concrete forms of expression through the local realities: the Church of Rome, the Church of Seoul, the Church of Lima, the Church of Montreal, and so on. As an intelligible reality, the universal Church emerges from the communion of these local churches, but in turn those local churches can only be called local churches to the extent they are particular expressions of this universal reality called "the Church".

When it comes to the role of the clergy in the Roman Catholic tradition, this idea of the local church takes on particular importance. There is no such thing in the Roman Catholic tradition as a "freelance priest". Every cleric *must* be associated in a stable way with a particular concrete instance of the Church, and is from the moment of his ordination. No one is ordained for the service of the "universal Church" without reference to a local church. Of course, there are clerics who choose to simply ignore this reality, but they are labelled vagus, "wanderer", and they are not to be entrusted with any form of ministry.

This association with a local church is seen most strongly in the ministry of bishops. Every bishop is ordained for the service of some local church, whether a present functioning diocese or a "titular" see that nevertheless has an actual location on the map. Even the Pope is not the bishop of the "universal Church", but the bishop of that particular place on the map called Rome (albeit with a ministry that has a universal scope). In the thought of the early Church, a bishop who was stripped of a diocese wasn't really a bishop anymore. His ordination was not annulled, of course, but the key question people asked themselves was not "were his orders valid", but rather "is he legitimately the bishop of this or that place". This is why, at least in part, the episcopal ordinations performed by Archbishops Lefebvre and Milingo worry me a lot less. The men ordained weren't actually ordained *for* anything except their own self-invented realities. These form of "absolute ordinations" were actually declared by the early Church to be *invalid* (cf. Canon VI of the Council of Chalcedon), which may help explain why Rome seems a lot less worried about Milingo's recent spectacle.

The ministry of priests and deacons, like that of bishops, is also inextricably linked to the reality of "local church". The modern term for this is "incardination". Each priest or deacon in the world *must* be incardinated, whether in a diocese or in a religious order of some kind. Obviously the first kind of incardination creates a direct link to a local church, but the second does as well: every religious order is either of "diocesan right" (i.e. a particular local bishop has a right of supervision) or of "pontifical right" (i.e. it is the Bishop of Rome who has reserved to himself this right of supervision). Either way, all priests or deacons are in some way connected to episcopal authority, which in turn is necessarily linked to the reality of a local church. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, there have always been some clergy who tried to ignore this principle, forgetting that they were not ordained for some vague service to "the Church" but rather for the service of *this or that* particular church. As early as the Ecumenical Council of Nicea (325 A.D. !) a canon had to be passed to bring things back to order after the persecutions suffered by the early Church had ended:

On account of the great disturbance and discords that occur, it is decreed that the custom prevailing in certain places contrary to the Canon, must wholly be done away; so that neither bishop, presbyter, nor deacon shall pass from city to city. And if any one, after this decree of the holy and great Synod, shall attempt any such thing, or continue in any such course, his proceedings shall be utterly void, and he shall be restored to the Church for which he was ordained bishop or presbyter. (canon XV)

This discipline is still in force: a bishop can only transfer from one diocese to another under the authority of the Pope who, as successor of Peter, has the power of the keys to "bind and loose". As for priests and deacons, they cannot undertake on their own initiative to transfer from one jurisdiction to another, and bishops should not receive such priests without the originating superior's knowledge and consent.

Of course, the Catholic Church continues to be loaded with sinners, and sometimes it is the person in authority who is at fault, perhaps even gravely. What is a priest to do if he is truly being persecuted by his bishop? To prevent "running away" from being the only alternative, the Catholic Church has a well-established internal tribunal system to which a cleric can appeal. A priest cannot be suspended from ministry without due process, and he has the opportunity to appeal all the way to Rome if he feels he has not been treated fairly. Appeals to Rome, I might add, are governed by the principle that, unless the evidence is unambiguous, the weaker is to be supported against the stronger. In other words, priests very often win such appeals.

My bishop has entrusted me with sharing in his guardianship of this ancient principle of "local church". I'm not sure Cardinal Turcotte would express it in as quite an overtly theological way as I have here, but I do remember him saying to me that he did not look favourably on priests wanting to come to Montreal simply on their own initiative. "They are ordained for service to a local church," he said, "and if they don't understand that principle I'm not sure I want them." Of course, we need to take a look at things on a case-by-case basis, and with a heart full of pastoral charity, which is why I do what I do. Still, it is good to have this clarity.

As a final point, I recently read a document that is very important for my ministry: the Instruction on the Sending Abroad and Sojourn of Diocesan Priests from Mission Territories. Rome has noticed that there is an increasing "backwards flow" of priests from mission lands to more developed countries (a trend that I can confirm, believe me), and not always for the best of reasons. This document is meant to help regulate this trend, and I think it will be invaluable to help me in my work. I deeply want to help brother priests who are refugees, or who are coming for higher studies, to be able to serve the Lord in their ministry. I also believe, however, that sometimes saying "no" can also be a service to a brother priest, because when he denies his affiliation with a local church he is, in fact, short-circuiting some element of his own sanctification. True love, after all, is to desire the good of the other, and isn't holiness the greatest good to which we can attain? So please pray for me, as this 4-year-old priest tries to journey with his brothers towards the Kingdom.

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