Saturday, December 4, 2010

Point to Ponder #8: Thinking With the People of God

There is a Latin expression found in some theological and canonical literature that is the basis of this reflection: mens ecclesiae.  This expression, which literally means "mind of the church", gives us a lot to think about.

What IS a mens ecclesiae?  It refers to being attuned to the what the church -- the People of God, Mystical Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit -- is immersed in.  In some quarters, it is mistakenly reduced to something like "knowing what the church teaches and sticking with that."  But that does not capture the depth of its meaning.  Such a limited understanding reduces "the church" to the writings and teachings of the higher echelons of the church, not the total reality which is the Church.  It also reduces this phrase to a kind of cognitive body of teaching.  The mens ecclesiae goes much deeper than that.  Let me recount a real life story.

As I've mentioned before, I served for five years at the national headquarters of the Catholic bishops of the United States in Washington, DC.  In the assignment, I came to know quite of few of our bishops.  One day, as I was leaving the building, I encountered one of our bishops waiting for a taxi.  He had been in town for some meetings and was returning home to his diocese.  As we were chatting, I asked how he was doing, because he looked very tired and run down.  He shared with me how tough things were in his diocese: strategic planning which would be resulting in parish closures and mergers (never popular decisions), financial troubles which would probably end in his having to declare bankruptcy [eventually, that's what happened], and most disturbing of all, his Vicar General had called to tell him that several more cases of abuse had surfaced, cases that bishop had not known about.  All of this was combining to make the problems facing the bishop almost insurmountable.

I asked him if there was anything at all we could do to help him; we agreed that prayer for all was what was needed.  His cab arrived and we prepared to go our separate ways.  Just as he was about to step into the cab, the bishop stopped and asked if I was still traveling around the country speaking to groups of deacons and priests.  I answered that I was.  He then told me the following story, and asked me to share it with the deacons of the country.

It seems that just before he'd left for Washington, and after a particularly rough day trying to address the problems we'd been talking about, he received a call from the head of his deacons' council, requesting a meeting as early as possible.  The message said that he really need to talk the bishop about some concerns raised at the most recent meeting of the deacon council.

The bishop agreed, and he said that as he thought about it, he got more excited.  Among the deacons of the diocese were accountants, businessmen, lawyers, teachers, farmers, and so on.  Almost all were family men.  He got thinking that his deacons, all experienced men, had perhaps come up with some strategies or ideas about all of the problems facing the church.  Maybe his deacons had come up with some ideas that his other advisors had not -- after all, isn't that what deacons are supposed to do?

The next day, the deacon came in early and they got down to it.  The bishop said he could hardly contain his excitement.  The deacon told the bishop that the deacons had gathered and that after the meeting they wanted the head of the council to get to the bishop to convey their most serious concern.  What was it?  The #1 concern of the deacons of the diocese was the fact that deacons were not permitted to wear Roman collars in the diocese.

The bishop said he was crushed with disappointment.  Were the deacons unaware of all of the challenges facing the local church?  Were they really that disconnected?

So, in this reflection we want to ask, "How well do I understand how the church really works and how sensitive am I to the very real needs of the local people of God?"  Thinking "with the Church" means, for the deacon, being able to be what the fathers of the church called the "seeing and hearing, the heart and the soul" of the bishop.  To be all of that means being focused OUTWARD to the persons of the Church, not focused INWARD on my own needs (like whether or not I can wear a collar).

How good is my own mens ecclesiae?


  1. WOW! This one should be handed out at ordination (or maybe admission to candidacy).

  2. Hand it out at baptism and regularly thereafter...

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post for everyone, not just deacons.

  3. I guess my question is why the deacons wanted to be allowed to wear the Roman collar. If they see that as an important witness to others, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, perhaps the issue would have been worth considering. If they were being as narrow minded as I think we are led to believe, then I agree with the bishop's perspective.

  4. Ten Page:

    Your question is a very good one. Answers, however, range all over the spectrum.

    I'll leave it to other to repeat the sometimes tedious arguments but Deacon Bill is absolutely correct on this. It can and does become a fixation for some deacons.

    In my case, I do own a collar but only wore it once -- in Rome on the Wednesday I attended the Papal audience during my pilgrimage a few years back. The only reason I bought is that I was briefed in advance that deacons were expected to wear a collar while in Rome.

    That is the only time I have ever worn it.

    Deacon Norb in Ohio

  5. Having served on diocesan planning, education, and pastoral committees as well as a deacon council, I've some questions regarding the deacon council's request:
    Are they aware that the bishop is seeking real and independent advice based on experience and fresh data, and not just affirmation of decisions made from anecdote and desire?
    Have they had an opportunity to see data accepted by decision makers and a decision making process that welcomes input modeled?
    Is the request for the collar really a plea for help in getting the respect the office deserves?

  6. Dear Lacustrine,

    The fact is, there were many problems at that point in that diocese's history. Did the deacons' council understand its role adequately? I doubt it, given the response. Should there have been a climate that would have encouraged their creative response? Absolutely, and that seems to have been missing.

    Still, one would hope that deacons would take the initiative when these crises are being faced by the whole church around them.

    By the way, knowing a number of the deacons of that diocese, I can tell you that very few of them are particularly "needy" in the sense of needing affirmation of their vocation. It was just unfortunate all the way around.

    God bless,


  7. Dear Norb,

    You were misinformed, so you can put your collar away. Permanent deacons do not wear the collar in Rome. This point was stressed back in 2000 as well when deacons from around the world, along with many of their wives, gathered for the Jubilee Day for Deacons. The message went out: no collars in Rome.

    In fact, a funny aside. The pope had personally invited eight (women) deacons from the Church of Sweden (Lutheran) to the Jubilee Day. The ONLY permanent deacons in Rome wearing Roman collars during the audience were the eight ladies sitting in the front row right in front of the pope. A couple of the curial monsignori almost had strokes, but the pope was cool with it.

    God bless,