Thursday, 18 May 2017

Easter Week 5 Thursday

Readings: Acts15:7-21; Psalm 96; John 15:9-11

Jesus Christ wanted his apostles to become responsible leaders of the community of believers. He did not, however, leave them a blueprint for every possible situation and circumstance. As free, responsible, thinking and choosing men and women the first Christian leaders had to decide how to go about their work for Christ, how to organize the community, how to express the teaching of Jesus in different languages and thought-forms, and how to respond to opposition, persecution and distorted presentations of the gospel of Jesus.

The early Church believed that the Holy Spirit was with them and they believed that Peter had been given a special role in the leadership of the community. So from the earliest times they met frequently in 'councils' or gatherings of Christian leaders. Meeting together, discussing, reporting, sharing experiences, deciding together what ought to be done or said: this is how human beings have always carried on their business.

The Acts of the Apostles recounts many such meetings of Christian leaders: when they decided to appoint 'deacons'; when they wondered whether to trust Paul after his conversion; when the leaders at Antioch decided to send Paul and Barnabas on a missionary journey; when Paul met with the leaders of the Christian communities at Ephesus.

A controversy arose in the early Church about how much Jewish law the new converts from Judaism should be required to observe. As a result, a meeting was called in Jerusalem to sort out the problem. Peter, Barnabas, and Paul all spoke. So did James, the leader of the original community at Jerusalem. As a result of this 'council' of 'the apostles and the elders, with the whole church', the unity of the Christian community was preserved, its understanding of the gospel was broadened, its policy was clarified, and its mission was extended. The story of the so-called ‘council of Jerusalem’ is told in Acts 15.

Since that time, many Councils have been held by the church. Basically, these are councils of bishops, even though other church leaders and members are involved also. There have been local councils to deal with local problems. There have been general, universal or, as they are called, ecumenical councils to deal with questions affecting the whole church.

Many of these ecumenical councils have been concerned with aspects of Christian doctrine. The Council of Chalcedon (451) succeeded in expressing the doctrine of Christ as ‘truly God and truly man’ in a way that did justice to the church's faith. Other councils were more concerned with the day-to-day running of the church, while the Council of Trent (1545-1553) responded to the Protestant reformation by introducing an extensive reform.

More recently there have been developments in the type of councils occurring in the church. Vatican II (1962-1965) was basically a 'pastoral' council concerned with bringing up-to-date the church's ways of living and preaching the gospel. It involved a huge number of bishops as well as theologians, lay people and non-Catholic observers.

A Synod of Bishops takes place every few years. It is a representative group of the bishops and others and it concerns itself with pressing issues in the church's life: for example, justice in the world (1971), the family (1980), the laity (1987) or religious life (1994), more recently the Eucharist (2005), the Word of God (2008) and the new evangelization (2012).

National conferences of bishops, priests and laity have taken place in many countries and some of these have produced important documents and made important decisions. In the current reflection on the government of the Church sparked by Benedict's resignation and Francis' election many people believe that the best way forward is a strengthening of local government in the Church, giving more autonomy and responsibility to local colleges and synods of bishops. The experience of the Irish Church, for example, shows that synods of bishops were important in re-establishing Church life in the country after the centuries of persecution.

So councils continue in the church in various forms, and the central role of the Pope in them is clear. An ecumenical council, or a synod of bishops, only takes place when convoked by the Pope as the successor of Saint Peter. Local synods become authoritative for the Church when their decisions have been accepted and approved by the Pope. A time of ‘council’ is still regarded as a time for urgent prayer to the Holy Spirit who guides the church on its way. Even though the Spirit sometimes works through individual, prophetic, figures, the Church believes that the Spirit works also, and normally, through the dialogue, discussion, reflection and decisions of groups of Christian leaders gathered in council.

No comments: