Announcing the Gospel to the World: A Conversation on the Papacy and the Road to Renewal and Reform


The Catholic Church is currently experiencing a new reformation and she needs to listen to the call and respond. That is one of the main thoughts coming out of a web based seminar sponsored by the National Review Institute and Ignatius Press entitled “Announcing the Gospel to the World: A Conversation on the Papacy and the Road to Renewal and Reform in the Church”.


They gathered in celebration of the release of George Weigel’s latest book The Next Pope The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (Ignatius 2020)


Moderated by Kathryn Jean Lopez, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review, the seminar focused on the future of the Church, the mission that Christ is giving her now and the agenda for the next pope.


Panelists were the book’s author George Weigel, biographer of Pope St. John Paul II, among other well known Catholic writings. Mary Ellen Bork and Francis X Maier of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Fr. Robert Imelli of the Archdiocese of New York and retired professor of theology for thirty years at Boston College.


The theme seemed to follow a return to the evangelization and preaching ways of the Christians in the first century.


Some excerpts from the seminar:

“Christendom is done,” George Weigel explained. “And it isn’t coming back anytime soon, and it probably shouldn’t — the politics of Christendom certainly. What this offers us is the great adventure that led the original Christian community out of Judea into the entire Mediterranean world in the great adventure of evangelization.”


I really am convinced that we’re living through a kind of second Reformation.


Francis Maier: “I really am convinced that we’re living through a kind of second reformation. It’s a very different kind of reformation because the issues are different, the times of the people are different. But if you look at human identity, reproduction, social organization, economy and technology, these are things where fundamental changes are happening and the church is out of the game. I mean, we’re structured and purposed in a way institutionally not to address that. I think what really appealed to me about George’s book was this kind of call to break out of that institutional lassitude and begin getting back to the basics, which is Jesus Christ and the task of evangelization. That will automatically adjust us to the pastoral terrain that we’re facing.”


George Weigel: “I hope what everyone gets from this book, but particularly the bishops as well as other pastoral leaders in the church, is an idea that I’ve been stressing for at least ten years now if not fifteen years: The necessity of proclaiming the gospel because the cultural situation in which we live is not going to help us.


“I think in the West, and the Church of the West, the Western World here in the United States, particularly, I would say the church in the Northeast and the Midwest is still living off a kind of patrimony psychologically which assumes that the faith gets passed along almost by osmosis or by ethnic heritage. . . Anyone who is a parent or a grandparent knows that that is no longer the case. Catholicism by ethnic transmission is over. It’s not as over as dramatically here as it is in Germany, Switzerland and Holland, Belgium today, but it’s basically over all over in the Western world. So, we’ve got to get out of this mindset of simply maintaining institutions and that the maintained institutions will sustain the vitality of the church.”


There’s only one divinely inspired book of Church history. It’s called The Acts of the Apostles. How does it end? It ends with a shipwreck and the shipwreck becomes the occasion to extend the mission to new places.


Fr. Imbelli: “We really need a theological renewal with Christ at the center. George knows that I recently wrote an article in which I lamented what I call the decapitated body of some aspects of contemporary Catholicism. And so, we really need to recover the headship of Christ in a way as I said before is not merely nominal but in which Christ is the head. That figures in every aspect whether it be a theological, pastoral, preaching, architecture.”


George Weigel: “There’s only one divinely inspired book of church history. It’s called The Acts of the Apostles. How does it end? It ends with a shipwreck and the shipwreck becomes the occasion to extend the mission to new places to new to new venues that’s a metaphor for the church throughout time. It seems to me a divinely inspired metaphor.”


The panelists called for good formation and even a focus on teaching about prayer and contemplation to deepen Catholics’ faith. These will be essential as the Church goes forward.


I’ve never heard a homily except once on a retreat about contemplation. We cannot conform ourselves to Christ and allow God’s grace to work in us unless we learn how to pray.


Mary Ellen Bork: “So again George makes these points in his book about the importance of preaching. Priests have to learn to preach. I’ve never heard a homily except once on a retreat about contemplation and we cannot conform ourselves to Christ and allow God’s grace to work in us unless we learn how to pray. And we learn the importance of contemplation as a profound part of our Catholic life. So I think there’s a lot to be done to enable lay Catholics to take up this new role.”


Fr Imbelli: “I think it really is an opportunity to engage in a Eucharistic catechesis to try to deepen people’s appreciation of the mystery of the faith. If I can say one thing: a good friend of mine who is a very committed Catholic . . . was just musing the other day that he’s heard a lot of homilies some he thought were good, some not so good, but they almost always had to do with morality. He found that entering into the mystery a word that I love, a mystagogic homily. I think we have to be more intentionally mystagogic in everything we do and it’s not just the homily. It’s the way we celebrate the word. It’s the architecture. It’s the music but to help people have a sense of what we saw more lively proclaim the mystery of the faith.”


According to the panelists the current structures of leadership may need to change as well. Not the structures of the hierarchy as much as the way the institution functions in today’s world.


I don’t think that there’s enough radical thinking in the best sense in institutional leadership in the Church.


Francis Maier: I don’t think that there’s enough radical thinking in the best sense in institutional leadership in the Church. It’s not that we have bad bishops. We have plenty of good bishops. We have lots of really good priests and young priests, but, the ability to say, you know, ‘that’s not a good idea. Let’s stop doing that.’ I mean you get into positions of authority in the church and then there’s a tremendous bureaucratic inertia toward keeping things alive.”


George Weigel called for pressure against Catholic colleges and universities where he explained people are deconstructing the faith. “Enough of this is enough.”


“There has to be a challenge to putative Catholicism. I’m all for arguments and having great debates and whatnot. But when the general temperament of the theology department on a putatively Catholic campus is essentially rebellion against the teaching of the church, then I don’t know what other pressure points are available except alumni, and they need to step up.” explained Weigel.


Weigel indicates that those communities who understand and live the full spirit of Vatican II, properly understood, are the most vibrant.


“Those parts that embraced Catholic truth in full embraced the second Vatican Council as interpreted authoritatively by John Paul the second and BenedictXVI are getting on with the work of evangelization. The dying or moribund parts of the world Church are those that are still trying to make the failed project of Catholic Lite work and Catholic lite does not work.


The dying or moribund parts of the World Church are those that are still trying to make the failed project of Catholic Lite work and Catholic Lite does not work.


“Catholic lite is boring and I’ve really gone the whole way with this Coca-Cola® imagery in this new book by saying Catholic Lite inevitably leads to Catholic Zero and Germany is exhibit A.”


Mary Ellen Bork: “Well one thing that has impressed me a great deal is the work of the Thomistic Institute that the Dominicans are doing and I’ve participated in it and supported it. Father Thomas Joseph White and several of the other Dominicans are finding that when they go to a secular college campus, the students have never heard anything about St. Thomas or they’ve never heard truth or anything to do with religion described the way they do it and they are intrigued. I remember one time Father Thomas Joseph said with his great humor,he said, ‘you know, we arrived on in our mediaeval outfits and the administration thinks you know, so what and we go in and we get with the students. We’re really coming in under the under the tent and the administration says, you know, we don’t care and the students are set on fire with what they’re hearing and they want to hear more.’


“So, there is a whole development of community. The students are forming their our own communities and wanting more so it just also shows the intellectual presentation of Catholic thought and doctrine is very appealing to young people because there’s a great vacuum. So, I think that is an avenue that we should pursue vigorously.”


According to George Weigel, a whole new Catholic Church is growing in Africa and those Catholics will have a major impact on the Church in the twenty-first century.


One such man that many in the Western Church look to is Cardinal Robert Sarah currently head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and author of several books about the Church today and in the future. A native of Guinea, his words have been embraced by many young Catholics today.


An issue for some Catholics is life in the shadow of the Vatican II Council. Some even consider it a mistake or something hijacked by anti-Catholic groups. The panelists do not concur.


George Weigel: “There is something of a myth in certain Catholic circles today that there was a period of great calm and stability prior to the second Vatican Council and that’s the myth.


“First of all, that’s not true about the period immediately prior to the Second Vatican Council. I think I showed in the book the irony of modern Catholic history was an awful lot of turbulence in the Church much of it creative turbulence. Secondly. It’s just not true historically. The Church is always on a rough sea, the boat is always got a few holes below the waterline.


“This is the normal condition. But let’s remember that of all the vast libraries of books of church history, there’s only one divinely inspired book of church history. It’s called The Acts of the Apostles. How does it end? It ends with a shipwreck and the shipwreck begin becomes the occasion to extend the mission to new places to new venues.”


Francis Maier: “The idea that the Second Vatican Council was a mistake is just simply nonsense. It was long overdue and it did a lot of tremendously positive work. . . . Yeah, I think arguing about the validity of the Second Vatican council is a real distraction and doesn’t make any sense.


“It obviously was a work of the Holy Spirit including its warts, you know; that’s just the way human beings operate. But one of the most interesting observations I found in George’s book was the was the fact, which I kind of knew, but hadn’t thought through, the next pope is going to have no experience of the council as an adult. I mean the problematic generation here is mine. I’m turning 72 in a month and I’ve been in a civil war for my entire career. The next Pope won’t have that experience. It’ll be a historical moment something in the memory and in some ways, please God, will make the new bishop of Rome freer from some of this ecclesial warfare baggage that may allow him to be bold and courageous in the way that we need. I’m hoping that anyway.


Fr. Imbelli: “I think the one word that has not yet arisen in our conversation is the word Eucharist. So for all of the challenges, I think the great gift that we have is the Eucharist.


“I think it is the Eucharist which has attracted so many people who have converted to Catholicism. Benedict the Sixteenth in Sacramentum Caritas said that every great reform in the church has entailed a rediscovery of the centrality of the Eucharist. And so even though I spoke before about the hostility of the culture, I think that so much of the culture is really beset by meaninglessness and hopelessness. The word that I use to sum it up is this sense of absence. I think the great gift that the church offers is the reality of presence and especially the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. So for me that is really the point of reference, if you will, the pole star, so as I say amidst the challenges what makes the challenges not only supportable but creative.”


George Weigel reflected on his mission with Announcing the Gospel to the World: A Conversation on the Papacy and the Road to Renewal and Reform in the Church to close the seminar: “Well, thank you first of all, thank you to everyone for these gracious words about the book for these very important reflections on the book. As I said at the beginning while the book is called the next Pope the office of Peter and the church in and the church in mission is all of us. So this is an opportunity to reflect on the roles that we all play in the body of Christ. The Great Commission. We were all given on the day of our baptism and if the book helps the church think about that evangelicals future and embrace it than I will be well satisfied and grateful for the help.”


The book: Announcing the Gospel to the World: A Conversation on the Papacy and the Road to Renewal and Reform in the Church is available via Ignatius Press.

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