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What St. Junipero Serra shows about Eucharistic coherence

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 01, 2021

What does an 18th-century Franciscan missionary have to do with a 21st-century debate about abortion and communion? Bear with me, and I’ll explain.

First let me make a confession. I’ve been working full-time as a Catholic journalist for nearly 40 years now, and I still don’t know what bishops do all day.

Oh, I don’t mean that quite literally. I know what fills the hours: meetings, mostly. I’ve even seen some bishops’ daily schedules. Running a diocese, like running any large organization, requires a lot of time and effort.

But what are they doing in all those meetings? What is the organizing principle for their work? What are the bishops’ goals? What gets them up in the morning?

Yes, it takes a lot of work to keep the machinery running. But in the typical American diocese, that isn’t an adequate goal, because the machinery isn’t running very well. Mass attendance is dropping, Catholic marriages are breaking down, parishes and schools are closing, and young Catholics are leaving the Church. We should be spreading the faith, growing the dioceses—not managing their decline.

When a new chief executive is brought in to a corporation that has been losing sales revenue, he is expected to chart a new course. It isn’t enough simply to keep the machinery running, when the machinery is running in the wrong direction. So if the chief executive keeps the same schedule as his predecessor, with the same programs and the same priorities, shareholders will understandably begin to ask: What is he doing?

So, again, I am puzzled. What are our bishops doing all day long?

There could be no such confusion about the life and work of St. Junipero Serra. What was he doing? Spreading the faith—like wildfire! A simple friar, working his way up and down the Pacific coast, literally transformed the geography of California, so that today the most secularized citizens in that most secularized state refer to their hometowns by the names of saints—by the names of the missions that St. Junipero established.

St. Junipero Serra was a man on a mission, in more ways than one. He was obviously driven by a profound faith, and an unquenchable desire to share that faith, to give others the means of achieving salvation. Why did he work so hard? Out of love: love for God, and love for the people he met at all those missions. He was willing to spend all his life, all his energy, for the salvation of the souls that he encountered.

Now consider the contemporary American bishop, heading a diocese in which the most prominent Catholic politicians support the deliberate destruction of unborn human life. Those politicians are endangering their own immortal souls, and the bishop has the pastoral responsibility to save those souls.

Our bishops are not—or should not be—engaged in a political battle. They are engaged in a struggle to save souls. The political fallout from this debate is—or should be—a secondary consideration at best. The important question is how to save the imperiled souls of the politicians who are guilty of grave sin and scandal, and the many people they are misleading.

A generation ago, the late, great Bishop Austin Vaughn, a New York auxiliary, pleaded with Governor Mario Cuomo to end his support for legal abortion, warning the governor that he was jeopardizing his salvation. Sadly, Bishop Vaughn was alone in that public plea. At the time, Cuomo covered his position with a fig leaf, claiming that he was personally opposed to abortion but could not enforce his own morality. Today his son and successor, Governor Andrew Cuomo, makes no such effort to conceal his support for the slaughter. And President Biden flourishes his rosary beads while working to enshrine abortion-on-demand as a guaranteed legal right. If the American bishops once thought that they could bring Catholic politicians to see reason by subtle, quiet reasoning, that pastoral strategy is a manifest failure.

(This, by the way, is the reason why I cannot be overly excited by the prospect of a new statement from the US bishops’ conference. Our bishops have issued one statement after another over the past several decades, again and again telling us that support for legal abortion is incompatible with the Catholic faith. A strong fresh statement may be useful, but one more statement will not radically change things.)

Now imagine, if you will, a father whose teenage son comes home drunk on a Friday night. The father says nothing, allowing the boy to stagger off to bed, trailing beery fumes. He also says nothing the next morning. But he posts a notice on the refrigerator (the family’s equivalent of a diocesan newspaper) that reads: “This is a sober household. No one in this family uses alcohol to excess.” Has the father done his duty?

Now imagine that the scene is repeated the next week, and the week after that, and each time the father silently posts the same notice on the refrigerator. Eventually, don’t you think it would be accurate to call the father a liar? Because someone in that family does use alcohol to excess, and the father’s statements have not addressed the problem.

You might think it harsh to call the father a liar. But I would say something worse about him. That father doesn’t love his son.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Jul. 06, 2021 9:11 AM ET USA

    St. Junipero Serra had the most powerful motivation a man can have: he acted out of a sense of responsibility before God. Men without faith and love of God have no such incentive.

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Jul. 06, 2021 8:01 AM ET USA

    Frodo1945, my greener pastures will always be found within the church. I have the ability to physically move great distances and the will to do so, to find a faithfully administered parish. I may be mistaken in my assessment, but I feel a strongly held need to know that at least my pastor's theology is orthodox. Unfortunately, a truly great priest/pastor/homilist retired several years ago, and I'm looking again. But times being what they are, we know some disguise their beliefs.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Jul. 03, 2021 3:27 PM ET USA

    Miketimmer You have identified a problem. Most of those who are married in the church already cohabitate and contracept. Some are married "in the church" at the local hot venue totally apart from a nuptual Mass. Eucharistic coherence (whatever that is) is just the small corner that the Bishops have now backed themselves into after many years of benign neglect of the flock. I hope your greener pastures are not outside the church. We need you inside the church.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Jul. 02, 2021 4:08 PM ET USA

    Certified mail is not expensive, even with a required return receipt. Upon complaint, bishop sends certified letter to person who has by promoting manifest public mortal sin excommunicated him/herself latae sententiae. Asks for public repudiation of position and confession to Ordinary for lifting of excomm. If no answer or public refusal, second letter with deadline and finally public direction to all clerics to deny communion until such is done.

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Jul. 01, 2021 11:29 PM ET USA

    Perhaps you could speak to the idea of "sacramental" coherence rather than Eucharistic coherence. Would any bishop offer marriage as easily to any and all comers as some feel free to offer Communion to the same assortment of unworthies? I fully expect to be disgusted by the outcome of this charade. Based on the benign neglect I've witnessed in my archdiocese and parish, I'll be moving on to greener pastures.