December 2017 / January 2018 - Vol. 95

                  walking towards cross

Re-Formation Today

What the twenty-first-century Church needs most are witnesses: men and women on fire with missionary zeal
by George Weigel

Ecclesia semper reformanda: the Church always to be reformed. Well, of course. But today, as always, the question is, what makes for authentic reform in the Church? Perhaps a rabbinical story recounted in a popular 1950s Catholic novel, The Cardinal, helps focus the question.

The scene set by author Henry Morton ­Robinson takes place in a New York hotel, where an early attempt at ecumenical reconciliation and interfaith dialogue, a kind of parliament of religions, is meeting. After numerous vacuous statements are made by this, that, or the other Christian cleric, an elderly rabbi gets up and tells a story.

There was a king, it seems, who owned a precious diamond that he cherished more than anything else in the world. One day, alas, a clumsy servant dropped the diamond, which was deeply scratched as a result. The finest jewelers in the kingdom were summoned to the palace, but despite their best efforts they could not repair the king’s diamond. One day, however, an exceptionally skillful jeweler wandered into the kingdom and learned of the sad condition of the king’s diamond. He volun­teered his services – and by his marvelous, almost miraculous, craftsmanship, he carved onto the diamond a beautiful rose, rendering the deepest part of the scratch the rose’s stem.

In the novel, the rabbi does not explicate his parable. But its meaning for a proper understanding of ecclesia semper reformanda should be obvious enough. All true reform in the Church is by reference to what is deepest in the Church: the “form” or constitution, which I use in its British, not American, sense, given to the Church by Christ the Lord. That deep “form” is the root from which the disfigurement of the Church can be transformed into renewal and reform.

Authentic Christian reform, in other words, is not a matter of human cleverness, and still less of human willfulness. If the Church is willed by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, then authentic reform means recovering – making a source of renewal – some aspect or other of the Church’s “form” that has been lost, marred, misconceived, or even forgotten. Authentic reform means reaching back and bringing into the future something that has been lost in the Church’s present. Authentic ecclesial reform is always re-form....

As in every other moment in the Church’s history, living the motto ecclesia semper reformanda in the twenty-first century will mean returning to the sources, the roots, of Christian faith.
A constantly re-forming Church is always seeking the face of the Lord
This means, first of all, deepening the encounter with Jesus Christ. As Pope Benedict XVI never tired of repeating, Christianity does not begin with an idea or a program but with a person: the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who walks along the Emmaus Roads of this century and invites all into the fellowship of his friends. A constantly re-forming Church is a Church always seeking the face of the Lord. Friendship with Jesus Christ is not only the beginning of the Church, but also the beginning of all authentic reform in the Church.

And as the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught, not least in their efforts to return the Bible to its rightful place in the Catholic Church’s life, meeting the Lord means meeting him in his word, the revealed word of God in Holy Scripture. For from that meeting, we learn to see the world aright.

Original sin, we might say, is both the original myopia and the original astigmatism. Because of original sin, we see the world askew: the myopia of original sin gives us a squinty-eyed and narrow view of the world and ourselves, while the astigmatism of original sin further blurs and distorts our vision. In order to see the world (and ourselves) aright, we need corrective lenses. Those lenses are ground by an immersion in the Bible, through which we learn to see the world (and ourselves) in proper focus.

This is especially urgent in times of cultural confusion like our own. The culture of Me – the culture of the imperial autonomous Self, the culture of freedom understood as license and willfulness – envelopes the twenty-first-century West like a dense fog. Seeing through that fog requires a visual acuity that the world can not give. Seeing the world through biblical lenses – through the “inversions” of the Beatitudes, for example – cures our personal myopias and astigmatisms so that the deep truths of the human condition come into clearer focus.

Helping the people of the Church see the world aright through biblical lenses is the first task of the Church’s preachers, and thus renewing homiletics must always be part of any authentic ecclesial reform. Preaching-as-therapy, preaching-as-political-education, even preaching-as-moral-exhortation – none of these is adequate to the homiletic task in a reforming Church today. If we would look for models of how expository, biblically rich preaching ought to be done, we can look to another root of the faith once delivered to the saints: the sermons of the great Church Fathers. They, too, sought to help their people see the world of late antiquity, in which old certainties and venerable institutions were crumbling, aright. Their world was not all that different from ours, in which truth is subjectivized and institutions once thought to be built into the human condition (like marriage and the family) are being deconstructed. And so immersion in patristic preaching can be a way to retrieve another lost element of the Church’s form and make it into a source of renewal....
What the twenty-first-century Church needs most are witnesses: men and women on fire with missionary zeal
All of which is to say that the reformation we need at this quincentenary of Wittenberg is a re-formed Church of saints. The cultural dissolution of the West precludes arguing people into the faith. Very few people are going to be argued into belief in a world that accepts “your truth” and “my truth,” but not the truth. Yes, the Church needs theologians. Yes, the Church needs fully catechized men and women who can make persuasive arguments, but what the reformed Church of the twenty-first century needs most are witnesses: men and women on fire with missionary zeal, because they have been embraced by the love of Christ and are passionate to share that love with others; men and women who see the world through a biblical optic; men and women sanctified by the sacraments; men and women who know, with Saint Paul, that the trials of the present age are preparing within the ecclesia semper reformanda an “eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17). 

[This article is excerpted from Plough Quarterly, Autumn 2017, Number 14, pp 45-49, Walden, New York, USA. See full article online at]

George Weigel is a Catholic theologian and Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.where he has led a wide-ranging, ecumenical and inter-religious program of research and publication. His twenty-four books include Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church.

top illustration by (c) Kevin Carden
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