SPES spoke in-depth with Bishop Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois about proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ. SPES’ questions are in bold with Bishop Paprocki’s responses following.
Your Excellence, your July letter in the State Journal Register really struck me due to its focus on truth. In our current age of relativism, how can truth be used to evangelize others and bring them into the Catholic Faith?
Perhaps the most charitable thing that we can do is teach people the truth. It is not a loving thing, no parent would teach his or her child falsehood; you try to teach your children what is true. If there are opinions or theories floating around that are untrue in our society, part of what we are called to preach is to preach the truth. That is actually not only a very loving thing to do, but it is also the best way I think to proclaim the Gospel because that is what the Gospel is all about — proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ.
Obviously you have a very wide experience as a shepherd to so many, what are some truths that you find most important today to help bring lost sheep home?
I think if we are talking about faith, an obvious place to start is with the Creed. And to go through the elements of the Creeds that we profess — the Nicene Creed that we profess at Mass on Sundays, Holy Days, and solemnities, and then the Apostles Creed as well. So basically, the belief in the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Spirit. The belief in the Church, communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting as we say in the Apostles Creed.
There is a lot that can be said on each one, and there is also a lot of misunderstanding on some of those basic points as well. I preach often in my Confirmation homilies — that is the time that they have renewed their baptismal promises which are essentially taken from the Apostles Creed and they are receiving the Holy Spirit. I use those homilies as an occasion to talk about the elements of the Creeds. The bulk of both Creeds, the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed are about the Trinity. So Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; what does that mean?
That is uniquely Christian. The Muslim faith does not believe in the Trinity. Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism — none of them believe in the Trinity. To try to understand what does it mean when we say we believe in God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. And some of those elements that come at the end of the Creed. We believe in the holy Catholic Church, well what do we mean by that?
The Church is the Body of Christ; it is the living Body of Christ in the world today. And to be a member of the Church, I think a misunderstanding that many people have is that they see the Church as simply an institution, like you belong to a corporation, you work for a corporation, you work for a government or something like that. Well the Church is, there are institutional aspects to the Church, but it is much more than that. It is the People of God, the mystical body, it is the Body of Christ.
The element of the Communion of Saints, I think even many Catholics misunderstand what that is about thinking that the communion of saints refers only to those who have died or saints being only those who have been canonized. A saint is anyone who is in God’s kingdom; those who are canonized are only those who have been officially declared by the Pope to have achieved that status, but anyone who is in heaven is a saint. In fact, in the Scriptures, a saint with a small “s” is often used to refer to all the holy ones, so that means the members of the Church as well. With the communion of saints, we have aspects of that holiness, aspects of that sainthood even here on earth as we participate in the life of the Church, the mystical body. That we are in communion — we are in communion with those who have died as well as with other brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Resurrection of the body, that is another one. I talk about this at funerals, and I think again, a lot of Catholics have a misunderstanding what we mean by that, by the Resurrection of the body. They think that it is referring to Christ’s body; well it is not. Earlier in the Creed, we do say Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, died, and was buried. Rose from the dead; that refers to Jesus. At the end of the Creed, we say “the Resurrection of the Body” we are talking about all of us. That the Lord will come again and when He comes again, our bodies will be raised up in a glorified form. The expressions I see on people’s faces sometimes is “what are you talking about?” I think some people have the sense that when we die we are going to live forever like angels, like spirits. In fact, I’ve heard this said sometimes at wakes especially for a young person. They’ll say, “She’s an angel now.” Well, no! We don’t become angels when we die. Our bodies are separated from our souls, but we believe that when Christ comes again, we will be raised up and in that glorified body. We don’t live forever as an angel or even a spirit.
I was talking about that once at a Confirmation, and one of the candidates for Confirmation had a disability where he was in a wheelchair and basically immobile. When I talked about our glorified bodies, that we’ll have no more pain or suffering, and we’ll be freed from all our incapacities and disabilities, he let out a cheer! That was the best news that he had heard, that some day he will have a glorified body and he won’t be stuck in that wheelchair forever.
As a lay Catholic, there is definitely a concern that if we speak the truth to someone even in a loving fashion, they are going to hate us. You are really our father in faith doing that, can you describe how people actually respond when you do that?
You get a variety of responses. You get some people who share our beliefs and will be very supportive. I have run into that, people that I meet even in my diocese. Many of them, they read my column that I write in the diocesan paper; they have heard me talk about things and they’ll be very supportive. Then, on the other hand, there are others — more in the secular world — who reject Christianity; they reject almost anything religious and will be very, very critical. I think we have to be prepared for that.
We’d like to live in a world where people are affirming. We don’t like confrontation, nobody likes that, but the Lord also said, ‘You have to take up your cross and follow me.’ Being a member of the Church is not necessarily being in state of a little cocoon. Jesus sent us out to all the whole world to preach the Gospel. Well, when the apostles went out to the world, they all died as martyrs except for John. They had to pay a price for that.
There are many martyrs over the centuries — this last century we’ve seen more martyrs than ever before so it is not just something in the early church. Now, nobody wants to be a martyr, not even my patron saints, Thomas More and John Fisher. They were beheaded by Henry VIII because they stood and witnessed to the faith, in particular the truth about marriage and Henry VIII’s marriage specifically. They were beheaded for that.
Thomas More, in particular, we know more about him (there are perhaps more documents than St. John Fisher). Thomas More went out of his way to not antagonize the king. He wasn’t seeking it and he didn’t go out of his way to get beheaded; he wanted to save his head. He was very wise in that sense as he invoked a maxim of the law, for example, when people asked him his opinion about the Supremacy Act. He remained silent and the maxim of the law that he was invoking was “silence is consent”. He didn’t say anything to affirm the King’s act of making himself head of the Church, but he simply stayed silent and, legally, he was saying, “You can’t convict me for that.” The story, at least that we have handed down to us, is the only way that they convicted Thomas More was by perjury.
My point is we have to be prepared for suffering; we have to be prepared for martyrdom and martyrdom not necessarily in the sense of physically giving up your life, but martyrdom in the sense of personal opinion, and people being critical and saying derogatory things about you. That is a form of martyrdom as well.
You talked about the reality that there is confusion in the Church. As lay people, when we see bishops teaching their flocks different things, how should we respond while remaining obedient and loving towards the bishop whose teaching is departing from the Catholic faith?
I think that we always give our respect and deference to those in authority. We see that even in Scripture in the First Letter of Peter. Peter talked about being respectful of the authorities, of the civil authorities, and he is talking about people in the Roman empire who are hardly very amenable to the teachings of Christianity. So, they are basically saying you have to work with the authority and respect authority.
Within the Church, we have to recognize that even in the Church we have people who are fallible human beings. So not every pronouncement that everybody makes in the Church is infallible. There are very defined moments when the Pope in union with the bishops makes an infallible teaching. Part of what I have tried to distinguish is that even on papal statements we have to make some distinctions. Not everything has the same weight.
If you go to the Vatican website, for example, there is a section for the current pope, Pope Francis, for his predecessors, Pope Benedict and Pope St. John Paul II, and for each one of the popes. They’ll have their documents and they are in different categories. They just don’t have all the documents of each pope chronologically. You have to look to a document according to its categories.
You have Apostolic Constitution, for example, which have the highest level. You have a papal encyclicals, papal messages, Apostolic Exhortations, homilies, and letters. You have to look at each one and say, “First of all, what is the nature of the statement and then what is the Pope communicating here?” If he wants to issue something that is binding canonically or doctrinally, he will issue an Apostolic Constitution. The Code of Canon law as promulgated by St. John Paul II in an Apostolic Constitution in 1983; same thing with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that was a Constitution just like in the United States.
A Constitution is the highest law; we have other laws, statutes, city ordinances, and things like that, but they all have to be consistent with the Constitution. Then even I, as bishop, I can promulgate what we call particular laws, local laws, for dioceses, but I cannot do anything contrary to Canon Law because that was established by an Apostolic Constitution.
A papal statement that is made, for example, like an exhortation by its very nature is that it exhorts people and urges people to follow what is already there. An exhortation is not designed to change anything; it is designed to promote and to foster a greater observance of our faith and beliefs that we already have there.
I think we have to make those distinctions. I think the public doesn’t always make those distinctions, and the media doesn’t always make those distinctions in terms of giving equal weight to something that the Pope says in an impromptu press conference on an airplane to what he might issue as an Apostolic Constitution — those are two different things.
As a Bishop, you are a modern day Apostle and you are tasked to teach to faith to your flock. Given your unique position, how best can the laity, acting in unity with you, truly live out that Apostolic mandate to go forth and make disciples of all nations?
The foremost way that they can do that is to live lives of holiness. St. John Paul II in his apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (that is the Latin title for the Entry of the New Millennium) which he wrote before the year 2000 as we were entering into the new millennium, he said, “All pastoral initiatives should be set in relation to holiness.” I quote this when I have an installation of a new pastor. It is very basic, but it is so true.
We come off of all kinds of ideas and activities that we should be doing in our Catholic parishes, but it should all come back to how is this promoting holiness? Is this promoting holiness? And so, for the parishioners, that person in the pew, the first way to start with that is the life of holiness. What do you do in your everyday life?
Having a regular plan of life, that is saying your morning offering when you wake up; offering your day to the Lord; asking for His Guidance; receiving the Sacraments; going to Communion; those who go to daily Communion I really commend them, daily Mass and daily Communion; say the Rosary. Priests and deacons make a promise, many religious also make a promise, that they will say what we call the Liturgy of the Hours and pray the Breviary during different points of the day. Well many lay people I know do that as well, even without making that promise. It punctuates the day, it marks the day by staying in communication with the Lord. Praying before meals; conducting an examination of Conscience and an Act of Contrition before going to bed at night; so the whole day is colored with the sense of being in contact with God.
And then, to take it beyond what we do in our daily lives with just those particular prayer moments, how do we interact with the people that we see at school, at work, our family members at home? Are we doing all that is consistent with loving God and loving our neighbor? That is really the first layer.
Being involved in the parish is another way that we do that, but I think sometimes people again make the mistake of thinking that to be a good Catholic means it is all about what you do at your parish. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not down selling what the parish is about; what I am saying is the primary focus of people’s holiness is what they do in their everyday lives. And if they are involved not with the parish, for example, somebody who may be a doctor or some profession that is very busy and doesn’t have much time to get involved with parish life, that person can be a very holy person. They are still cooperating with the Lord’s mission and the plan of the bishop and the pastor of the parish, but without being on a lot of parish councils and activities and things like that.
I think that sometimes that we as pastors tend to say “The people who are the best parishioners are the ones who are very active in the parish.” And, we certainly appreciate their help. It is great that we have people that are on the pastoral council, the financial council, the school board, lectors at Mass, and helping as greeters and ushers; we need people like that and they are wonderful. But I think we can also fall into the trap in thinking that if you aren’t doing those things you’re not holy.
The same thing with the diocese. I need a lot of people that work — not only work on the payroll, but work as volunteers and cooperate with the agenda and plan of what we are going here in the diocese. But I recognize that to be involved in promoting the Gospel and working in cooperation with the Bishop doesn’t necessarily mean that somebody is here at the diocesan office every day. For example, I’ve written a couple of pastoral letters so someone I might not even know or may never even meet in person who reads my pastoral letters could say, “Gee, I agree with what Bishop is saying here. I am going to, in my own way, try to promote those pastoral letters.” And then that person is very much working in cooperation and collaboration with me.
Thank you so much for your time today Bishop. Are there any last comments or anything that you would like to add to the subject of evangelization?
I mentioned my pastoral letters. That first pastoral letter — I used the Latin titles for them — the first one was Ars celebrandi et adorandi – The Art of Celebrating and Adoring. It is about celebrating the Liturgy and adoring the Lord in the Eucharist. It is really the focus on our sacramental life, our spiritual life.
The second pastoral letter which I issued a year ago in September, is Ars crescendi in Dei gratia, the Art of Growing in God’s Grace. They actually, in my mind, go together because the second one is about growth and inviting people to come into the Church, and if we are going to do that, we have to start with what I talked about in the first pastoral letter to make sure that our experiences of Liturgy and worship, and the Sacraments are good experiences.
If we invite people into the Church they should be edified, inspired, and uplifted by what we do as opposed to if we are not doing our liturgies well, if the Sunday experience is not good. Of course recognizing the Eucharist is always good, don’t get me wrong, to receive the Eucharist. But if it is done in a careless way, and the music is not good, so in other words, if it is not inspiring to people, you run the risk then of somebody coming and saying “Well, I didn’t like that at all; I’m not going back there.”
So how do we entice people to come back? That leads to the second pastoral letter; that is really my work for evangelization. The word “evangelization” a lot of people get hung up or trip over that word whereas I just talk about growth and growth, I think, ties into evangelization as the Lord said, “Go out and tell the Good News.” Well that is what it means to evangelize. Well to tell the Good News, He also said to make disciples of all nations so I see that as growth in a qualitative as well as a quantitative dimension.
So quality, as we know, is He wants us to be disciples, He wants us to be committed, but at the same time we are talking about numbers. He started with His small group of apostles, but He didn’t confine that and leave them as just a small little club that had their own private gatherings in Jerusalem. He sent them out to the whole world to make disciples of all the nations. He implied in that very clearly, the numbers. On the other hand, we don’t want a lot of people who are not committed to the faith; so it is both quality and the quantity, and I think that is what growth is all about.
How do we do that? I conclude with four points basically: That we have to invite people, and the verb I use is invite and the noun is hospitality. The second one is to study and learn our faith; the verbs are study and learn and the noun is formation; how do we form people in the faith? The third one is about prayer which is to provide the Sacraments and prayer opportunities for people. The fourth one is service, to serve those who are in need and to serve them with charity and justice. I think if we do those four things, that is basically what I am guiding people to do to bring about growth through God’s Grace.
Thank you Bishop Paprocki and may God continue to bless you and your diocese!