MOST REV. DAVID J. BONNAR
Bishop of Youngstown
This is Bishop Bonnar’s December 13, 2022 talk for “The Meeting of Two Bishops: East and West” at St. Nicholas Greek Catholic Church in Youngstown, Ohio for the Society of St. John Chrysostom, Youngstown-Warren Chapter. Find out more about this local ecumenical association for Orthodox-Catholic dialogue at ssjcyoungstown-warren.org.
Good evening! It is an honor for me as the bishop of Youngstown to be part of this meeting between the East and the West and to reflect on some of the contemporary issues of mutual concern.
I am particularly honored to share this conversation with His Eminence, Metropolitan Savas Zembillas. Your Eminence, I thought I had to travel much throughout the six counties of this diocese, but you get the prize for the most travel, for your region encompasses the states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio and includes according to my research 53 parishes and six monastic communities. You reside in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Welcome to what is my new home, Youngstown.
Your Eminence, my brother, our conversation this evening follows the November 19th meeting with Pope Francis and His Holiness, Mar Awa III—Catholocis-Patriarch of the Assyrian church of the East who expressed his desire for a common date of Easter. Of this, Pope Francis said, “On this point, I want to say—indeed, to repeat—what Saint Paul VI said in his day: we are ready to accept any proposal that is made together. 2025 is an important year: we will celebrate the anniversary of the first Ecumenical Council (of Nicea), yet it is also important because we will celebrate Easter on the same date. So let us have the courage to put an end to this division that at times makes us laugh: “When does your Christ rise again?” The sign we should give is: one Christ for all of us. Let us be courageous and search together: I’m willing, yet not me, the Catholic Church is willing to follow what Saint Paul VI said.”
The Holy Father added, “I dare even to express a dream: that the separation with the beloved Assyrian Church of the East, the longest in the history of the Church, can also be, please God, the first to be resolved.”
I want to thank the Society of Saint John Chrysostom for hosting this event and allowing me the opportunity to participate in such an important and timely conversation. I am also grateful to our diocesan ecumenical officer, Fr. Shawn Conoboy for his work in ensuring that we have these conversations with our brothers and sisters of different faiths.
This marks my third such conversation. Shortly after I arrived, I met with on a few occasions Bishop Laura Barbins of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Northeastern Synod. Together we share a covenant known as the Lutheran-Catholic Covenant formed and maintained by our predecessors. We renewed our commitment to the Covenant.
A few months ago, I was blessed to participate in a symposium hosted by Walsh University, the Catholic University in Canton with Rabbi David Komerofsky of Temple Israel in Canton on the topic “Facing the Future Together.” In particular, we addressed the challenges we both face in our respective communities.
Rabbi David framed his challenges in a biblical way referencing Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus of which he later repented. The Rabbi believes that the problem today centers on the denial of Truth and Reality, the denial of Progress, and the Denial of Accountability. I must confess that I found the Rabbi’s presentation to be one that engendered much thought on my part. I could not help but see how these denials present challenges in the Catholic faith as well.
In my presentation, I addressed the challenges in terms of concentric circles involving a closed world, a polarized country, with ripples into the faith community, and the circles of family, and the individual which in our day and age seems to take precedence over everyone and everything else.
Tonight, I want to build upon my previous presentation and speak of what I would call “tugs of war” that are ongoing and the results of which are unknown. As a child, I remember attending picnics in which inevitably there was always a few games of tug of war with people pulling a rope from either side. The team which was pushed over the line inevitably lost. There is much to be lost when it comes to the tug of wars of our time. While these battles are many and varied, tonight, in the interest of time I wish to address just a few of them.
The first tug of war, if you will, might best be described as one between the sacred and the profane or faith and secularism. I remember a time as a child when Sunday was truly the Lord’s Day. Blue laws forbid stores from being opened and the family, well, they did things together beginning with worshiping God. I vividly remember attending Holy Mass together. We always wore our Sunday best because we knew that we were going to see someone very special. After Holy Mass we came home and sat around the table for conversation and a big breakfast. There were no cell phones to look at. We beheld each other. Later in the day we always visited grandparents and relatives. By and large, it was a day for God and family.
What has become of Sunday? Shops are opened, families are scattered, less than 50% of families attend worship services. In many ways, Sunday is just another day. For many, God is just an idea. For others, God is nothing or at least not a priority. The ways of the world have placed God in the background. The new religion is sports. Do you see how they handle the coveted Lombardi Trophy or Stanley Cup—they wear gloves and reverence it. These objects have taken precedence over reverencing God.
In our country we have witnessed many movements to remove faith from government funded life. Moreover, laws have been enacted that go against the grain of religious beliefs. All of this has made the Church more intentional about highlighting and securing religious freedom. In short, this tug of war is not getting any easier. There are many manifestations of it in our time. And yet, we cannot lose sight of the sacred nor can we allow our faith and faithful to be diminished.
The commitment to secularism is at times masked by a certain piety in those who are a part of the Church. Pope Francis addresses this in “The Joy of the Gospel.” He writes, “Spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church, consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being.” (#93)
The Holy Father notes that there are some evils that can present themselves even in those who pray. He writes, “As a result, one can observe in many agents of evangelization, even though they pray, a heightened individualism, a crisis of identity, and a cooling of fervor.” (#78) The tug of war is not just with those on the outside but it is within the Church as well. Even bishops, priests and pastoral workers are not exempt from these evils.
The second “tug of war” in which the Church finds Herself in is the one between selflessness and selfishness or the “we” versus the “I.” Our Christian faith is rooted in selflessness, most notably, the selflessness of Jesus Christ who demonstrated the greatest love by laying down his life for his friends. Before he left this world, Jesus gave us a new commandment. In John 15:12 he says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” This is the Christian way embraced by many even to this present day. Some of the saints felt so strongly that they actually died for this way.
Sadly, more and more it seems, we live in a world that worships the personal private trinity of “me, myself, and I.” This mentality is often characterized in our culture as “It’s all about me.” It is every man for oneself. “My life and my choice.”
Pope Francis characterizes this state not just as selfishness but as spiritual sloth. He speaks about how hard it is to find volunteer catechists to spread the Good News. Moreover, he notes how some priests are more concerned with protecting their free time. He writes, “This is frequently due to the fact that people feel an overbearing need to guard their personal freedom, as though the task of evangelization was a dangerous poison rather than a joyful response to God’s love which summons us to mission and thus end up in a state of paralysis. Some resist giving themselves over completely to mission and thus end up in a state of paralysis and acedia.” (#81). Perhaps this tug of war should be understood as the battle between mission for others and self-maintenance and preservation.
A serious consequence of selfishness in our time is the ecological crisis, and the damage we have done to our common home. This is an area that requires strong ecumenical action, and where the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis have worked together. In fact, it is in his encyclical “Laudato Si,” Pope Francis notes the important leadership of Patriarch Bartholomew in shining a light on the need to protect the environment.
The third tug of war I wish to speak about is the one between hope and despair which could also be framed as trust versus suspicion. As Christians we are a people of hope, for as Saint Augustine reminds us, “We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song.” The events of life, however, can sometimes keep us from singing.
The last ten to twenty years have been rough. As a Church we have had to work through the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis which not only brought about unspeakable hurt and disillusionment but also great mistrust within the Church. The recently released survey by The Catholic Project revealed how this mistrust is evident in clergy about their bishop. The faithful have their own sense of this too, resulting in despair and hopelessness. And let’s not forget the pain of the victims whose lives have been forever marked with pain and suffering.
We also have had to weather the pandemic which closed our churches and distanced our communities. Some people have never returned. What is more, the deep divide in terms of dealing with this crisis in our country has affected us all in our religious communities.
The Holy Father calls us to say “No” to pessimism and hopelessness. He writes, “One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses’.
Pope Francis also links this hopelessness with mistrust when he says, “The evil spirit of defeatism is brother to the temptation to separate, before its time, the wheat from the weeds; it is the fruit of an anxious and self-centered lack of trust.” (#85)
This sense of pessimism and hopelessness and lack of trust is reminiscent to being in a desert. Pope Francis speaks to this reality by quoting his predecessor, Pope Benedict’s Homily for the beginning of the Year of Faith in October 2012. He writes, “In the desert we rediscover the value of what is essential for living; thus, in today’s world there are innumerable signs, often expressed implicitly or negatively, of the thirst for God, for the ultimate meaning of life. And in the desert people of faith are needed who, by the example of their own lives, point out the way to the Promised Land and keep hope alive.” (#86)
The fourth tug of war I will mention is the one between unity and division or anger versus peace. One of the great selling points for the media is division. Whatever the media form, there is sheer delight in bringing out division. I don’t know if we have lived in a more divisive time. It sells and more and more of us are buying it even though one of the final things that Jesus prayed for, which happens to be my Episcopal Motto, is “That all may be one.” (John 17:21).
But this sense of division is not something of which we are just spectators. For given our human nature, we can become participants. It exists among us and within us. Pope Francis notes, “How many wars take place within the people of God and in our different communities! In our neighborhoods and in the workplace, how many wars are caused by envy and jealousy, even among Christians! Spiritual worldliness leads some Christians to war with other Christians who stand in the way of their quest for power, prestige, pleasure, and economic security. Some are even no longer content to live as part of the greater Church community but stoke a spirit of exclusivity, creating an ‘inner circle.’ Instead of belonging to the whole Church in all its rich variety, they belong to this or that group which thinks itself different or special.” (#98)
As a bishop, I see this division and divisiveness every day when I open my mail or check my inbox. Some people view their affiliation with a political party as primary to belonging to the Church.
The fifth and final tug of war I wish to mention today is one that truly hits home in our diocese. It is the tug of war between faith in a community versus faith in a building or a battle between a future faith and a nostalgic faith. This battle is not endemic just to the Youngstown Diocese. In fact, you might say that it is one that is prevalent in the Rust Belt as many of us church leaders find ourselves managing decline with parish mergers and closures and the relegation to profane use of church buildings.
It is evident that there are many parishioners who identify their faith more with a building than a community. The closure of their church building signals a threat to their faith. It is understandable given the fact that these buildings contain a flood of memories of sacred faith events in the form of baptisms, confessions, first holy communions, confirmations, weddings, anniversaries, funerals and more. Indeed, these buildings are sacred and special. But we cannot put ourselves into a situation where we cannot give what we do not have. We must live in reality. Things can’t always remain the same.
It is interesting to note what Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20) Nowhere did he speak about a building. It was about people. With all due respect the beauty of our church buildings and the sentimentality therein, the Church is more than just bricks and mortar, but people. We need to do a better job building that sense of community. We come to Church but that we might go according to Pope Francis.
There is a story from the conclave in which Cardinal Jorge Bergolio got to speak. He referenced a quote from Revelation in which Jesus is knocking on the door. He said the text should be viewed not as Jesus knocking on the door to enter but inviting the Church to come out of herself to be near God’s people. In “The Joy of the Gospel,” he speaks about the parish and says, “It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach. We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented.” (#28)
In closing, these are just some of the tugs of wars facing religious faith communities today on both a micro and macro level. Time will tell who will win these battles. As a Church we cannot become complacent, nor can we afford to stop battling and praying. Our greatest ally is, of course, the Holy Spirit. Pope Francis speaks to this special gift when he says,