Two months ago, in April, His Excellency Bishop John Stowe, O.F.M. Conv., delivered an address at Loyola University addressing, among other things, the Synod on Synodality, the Eucharistic Revival, and a few chosen keys to the program being implemented by Pope Francis in the Church today. An edited version was published just recently at Commonweal under the title “Pope Francis’s Vision for the Church: Seeking a Church in Service to the World.”
Now, much of what the good bishop says is true, salutary, and worthy of remembrance; a large portion of the address is dedicated to Pope Francis’ renewed vision of the importance the Church must place on care for the vulnerable and disenfranchised.
This vision is, of course, not new, having deep roots in the life of Israel and the witness of the Old Testament. Failure to account for those on the periphery—another favorite image of the Holy Father—results, in fact, in a curse: “Cursed be he who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 27:19, RSVCE). This “social teaching” (if we might borrow the phrase) is carried on through the rest of Israel’s Scriptures, into the New Testament, and on through the life of the Church into the current day. The concern Bishop Stowe shows in this regard is not only a reflection of the current pontiff’s general line of thinking, it is wholly biblical, traditional, and of paramount immediate concern.
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There is much else to commend in the address, but there is, unfortunately, a turn to view the body of the faithful in such a way as to set two different camps in tension with one another. I would like to focus briefly on just a single moment that seem to me to portray a perspective that was addressed, in fact, by Pope Leo XIII more than a century ago (more on that in a moment). The sticking point for this misunderstanding occurs right in the midst of the essay, on certain deficiencies that have (perhaps) appeared in the reception of Eucharistic Revival currently underway. Bishop Stowe writes the following:
Instead of ensuring a eucharistic centrality to the synodal process, allowing for an organic discernment about our eucharistic understanding, plans for a mega-event featuring plenty of pre-conciliar piety and theology have replaced the focus on the Synod for a Synodal Church in the USCCB. It does not strike me as coincidental that much of the Eucharistic Revival focuses on eucharistic adoration, passive in nature, and so offers an easy alternative to the active engagement of walking together synodally.
Let us leave aside for the moment the curious reference to “pre-conciliar piety and theology,” for His Excellency surely does not mean to cast aspersions on the great expanse of Christian Tradition that came before the Second Vatican Council. This idiosyncrasy must be left to the side for our purposes. Rather, we must focus in on a comment made at the very end of his statement, that the practice of Eucharistic adoration is somehow a deficient mode of participating in the life of the Church, specifically since it is a “passive” mode of participation.
This very dialectic, the distinction between the active and the passive, is, in fact, nothing new. It is, in fact, not even a product of the conversations that followed the Second Vatican Council’s document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, which contains the well-known reference to “fully conscious and active participation” (SC, 14). Rather, this was a false dichotomy pointed out more than 50 years prior even to the calling of the council in a letter of Pope Leo XIII to then-Archbishop James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, a letter known by the title of Testem benevolentiae nostrae, or by its more informal title: “Concerning New Opinions, Virtue, Nature and Grace, With Regard to Americanism.”
We need not go into minute detail in regard to the contents of the letter; there is but one simple point we are interested in here: Leo’s warning not to succumb to the temptation to elevate the active virtues over the passive ones. Set into an extended discussion on seeking Christian perfection is Leo’s admonition to avoid mistaking natural virtue for holiness, especially when it comes to external activity. “This overesteem of natural virtue finds a method of expression in assuming to divide all virtues in active and passive,” Leo says, “and it is alleged that whereas passive virtues found better place in past times, our age is to be characterized by the active.”
Here Leo reminds us that we must avoid the temptation to denigrate a particular kind of virtue or Christian activity, and we are to especially avoid making distinction of the kind that would seem to hint at a kind of evolution of virtue, as though the Church could ever move away from desiring the faithful to participate in certain virtues that may have been esteemed in days gone by.
But he goes further: “That such a division and distinction cannot be maintained is patent, for there is not, nor can there be, merely passive virtue.” Driving the point home, Leo highlights this specific point of view as both erroneous and dangerous, as it is precisely this attitude that denigrates the religious life—especially that of the vowed contemplatives who rest in the bosom of the Church—as inferior to a life of active service.
“From this disregard of the angelical virtues, erroneously styled passive” Leo extols, “the step was a short one to a contempt of the religious life which has in some degree taken hold of minds.” This mode of considering the virtues, especially that of privileging the active over the passive, Leo dubs “Americanism,” and it is no great secret why.
Now it is far from clear that this is what Bishop Stowe is doing; in fact, I tend to think that he is not. However, the use of this kind of language can lead some to create a false dichotomy between the passive and the active, between contemplative prayer and worship of the living God on one side, and service to those beloved by God on the other.
The irony, of course, is that in Bishop Stowe’s criticism of the manner in which the Eucharistic Revival has been implemented in many places, His Excellency gives cause for us to make sure we are not falling into what Leo had called the temptation to this “Americanism,” a collection of views that would elevate nature over grace and make virtue wholly a matter of externally directed activity.
While the practice of Eucharistic adoration is not everywhere implemented, it has certainly been a reality in which Pope Francis himself has participated. In fact, the Holy Father’s blessing of the world with the Blessed Sacrament at the height of the Covid pandemic remains for many the single most paradigmatic image of the pope, emblazoned in their memories as a witness to the Eucharistic love of Christ made present by the personal witness of His vicar.
The words of the pontiff on the subject of Eucharistic adoration, addressed to a group of religious sisters just last year (as reported by Catholic News Agency), speak eloquently:
It is good to adore in silence before the Most Blessed Sacrament, to be in the consoling presence of Jesus and there to draw the apostolic impetus to be instruments of goodness, tenderness and welcome in the community, the Church, and the world.
Even still, two small points remain.
In the first place, worship of the risen Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is not only a practice that has long been commended and promoted by the Church at the highest levels, but it is, in fact, a very particular mode of “active participation” as defined by the magisterium itself. The point is made most strikingly by St. John Paul II, in his encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, when he specifically singles out adoration of the Blessed Sacrament as a fruit of the renewed emphasis on active participation in the Church’s liturgical life:
The Magisterium’s commitment to proclaiming the Eucharistic mystery has been matched by interior growth within the Christian community. Certainly the liturgical reform inaugurated by the Council has greatly contributed to a more conscious, active and fruitful participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar on the part of the faithful. In many places, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is also an important daily practice and becomes an inexhaustible source of holiness. (10)
So, far from being merely “passive” and “an easy alternative” to certain forms of active virtue—what we might warily dub a Pelagianism of corporal mercy—adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is singled out as a paradigmatic example of what Vatican II desired in its call for a more consciously active participation by the faithful. Far from being merely “passive” and “an easy alternative” to certain forms of active virtue, Vatican II singled out adoration of the Blessed Sacrament as a paradigmatic example of a more consciously active participation by the faithful.Tweet This
And yet, as a second point, even this recommendation of adoration as a manner in which to enter into a more deeply personal mode of participation in the Church’s sacrificial worship does not erase the great importance of the passive virtues. The Catechism of the Catholic Church praises contemplative prayer—encouraged and elicited by practices such as Eucharistic adoration—as being far from merely passive but, rather, emblematic of “the obedience of faith” and like “the loving commitment of a child” (CCC, 2716).
Going further, the Catechism defines contemplative prayer as “kindling that feeds the fire of love” (CCC, 2717). The great saints and doctors of the Church have long stressed the need to be passive in the presence of our Most Holy God, allowing the Divine Physician to be at work in our cold and stony hearts. Theirs are the words of the Psalmist: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalms 46:10).
In the end, I am sure that His Excellency Bishop Stowe would agree, but it remains true that in a highly polarized age, care must be taken to avoid any suggestions that would pit one mode of piety against another, or that would elevate certain virtues at the expense of others. The Church, in her wisdom, has long commended the faithful to practice both the Spiritual and the Corporal Works of Mercy, acts in service to both God and neighbor. Even still, the Church draws her very lifeblood from the Eucharist as the means by which her members abide in the presence of her head: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4).
[Image: Bishop John Stowe, O.F.M.]