January 07, 2016

Broken reeds, smoldering wicks, and the Church’s ministry

By Msgr. M. Francis Mannion *

Every time we come to the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, I think of one of my favorite scriptural passages taken from the prophet Isaiah. God’s servant, the prophet declares, brings forth justice “not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street.” And in powerful words, the passage says of God’s servant: “A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench.”

Applied to the Church today, the fundamental message is that the role of God’s servants is not to preach hell fire and damnation to broken people, to make them walk away with a sense that the Church does not care, or even rejects them. The role of God’s servant is to bring encouragement and hope to those who are broken, bruised, and discouraged.

The “bruised reed” is a good image of human vulnerability and frailty.  In the world of nature, the bruised reed, if tended gently, still grows and thrives in the proper environment, even if with difficulty; but in a harsh environment the bruised reed breaks and dies.

Christians are called to treat the bruised reeds among their brothers and sisters with gentleness and care, so that they may thrive and grow, and not spiritually fade and die.

The “smoldering wick” in Isaiah is also a potent image of faith and hope on the very edge of being quenched.  With gentleness and patient care, the smoldering wick can be rekindled; but with rough, careless, and overbearing treatment it is quenched. 

The world, the Church, our  congregations, our households are full of bruised reeds whom we should not break, but raise up again; smoldering wicks we must not quench, but help rekindle.

Those who serve in the pastoral ministry of the Church have a particular responsibility in this regard.  When bishops, priests, and deacons are seen as harsh, quick to judge, unfeeling, and unsympathetic—then they are miserable failures.  Unless a pastor is seen as one to whom one can go and expect care, compassion, and gentleness, he is betraying his ministry.

In the recent Synod of Bishops in Rome, the participants struggled with how to deal with the sense of alienation and isolation from the Church among homosexuals, those in homosexual unions, and the families of homosexuals. Some bishops offered courageous proposals in this regard.

On this matter overall, the Synod took two steps forward and one-and-a-half steps backward. But the Synod participants were left with the sense that something must be done to include homosexual persons and other sexual minorities in the Church. There was a felt need for a new language about sexual matters, rather than the simple repetition of traditional formulas, which fail to compel—and still remain quite untouched by Vatican II.

A similar concern was expressed about the possibility that those who are presently unable to receive Communion because they are in second marriages without an annulment could receive holy Communion. Going to Mass without receiving the Eucharist is for such people a most unsatisfactory experience, and I expect that the final document from the Synod that Pope Francis will issue will take positive steps in this regard.

The ordinary Catholic does not have to wait until the Church speaks more positively on thorny matters. The vocation to uphold and strengthen the alienated and marginalized can be carried on now for the most part quietly, unobtrusively, and undramatically. There is not one of us who lacks the ability to carry out the vocation of God’s gentle, healing servant.  

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Salt Lake City. He holds a Ph.D in sacramental theology from The Catholic University of America. He was founding president of The Society for Catholic Liturgy in 1995 and the founding editor of the Societys journal, Antiphon. At the invitation of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago he founded the Mundelein Liturgical Institute in 2000.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.