Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Renew My Church: Going out on a limb

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

People who study the etymology of words have mixed opinions on the phrase “going out on a limb.” Some say it means taking a risky chance or hazarding a guess. The point being that the further you go out on a limb the weaker the branch becomes, thus increasing the risk of being wrong or failing. 

Others suggest the original meaning of this term refers to the effort that it takes to go against the status quo, embarking on a path that others would avoid or could not imagine taking. 

That second sense is how I often think of what Jesus meant when he told Simon Peter: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (Lk 5:4). Jesus wasn’t being capricious or impulsive. Rather, he was calling for bold action, even if it meant going against the grain, doing the unimaginable, undaunted by challenges that would otherwise give way to excuses. 

We hear that kind of hesitation and excuse-making in Peter’s voice as he responds: “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing.” Jesus is calling him to have confidence in the catch, in what is to be gained, knowing that the status quo has exhausted the possibilities for moving forward. 

With Renew My Church we are indeed going out on a limb, putting out into the deep. It has been pointed out that most diocesan renewal efforts either take up the task of spiritual growth or organizational reform, but not both at once. We, in fact, are doing both. For some, this is risky. No one has done this before. We are, indeed, building this effort from the ground up. 

But I am convinced that unless we take up both of these tasks together, our renewal will be short-lived and just another footnote in the history of the archdiocese. If we reform our institutional structures without a profound spiritual renewal or take up spiritual reform with no attention to how we organize our communities and ministries, we will be missing a chance to achieve long-term sustainability of our parishes. 

As we move forward, it will be our three imperatives that will steady our steps on this new path. Our aim is to make disciples, build communities and inspire witness. Amid all the twists and turns in the road ahead, it will be important to keep our eyes focused on these three priorities. 

You have heard me reference Pope Francis often as I looked for ways to describe the vision of Renew My Church. He surely continues to offer us a great deal of inspiration as we take up this work. I highly recommend his latest apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate.”

However, I still have fresh in my memory a papal document that was written in the first years after I became a bishop. I was greatly encouraged by it. 

At the end of the Great Jubilee Year 2000, Pope St. John Paul II issued his apostolic letter “Novo Millennio Ineunte.” He did so at a time when his health was already in serious decline and he knew he would not live long into the new millennium. Yet he called the entire church, especially dioceses, local churches, to put out into the deep in this significant moment of human history.

His words were youthful and filled with energy as he challenged us to design new pastoral approaches that would give fresh vigor to the mission of the church. 

This is what he wrote: “Now is the time for each local church to assess its fervor and find fresh enthusiasm for its spiritual and pastoral responsibilities, by reflecting on what the Spirit has been saying to the people of God in this special year of grace, and indeed in the longer span of time from the Second Vatican Council to the Great Jubilee. … It is in the local churches that the specific features of a detailed pastoral plan can be identified — goals and methods, formation and enrichment of the people involved, the search for the necessary resources — which will enable the proclamation of Christ to reach people, mold communities, and have a deep and incisive influence in bringing Gospel values to bear in society and culture.” 

He called us to be bold, imaginative and to approach the future with daring and courage. Notice that, as he urges new methods and the realignment of resources, he identifies three goals, the same three we have placed at the heart of Renew My Church: “to enable the proclamation of Christ to reach people (make disciples), mold communities (build communities) and have a deep and incisive influence in bringing Gospel values to bear in society and culture (inspire witness).”

In concluding his letter, the saintly yet aging pontiff returned to the scene in Luke’s Gospel and pressed us to put out into the deep “‘Duc in altum.’ Let us go forward in hope! A new millennium is opening before the church like a vast ocean upon which we shall venture, relying on the help of Christ.” 

We are going out on a limb with Renew My Church, not as reckless thrill-seekers, but as those who see the great potential ahead of us as the Spirit leads us forward. It is, as Papa Wojtyła, observed, out of a faith that a vast ocean is opening before us, that we take up this venture together, ever relying on the guidance of Christ.

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