“After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them”. (Matthew 17,1-2)
In the 1980’s I used to spend some months every year as a touring lecturer in India. On one occasion a bishop in the tribal area of Jharkhand state invited me to give a biblical seminar to his priests in the diocese. I will call him Bishop Bartholomew. I was given accommodation in the Bishop’s House.
One evening, after supper, the bishop invited me to his private study. Over a cup of hot chocolate he told me an interesting story.
“I was consecrated a bishop just after Vatican II”, he said. “And, to tell you the truth, I was upset by many of the changes introduced by the council. A new local liturgy? But we had spent decades to teach people the international Western rite! Being friendly to Hindus? But they were our feared opponents! More freedom for religious sisters? But how then could we keep them under control?!”
“So, what happened?”, I asked. “You accept Vatican II now, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do. Well, this is my story … It began when I was consulting a number of my staff. The old Bishop’s House was too small. Priests who visited me had nowhere to stay. And whenever I called together all the priests in the diocese for a meeting, I had to rent the hall in a local school … Some of my staff members advised me to build a new wing with a hall on the ground floor and guestrooms on top. One was more radical. ‘Tear down this old house’, he advised me, ‘and build a bigger one’.”
“It must have been a difficult time for you”, I said.
“Indeed, it was. But then a conversion happened. I was sitting in my small local chapel reflecting on the predicament and praying … I recognised the old Bishop’s House was a shambles. It had started as a small Western-style house. Then, at various stages, new parts were added: a new living room with up-to-date bathroom facilities; then a shack to house a better-style kitchen; then a floor on top of the house to create more bedrooms; then a wider veranda on which the bishop could sit in the evenings and talk to people … And while I was thinking about all this, another thought suddenly struck me. My house was a heap of accretions but so was the Church! Jesus’ teaching had accumulated all kinds of imported additions over the centuries: Greek and Roman customs, beliefs and practices from the European Middle Ages and-so-on. It struck me that the Church too, needed a thorough overhaul just like Bishop’s House …”
“Well, that’s marvelous!”, I said.
“Indeed. It shook me. Next day I want over to a nearby college where a good friend of mine was teaching. He was a Belgian Jesuit. I told him about my new insight — he smiled and congratulated me. Then he gave me more background information about some of Vatican II’s reforms. We had more such discussions afterwards. I tore down the old Bishop’s House and built the new one. I also became a firm supporter of the new changes.”
I admired Bishop Bartholomew for his honesty and intelligence.
Implementing Church reforms
Church reform can take time and require major efforts on the part of leaders in the Church. The council that initiated enormous changes, before Vatican II, was the Council of Trent. It met for 24 sessions between 1545 and 1563, and spanned the reign of three popes. It was the Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation which had caused large sections of the faithful to split off from the Mother Church.
And, by golly, did the Church of that time need reforms! Corruption was rampant in the Curia. In most countries sons of aristocratic rulers were appointed bishops, disregarding their spiritual qualities, to be allies in politics. Priests were ordained without proper education. Indulgences were sold for money. Immorality was tolerated in many convents. Trent prescribed countermeasures which have benefited the Church ever since.
But implementing Trent’s reforms took a lot of hard work. In many parts of the Church decades passed before the new discipline was in place. Credit goes to the thousands of bishops, priests, religious superiors and others who gradually, with a lot of patience, hardship and diplomatic skill, fought for the reforms to be realised. Being a reformer is not an easy task.
What would Jesus think about it all?
Jesus, of course, has been the most prominent and successful religious reformer in humankind’s history. His revelation that God is Love and his teaching that loving the neighbor is our highest duty have, over the centuries, constructively impacted the way we humans relate to each other. Christians are the largest religious community on our planet. But Jesus also foresaw the enormous challenges to come — for himself and his followers.
In this context Jesus’ transfiguration on Mount Tabor is very significant. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. It would cause him incredible pain and suffering. It would also result in his triumphant resurrection. A vision overwhelmed Jesus. “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17,2). But we would be mistaken if we think it was all about Jesus. It was not. The vision aimed at transforming Jesus’ disciples.
Matthew stresses their participation. Jesus selected the three leading apostles Peter, James and John to accompany him to the top of the mountain. To them God’s voice is addressed saying: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17,1.5). For the vision on Mount Tabor was a "handing on ceremony." Jesus was handing on his mission of transforming the world and handing on his authority to the apostles. This is strongly confirmed by the appearance of Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17,3-4). Any Jew in Jesus’ time would have grasped their significance.
Moses himself could not conquer the promised land. Before his death, on top of a high mountain, he handed over to Joshua. “Be strong and courageous,” Moses told him. “You must go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their ancestors to give them… The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” (Deuteronomy 31,7-8).
In a similar way the prophet Elijah handed on his task and power to his disciple Elisha. When Elijah announced his departure from this earth, Elisha asked: "Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit."
"You have asked a difficult thing," Elijah replied. "Yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours--otherwise not."
Then a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and lifted Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha witnessed it and found that Elijah had left his cloak. Elisha picked it up. And wearing Elijah’s cloak Elisha could now act as a full-fledged prophet who could act with power as his master had done (2 Kings 2,8-15).
And here we have the full reassuring message of Jesus’ transfiguration. Yes, Jesus will depart. He will be taken up to heaven. But he has handed on the continuation of his mission to the apostles and their successors. He also conferred on them his own spiritual authority. They will confront new challenges not foreseen in Jesus’ lifetime. They will expand to new territory as Joshua did. They will, in unexpected novel circumstances, provide guidance to people as Elisha did.
In other words: Jesus wants ministers in the Church to courageously design and execute the updating of ‘doctrines’ and practices required for our present world. He promises his Spirit will guide them and give them the strength to implement any necessary reforms.
Do we mistakenly believe that being faithful to sacred tradition means holding on to the way things were in the past? Do we not realise that, on the contrary, sacred tradition which goes back to Jesus himself, implies the authority of Church leaders to deal with new challenges and walk new paths?
Do we have the courage to listen to the Spirit and pursue responsible reforms?