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2015 Role of Law Response: Sr. Sharon A. Euart, RSM
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Canon Law Society of America

 RESPONSE TO THE ROLE OF LAW AWARD

Sr. Sharon A. Euart, RSM

October 14, 2015

 

There really are no words to express adequately my deep appreciation to the Board of Governors and Msgr. Michael Souckar for the honor you have given me by adding my name to the list of recipients of the Role of Law Award. I am humbled and privileged to join such renowned company. I am grateful to the Society and to all of you with whom I wish to share this honor, for I have been blessed to witness your profoundly good and generous spirit in your dedication and devotion to canonical ministry in our Church. I am also indebted to the Sisters of Mercy and the Archdiocese of Baltimore for the canonical education I received from some of the most distinguished canonists in the Church, and for the opportunity to play a small part in the educational experience of some of you who are developing into fine canonists as the next generation of leaders of the Society.

 

In thinking of what I might reflect upon this evening, I was drawn to the Society’s Constitution and its description of the intent of this award - “to choose someone in our midst who best exemplifies the ideals spelled out in the preamble of the Society's Constitution.” The preamble proclaims “our desire to promote the use of every method of serving God's people that comes under the concept of law,” always “mindful that church laws ought to be pastoral in character and made only to serve the people of God.” If in some small way I have been able to exemplify this ideal, I am truly grateful, for it is also a fundamental Christian ideal.

 

We are disciples of Jesus who defined his own ministry as that of one who seeks to serve and not to be served, so it is essential always to recall this self-definition, in whatever circumstances we have been granted to serve Jesus and his Church. Especially in such a specialized field as canon law, in which only comparatively few of us among the faithful have had the opportunity to become educated practitioners of the law, it is crucially important to recall Jesus’ reminder to his disciples that those among them who would be first must be the servants of all.

 

Happily, reflecting the Second Vatican Council’s communio ecclesiology, the Code of Canon Law incorporates the sense of Jesus’ teaching when it states in canon 208, “From their rebirth in Christ, there exists among all the Christian faithful a true equality regarding dignity and action by which they all cooperate in the building up of the body of Christ according to each one’s own condition and function.” This common existence of the Christian faithful precedes all differences of function, charism and office (LG 32).

 

In my own varied experience as a canon lawyer, I have found among the most gratifying elements of the revised code its fidelity to the conciliar notion of the Church as a community of great diversity whose members, within the universal community, make up other communities within the whole which have their own dignity, rights and responsibilities. Recognizing the Church’s unity in diversity, the council’s teaching on ecclesial communion describes well the nature and the mystery of the Church.

We have all experienced within the Church as a hierarchical communion moments when it appears to be more hierarchy than communion. Yet, our law accepts the existence of and defends the importance of diversity as well as unity for the common good and the orderly character of ecclesial life.

 

Of special interest to me as a woman religious, especially in my current ministry, is the body of law within the code dealing with Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life that respects the rich diversity that exists among religious institutes and societies.  Women and men religious are united in their desire to follow Christ (c. 573 §1), yet challenged by the diverse ways and multiplicity of forms in which this common desire can be realized.  The Final Report of the Apostolic Visitation of Women Religious in the United States and the Joint Final Report of the Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious highlight the importance of mutual relations between bishops and religious as a service to ecclesial communion through what Pope Francis describes as experiences and interactions of  “encounter and dialogue.”  During this Year of Consecrated Life, Pope Francis invites women and men religious to become “experts in communion, witnesses and architects” of communion,  creating a model of community built on the dignity of all persons and respect for each one’s gift. He urges religious to listen to the Spirit in seeking ways to respond to the challenging realities facing many institutes in the United States and Europe as they “embrace the future with hope.”

 

While serving the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, I became familiar with a then-newly developing area of law necessitated by the emergence of episcopal conferences in the wake of Vatican II. Their incorporation into the revised code was only the beginning of a struggle on the part of both the Holy See and the individual episcopal conferences to understand their roles vis-à-vis each other in strengthening ecclesial communion around matters calling for unity or unity in diversity.

 

Both religious institutes and the episcopal conference provide experiences of the splendid diversity of the Church. The institutes with their differing charisms and apostolates and dioceses with their responsibility to respond to variegated Catholic populations with wide spectrums of needs call forth Christian activity of sometimes bewildering complexity. In whatever ways canon law can serve the living of these charisms and the response to these needs, it is our duty and our blessing to be of assistance.  

 

On a more local level, the implementation of the structures which provide opportunities of shared responsibility for laity, religious and clergy in the governance of the Church in dioceses and parishes has only been partially achieved in many places, and in other places hardly achieved at all. These participative structures are a means of pastoral revitalization assisting the Church in carrying out its mission. This is an important area of church life in which we as a Society have made valuable contributions over the years. Today, we might look for new and fresh ways to promote the fuller use of these means of participation as instruments of dialogue and experiences of community.  

 

The strength of the Church is found in communion which is the real source for witnessing the mutual relations among the disciples of Jesus Christ.  Given “our desire [as a Society] to promote the use of every method of serving God's people that comes under the concept of law,” it is incumbent upon us to serve our dioceses, religious institutes and all the faithful in a way that reflects the image of the Church we find in the code as a universal community made up of many communities, and individuals as well, working together “until [in the words of St. Paul] all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4.13).

 

As we approach the opening of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy – a proclamation of Pope Francis close to my heart as a Sister of Mercy – I believe that we, as canon lawyers, have a special obligation to demonstrate how law within the Church functions in the service of the God of Mercy. Law is usually considered ideally to act objectively and impartially and not as a “respecter of persons” in a way that distorts justice. Yet, in declaring the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has called the Church to act in a profoundly personal way, exhorting us “never to stop at the surface of things, especially when we are dealing with a person…to look beyond, to focus on the heart to see how much generosity everyone is capable of.” Francis tells us that the “appeal to a faithful observance of the law must not prevent attention from being given to matters that touch upon the dignity of the person.” May we as a society and individuals in both teaching the law and applying it assist the faithful in knowing and responding to the God of Mercy.

 

Thank you for the confidence you have placed in me with this extraordinary honor. I am truly blessed by the people God has placed and continues to place in my life. I humbly accept this award and acknowledge with gratitude, mercy and love all those whose guidance and support made this possible. Thank you!

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