The Church does not Exist for Itself
The points presented in the following section are:
- Evangelisation is simply truly living our life in the Spirit
- Jesus is the centre, not the Church
- The Church is essential, but…
- Ongoing renewal should be the norm
- Evangelisation, not self-preservation
By now it should be clear that those who do not live their faith in a way that proclaims what they believe to the world cannot be described as fully Christian. In order to be able to live this baptismal vocation, we (individually and collectively) must be ever-open to the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit (See 1Corinthians 12:1-11, Galatians 5:22 – 23, Isaiah 11:12), and to know what it means to be led by him. After all, the mission is his and only by association, ours. At all times we are to be thinking and praying about the world, with a particular focus on those around us and those we meet as we go through our day.
Our focus is outward. Understanding this provides the context for one of the important teachings that have come to us from Pope Francis. One of his many contributions to our understanding of evangelisation is to remind us that the Church does not exist for itself. The Church, and every Christian within it, exists to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Church both participates in Christ and points towards him. It is Jesus who is at the centre of our proclamation, not the Church and especially not particular individuals or groups within the Church.
It is important that we understand what is being said here. We are not claiming that the Church is unessential. In fact it is essential, as it is through the Church that we receive the spiritual nourishment, healing and teaching that each of us requires. But if we make the mistake of relating to the Church as if the Church and Jesus Christ are synonymous and interchangeable, we end up in the situation with which we are becoming increasingly familiar: people abandoning their faith in Jesus Christ and the Good News he brings because of the inadequacies (real or imagined) of members within the Church.
For this reason we must acknowledge that the Church is in constant need of renewal. In every age we are required to reassess the impact we are having on the reception of the message we exist to proclaim. Any degree of complacency in this leads very quickly to a hampering of our ability to get on with the job. We become an obstacle to our own mission.
This provides the context for the times Pope Francis has asked us to jettison anything that we are holding on to as a Church that gets in the way of reaching out to the world. We are to be as Christ and the first Apostles: free, unburdened by nonessentials, and ready to go wherever the Spirit is leading us. Pope Francis reminds us that this means we will be more focussed on the needs of those to whom we are sent rather than on preserving our ways of doing things. He writes: “I dream of a missionary option, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation”. (Evangelii Gaudium #27)
A Life Lived in Faith, Hope and Love
The points presented in the following section are:
- Your contribution is significant
- Do we really need to change?
- Parishes are to be more than sacramental centres
When I visit a new parish community, which I do on a regular basis, I find myself wondering who present is keeping the ship afloat. Whose life of prayer and service is God responding to? It might include the priest up the front, but I’ve learned not to presume anything. It could just as easily be the woman down the back passing out the parish bulletins, or the man who arrives late having stopped to help his neighbour on the way in. The point is, only God can read our hearts, and his eyes are drawn to the humble and those who quietly get on with it. Never undervalue the significance of your contribution.
So often we can feel powerless to effect change in our world, in our Church, in the lives of the people we love, or even in our own lives. For this reason we need to trust the fact that the small things we do matter, and believe that little acts of kindness and love make a difference. They all proclaim the Good News.
Quoting St Teresa Benedicta, Pope Francis writes: “The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night... Certainly the most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed.” [Gaudete et Exsultate 8]
Our trust is in God's ability to bring about renewal, not in our own. We do what we can, and place our trust in God.
But do we really want renewal? For that cannot be presumed. Often, as we talk about renewal, it becomes very apparent that we are talking about the need for ‘others’ to change, but not ourselves. We like it if people feel welcome in our faith communities, but we are often reluctant to change anything to make that more likely. We can require people to join us on our terms. As a parishioner recently remarked: “it is not us who need renewal, it is those who aren’t here”.
It is this unwillingness to expand our view of what it means to be Church that Tim Norton is reflecting upon as he writes: “Parishes can no longer regard the provision of Sacraments, although highly important, as the prime and only recipient of their time, energy and spiritual fervour. New Evangelisation calls us to move to the margins to hear and speak to the hearts of all people. Parish communities must review their attention to youth and elderly, asylum seekers, the troubled and the troubling, local ecological issues, those of different faiths and the poor at their door”. (NORTON, T. 2013. Australian Multi-cultural Parishes and Our Mission. In: ACHIKIAN, D., GATES, P. & TURVEY, L. (eds.) Living the Joy of the Gospel: The Francis Effect. Sydney: Catholic Mission & Catholic Religious Australia. p. 31.)
You Get to Choose
The points presented in the following section are:
- On what (or who) is our faith founded?
- Choose life: Deuteronomy 30:11-20
- A current urgency
- Has living our faith ever been easy?
- The choice is yours
With increasing regularity I am asked why it is I remain a Catholic. The presumption is that, because of the troubles the Church is currently experiencing, the only sensible thing to do is abandon ship. There are days on which I wonder if they might be right. That is, until I recall the power of my baptism. As a baptised son of God, my faith is not founded on the supposed perfection of others, nor derailed by their weakness. I get to stand my ground, take responsibility for how I respond to the life God has given me, and choose life (see Deuteronomy 30:11-20).
These words of Moses to the people of Israel are as relevant as they have ever been. The ‘people of God’ is constantly called to re-evaluate itself, to repent and to once again ‘choose life’. There has never been an age where this has not been so. Yet in this current age, we can have a sense of a particular urgency with regard to this. Not only does individual and collective sin and weakness need to be confronted and repented of, but also the very structures that have led to the current state of affairs require our attention.
This has been a regular theme in the teaching of Pope Francis since his installation. He challenges us all to think about our priorities and the values that those priorities express. No one has been exempt from his challenging words, with the Pope’s decision regarding the lavish spending of a German bishop early in his papacy sending a clear message to us all: we are here for mission, not for our own comfort (see http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/24/world/europe/vatican-suspends-german-bishop-known-for-spending.html?_r=0)
That these are challenging times is without doubt. However, there are one or two things that should be borne in mind as we engage with the situation at hand. Firstly, it has never really been easy to fully live our faith. We might argue that there have been times when it has been culturally more acceptable to be Catholic, but that isn’t actually the same thing. The radical nature of the Christian message is such that it calls everyone completely out of their comfort zone, if engaged with properly. An age where living this faith was thought to be ‘easy’ may also be an age where the faith wasn’t fully understood, let alone lived. If you’re struggling to live your faith in the current environment, it can be useful to realise that, in different ways, it has always been thus. That’s where an awareness of Church history can be very useful.
Secondly, ultimately you are responsible for whether or not you actually live in response to the invitation God has made to you. Yes, we appreciate (and perhaps expect) the support and good example of others – particularly our leaders. If we feel we have lost confidence in the Church we can feel justified in walking away from our faith altogether. Plenty have done precisely that. However, in the end it will be you standing before the One who has called you into being. The realisation that you will be judged on what you did and said, rather than on what others did and said, will become suddenly very clear.
The fact is, as difficult as it may be, there is nothing going on in the Church at the moment that is preventing you or me from living and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. We may alternate between being pleased or disappointed by what we experience in the Church, but in the end we are each responsible for the response we make to Christ. We cannot make other people responsible for what we choose to do. While things may at times be far from ideal, there is nothing preventing you and me from receiving the sacraments and living in accord with the life into which we have been baptised. No matter the circumstances, each of us is called to ‘choose life’ and each of us is responsible for the choices we make.
‘Rebuild my Church in Ruins’
The points presented in the following section are:
- Change and development is standard
- Change is in response to mission
- The reason for the name ‘Francis’
- Renewal isn’t about becoming Church-focussed
- Bruised and battered rather than secure and pristine
We have a tendency to think that the way we experience Church today is the way that it has always been. While acknowledging that the theological core underpinning what we do and why we do it finds its genesis in the teaching of the gospels and the experience of the early Church, even a cursory study of these things reveals that how they are lived and expressed has changed and developed over the centuries.
A knowledge of Church history is very helpful in this context. It reveals that on a regular basis, dating right back to the New Testament, the Church has had to think about itself, the way it presents its message, and what it means to change its ways of doing things so as to be better able to respond to its mission: to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in ways that are meaningful to the people who are to hear this proclamation. So we should not be surprised when Pope Francis expresses the hope “that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion, which cannot leave things as they presently are”. (Evangelii Gaudium 25)
Calling the Church to reform and renewal was signalled as being on Pope Francis’s agenda from the moment of his election as Pope. It is reflected in the name that he chose for himself. “When Pope Francis asked what he would do as Pope he replied, quoting the words Jesus had spoken to St Francis of Assisi, ‘Rebuild my Church in ruins’.” (TEULAN, M. 2013. Called to be Missionary Disciples. In: ACHIKIAN, D., GATES, P. & TURVEY, L. (eds.) Living the Joy of the Gospel: The Francis Effect. Sydney: Catholic Mission & Catholic Religious Australia., p. 43.)
As a further reflection on the significance of the name Pope Francis has chosen, Julie Morgan explains: “Evangelii Gaudium spills over with invitations that resonate with the role of the contemporary leader as the designer and implementer of deep change. Like Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis reminds us that our mission is always to ‘rebuild the Church’, a task that is not only physical but organisational and cultural. For Pope Francis, the leader must be one to find and forge ‘new paths of creativity’ (EG 12) not enclosing Jesus in our ‘dull categories’ (EG 12) and ‘not leaving things as they presently are (EG 25)’. [MORGAN, J. 2013. Mission, Goverance and Executive Leadership. In: ACHIKIAN, D., GATES, P. & TURVEY, L. (eds.) Living the Joy of the Gospel: The Francis Effect. Sydney: Catholic Mission & Catholic Religious Australia, p. 26.]
As challenging as the task of reform might be, it is essential that we resist the temptation to become Church-focused, even as we deal with the issues that require our attention. Noel Connolly reminds us that: “On a number of occasions the Pope talks of the need we all have not only to evangelise but to be evangelised. The Church’s mission is to be sign and sacrament of the Kingdom, but the Kingdom is bigger than the Church. God is active wherever people strive for justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation between peoples, religion and with the environment. Our task is not only to proclaim but to seek out, discover, encourage, celebrate and build on the Spirit’s activity in the world. We do not possess God or all of God’s activity. Pope Francis encourages us to dialogue with the world, with the State, with the sciences and with people of other faiths (EG 238-258). We have much to learn as well as to give”. (CONNOLLY, N. 2013. A Theology of Leadership for Mission. In: ACHIKIAN, D., GATES, P. & TURVEY, L. (eds.) Living the Joy of the Gospel: The Francis Effect. Sydney: Catholic Mission & Catholic Religious Australia, p.10.)
As Connolly further notes: “For Pope Francis, the Catholic Church needs to be more missionary in its outreach to people, rather than being focused on ideology, careerism, buildings and bureaucracy. “Let us go forth, then, let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ. Here I repeat for the entire Church what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it is has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security”. (EG 49). (CONNOLLY, N. 2013. A Theology of Leadership for Mission. In: ACHIKIAN, D., GATES, P. & TURVEY, L. (eds.) Living the Joy of the Gospel: The Francis Effect. Sydney: Catholic Mission & Catholic Religious Australia, p. 10.)
The final word on the ongoing need for reform belongs to Pope Francis. In Evangelii Gaudium # 272 he writes: “To be one with and attuned to the weakest and the most exploited is not something that comes easily when we have grown accustomed to moving in certain circles and when we are confident that we can have influence because we know the most influential people. Evangelii Gaudium urges us to see that “we do not live better when we flee, hide, refuse to share, stop giving and lock ourselves up in our own comforts. Such a life is nothing less than slow suicide” (EG 272).
Get Out of the Boat
To conclude this section on the interconnection between evangelisation and Church reform I offer you a reflection on what is, in my experience, a central part of the Christian experience: getting out of the boat and making the trek towards Jesus on the water.
Then Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up into the hills by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. 27 But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”
28 And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; 30 but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:22-33)
At first reading, the account of Jesus and Peter walking on the water is not immediately relevant to us. The ability to walk on water may be a miraculous curiosity, perhaps serving to highlight our own lack of faith, but that is not telling us anything new. We already know that that degree of faith can be hard to come by.
To understand this story we need first to understand that the Scriptures are primarily a revelation of who God is and who we are called to be in response to God. Through stories and events, songs and proverbs, letters and parables, the Holy Spirit of God is seeking to teach us about God and about ourselves.
So what might the walking on the water reveal to us? Think of the boat. Think of the security it brings and the sense of being safe from the deep that it instils. Then recognise that in this story Jesus is not in the boat. He is present, he is coming towards us, but he is not sitting with us in our place of safety. Instead, he is standing away from us, challenging our assumptions about where he is and about where we should be.
As individuals and as a Church we are often called to abandon our sources of comfort, to take the trek across the unknown, towards the one who alone can sustain us. A major theme for the Year of Grace was to ‘contemplate the face of Christ’. I find it interesting that in this story Peter can walk on the water only as long as he keeps his eyes fixed on Christ. It raises the question in my own life of faith – who or what am I looking at?
Peter begins to sink. At first glance this may seem like failure on Peter’s part. He’d taken his eyes off Jesus and down he went. But then we remember that we believe in one whose life was apparent failure: the crucified and rejected one. Success and failure in the Christian life are not measureable by the standards that we normally apply.
Peter had been prepared to leave behind his source of security – the boat. He walked away from that, towards the one in which all his hope resided. Yes, he lost confidence and went under. In that apparent failure he had a foretaste of what it means to die and to be resurrected. He drowns and is pulled up again in the power of the one who alone can save us. And here is the point – not that Peter failed, but that in getting out of the boat he was heading towards Jesus, and was therefore close enough to Jesus to be rescued by him. Can we as individuals and as a Church embrace the possibility that we need to get out of the boat?
“The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing is to hand over your whole self - all your wishes and precautions - to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call 'ourselves,' to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time to be 'good'. We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way - centred on money or pleasure or ambition - and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat... If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.” C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity)
(Former Director of the National Centre for Evangelisation)
1 July 2018