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One of the things that seems to characterise the community that has gathered here at Catholica is a collective memory of a time when there was excitement within Catholicism. We were fired up following the Second Vatican Council — re-invigorated and anxious to get out and share our excitement about what Jesus and our institution had to offer the world. That excitement and hope seems to have been dissipated by a leadership that is timid and trying to pacify only the insecure and those who see their faith as some security blanket of certitudes. Our present leader, Pope Benedict, speaks of a "smaller, purer Church". Today Dr Andrew Kania questions both the leadership and ourselves as to where we are going. Are we a Church trying to perpetually prove we are the only one's with access to Truth or should we see ourselves as the institution leading and encouraging the world in unearthing what the ultimate truths are? This is a powerful commentary coming from a writer perceived to have a more conservative disposition. Dr Kania suggests we might keep in mind these passages from Luke as a scriptural backdrop to what he writes: Luke 5:1-10
Heads or Tails...
In an Australian children's game of probability, a non-playing member of the group, the referee, holds two coins in their hand, each coin bearing a head and a tail. A group of children are asked to stand in front of the referee. Prior to the coins being tossed in the air – the children are asked to make a selection: to either place both hands on their head – for "heads"; one hand on their head and one hand on their behind – for "split"; and both hands on their behinds – for "tails". The object of the game is to seek out a winner – the person who round after round has continued to guess right.
In any walk-out from an institution – be it a sports club, shareholders in a company, or even a parish – very rarely do the stake-holders leave en-masse, but rather, over a period of time, a slow exodus leads to a quickening pace of exits, and finally only a few are left to keep the community alive. The death of organizations usually follows the converse pattern of how an organization originally recruits members or stakeholders. Those who remain, when others leave, usually have a deeply personal reason for staying, a reason that may or may not be related to the mission of the institution in question.
After Pentecost, the tiny remnant of the followers of Jesus Christ swelled steadily in numbers – each new member recruiting another by the word of mouth transference of the Gospel message. The Gospels had not yet be written, and as such there were no finely embossed or leather-bound copies of the Bible to remind the Faithful of what it meant to be a Christian. There was no EWTN, there was no internet, there were no widescreen motion pictures; yet there were committed Christians. These Christians were known for their love and commitment, and by this example, more and more individuals came to see the God of the Holy Trinity – as a God who is alive and who walks with His followers. Persecutions came – and persecutions were endured and overcome; disputes over fundamental beliefs, some volatile in nature, came, and were for the most part resolved. Steadily and in time, the Church went from being the Church of the catacombs to become the Church: of Caesars, of Kings, and of Queens. Monasteries opened – and they flourished. Plagues and wars came and the Church, all the while, still grew. A Reformation rose in the West – the Church countered – and preached to New Worlds; gaining even greater strength.
So what has happened to the Church of today – a Church, with an enormous infrastructure and wealth base, which on face-value at least, should have the potential to conquer the world – but strangely is a Church spiraling into decline in many parts of the western world?
In an interview in 1997, the then Jozef Cardinal Ratzinger, made the comment that: "Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the church's history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intense struggle against evil and bring good into the world – that let God in." (Salt of the Earth, Ignatius Press). The question arises as to what has occurred for the evolution of the Church to return to this original starting point. Why, when the Church is perhaps wealthier than it ever has been, are we now entering a phase of "small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intense struggle against evil and bring good into the world - that let God in?" (Ibid). The answer is relatively simple – it is because the Church at her very heart is not about things and buildings, but about a living and breathing Gospel written on the lives of people baptized within Her. Things and buildings are like clothes that adorn the body – no amount of bejewelled clothing will cure an ailing body; material things assist the spiritual – but they do not replace it; and the Church must be first and foremost a spiritual movement within the context of a material world. On a superficial level, our Catholic Schools, Universities and Hospitals – point to a success story, but if there is no sincere witness living within these institutions – these institutions may as well be, state of the art secular buildings with crosses on top. If there is no living Gospel all we have succeeded to create is institutionalised hypocrisy. What Benedict XVI is pointing to is that we in fact look large – but are we at our core? What do the People of God look like in reality?
In response to this decline in Faith-practice within institutions, one can seek to 'force' people to witness, by constructing guidelines with regard training, and accreditation, but this may in fact produce the converse effect; people being paid to believe – reading Scripture in order to keep their jobs; a form of religious prostitution, enacting at the purely physical and intellectual level, what is in fact also a deeply emotional and spiritual experience. With good intent, we may be breeding cynicism.
Pope Benedict's perception as quoted in BusinessWeek (May 2, 2005) of the Church of the future being leaner, smaller and purer is disconcerting, for although it may be quite true – there is an almost inherent defeatism that holds together his thesis. Pope Benedict's remark would suggest that his idea of Church, is foremost an institution which acts to preserve a receptacle of Truth. One can easily understand how a pre-eminent theologian, and university man, such as Benedict XVI, can come to this conclusion – that what is needed is a trimming of what does not sit readily with being Truth. But by so doing, the Church runs the risk of becoming an organization of, and for, an intellectual elite. There is nothing wrong with either a love for tradition or intellectualism – but the original mission of Christ was about the saving of souls (cf. Luke 5: 32); and where does this happen in the notion of an ever shrinking Church, that may eventually be, theologically speaking, leaner and purer – but without doubt, runs the grave risk of being smaller? Should not the Church with all its talented intellect – and with all the resources that she has in her hands – go out into the streets and seek new ways in which to save souls, and do so with a passion of a Saint Paul to the Gentiles? Should not the Year of St. Paul – have been a year, not to glorify a Saint in the context of history – but to glorify him within the context of using his work as a template in order to reinvigorate the missionary dimension of the Church?
What else can we learn from St Paul...
What else can we learn from St. Paul? Among other elements, St. Paul was an apostle who disputed with St. Peter, the first Pope, over the way in which the Gospel message should be taught and modified in order for his audience to accept the salvation of Christ, rather than have them reject the Gospel message over 'cosmetic' issues, such as male circumcision (cf. 1 Corinthian 7: 18); even though the religious act of circumcising males is Scripturally irrefutable in its importance: (cf. Leviticus 13: 3; cf. Genesis 17: 14; cf. Luke 2: 21 – 24). St. Paul understood the principle of oikonomia; that the letter of the law kills, but the spirit gives life (cf. 2 Corinthians 3: 6). Whereas the Church should preserve the letter of the law for the ages – it must also not make this law so stringent that it becomes not a rope for the sinner to climb to the heavens, but a noose by which to threaten and condemn. Interestingly it would seem that St. Paul, in all his frenetic missionary activity, believed in a message of universal salvation, whereas, St. Peter's mindset, would indicate an emphasis, at least in the earliest stages, of a notion of a Chosen People, and the rubrics by which this group, leaner and purer, had to live by. St. Peter strove to protect the Church – but when building up a fortress to protect, one can become so exclusive, that no life can come in. Importantly St. Paul gave the first pope his due, for Peter was, and the Pope is, the Head of the Universal Church – but he also questioned him; for an Apostle must fight with all their wits for the salvation of souls, and know how to gain interest in the Message.
If we are the Church of Pentecost – how can it be that a message that has been so strong for so many epochs has now been found to be wanting? It cannot be the Message – the Message has shone through too many periods of abject darkness. Other factors have come to tear down the Church and like a wolf scatter the sheep (cf. Matthew 26: 31). Of these factors, lukewarm hierarchical leadership has had no small part to play. Christ even predicted that this would happen when he taught: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep." (cf. John 10: 11 – 13). Leadership is needed – leadership is critical; a leadership of self-sacrificial love. Such passionate leadership will capture the imagination of people, so as to also put their lives on the line for Christ on a daily basis – and witness to the Gospel. Such was the leadership in the early Church, that was offered by the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church; a leadership of authority based on conviction of belief; rather than a leadership of bureaucracy and administration.
Christ taught of the importance of leadership...
The Gospel calls the People of God – but it is trust and love and example that holds them together; a trust and a love, and pastoral example that must be seen as apparent and sincere in our Church leaders. Knowing that He would soon leave them, Christ taught his disciples about the importance of leadership in the Church: "A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers." (cf. John 10: 5, RSV). The voice of the hierarchs of the Church must be a timbre that the people can recognize each day of the year – one which the people knows serves them through God; and not an example of once a year humility that is re-enacted by the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday; where everyone can see the good work (cf. Matthew 6: 1-4). Of the leaders of the Church – how many would be comfortable among children; how many would have something to say to a fisherman, or a mechanic – how many would have the capacity to call the Everyman – rather than sit at a boardroom, with 'movers-and-shakers', planning the building of Cathedrals that now house fewer and ever fewer people. How many of them can walk in the Shoes of the Fishermen – and seek not the few saved, that sit on the pews, in a Church so empty that the echo deafens – but to go out to the innumerable lost, who will hate to see their faces, and hate to hear the message they speak. How many will risk humiliation by taking on an unpopular social cause? Yet such a reception was the welcome that the Apostle to the Gentiles was willing to receive, because of a vision of Someone that was bigger than his own limited aspiration? To speak to the disgruntled, to the angry, to the hurt – to the disillusioned – such is the path to the salvation of souls; such was the path that Paul took after he left Damascus.
The voice of our hierarchs, is too often be perceived, by those who stand outside the Church, as a voice similar to the referee in "Head and Tails"; calling the people of God, from on high, to stand as such, and do as such, and act as such. But the danger exists, that following the pattern of "Heads and Tails" – the number of people willing to take orders from people that they feel so disassociated from, will lead to an ever-shrinking Church – a Church that no doubt is no less True – but a Church that has not convinced the Images of God, unlike St. Paul, to find Her to be a dwelling place for the soul (cf. Psalm 23: 6). As Christ taught, the people will only heed the voice of one they know – and not the voice of a stranger (cf. John 10: 5, RSV). Our hierarchs must provide the example of being our companions – willing to eat the bread, we eat, and willing to share the sufferings that we suffer. For Christ loved the world so much – he chose to be as we are, in all things but sin; and Paul, even though armed with a mighty message, still humbly sewed and sold tents in order to feed himself.
The Church is not only about those who are saved...
The Church is not only about those who are saved, or who perceive themselves to be saved (this perception of course could be held, rightly or wrongly – God knows our end); the Church is about, first and foremost, bringing the people of God back to God – by giving them an opportunity of life to its fullest (cf. Mark 2: 17). The majority of us in the Church – are not perfect; we have our bad temper, we have our 'issues' – but so did Zacchaeus, and so did Mary of Magdala, and so did Saul of Tarsus. We cannot afford any longer to build churches to house the pious – for as Christ came not to rescue the saved; we condemn ourselves as the Church, if we are unwilling to get our hands dirty, and not risk being spat on, for what we believe to be True. New churches will be built, when the old churches become too small for the number of people that wish to worship in them. We can delude ourselves to think that the road to holiness is that path whereby we are made righteous, by firing off missives at sinners, and at the close of the day, congratulating ourselves on a job well done; but where in these actions are we modeling Christ; are we not modeling the Pharisees? What good have we done those whom we consider are on the road to damnation? How are we reaching out to those who need the Church most? Are we willing to test the waters at some contemporary Agora? Is our God a living God – and if He is – then why not reveal Him alive to the world?
The time has passed, evidently, to wait for the people to obediently come to us – we must find them, for the Church bell rings and it apparently makes no sound, for want of people attending to its call. Our Church on this earth, should be the Church militant and not the Church impotent. As Moses grabbed the venomous serpent, and made it his staff; and as Christ grabbed Saul and made him his mouthpiece – so too our Faith has the power to transform that which seems most incongruous to the Church, when the hand of Faith touches the hearts of people in a manner in which what is being said, is not a dead language, but speech, relevant and speech immediate. For the Fishermen, became fishers of men, by going out as their Mentor taught them, to meet men where they were; and not by sitting where they were most comfortable, waiting for the world to come and meet them by the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
©2009 Dr Andrew Thomas Kania