‘FAN INTO A FLAME THE GIFT OF GOD WHICH IS IN YOU THROUGH THE LAYING ON OF HANDS’ (2 Timothy 1:6)
‘Behold I am with you always, yes, until the end of time’ (Matt. 28:20)
‘Behold I make all things new’ (Is. 43:18; Rev. 21:5)
The reasons for our hope - God’s promise, God’s presence, God’s action.
Ten ways that God is making his Church new. Not an exhaustive list. I invite you to think, pray and debate. Points of departure in the conversation.
1. Newly Prayerful
We have a unique gift that we are called to share. We are a people who have come to see our own need for salvation and also recognize that need in a broken world in need of healing.
We are a people who have come to know the saving love of God made visible in Christ – a gift that is accessible to all by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We have been touched and changed by that love to such an extent that we want to introduce others to its life-giving power too. We have a burning desire to lead others to a treasure and a joy that we have found. In the words of Pope Francis:
‘We have a treasure of life and love which cannot deceive, and a message which cannot mislead or disappoint. It penetrates to the depths of our hearts, sustaining and ennobling us. It is a truth which is never out of date because it reaches that part of us which nothing else can reach’ (EG, 265).
This is our mission, to share this treasure of life and love that no one will offer unless we do. Now is the time to re-discover the pearl of great price, the one thing necessary that animates all that the Church teaches and stands for. Now is the time to finally reject residual notions that God’s love can be earned, to know that ‘God loved us first’ and to welcome ‘the primacy of grace’. To nurture this gift, we need to be people who love the holiness that leads to personal integrity and a living union with Christ. We need to be people engaged in ‘the art of prayer’ (John Paul II, Novo Millenio Inuente, 32) and be willing to teach our people how to pray by tapping into their deepest spiritual hunger.
Irish Catholicism will be renewed in the measure that it successfully connects her people to our wonderful and ancient tradition of mystical prayer that nurtures a living relationship with God. Here is this powerful union with God that is offered to us through the sacraments, the liturgy of the hours, Scripture, the saints and the Church community.
When parishes become schools of prayer then liturgies become animated beyond stiff and formal rituals that many find deadening and unattractive. They become celebrations of living faith that worship God for everything that is good, true and beautiful – all that the human heart is drawn to and loves.
When the early Church Preaching and prayer came before administration and maintenance. It still ought to. If the Church can teach her members to pray, train people to be teachers of prayer and provide opportunities for spiritual direction to more people then we renew the whole of peoples’ lives.
Reconnecting spirituality and religion is one of the most pressing needs of our time. It should be one of the Church’s main tasks – to help people know God and make a deep connection with the God who created us and loves us.
At this time, we listen again to the desire of St John Paul II that parishes be marked by ‘an all-pervading climate of prayer’ (NMI, 34) and be spaces of invitation to ‘all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ’ (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 3).
2. Newly Human
In the very first chapter of ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, Pope Francis outlines that ‘those who accept his [Jesus’] offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness’ and that ‘no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord’. With these words, Francis captures the truth of what we have held since the time of St Patrick who described faith as ‘that life-giving gift’ (Confessio). He proclaimed this truth in continuity with the Gospels, St Irenaeus, St Augustine and after him with St Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Gaudium et Spes and St John Paul II – that our Christian enhances and fulfills our humanity and does not diminish it. Our challenge today is to show the world a path to holiness that cherishes all that it means to be human.
We acknowledge that this task is not easy with the historical baggage that Irish Catholicism carries as an institution. With more than a hint of Jansenism, many experienced the Church as oppressive, anti-human and even abusive. But rather than just lamenting the past, the present is an opportunity to learn from it and to model an authentic spirituality of what it means to be human at a time when it is sorely needed. At all times we keep before us the dignity of the human person and who God revealed ourselves to be in Christ – our origin and destiny in God, the divine image imprinted in all of us, our need for love, work, food, family, our gifts and potential, our sin and brokenness. Our dialogue with modernity can only be successful if it is founded on a solid anthropology and a clarity of what it means to be human. This clarity will be critically important as we engage with issues such as human sexuality and Catholic education. The ‘renewed humanism’ called for by recent popes will be critical in convincing people that our faith is the friend of humanity and that God’s glory is seen in the human person fully alive.
3. Newly Formative
To be truly human is to change and in the words of St John Henry Newman, to live well is to change often. In the Gospels, Jesus pointed to the essential organic quality to the Christian life. The best known metaphor he used was of the vine and the branches. This parable teaches how the lives of Christians are ultimately fruitful because of our communion with him and his grace. For there to be fruit there must be change. In the words of Tertullian, Christians are made and not born.
Christian formation. To be trained to become a Christian and sustained to remain a Christian.
This organic quality ought to excite us and influence our witness to Catholic Christianity as something dynamic and alive – an enterprise of growth in holiness, virtue, maturity, the art of social interaction, communication, wisdom and joyful love. While we might be moving away from an overly static concept of Irish Catholicism, we are also in danger of losing sight of the formative and transformative power of the Gospel as a life-long process. The crucial understanding of Christianity as a way of life to be trained for and initiated into highlights the role of families, parish, school communities and sporting organisations that facilitate this growth in good habits and human virtue. Ultimately, formation is a concept that doesn’t belong exclusively to priestly training but properly belongs to Christianity itself. It concerns every aspect of our humanity being formed and conformed to the likeness of Christ. Changes are part of living. Catholic Christianity offers light and hope in the midst of that change by offering a narrative that makes sense of it and that celebrates the moments of change with the Church’s rich life of rites, prayers, sacramentals and sacraments.
4. Newly Courageous and Confident
Pope Francis – Rejoice and be Glad. To have that essential quality of boldness and courage to be counter-cultural. To believe in the message we have and in what we have to offer. Do not be afraid! Put out into the deep.
‘On this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Matt 16). A common interpretation is that the Church must be defensive. But also she is called to be proactive, bold, missionary - it is a Church on the march. To pursue and engage with falsehoods and to pursue the lost sheep.
An image of the Church for our time - A Church with her feet on the ground but one that is on the front foot, ready and equipped for mission. Rublev’s icon - the Spirit’s foot is forward, ready for mission in the world.
5. Newly Missionary
The Joy of the Gospel; Evangelii Nuntiandi. A Church that goes forth. A Mission of mercy towards the world. Model of inviting others to walk with us – synodality. Not the Church has a mission but the Church is a mission. A renewed commitment to our option for the poor.
6. Newly Ecclesial
The Church is called to be a sign of God’s presence and action in the world. The sacrament of salvation. She mediates God’s grace. Not Jesus yes, Church no. De Lubac – what would I know about Him without her?’
Our sacraments of initiation, catechesis and ways of doing things. Are they fit for purpose? A community of missionary and intentional disciples. A Church of conviction and not convention.
7. Newly Prophetic
Particularly in the areas like marriage and family, the dignity of the unborn, human sexuality, the protection of the environment and social justice.
8. Newly Participative
Talk on the Eucharist – before participation in the liturgy, we need to consider participation in the Church; before participation in the Church we need to consider participation in the life of the Trinity.
To explain, nurture and foster a sense of participation in the divine life and in the salvation of the world. God has involved us in that enterprise. To be a leaven, to be light of the world and salt of the earth. To claim the world for Christ and to Christianise the culture.
Opening up the Church for greater visible expressions of lay leadership and liturgical leadership including women and young people. We have an image crisis.
9. Newly Informed
Value and celebrate the intellectual life of the Church. To love the Lord our God with all our minds. To sanctify the mind. To re-discover the beauty, truth and coherence of the Catholic faith. To stop driving a wedge between the theological and the pastoral. The arsenal of thought and wisdom in the philosophical and theological tradition of the Church from Irenaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, St Ignatius, Edith Stein, John Paul II. ‘Always be ready to give a reason for the hope you have’ (1 Pet. 3:15).
‘We need a church that can speak the message of Jesus to a world that is searching and uncertain about faith and be listened to not because of self-proclaimed status but through the quality of its care and vision of faith’ +D. Martin, 14th Nov. 2020.
10. Newly Historical
The Church is the body of Christ. The historical embodiment of the incarnation. To know our own story from the time of Patrick right up to the present day. To have a historical consciousness. To know the glories of our Tradition - St Patrick, St Brigid, St Columbanus, St Columban, St Oliver Plunkett’s ministry at a time of restriction. The Catholic martyrs. The missionary tradition.
Also, the elements that are dark and shameful. The abuse of power. Betrayal. The poisoning of the well.
We are not starting over from scratch. So for example, the ongoing need for healing and reconciliation.
After the famine the Church regrouped. Cardinal Paul Cullen. Spirituality of suffering, temperance movement parish mission movement. Works of mercy by the Church, Protestant Churches and the Quakers during the famine.
A historical perspective reminds us of the resilience of the Church in a way that generates hope.
Bishop Josef Ratzinger in 1970: ‘From today’s crisis will emerge a church that has lost a great deal. It will no longer have use of the structures it built in its years of prosperity. The reduction in the number of faithful will lead it to losing an important part of its social privileges. It will become small and will have to start pretty much all over again. It will be a more spiritual Church, and will not claim a political mandate flirting with the right one minute and the left the next. It will be poor and will become the Church of the destitute’.
Joseph Ratzinger in 1970. ‘What will the Church Look Like?’ in Faith and the Future, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2009, 116.
The Last Word:
“Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of hope!...Christ is in you, he is with you and he never abandons you. However far you may wander, he is always there, the Risen One. He calls you and he waits for you to return to him and start over again. When you feel you are growing old out of sorrow, resentment or fear, doubt or failure, he will always be there to restore your strength and your hope” (Pope Francis, Christ is Alive)
At the end of this 'TIME FOR PRIESTS' I would like to thank all the priests and Bishops who took part. Please keep us in your prayers as we strive to serve you the people of God and try to share the joy of knowing the Lord!!
Fr Billy Swan