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By Sean O' Leary

During the past year, I have facilitated or co-facilitated many parish meetings on a range of topics including the work of pastoral councils, the importance of lay ministry and leadership, the transition to pastoral areas and the need to reduce and align Mass times given the decline in the number of priests. While each meeting is unique, there always seems to be some commonalities. This is my effort to make sense of journeying together in today’s Church.

If we could only listen with a welcoming ear, there is much that migrants can teach us about the deeply felt desire for home. ‘An exile is not just someone who has lost his home; it is someone who can’t find another, who can’t think of another.’ These are the words of the novelist Andre Aciman in ‘Shadow Cities’ who poignantly reminds us that uprootedness is not just about place but also about time.

This sense of search as an in-between experience positions the exile as a wandering soul who has departed from an old somewhere but struggles to truly arrive at a new somewhere. For each one of us who dwell in changing times, whether we have moved location or not, we can at times find ourselves caught precariously in an unknowable present, weighed down between a gripping nostalgia and a far-off hope.

The certainties of the past, the brightly coloured patterns of daily routines and the strong bonds of belonging that nourished our hearts are inexplicably weakened, perhaps by some sort of gradual erosion or by a thunderous storm that startled us, unsettling us like ill-prepared settlers. It is a story as old as humankind, this feeling of sadness, this epiphany of unpreparedness for tomorrow, this woeful loss of paradise. Perhaps too, our memories trick us, reminding us of the most precious moments of the past mercifully cleansed of ordinary frustrations.

But in truth there is much that we lose, almost too much for our poor hearts to bear, a deluge of experience and emotion beyond our knowing. Because, caught up in it all are the people we once loved, and love still with an unbreakable bond. Grief, such a little word for intense and messy sorrow. ‘In the dark night of the soul, bright flows the river of God’. These words from St. John of the Cross echo in the wasteland of our loneliest experiences. God knows, it’s not simple nor easy.

There is sadness too within church communities. In parish halls up and down the country, people gather to grapple with the necessary yet challenging changes of our time. There is loss here too and grief, a slippery sorrow that disturbs our loyalties and challenges our ways of doing things; a fearful nostalgia for better times sitting forlornly amidst the inspired dismantling of yesterday’s borders that lay uninterrupted, at least to our minds, between the work of priests and lay people or between parishes and people.

In a complex and rapidly changing world, it is not easy to know how to live out our baptismal blessing and to share in Christ’s office of priest, prophet and king. Our vocations are different but we each in our own ways manifest the extraordinary possibilities of Christ’s mission.

Yet, we also worry about those who are absent, the dwindling congregations, the age profile of those gathered in the local church or parish hall, the families too busy to engage or the young people who don’t see the need for regular church attendance.

Such concerns can lead to reluctance and blame and impatience and bothersome questions that emerge into the unknowable present, bravely uttered by those who seek renewed understanding. Yet, amidst the perplexity and the seeking, there is a regenerative breeze that calls to the soul, a joyful whisper that wills us to awaken to the certainty that the place or time we so desperately imagine has already been offered to us, is being offered now and will be offered forever more.

Such a renewed realisation might begin with a nod or a smile, the gentle chant of a well-remembered prayer, the soft glow of the gathered community, a simple kindness rediscovered, the briefest glimpse of a beautiful kingdom, the loving care of one another, the easeful exchange of stories, the missionary possibilities of shared learning or the welcome reminder of tea and cakes. Each little beckoning draws us forward, ever forward despite our wavering footsteps.

It is all church of course, the shadow and the light, the afflictions and the healing, the loss and the hope, the confusion and the emerging insights. Some conflate the church with worship rather than mission, not sure how a ‘meeting’ could possibly be church while others wonder why we don’t have more meetings. ‘Dear God, no, not another meeting’ sits uncomfortably alongside ‘God help us, we really need another meeting’ yet rub along well enough together. This is church.

In the parish halls, there is wonder too, ranging from simple astonishment to seasoned awe, at the work of the Holy Spirit who somehow holds together the unfamiliar tensions that come with the practical implications of synodality, as if journeying together requires us to relearn some unifying truths that we’ve absentmindedly left behind. Amidst the push and pull of emerging ways forward, the searching questions and the cheerful cups of tea, there is always hope, not some remote far-off hope but the powerful ever present God-given hope that burns within. This is not a blind hope, nor mere human optimism but a pure hope that shines with a heavenly glow. This is church.

In our parish meetings, we walk tenuously, mindful of the wounds that have been freshly salved, more mindful perhaps of the rawness of the wounds that remain stubbornly untouched, perplexed too about the bits that don’t quite seem to fit, yet somehow blessedly remembering the sacred flow of all existence. We lean in together, less perturbed by disagreement, to warm our hearts. It is this sacred kind of remembering that awakens us once again from our myopic perceptions to the startling movement of the Spirit. This is church.

For God asks us to remember, not with rose-tinted glasses but through a much more magnificent window. ‘Do this in memory of me’, unusually plain words to describe the enormity of sorrow, fear and woundedness that is caressed by God’s grace. Stranger still is the power of redemptive love that we are invited to take part in. Such simple seemingly straightforward words, yet divinely powerful beyond our wildest imagination.

To answer the call to unite oneself ever closer with the mystery of God is always and everywhere to be close to home and our loved ones, to be close to everything that we hold dear and to be close to our deepest selves. It is to experience an inexplicable yet profound certainty, that we are closer than we know to our ultimate destination of radical togetherness. But it takes something more than habit, some keenly felt response from each one of us to faithfully answer the call from this eternal communion.

And so, our divine adventure continues into the wilds of the future, strengthened by the place that God has made our home, our foundational rock to settle upon, a secure space to rest and learn and work together for the good of all. This mystical place of belonging is the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit and the communion of saints where nothing good or true is ever left behind.

Despite any trials that we endure or any mistakes that we make, God constantly asks us to be pilgrims, tireless pioneers who brave the wilderness of tomorrow, who feel secure and at home in territory where the borders of the past no longer define the mission of the future. This is our true residence while dwelling within God’s good creation, a beautiful yet sturdy home spanning heaven and earth, a sanctuary of belonging and humble self-expression where we wholeheartedly express gratitude for our unfolding story and our own unique place in time. Thanks be to God!


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