evangelisation at the grassroots

Liturgy 5The English theologian Nicholas Lash once noted that people are not saved from drowning by thinking differently about the law of gravity. Their lives are saved by a change in action.

In reflection on the future of our parishes, a change of approach to evangelisation at the grassroots is critical if these communities are not to become relics of a life once lived. Sadly too many parishes today rely on a ‘come and see’ approach to evangelisation that has not proven particularly effective and may even reflect a passivity in regards to mission. There is a need for a change in intent, a renewed commitment to ‘go and tell’ in the everyday conditions of our life.

Working with parish pastoral councils and ministry groups in the past months, I’ve shared some of the following insights as a means of provoking conversation and clarifying intent among parish leaders in their outreach.

In any given parish there is a small core group of dedicated members who attend Mass, serve through various forms of ministry and parish leadership, take part in occasional opportunities for formation and are generally committed to developing their faith and understanding. Then, there is a larger group of Catholics who attend Mass regularly but go no further. The last cohort within the parish is much, much larger, around 90% of all Catholics who live within the parish boundaries, who do not join us for worship and are distant or else disconnected from the faith.

It is this third group, baptised Catholics who no longer connect with what is going on in our parishes, which presents as a starting point for a renewed evangelisation. The question is how do we reach this large number of non-attending Catholics, those who could be described, for convenience sake, as the ‘unchurched’?

From experience, parish responses to the unchurched tend to be limited to letter box drops or advertising Mass times in the local paper, initiatives which are not bad in themselves but can reflect a rather skewed imagination about what is keeping people away. To sharpen the point, non-practicing Catholics are not staying away from our pews because they don’t know what time Mass is on! They are missing from our pews because they don’t see the point in being there or have no sense of what the community is about or where it is going. Evangelisation in the wider community cannot be limited to the dissemination of Mass times and impersonal mail campaigns. Our efforts must be person-centred and relational, an insight that is not unique to Pope Francis but certainly brought to fresh attention by his leadership.

dioceseThe first step toward renewal is to recognise that the unchurched we seek to reach for Christ are not strangers ‘out there’ nor are they statistics without names or faces. The unchurched are in our homes, sitting at the dinner tables of practicing Catholics! They are our relatives, friends, and neighbours who identify as ‘Catholic’ in some way but do not participate in regular worship or intentional acts of Christian service.

It follows that reaching the unchurched is a matter of skilling and empowering practicing Catholics to start the conversation about faith with relatives, friends and neighbours. Unfortunately, resources and practical assistance to prepare our people for this task is rarely found in our parishes. It is worth noting that some Baptist communities offer workshops to support wives in faith-filled conversations and relationships with their husbands who are often less likely to attend a weekend service. It recognises that evangelisation takes place via relationships and via the bridges of credibility in our lives. Parishes might also offer their parishioners personalised invitations, prayer cards and expressions of support to family members or connections at critical times in their lives. Prayer and faith resources that support people in times of distress, in times of life transition (e.g. retirement or new parenting) and times of joy can also form a bridge between faith and life. Welcome teams, ministry groups and others can be readied to offer particular hospitality and friendship to relatives and friends who take up the offer to join us this Easter or Christmas.

While such initiatives of evangelisation can sound a little provincial or homespun, grassroots efforts such as these can make an enormous difference. It locates or embeds the mission of evangelisation in the relationships that already exist between the unchurched and practicing Catholics.

Ultimately, it is not good policy or strategies that make disciples. Disciples make disciples. We need to form practicing members of our Church to have the confidence in faith, skills and relational sensitivity to reach out to those they know and love with the Good News of the Gospel.

Another measure by which we focus on the unchurched is to pray that the outreach of the parish will be effective. Prayer brings us to what is most important to us in our life of faith. Praying for the parish mission to be effective, praying that members will reach out to others with joy, praying that relationships will be transformative, places our efforts to evangelise in the heart and hands of God and in the heart and hands of the worshipping community. A parish that is not praying for new members, that does not explicitly name those who the parish is trying to reach for Christ, can be reasonably questioned on the seriousness of its intent.

On the inside of our church doors, an evangelising parish will also think through all that the parish does through the lens of an ‘outsider’, not through the experience of an ‘insider’. As an example, parishes can often assume they are welcoming and friendly because they think in terms of how existing members treat one another, not how outsiders experience the parish. Some of the most self-identifying ‘welcoming’ parishes and dioceses I have visited barely register the presence of newcomers in their midst. On the flipside, we know that when visiting a parish other than our own, a gesture of welcome or personal recognition by others can be extremely touching and can encourage longer term commitment.

‘Insider’ thinking can also be reflected in a lack of signage in many of our parishes. It is not only the local delivery man who can find it difficult to find the parish office but first time visitors as well. Good signage reduces the need for insider information. The fewer blockages to participation in, and acquaintance with, a community of faith the better.

SB048Evangelising parishes also have mission statements, that is, they have reflected on, defined and articulated their identity and mission in the local community. I recall a priest who commented on the utter uselessness of mission statements. Of course, he is right – they are useless unless they are something other than a ten year old paragraph in an unread parish bulletin.

A parish mission statement, as a guiding announcement or expression of Christian intent, will be valuable to the extent that it is understood, given commitment and lived by the whole community of faith. Sadly, many of our parishes lack a clear sense of self-identity and purpose. Of course, having a strong and defined home of one’s own can lead to selfish exclusiveness, as Pope Francis has warned, but having a home built on clear foundations and direction can also enable us to offer a home to others. What are our parishes about and what is their vision or aspiration for the years to come? Evangelising parishes pray about their mission but they also talk and communicate about their mission. Parishes that neither pray nor talk about their God-given purpose, their existence for others – including the unchurched and people of no faith – are unlikely to mobilise anyone out of the pews.

In closing, Pope Francis has underlined that we will evangelise as disciples and parishes to the extent that we are convinced there is a goal, or rather a relationship, worth embracing and sharing:

It is impossible to persevere in a fervent evangelisation unless we are convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to. It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights. We know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelise (Evangelii Gaudium 266).

It is the call of practicing Catholics, all of us in our local parishes, to first know the difference that Christ has made in our lives before moving out into the fields of relationships and networks that form our mission field. It is in our homes and everyday lives that the Gospel must come to life for the sake of the world. It is in this context that we need to form intentional and missionary disciples.

 

solitude with thomas merton

Thomas-Merton2In Christian tradition, classic texts are those which occupy a privileged place in the community’s memory, response to and reception of the Gospel. They are committed texts with a specific ‘take’ on revelation and invite the reader to engage with this same commitment in the context of their own personal understanding and experience of faith. Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation is such a text and I’ve been revisiting it over these past few days here in Japan. It was among the first Christian texts that I ever read and remains a touchstone in the tradition.

For those new to his work and person, Merton was one of the great spiritual masters of the twentieth century, an American who came to Catholic faith in his twenties. Not long after, Merton entered a Cistercian monastery, Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, and then, almost by accident, penned a best-selling autobiography Seven Storey Mountain which brought him into a limelight he could not have anticipated and did not seek out (Merton would reflect, “The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real”).

Merton would go on to assume the role of novice master for his Order, publish widely on prayer, contemplation, monasticism and social issues, and became a prolific correspondent with intellectual and spiritual luminaries within the Church and beyond it. He died in Bangkok on the 10th December, 1968, at the age of 53, electrocuted by a faulty fan while attending a monastic conference. His body was flown home with those of dead U.S. servicemen.

Published in 1962, New Seeds of Contemplation is the coalescence of Merton’s ever-maturing reflection on the contemplative experience of God as the realisation and ground of identity. Commenting on previous drafts of the work, Merton would remark,

When the book was first written, the author had no experience in confronting the needs and problems of other men (sic). The book was written in a kind of isolation… the author’s solitude has been modified by contact with other solitudes; with the loneliness, the simplicity, the perplexity of novices and scholastics of his monastic community; with the loneliness of people outside any monastery; with the loneliness of people outside the Church. (New Seeds, ix-x)

New-Seeds-of-Contemplation-9780811217248In New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton gives voice to themes that he elaborated and refined throughout his life’s work, particularly the identity of the ‘true self’ hidden in God and the profundity and need of solitude.

According to Merton’s spiritual itinerary, the discovery of authenticity in Christ begins not with an awareness of what lies at the end of the road but with a recognition of the obstacles that block its very beginnings. He describes the fundamental obstacle to maturity as the dominance of the ‘false self’, also described in New Seeds as the “the smoke self”, “the empirical ego” or the “routine self” which takes itself seriously but does not even exist (New Seeds, 38, 281, 16).

This illusory self is the product of our own pride and self-determination, for unlike animals and trees which give glory to God in being themselves, we are at liberty to be real or to be unreal, “We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face” (New Seeds, 32). Layered with selfish desire and defensive mechanisms, we can be imprisoned within fictions of our own making:

I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface. (New Seeds, 34-35).

This propensity to construct and find assurance in superficialities includes the caricature of the ‘good Catholic’ and a heroic sense of spiritual achievement. In this critique, Merton was ever conscious of the ability of the false self to appropriate even religion or ‘spirituality’ as a secret means of control and separateness.

mertonMoving to the discovery of the true self, Merton identifies solitude as the pathway to true identity. As theologian David Ranson underlines, Merton would maintain that within each one of us is a solitary dimension, a dimension not to be afraid of or done away with but entered into for this is the monastic ‘cell’ in which God is most deeply encountered. There is a need for this solitude in our lives, not as a rejection of others or the world, but as a school in which we learn to be ourselves before God. Only then can we embrace and relate to others clear of the selfishness, need for possession and validation which characterises our insecure times. It is solitude that is the doorway to the contemplative experience in which God discovers Himself alone in us, not crowded out by idols on which our hearts have become set.

What is more, the experience of authentic solitude is for Merton fundamentally Trinitarian, for God “infinitely transcends every shadow of selfishness… He is at once infinite solitude (one nature) and perfect society (Three Persons). One Infinite Love in three subsistent relations” (New Seeds, 68). By this Trinitarian focus, Merton implies that the true solitary is not an individual, imprisoned in a dream of separateness, but a person deeply related to others.

Contemplative solitude, then, is not our own, and leads the pilgrim beyond all limitation and division: “He has advanced beyond all horizons. There are no directions in which he can travel. This is a country whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” (New Seeds, 81). Even the monk or hermit does not enter into solitude for his own purposes but in relationship to and for the good of others, for the Church and the world in which he remains embedded, inseparable and even necessary.

In the depths of solitude, often experienced in prayer, the movement toward authenticity comes by way of a self-emptying or kenosis: “a man cannot enter into the deepest centre of himself and pass through that centre into God, unless he is able to pass entirely out of himself and empty himself and give himself to other people in the purity of a selfless love” (New Seeds, 64). This selflessness, however, is only possible to the extent to which we are enjoined to Christ as it is he who first gave himself for humanity and makes that kind of self-giving love possible, “I become a ‘new man’ and this new man, spiritually and mystically one identity, is at once Christ and myself… This spiritual union of my being with Christ in one ‘new man’ is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, the Spirit of Christ” (New Seeds, 158).

candleMerton concludes that as long as there is an “I” aware of itself and its contemplation, an “I” that can possess a certain “degree of spirituality” then we have not yet passed into the fullness of contemplation, the fullness of Christian life itself (New Seeds, 292). Ultimately, the mature Christian has no psychological individuality or even self-conscious biography; all the shadows of self-assertion end at an interior death which, paradoxically, and in the light of the paschal mystery, emerges as the very beginning of a real, authentic life.

We can see that there is little sentimentalism in Merton’s writing and much challenge. In texts such as New Seeds of Contemplation we hear a robust call to purify our desires and to meet head on the ‘spiritual deaths’ that lower the ego and allow the emergence of the true self to take place. In this respect, the Christian life unfolds as ‘revolutionary’ though not in the sense of accelerated progress or an aggressive, suprahuman evolution. As Merton affirms,

… the burden of Christ’s Cross, that is Christ’s humility and poverty and obedience and renunciation… this is the most complete revolution that has ever been preached; in fact it is the only true revolution, because all the others demand the extermination of somebody else, but this one means the death of the [person] who, for all practical purposes, you have come to think of as your own self. (New Seeds, 144).

Merton reminds the Christian that the gift of faith is not an escape or an evasion but a project of deepening integration in our identity in Christ, one which carries with it a greater responsibility for the world and not less.

shibuyaOur life in Christ is not any more abstract or comfortable than life as we now know it, nor is it found in the sublime stories, private or collective, we tell about ourselves. The inheritance we receive from the writings of Merton is the decisive possibility of freedom and authenticity in faith, being who we have been made to be. It is an existential summons to unlock ourselves from the inside, from the imprisonment of our own private illusions and the masks that operate, as it were, ‘behind the Gospel’s back’. The path back to ourselves begins with an interior solitude that can be found even among the exterior noise and din that fills the world. Writing from Tokyo, a city of fourteen million, among the machines, lights, and appeals of the salesman, this pilgrimage seems more important than ever.

lumen fidei

benedictfrancisOriginally intended for publication earlier this year as Pope Benedict’s fourth encyclical and the final in a trilogy on the theological virtues, Lumen Fidei (‘The Light of Faith’) was promulgated this past Friday in the name of Pope Francis.

In the same way as Benedict’s first encyclical in 2005, Deus Caritas Est, brought to completion the unfinished writings of John Paul II, so Francis’ inaugural encyclical represents to a significant degree the thought of his German predecessor on the meaning and implications of Christian faith. This inheritance and continuity between recent papal documents aligns well with Benedict’s own remarks, just days before his abdication, on the writings of ‘Peter’:

Peter was not alone in writing [his] Letter but it expresses the faith of a Church . . . He does not write alone, as an isolated individual; he writes with the assistance of the Church, of people who help him to deepen the faith, to enter into the depths of his thought, of his rationality, of his profundity. And this is very important: Peter is not speaking as an individual, he is speaking ex persona Ecclesiae, he is speaking as a man of the Church.

Likewise, Francis’ encyclical is received not as the word of a private individual apart from or above the Church but an expression of the faith of the communion of which he is called, in his person as ‘Peter‘, to be witness and shepherd.

The Possibility of Faith

lumenfideiLumen Fidei begins by addressing the very dilemma of faith in the contemporary world. Christian faith is so often seen by many as contrary to reason, not as a light that opens up the world but a darkness which stifles and even represses human creativity and the quest for knowledge. Even those who have sought to make room for faith have undermined it by promoting faith, erroneously, as a ‘leap in the dark’ driven by blind emotion. Others who champion autonomous reason as the answer to humanity’s future have often realised that their questions remain unanswered and this has led to an abandonment of the very search for truth itself in favour of “smaller lights which illumine the fleeting moment yet prove incapable of showing the way” (LF 3). Humanity remains hungry for a firm ground on which to stand and hence remains unfulfilled as it experiences the darkness and insufficiency of the world and itself.

On reading these opening remarks, the influence of Benedict stands out. His 1968 work Introduction to Christianity begins with this same confrontation of the very possibility of belief in the world of today. Indeed, the same temptations for the believer and unbeliever alluded to in Lumen Fidei (that of fideism or refuge in rationalism in the face of life’s questions) are raised by the early Ratzinger as prompts toward a fuller understanding of the ‘openness’ of faith, “Just as the believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a continual temptation, so for the unbeliever faith remains a temptation and a threat to his permanently closed world” (Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 45). The recurring challenge of human finality and the quest for human understanding rescues both the believer and unbeliever from being shut up in their own worlds, resisting any tendency to self-satisfaction and urging humanity onwards in the search for truth.

9954008Lumen Fidei seeks to propose the light of faith as the guide to this truth that we seek, a light that illumines all aspects of our existence in illuminating God as one who addresses us personally. It notes that the word of God that called Abraham, ‘our father in faith’, is not alien to human experience but always present at the core of our being. It follows that Abraham’s response to that divine calling, Abraham’s faith, “sheds light on the depths of his being, it enables him to acknowledge the wellspring of goodness at the origin of all things and to realise that his life is not the product of non-being or chance, but the fruit of a personal call and a personal love” (LF 11). Faith in God, then, as one who creates and calls is not an extrinsic act or a merely ‘religious’ commitment but an integral and humanising project and gift which, when received, unveils our true vocation in the life of God himself.

The faith of Israel that would follow Abraham further reveals faith as a summons to a pilgrimage with the Lord that calls through the concrete events of our life. The history of Israel also sounds a note of warning, that of idolatry which reveals our own tendency toward control and vanity, as Lumen Fidei makes clear, “Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshipping the work of our own hands” (LF 13). While commentators have seen in this discussion of idolatry the hand of Pope Francis, it is one that was certainly shared by his predecessor in his writings on the liturgy among others (see Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy, 22f). The overall thrust of the text is to underline the paradox of faith, that is, as in all loving relationship, by our constant turn towards the one beyond our control, and by the surrender to what we did not initiate, we become more and not less ourselves, freed from the slavery of our own self-absorption and insecurities.

Ultimately, it is in Christ Jesus that the total manifestation of God’s faithfulness arrives in history, the crucifixion of Christ being the “culmination of the gaze of faith; in that hour the depth and breadth of God’s love shone forth” (LF 16). It is a total gift of self that precedes us and allows one to entrust themselves completely to the utter reliability of God’s love, manifest not only in this death-in-love but in his rising in love, a “tangible and powerful love which really does act in history and determines its final destiny, a love that can be encountered” (LF 17). It echoes the thought of Ratzinger for he affirms elsewhere, “Christian faith is more than the option of a spiritual ground to the world; its central formula is not ‘I believe in something’ but ‘I believe in you’. It is in the encounter with the man Jesus, and in this encounter it experiences the meaning of the world as a person.” (Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 79).

After a brief word on the ecclesial form of faith, perhaps surprisingly brief given the demise of the Church’s credibility in the wake of the abuse scandal, the encyclical turns to the relation of faith to the truth which human beings seek (the theme of the Church is picked up again in Chapter 3 of Lumen Fidei though, again, without any theological treatment of sinfulness within the Church).

A Reasonable Faith

fidesEngaging an epistemology that may not be accessible to all, Lumen Fidei then goes on to underline the significance of truth for faith. Without truth, faith remains only “a beautiful story, the projection of our deep yearning for happiness, something capable of satisfying us to the extent that we are willing to deceive ourselves” (LF 24). Knowledge of the truth, Lumen Fidei asserts, is to be found in love which cannot be reduced to ephemeral emotion but is, most deeply understood, union with the Other. Without this love, “truth becomes cold, impersonal and oppressive for people’s day-to-day lives”; without truth, love becomes mere sentimentality, a fleeting emotion and cannot be a ground on which a future can be sustained. Love without truth “cannot stand the test of time” (LF 27). It is this discovery of love as a source of knowledge, as an interpersonal communion built upon truth that is capable of pointing us toward our ultimate fulfilment, that finds expression in the biblical understanding of “faith” (LF 28).

Returning to the concern of the opening paragraphs, Lumen Fidei then turns to the dialogue between faith and reason, drawing on the insights of John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio and also St Augustine, a perennial influence in Benedict’s own thought. As in the writing of John Paul II, faith and reason are presented not as opposed – as if faith were an irrational undertaking or that reason leaves behind the necessity of faith – but are recognised as having the same end or finality which is to know the truth. The reception of divine revelation and the ongoing human question for meaning, or philosophy, are not exterior to one another but intrinsically linked as Lumen Fidei seeks to show by the example of scientific inquiry,

The light of faith is an incarnate light radiating from the luminous life of Jesus. It also illumines the material world, trusts its inherent order and knows that is calls us to an ever widening path of harmony and understanding. The gaze of science thus benefits from faith: faith encourages the scientist to remain constantly open to reality in all its inexhaustible richness. Faith awakens the critical sense by preventing research from being satisfied with its own formulae and helps it to realize that nature is always greater. By stimulating wonder before the profound mystery of creation, faith broadens the horizons of reason to shed greater light on the world which discloses itself to scientific investigation (LF 34).

popejohnpauliiAs Fides et Ratio affirmed for philosophers so it may be said for the scientist, “it is necessary not to abandon the passion for ultimate truth, the eagerness to search for it or the audacity to forge new paths in the search. It is faith which stirs reason to move beyond all isolation and willingly to run risks so that it may attain whatever is beautiful, good and true. Faith thus becomes the convinced and convincing advocate of reason” (FR 56). As it has been said, it is faith that challenges reason to more audacious undertakings.

An Ecclesial Faith

The third and penultimate chapter of Lumen Fidei expands on the ecclesial context of faith that is only touched upon at the end of Chapter One (LF 22). Addressing the maternity of the Church, as one who brings about the birth of Christ in the believer, the encyclical draws attention to the living tradition of the Church.

The Church passes on the light of faith through the generations, “just as one candle is lighted from another”, an image that certainly recalls Pope Francis’ preaching style. Raising the question of the verification of knowledge, the encyclical underlines the relational way in which knowledge is transmitted, “Language itself, the words by which we make sense of our lives and the world around us, comes to us from others, preserved in the living memory of others. Self-knowledge is only possible when we share in a greater memory” (LF 38).

This sociological reality illuminates the theological significance of the Church as a “remembering subject” for it is this living communion that precedes us, and into which we are baptised, that teaches us the very language of faith. In plain terms, the Church came before us and rather than stifling our personal engagement with God in Christ, this very fact makes possible our personal faith with all the riches and insights of those that preceded us.

noahangbaptismP_041In faith, we respond to a word which did not originate with us – in the language of Lumen Fidei, “Our belief is expressed in response to an invitation, to a word which must be heard and which is now my own; it exists as part of a dialogue and cannot be merely a profession originating in an individual” (LF 39). Ratzinger’s earlier text makes the point in a similar way, “Faith comes to man from outside. . . [It is] not something thought up by myself; it is something said to me . . . This double structure of ‘Do you believe? – I do believe!’, this form of call from outside and the reply to it is fundamental to it” (Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 91-2).

The ecclesial form of faith also expresses itself in the Church’s sacraments which “communicate an incarnate memory” (LF 40). Lumen Fidei even intimates the sacramental structure of faith itself for “the awakening of faith is linked to the dawning of a new sacramental sense in our lives as human beings and as Christians, in which visible and material realities are seen to point beyond themselves to the mystery of the eternal” (LF 40). Following this there is catechesis on the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, the creed, the Decalogue and prayer before the fourth chapter turns to the social consequences of the nature of faith outlined.

An Incarnate Faith

In continuity with Pope Francis’ preaching on the sociality of faith and the Church’s mission, the encyclical concludes by relating faith to the common good, affirming faith not as a privatised journey of introspection or pious isolation but a “process of building, the preparing of a place in which human beings can dwell together with one another” (LF 50). Faith does not only provide interior firmness, it also allows the believer to see others in their inherent dignity and vocation, born of love for union with God’s own self. Faith, because it is loving, does not draw believers away from the world but ever deeper into the concrete concerns of the men and women of our time. Families and the young are called to be bearers of faith in the midst of the world (LF 52-53) while faith brings as well a respect for creation as a gift for which all are indebted.

woodencrossA powerful section of Lumen Fidei is its treatment of human suffering in which it recognises human pain, hunger and loss is not at all extinguished by faith but placed in a new context of meaning. The encyclical affirms in this regard, “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light” (LF 57). Pope Francis reminds us that it is Christ who has occupied the place of suffering, in the Gethsemane Garden and on the Cross, and as the endurer of humanity’s suffering he will be “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2) (LF 57).

As is tradition, Lumen Fidei concludes with an affirmation of the ‘Marian profile’ of faith for it is Mary who demonstrates the fruitfulness of faith from the Annunciation to the Cross. As figure of the Church and as one whose motherhood extends to each of his disciples, Mary leads us always and only to the blessing of faith which is her Son.

Conclusion

LUMEN FIDEI encyclical provisional cover_ B 13.inddLumen Fidei is a timely encyclical for a challenging moment in the Church’s history, calling for a return to the purity and plenitude of the faith that we have received and are called to live in the present. As this most recent teaching is received and settles within the tradition of the Church (and it calls for future reading together with its forebears Deus Caritas Est and Spe Salvi), many more insights and implications will no doubt come to light. What is obvious by its absence is significant reference to the “new evangelisation” as another manifestation of the Church’s self-understanding (with the exception of LF 42). We might hope that a future exhortation on this subject will build connections and so further expand the implications of faith for the Church’s mission in a new time, in the context of a globalised church and with a variety of ad intra and ad extra influences impacting on the Church’s relation to the world.

the Spirit of the conclave

With the collegeofcardinalsconclave set to begin tomorrow (12 March), it is worth reflecting on one of the underlying themes of these past weeks, or one of the ‘issues under the issues’ as the historian John W. O’Malley would put it.

The  issue is the role of the Holy Spirit in the life and renewal of the Church. Of course, following Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication, it is the Spirit’s guidance of the Church in the election of a new pontiff that is at the heart of our prayer at present and for good reason.

As a religious and political institution, the papacy has shaped and re-shaped human history in innumerable ways both positive and notorious (compare the papacy of Gregory the Great in the sixth century and his historic mission to the people of Anglo-Saxon England, worshipping as they were ‘stocks and stones at the edge of the world’ to that of Benedict IX in the eleventh century whose election, the result of systematic bribery on the part of his father, brought only violence, debauchery and shame to the See of Peter).

This uneven history of the papacy and its influence on both the Church and world underlines the importance of the upcoming conclave and the Spirit-led discernment that calls to be exercised by the cardinalate.

The new pontiff will not only need to meet the challenge of the sexual abuse crisis, a scandal that continues to raze the credibility and mission of the Church globally, but also the plight of persecuted Christians in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, the yet-incomplete articulation and direction of ‘the new evangelisation’ aimed principally at the West, and the abiding issues of internal reform, including that of the Roman Curia, that call for address.

While it would be comforting and reassuring to assume that the Spirit’s direction will, and has been, a full triumph in the Church, history has told us otherwise. Indeed, on the subject of papal elections, the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made the following, now widely-publicised, remarks on the influence of the Spirit on such an occasion:

I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined . . .

The Cardinal went on to conclude with stark realism,

There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!

Erroneous decisions on the part of the Church, certainly not restricted to the realm of candidates for the Petrine Office, raise the question of the precise nature of the Spirit’s role in ecclesial discernment and decision-making for while Scripture affirms that the Spirit will indeed ‘guide us into all the truth’ (Jn 16:13) it ostensibly does not offer the community of disciples immunity from mediocrity or even calamity.

NTChurchCertainly, in the Acts of the Apostles the Spirit does appear to intervene at chosen moments in an immediate and decisive manner, leading the nascent Church towards what it should be and what it should do. For instance, we witness the power of the Spirit at Pentecost to bring about a reconciled diversity among Jesus’ disciples and later it is the Spirit who guides the Church into an embrace of the Gentiles, a decision which the apostles and elders attest as having ‘seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15:28). For Luke, the author of Acts, the power of the Spirit is at work, guiding and directing the early Church to its destination.

However, other New Testament texts, the dramatic history of the Church and our own personal experience suggest that the voice of the Spirit is not always so clear. The diverse manifestations of the Spirit as expressed in the New Testament communities (1 Cor. 12:28-31, Eph. 4:11-13, Rom. 12:6-8), while a profound gift to the Church, indubitably shape the later Johannine emphasis on the need of discernment to ensure that what has been received, experienced or testified is indeed truly of God. The First Letter of John, clearly acquainted with the experience of community discord, warns, ‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit but test the spirits . . . from this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error’ (1 John 4:1,6).

rubleviconIndeed, it is ironic that the subject of the Spirit, which ecumenical theology affirms as the principal of unity within the Church, has been at the root of some of the most significant divisions in the history of Christianity – the split of the East and West over the Spirit’s procession from the Father and/or the Son, and the Spirit’s relation to Scripture, tradition, and the sacraments including hierarchical ministry so bitterly contested at the Reformation.

What we can draw from this mixed history and the necessity of the Spirit’s discernment is that the gift of the Spirit – in all of its ‘elasticity’ as Cardinal Ratzinger puts it – does not so overwhelm the Christian that it alleviates or excuses them of the responsibility to evaluate, reflect and decide in faith but rather invites and even necessitates their active participation in that process of decision. This much is clear from the story of the primitive Church as described above (to open the Gospel of Christ to the Gentiles or to restrict proclamation of the Messiah to the House of Israel?)

In other words, the gift of the Spirit needs to be actively and constantly received by the community of the Church as it pilgrims through history, a ‘reception’ that involves the activities of listening, understanding, applying, and so truly ‘making one’s own’ the Spirit of faith and grace so that the community can be faithful to the person and message of Jesus.

The necessity of active human involvement in the Spirit-led decisions of the Church explains not only the emphasis of our tradition on being ‘docile’ to the Spirit (a spiritual tenet emphasised by Benedict XVI himself in his farewell address to the College of Cardinals) but also opens the real possibility for the non-reception of the Spirit by the Church community. This failure to heed the Spirit is evidenced not only in the grand crises and scandals of the past and recent history of the Church but also in the more ‘ordinary’, everyday failing of Christians to live the full meaning of their God-given discipleship.

The Australian theologian Ormond Rush concludes of the Church and the Spirit, ‘the human receivers of revelation are to be portrayed as active participants in discerning the way forward, co-deciders with God’s Spirit’ (cf. Rush, Still Interpreting Vatican II, 87). This ‘co-decision’ with God’s Spirit is a capacity and responsibility not simply of those who exercise authority in the Church but for the whole ecclesial body which shares the task of receiving the one Spirit, the ‘Spirit of Christ’ himself (Rom. 8:9), into its life, structures and decision-making.

CardinalsReturning to the impending conclave, though the abiding presence of the Spirit in the Church is that which ensures the Church a future as the ‘pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Tim. 3:15), it remains the task of the cardinal-electors, as individuals and as a college, to be open and receptive of the Spirit’s promptings in selecting ‘the first among the successors of the apostles’ to guide the Church into this future.

As for each and every Christian, what is essential to the cardinal’s reception of the Spirit is their own conversion for it is only in holiness that one can recognise the Spirit who is holy. There can be, then, no naïve self-complacency about those Spirit-led decisions which shape our life of faith, whether they are made in the splendour of the Sistine Chapel or the more familiar surrounds of our own dioceses and parishes with their own intimate concerns and hopes for the future. It is only our conversion that enables authentic discernment, a faithful recognition, of the Spirit of Truth as it calls us to respond. As the 14th century theologian Gregory of Sinai concludes, ‘the understanding of truth is given to those who have become participants in the truth – who have tasted it through living.’ We pray that the cardinal-electors will choose well and in good faith.

praying in faith

”Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

The season of Lent brings renewed focus to the significance of prayer for growth, a practice supported by fasting and that leads us to almsgiving.

It is not novel to suggest that prayer belongs to the essence of Christian life and is essential to the integrity of Christian leaders. Curiously, however, we find few opportunities in our parishes, schools and beyond where prayer is taught and can be learned.

prayerAlthough a life of prayer grows principally through its practice, that is by praying, it is also nourished by an understanding of what prayer involves and awakens us to as we do it. When we understand what we are doing when we are doing it, a new intentionality and fresh desire is brought to our prayer, not only in the setting of the Church’s liturgy but throughout the breadth of our Christian life.

Indeed, in the Gospels we find the disciples eager to learn the way of prayer after being drawn into its circle by Jesus’ example. ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ they ask (Lk 11:1). In the Catechism we find recognition as well of prayer as a practice that is learned, with a call for formation and education in ongoing ‘schools of prayer’ (CCC#2689). While always a gift of the Spirit, prayer presupposes effort by the disciple (CCC#2725) for ‘we do not know how to prayer as we ought’ (Rom. 8:26).

While it can be approached in so many ways, I have come to experience prayer most powerfully as an expression of our radical dependence on God as the source of our life. What is more, it is because of this dependence on God, and not despite of it, that prayer is at the same time the overwhelming (even confronting) experience of our own humanity at its depth, in its fundamental orientation towards God.

mosaicWe learn this much from ‘the master of prayer’, Jesus of Nazareth who is, as St Paul describes, ‘the revelation of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:19). It is Jesus who unveils in his own filial piety our destiny in God, revealing communion with ‘our Father’ not simply as a ‘religious’ venture, an extrinsic performance detached from ourselves, but a calling in accord with the imperatives of our own nature. In short, prayer is not only entry into the divine life but also the discovery of our authentic humanity by that encounter.

As Christians it is essential to note as well that we do much more than merely ‘follow’ or imitate Jesus in prayer. In the act of prayer we, in fact, enter into Jesus’ own prayer to the Father as the Gospel makes powerfully clear: ‘God has sent into our hearts the Spirit of his Son who cries ‘Abba, Father’ (Gal. 4:6, Rom. 8:15). It is the Spirit of Christ who prays within the heart of each disciple.

Hence, in the person of Jesus we come to see not only the extent to which prayer shapes the heart we bring before God but discover our prayer as an entry into His communion with the Father. Prayer is, as the Eucharistic doxology proclaims, ‘through Him, with Him and in Him’. To pray is to allow ourselves to be ‘caught up’ in the prayer of Jesus who is alive in us through the Spirit to the Father.

In coming to an appreciation of prayer’s meaning and possibility, the reflections below might further shape your own imagination and practice of prayer. They are generously provided by a friend, a monk, who has dedicated his life to this ceaseless communion with God.

gospel1.  Prayer rises in our hearts when we listen to the words of the Gospel, meditate upon them, and strive to live as faithful disciples of Christ. In the ‘Life of Antony’, we catch a glimpse of the way the early Christians prayed. Every day, they would go to their local church in order to listen to the Scriptures and pray together. On Sundays, they would celebrate the Eucharist. Then they would go back to their homes, carrying in their minds the words of Scripture they had heard read in the church.

Throughout the day, whether they were walking along the road, working in the fields, preparing a meal, or conducting business, they would recall the texts and meditate on them. This was for them a ‘school of prayer': the continuation of the liturgy in their daily lives.

2.  When we attend to God’s Word in the context of our daily lives it has the power to speak to our hearts and lead us in the way of discipleship. It also has the power to keep the fire of prayer and love burning in our hearts. Abba Joseph, one of the early Egyptian Desert Fathers, used to say: ‘If you will you can become all flame’.

It is important that we see prayer as very much part of our daily living. We need to structure into our lives some time when we can be free for listening to God’s Word, prayerful reading of the Scriptures, and quiet contemplative prayer. However, perhaps the most vital element of our prayer life is the way that prayer overflows and becomes a part of the rest of our lives. Prayer will tend to become stilted and artificial if it is confined only to set times and places.

sb3. Our relations with other people are an intrinsic part of our prayer life. The gentle stirring of love that we feel in our hearts during times of prayer tends to dry up if it is not given scope to reach out concretely to others in our normal, daily contact with the people who share our lives. Love needs to be exercised if it is to grow strong. John in his letter says: ‘How can we love God, who we cannot see, if we do not love our brothers and sisters, who we do see?’ (1 Jn 4:20). We need to trust the love that God places in our hearts and learn to reach out from there to others.

4. Prayer gives us the opportunity to recognise our own limitations: weakness, failure, brokenness, temptation, and even sin. It demands real faith to stand before God and believe in his love. We need the courage to say the prayer of the Eastern monastic tradition which is ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.’  When we allow God to enter the messiness of our lives, then grace is able to act and, finally, growth can take place.

This is sage advice not simply for a life of ‘prayers’ but a more encompassing life of prayerfulness. In listening to the Word, allowing that Word to enter and shape our daily living and intentions, as suggested here, we begin to understand and experience the depth of communion that prayer enables.

As a final note, over the past few years it has struck me that ordained and lay leaders of communities can desire that their people change while they themselves remain the same. The primacy of prayer in the journey towards God and one another applies to all and admits of no exception.

Without prayerfulness there cannot be growth and without growth there cannot ultimately be fullness of life in Him. Our communities will thrive in the Gospel and its mission to the extent that we pray.