“Pope says roles of priest, laity should not be blurred” - Catholic News Service, Sep-18-2009
This essay was originally written December 2000 as a test paper for a Catholic University. Some nine years later I think it is still as relevant today as it was then – even more so – especially in light of the concerns expressed by Benedict XVI.
How does the Church serve the masses? Is the Church to be an oasis in the middle of a desert or, must the Church go out into the desert to minister to the tempted? Is the Church, in its present form, still relevant in this largely secular, multicultural and mobile society or, will the Church be viewed as just another institution competing with the seemingly more powerful multi¬national corporations throughout the world? Can the Church be more influential in our daily lives, in our decision making process and remain a sign of hope and healing in this day and age?
I believe it can, when it chooses to become truly ecumenical, truly a servant to the people, less institutional, more spontaneous, reflecting Jesus Christ and responding to the needs of the community it serves. No two communities can ever share similar needs but each community can be a light to those it serves. A corporation serves the needs of those who hold the power. A Church must serve the needs of those who are powerless. Guided by the Holy Spirit, a Church must serve the wounded heart, the sick, the marginal, and those who live their daily lives in quiet desperation. Is that Holy power to be held in the hands of a few, or is that power to be sent out through the Church to everyone? Have we failed to recognize God's face in our neighbours or have we become blind to God's saving grace. Do we instead pin our hopes and desires on the new corporate culture of competition and power with its promises of economic success and greater material wealth often at the expense of others? Are we stuck in the desert worshipping a false god of power? More importantly do we see our own brokenness in this pursuit?
How can we as Church become more dynamic, more influential to those God places in our daily life, including the systems that would bring greater social justice.? Is it possible to see Church not as a separate state but as part of the whole? Is it possible to see Church as being absorbed in all of our everyday actions and activities? This vision may be somewhat idealistic but is that not better then the vision the world holds for us today? . Did God not promise salvation for all? What prevents us from becoming one with one another? What keeps us from living a life to the full? Does God not make his rain fall on the good and the bad? I do not pretend to have the answers to these questions, but I do think we have to be honest enough to ask them of ourselves and our Church . Only then can we proceed into the future.
These are the issues which come directly to mind as I consider the state of Church and community today. First of all I would like to see a more power filled Church i.e., Holy Spirit power not to build a Church based on earthly power. This Church, or these communities, will then become greater symbols of God's hope, healing and joy when it freely and unconditionally releases God gifts. We must truly become a people taking full responsibility for the growth of our own faith, and dare to become living symbols of God's universal love. Our liturgy needs to reflect and reinforce this message more effectively so that we may know our role and responsibility in our community. This must not be viewed as the sole responsibility of our clergy. After all they (and we) can only act as signs and point the way. Our religious are all invaluable bearers of the faith. They can help us hear His calling more clearly. We in turn must support them in their calling!
We can begin by answering our calling to be ministers to the community. Each one of us is blessed in some way to be the hands, ears, voice, and eyes of our Lord, through the power of the Holy Spirit, but we must not wait until we 'feel' special. We must act in faith with the assurance that 'the Spirit that God has given us does not make us timid; instead, his Spirit fill us with power, love and self-control'.1 In practical terms we need to rediscover the meaning of being 'elders' in our community. We need to rediscover, or discover, our calling.
The Letter from James tells us that the anointing of the sick was initially administered by the 'elders' of the early Christian community. Later it became more narrowly defined and strictly dispensed by ordained clergy under the sacrament of extreme unction. Under this name it was applied only at time of imminent death. More recently under Vatican II it was redefined as the sacrament of the sick to be administered by its bishops and priests to be 'given to those who are seriously ill'2. So, we see that despite many theological explanations and historical influences it continues to be held under the control of the ordained and restricted in its use. With so many wounded hearts and so many lay people ready to minister to the 'call of the poor' why does the Church seem so reluctant to share these God given charisms? Has it failed to recognize these gifts in its faithful elders or is this simply part of our faith evolution? Why are we not more dynamic and spontaneous to our spiritual calling? Are we too dependent on earthly power, on the things seen rather than unseen? Have we abused this power and does that prevent us from claiming the power of the Holy Spirit? Dr. Marjory Gallagher states: "the aspect [of this kind] of "power" downplay(s) the importance of the gift and charism for leadership in a faith community."3 The community, as individuals, must be encouraged to embrace its own salvation more immediately and strongly. The Church on the other hand will serve the community by affirming/confirming the gift(s) on all its willing participants.
I believe this will be achieved because of the increasing and growing 'call of the poor'. God has not forgotten them, he will not forsake them but he did ask everyone of us, through the power of his Holy Spirit, to be his instruments of love here and now on this earth. We will and cannot fail if we are prepared to act according to a Holy power which is far greater than any manmade power on earth. God so readily wants us to share his gifts that he died for us on the cross. The Church will play a valuable part in recognizing these gifts in its 'elders' and it must also recognize any misuses of these gifts if they are used only for the sake of obtaining "power". The elders for their part must hear and respond to their calling asking for the community through the Church to affirm and confirm the gift of the Holy Spirit in them. Together they will form a powerful instrument of God's love in bringing healing and understanding to all who ask for it in His name.
Again, from a practical point of view we could begin by asking the 'elders' of our Church (and they will know who they are) to pray over the sick and troubled in our community by anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. Perhaps this could be done at the conclusion of each mass. What a powerful response to mass. As we are dismissed we immediately go out to love and serve Him and one another! In a more ecumenical setting perhaps this could be included in a evening service or at people’s homes, hospitals, etc. As part of our healing liturgy, this action would become a unifying symbol of God's universal love. Let’s not limit God's healing action to the Mass but rather bring it to the masses.
We need to become a more forgiving people. To forgive one another and to forgive ourselves as Christ asked, because they [we] do not know what we do. Several years ago I read a book by Rabbi David J. Wolpe In Speech and In Silence that powerfully impacted the way I came to view our Catholic sacrament of reconciliation. In this story Rabbi Wolpe describes how during the most solemn moment of the celebration of Yom Kippur called 'Kol Nidre' the participants confess sins or misdeeds not committed by most of the congregation. He asks, "why should the worshipper stand before God and ask for forgiveness for transgressions that he or she never committed? The first answer is that this acts as a shield for those who need to confess. When all the congregation lift up their voices and say, 'We have sinned by . . . 'no one knows who is truly confessing to the misdeed. " Nonetheless, Rabbi Wolpe goes on to say, "there is a deeper reason. We tend to split ourselves off from those who commit terrible crimes. By confessing to sins we have not committed, we admit that such deeds are possible for us. We do not separate ourselves. We recognize the demonic potential that exists in the most placid breast." The Jewish celebration of reconciliation or confession seems to follow the Catholic General Form of Absolution closely in format. However, as Catholics we need emphasize the community aspect of worship and move away from private worship if we are to truly become a more ecumenical community in the world. We cannot remain isolated when God calls us to communion with one another. By sharing the riches of each others' beliefs we will break down invisible barriers of prejudice and intolerance which have so often marked our human history.
This essay began with many questions. How I wish there were easy solutions or answers. All I can do at this time is to ask the questions. Perhaps they will prompt someone to search for solutions. Some may take another 100 years to evolve. Others, like the two I have suggested could easily be adopted within the next five to ten years, at least at a diocesan level. The Church of the Future is on the other hand not something we have to wait for. We do not even have to embrace any new beliefs, we merely have to act as Christ did. To be relevant in this broken world, we (the Church) need to teach and learn: to love the unlovable, to forgive the unforgivable, etc. We need to encourage, affirm and confirm the God in every being in this world. Certainly this is difficult but it is not us doing so, it is not the Church doing so it is by allowing God to do so! It is extremely difficult being a Christian but the rewards will bring us immediately into a Kingdom filled with 'life to the full' right here right now, and forever!
Is the Church of the future ready to trust in its community and will the community of the future trust in its Church? I belief it can when we are willing to more complete trust in God!
1 I Timothy 1:7
3 God and the Christian Tradition
4 David J. Wolpe. In Speech and In Silence - The Jewish Quest for God, Henry Holt Company, New York 1992