Home - Archive - The Parish
The Church in today's world: which way to go?
Whoever loves the church passionately rejoices in its successes and feels its failures in a personal way. When today many distance themselves from it, harshly criticising its limits as an institution, it is not easy to find an adequate verbal response. We have to listen, to take up and suffer the difficulties, and interpret those attitudes that appear rigid yet hide a thirst for authenticity. Above all we have to show with our lives that the Church is alive and beautiful. How can we do this, and in what direction can we go? Here we reproduce a talk, retaining its conversational style, that the author recently delivered during various conventions of the Focolare Movement.
Challenges contain a callIn today’s world the life of the Church - of the Churches - is full of challenges. But when we look at things from the point of view of God’s love, which knows how to draw good out of evil (“all things work together for good for those who love God” Rm 8:28), we realise that each of these challenges contains a call and a new opportunity: an invitation to renewal, a real “reformation” of ecclesial life, not in the sense of breaking with the past to do something completely different, but of bringing the Church to a “new flowering of an ancient tree” (Chiara Lubich), to that “new springtime” solemnly proclaimed by recent Popes.
The signs that God is calling us to this are many. Let me give you some examples.
The scandal of sexual abuse committed by some priests and consecrated persons has meant a loss of credibility for the Church above all in those countries most affected. Together with the pain and the shame of this, and the duty of seeking justice for the victims, the Church is hearing a clear message from the people: do not rest on past glories! We want facts! There must be truth. Taking a closer look, God himself is speaking to us in these circumstances. We must certainly reflect deeply on the criteria which we use to choose and form our future ministers, but above all we are all called to a new coherence and a new commitment to sanctity.
Another challenge is a recent phenomenon which we may call Christianophobia, a wave of persecutions and violent attacks against Christians in various parts of the world. These events have to be denounced and we need to take all necessary steps at the diplomatic and political level. But we cannot forget that in these adverse conditions God is speaking to us. We are called to a new radicalism in following Jesus, a deeper choice of God and a more courageous witness of faith and love. It is not by chance that the twentieth century has been a period of martyrdom unlike any other.
With the advance of secularisation, Christian churches are experiencing a growing crisis of relevance. For an increasing number of people God and the Church are simply insignificant. In a recent survey in Germany, the Church is known in only 3 out 10 social milieu. In the other 7 it is inexistent. In Europe we have witnessed in succession an exodus from the Church of workers, young people and increasingly now, women. Even in traditional Christian environments, we are witnessing an alarming drop in vocations to the priesthood and women’s religious congregations. In Catholic Flanders, in Belgium, for example, two years ago the total number of seminarians from all the dioceses was 8. In this situation, a new commitment is needed in the transmission of the faith. To proclaim Christianity in a new way, we have to translate Christian truth into modern expressions, and enable it to touch people’s lives, and demonstrate the logic of faith. According to Benedict XVI, we must, “try to present the essential content just as it is, but in new ways... and translate the treasure of faith in a way that it can speak to this secularised world.” “This will succeed only if people base their lives on the One who comes. Only then will they be able to express their faith. Intellectual translation requires an existential translation first.”
The challenge of multiculturism and a multi-faith society: in today’s context, the Church risks becoming a religious offering by just one of a series of agencies which meet the widespread need for the “sacred” and the search for meaning in life. We can react in a defensive way by trying to limit the presence of other religious currents, like Islam, in countries with long Christian traditions. I do not think it is appropriate to try and stop an irreversible historical evolution. In this situation too, God’s voice can be heard. We are called to intensify, and enable others to increasingly experience, the essence of and the great novelty of Christianity: a God who is one and triune, who is love and communion; the experience of human existence “in his image”, as a gift of self in a life lived for one another. We are invited to spread this news, not by imposing it, but with our style of witness, in dialogue with everyone.
Deep rootsTo be honest, the signs that God is leading his People towards a new stage in its life have roots deep in the past.
Since the 19th century, through a renewed contact with the sources – Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, the liturgy – theologians have no longer seen the Church as an “institution” to which salvation is linked, but as a “mystery” and a “sacrament”, a human-divine reality where human existence is rooted in the life of God, is gaining ground.
In the early decades of the 20th century this deeper discovery of what the Church is found expression in the Biblical movement, the Liturgical movement and the Ecumenical movement, currents of life that renewed the way of being Church and changed the awareness of the People of God, so much so that Romano Guardini, noted theologian and academic, affirmed that the Church is awakening in the faithful. From a mystery believed and celebrated, it was increasingly becoming a lived mystery.
At the same time, theology was being renewed by Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar and others. The various currents of renewal led to an enthusiastic search for Christian unity. In 1948, the World Council of Churches was formed.
In the Catholic world, the ferment of renewal came together in the Second Vatican Council. The Church, according to its ancient theology of communio, expressed its self understanding in this period of history, “The Church is in Christ a sacrament, a sign and instrument of intimate union with god and of the unity of the whole of human kind.” (LG1); it is the “people gathered together in the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (LG 4). The People of God therefore is an effective sign of unity with God, among human beings and with the whole of creation; a unity which in the words of the council, is salvific (cf LG 9); and in a certain way synonymous with the word “salvation”, which is not limited to “eternal life”, but which begins in this world with everything that flows from that for individuals and for society. We can say, therefore that the Church in the Council’s view is a wave of life and communion that comes from the heart of the Triune God, becomes real in the People of God as the place for new relationships, and is destined to inform and renew all human realities.
For the whole of the twentieth century, in the Catholic and other Churches, numerous Ecclesial Movements and New Communities have come to life. Like all the charisms of the past, they bring a return to the authenticity and radicalness of the early days of Christianity, and are also a special gift today for translating the faith into life. In 1998 Cardinal Ratzinger described them as a feature of the apostolic succession of the Church.
John Paul II, assessing the present situation in his Novo millennio ineunte, in one of the most quoted passages from his third millennium programme, says, “ Make the Church the home and school …..” (n.43)
Since the beginning of his pontificate, Benedict XVI has stressed a complementary and fundamental aspect: we must bring God to the men and women of today. We must focus on this: giving God, witnessing God.
Where are we now?Fifty years after the Council and the beginning of the important dialogue between Christian Churches, we appear to be living a moment of tiredness and disillusionment.
The ecumenical journey towards unity among the Churches has come up against many difficulties in recent years and seems to be slowing down.
The distance between the Churches and today’s world seems to be increasing, so much so that when believers see the discouraging gap, they are tempted to retreat into the private and sacred space within themselves, while the world proceeds along different lines. And so the break between the Gospel and culture, according to Paul VI the drama of our times, gets worse.
Within the Catholic Church there is quite rightly a concern to be faithful to one’s own identity and to live solidly rooted in God and in his mystery. The difficult part is translating the reality of God who is Love into communion in daily life. A half century after the Council, with its beautiful vision of the Church-communion, the word “communion” in many places seems to have been increasingly emptied of meaning, like a devalued currency with which you can no longer buy anything.
The Council had spoken of the Church as the People of God endowed with a variety of gifts (cf LG 4 and 12), where priests, with their specific and indispensible ministry live among the laity as brothers and sisters, working together in the same task of building up the Body of Christ (cf LG 32, 37; PO 9). In reality however, it is still hard to achieve, in the distinction of respective roles, a true co responsibility and real fraternity between priests and laity.
Similarly, communion among priests themselves, and with their Bishops is not easy either, as is collaboration among neighbouring parishes and dioceses in many parts of the world.
And the interaction between Ecclesial movements, ancient charisms and the territorial structures of the Church (dioceses and parishes) is still a great challenge in front of us.
While recognising all the positive developments, these difficulties give us cause for reflection. If the essence of the Church’s life is to be communion, if its main mission is that of spreading relationships of unity throughout the world (which have the Holy Trinity as their incomparable model and life style), we cannot set aside this task, and simply focus on other important features of the Church like liturgy (which must be rediscovered in its true dimension), catechesis, social commitment and so on.
Most of the distress that we experience today as Church is due to the fact that God is calling his People to a new way of living, while we are still struggling to discover and implement it. Perhaps the way to do it, the know how, the key, is not sufficiently clear.
The Marian profile of the ChurchLet us try to read our situation in a deeper way. On closer examination, all the challenges that we have listed and the call of God that they evoke, have something to do with what Hans Urs Von Balthasar and John Paul II, together with Benedict XVI, called the “Marian profile”, the Marian dimension of the Church, which is complementary to its Petrine profile.
Let us first look at the Petrine dimension which concerns the sacramental and ministerial aspect of the Church.
After Pentecost, the embryonic Christian community was aware of its three fundamental supporting pillars: 1. The proclamation of the Word 2. Baptism and the Eucharist and 3. the Apostolic ministry to which was entrusted the Word, the sacraments and service to the unity of the community (cf Act 2:42). Through these three instruments, with the support of other charisms, Christ constantly generates and regenerates the Church. This is a real grace: it is not us who “make” the Church. It is God, the Risen one with his Spirit.
From the beginning it was clear that God’s action requires a human response, and it is here that the Marian dimension of the Church, with Mary’s answer as its model, her “yes”, her assent to God’s initiative, becomes relevant. With this answer the Word becomes incarnate in us, just like the Word became flesh in Mary’s womb. With this answer the Eucharist can make us into the Body of Christ, the place where we can “see” and in some sense touch the living presence of Christ and experience the gifts of the Spirit.
This is our call, in fact: to make Jesus visible, and to be – to use Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s description of the Church’s essence – “Christ existing as a community”. We could also use an expression of Chiara Lubich: to be, in the midst of humanity, an “Expo of God”. We could also say “the womb of God”, the place where people are formed in the life of the Trinity.
For this to happen, the petrine or sacramental-ministerial dimension of the Church is not enough, the marian dimension is also necessary. Our lives must provide a response.
It is interesting to note that this response, both in Mary’s life and in ours, develops gradually. It begins with the annunciation, with her acceptance of God’s plan, with faith – “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Lk 1:38); it grows in charity and service of others (cf the Visitation Lk 1:39); and culminates at the foot of the cross where Jesus asks Mary for a new and more radical “yes”: to lose Him, her Son who is God, and to accept John, and in him all of humanity, “Woman, behold your son!” (Jn 19:27).
This is love in its full ecclesial maturity, where each person is called to “lose God for God”, and to put aside their own concerns in order to make space for God in the others. In John Paul II’s words, in Novo millennio ineunte, this means “to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as "those who are a part of me" (n.43).
This was in reality the rule of the community when Paul, in his well known Christological hymn, encouraged the Philippians to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Ph 2:5-7)
If our response to the Word of God and the Eucharist reaches this point, the life of Jesus begins to circulate in fullness within and among us, and what becomes undeniably visible is the profound reality of the Church: Jesus. Like Mary, the Church offers God to the world not only in the proclamation of the Word and in the sacraments, but in a living way, making present and effective its being as gift, love, relationship, and communion.
To give God to the world, Jesus who becomes flesh in us and among us, Jesus among people (cf Mt 18:20), as the source of life and new relationships: this is the complete response to God’s initiative, the fulfilment of the Church. This is clearly becoming the number one priority for the Church today.
While it is true that the world rejects the institutional church, humankind seems to have an “aching hunger for the Marian church” (Christian Hennecke), the Church as Trinitarian communion, in the same way that Saint Bonaventure understood it in the 13th century, “Ecclesia enim mutuo se diligens est – the Church is the event of mutual love.”
From the “pyramid” to the CenacleIt is no exaggeration to speak of a real paradigm shift in how we see the Church. From a centuries-old model that no longer holds up, to a slowly emerging new model. We could describe this transition as a passage
From an primarily institutional view of the Church to a more Trinitarian and communion-oriented view;
From a model of a State Church, dating back to the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, to a Church as a creative minority, in the Biblical sense: leaven in the lump, salt of the earth, light of the world;
From a mostly vertical structure, like a pyramid which owed much to a society structured in the same way, to a circular dynamic - the Cenacle of Pentecost. Peter and the Apostles were present with their specific hierarchical and ministerial gifts and tasks, but there too was Mary, and other witnesses of the resurrection, both men and women (the charismatic dimension).
We know what went before, but we often struggle to see and to bring about the new profile we are called to.
A prophetic experienceIf we read the experience of the Focolare Movement in this light, especially its little towns, we can recognise there, although in a limited way, places – of course not the only ones – where God, in a prophetic way, is nurturing and providing an experience of this way of being Church. They are real laboratories of the Church as communion where people of various vocations and backgrounds discover and allow themselves to be transformed day after day by the dynamic of the Cenacle. They are place where the “many” become bonded in “one heart and one soul” (cf Act 4:32) and at the same time learn to live all the “languages” (cf Act 2:6,11), or how to express this reality in their own life situation, in various cultures, in various sectors of society, in art, economics, politics, education, communications and so on. This is a dialogue on all fronts, between Catholics, among Christians of various Churches, among people of different religions and cultures, and with people with no formal faith.
Put simply it is an example of a Church that “shows God” and “gives God” in daily life through new relationships marked by mutual gift, in the style of the Trinity (cf GS 24); a Church that becomes in this way the anima mundi (cf Letter to Diognetus 6:1), a generator of fraternity in the many expressions of human activity, a truly “lay” church that demonstrates in daily life the divinising and humanising strength of the evangelical and sacramental life.
What priorities for the Church?
We must increasingly try to understand what to do. In three brief concepts, in no way exhaustive, we have to:
1. First of all present to those we meet not the instruments of salvation, the sacramental and ministerial dimension of the Church, but the experience of a Trinitarian life of communion: not the means, but the mature fruit that leads people to appreciate the means.
2. Bring to life in as many places as possible what we may call “Trinitarian cells”, two or more people who live mutual love and enable Jesus to be present everywhere, true “flying churches” as they were called by Chiara Lubich; tiny communities where the experience of Jesus among people is the source of life and total salvation. We must certainly not forget that every family can be such a cell, and with good reason families are called “little churches”, the domestic Church.
3. Enable the structures of communion proposed the Second Vatican Council, especially the Pastoral Councils within parishes and dioceses, to be better reflections of the Cenacle at Pentecost: places of intense communion gathered around the Risen Lord, where the various realities of church life – projects and pastoral outreach, movements and communities, religious orders and associations – meet together and form relationships of mutual love, drawing closer together in unity and each acting, in their own particular way, as an expression of the whole,
In conclusionIf finally we ask ourselves what is most important in our daily life, it comes quite spontaneously to say being “salt”, “leaven”, “light”, or a reflection of Trinitarian love, people who come together in unity, who are a body, one heart and one soul, and who fulfil their own unique destiny as an expression of this Oneness
This seems to be the main response to the challenges that the Church is living in today’s world, and hence the main priority. I heard some Slovenian priests express this in an eloquent and heart warming way, with an anecdote. A priest had very carefully prepared for a celebration of Corpus Christi. He was highly satisfied with the solemnity and reverence of the procession. As they progressed, an altar server beside him began to tug at his sleeve, whispering, “Father, Father...”, but was quickly silenced by the priest. When they reached the church, he placed the monstrance on the altar and only there realised... that there was no host!
“The host” must never be missing in Church Communities: the life of communion and unity in the image of the three divine Persons, in which our own idiosyncrasies are continually “ground” like grains of wheat in the hope of increasingly becoming the presence of Jesus, his Body, of which each person even when alone is called to be a unique and unrepeatable expression.