Some two thousand years ago, a little Child was born in the poverty of a stable and gently placed in a manger by His Mother. That Child would grown up to found and lead a movement which would change the whole world, beginning with just twelve simple men who listened and believed, even if they struggled greatly along the way. As a man, He was crucified – but rose again three days later, before handing over His work into the hands of His closest followers, especially Peter, for them to continue what He had begun. That movement had many names but today we call it Christianity and the core part of this movement has remained, descended directly from those days and those twelve men – we call that the Catholic Church.
Today, two millennia further on in human history, we have come a long, long way – with many twists and turns across those intervening centuries. The essential core of that original movement is still present and still recognisable, though sometimes you need to look very carefully to see it. And as time passed, that movement – those followers – often got sidetracked and weighed down in all sorts of periphera and ephemera, rather than keeping their eyes fixed always on what was truly essential. Questions and debates arose and these often led to open discussion and ultimate clarification on the nature of some of those essentials. But too often, arguments led to divisions which erupted furiously and which sometimes badly scarred what was once a single body. And that is certainly the case today, in our own time.
Our current ‘Peter’ is Pope Francis, a man whose wisdom sees all too clearly where we presently are – and, more importantly, where we need to be; best of all, he has some very good ideas on how we can best get there. But Francis is not alone in needing to undertake this work – the bishops in each local area in all parts of the world have the same task to fulfil in respect of their own particular flocks.
Here in Scotland, Archbishop Nolan of Glasgow is currently working on this same task.
As a result of his prayer, deliberations and consultations, the Archbishop has been looking at new ways of determining what resources the Church in our time – within a specific locality – actually needs, and how to share current resources most effectively. The current edition of the Archdiocesan newspaper, Flourish, leads with an article about this and it notes the Archbishop saying – “It is clear.. that people recognise the need for change and the need to become more focussed on evangelisation. What we really need, though, is a complete change of mindset.” He continues by noting our Catholic tendency to look not too much further than our local front door, to remain safely and comfortably within the parishes we are used to and know well – often, where we were born and from which we will be buried. Yet, Christ asks us for something more than comfort and security.
Pope Francis is all too well aware of that ‘extra’ which the Lord seeks from us. He has told us repeatedly that the Lords wants us to go out of ourselves, out to the peripheries, out of our comfort zones – and once there, to do the single thing the Lord asked us to do, right before His Ascension; to evangelise.
Over the last few days, Pope Francis has been careful to make clear the difference between authentic Christian evangelisation and its very pale imitation, proselytism. Speaking on the plane during his return to Rome from Mongolia, the Holy Father said – “The Church does not go forward by proselytism, it goes forward by attraction.” So, we need to be absolutely certain that we are evangelising and not proselytising. A discussion around this differentiation took place online a few days ago. In the midst of it, and in the face of some incredibly (and quite deliberately) obtuse views, one very wise woman called Kelly McKay said this – “we serve others because Christ is in them. We don’t serve as a way to get others to join (the Church). The result (service and love to others) is the same. The motivation is different.” There you have the difference, then – it is in the motivation behind an action, even if the same action can be done for quite different reasons.
Writing some time ago in ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’, Francis gave us the secret of this attraction of which he speaks – “Holiness is the most attractive face of the Church”, he wrote. The Gospel – the authentic Gospel proposed by Christ – is indeed ‘the Good News’. And so we, as followers of Christ, should be marked by the joy of that Gospel; we should “rejoice and be glad” as the Pope counsels us. That joy should be evident in us. It should characterise us.
This joyfulness and rejoicing are easier, certainly, when things are going well – for us personally as much as for the Church more broadly. But they must be present in both instances if they are to be authentic, because they are not determined by the circumstance of the present moment, but by the person of Christ and by His Gospel – and these do not change, no matter what is happening within us or around us.
And so this call for “a complete change of mindset” as called for by the Archbishop of Glasgow and clearly reflecting the thinking of the Holy Father, is a rallying call and reminder for every one of us – it does not allow us to forget that we have work to do, that there is real evangelisation to be done. And we do this by living out that holiness which finds its source in Christ and is recounted throughout His Gospel – we do all we can to reflect His own holiness, and we radiate it out to the Church around us and to all the world. And as surely as moths are attracted to the gentle light of a lamp, so will the world respond in some measure to that holiness – so long as we live it out with authenticity.
These are interesting days for the Church and for all of us who make up the People of God. We have work to do.
Let’s get on with it.