One of the themes I have heard over and over in recent weeks, and from all sorts of sources, is the idea of ‘gathering’ – as a Church, we are ‘gathered’ by the Lord. And the very word itself is repeated again and again in Scripture, associated with all sorts of imagery to illustrate the meaning behind the word.
Christ tells us that when we gather in His name, He is there among us (Mt.18); and John tells us the Lord gathers into one those who are scattered (Jn.11).
The Psalmist (Ps.102) also speaks of nations and peoples gathering in order to serve the Lord.
Deuteronomy tells of the Lord gathering into His pasture those who are scattered, while Isaiah similarly prophesies that the Lord will gather all those who are scattered.
Back to Matthew’s Gospel the evangelist quotes the Lord saying that “he who does not gather with Me scatters” (Mt.12).
Evidently, then, this task of gathering belongs not only to the Lord, but we must play a part in it, too.
This last point is illustrated clearly in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts.15), where the people of the Church ’gather’ to discuss matter relating to the Church. In fact, the Greek word ‘ecclesia’ from which we get the word ‘Church’ actually means ‘a gathering’.
And so we see three distinct but inter-related elements here.
Firstly, this gathering is a work of the Lord, who gathers His children even when they are broadly scattered.
Secondly, each of us individually and personally has a part to play in this work of gathering – you might call it ‘evangelisation’.
And thirdly, the Church itself has this duty of gathering.
But all this asks a question of us – once we are gathered, what next? What is the purpose of this gathering?
Speaking to the participants assembled for the Synod in Rome, Fr Timothy Radcliffe commented on this sense of ‘gathering’ during the week. He said that once we are gathered in, it is precisely so that we can then be sent out. He described it almost as though the Lord were breathing – the breathing in is the gathering, while the breathing out is that sending forth. The Lord sends us out on mission, which is where the ecclesial and personal elements enter in.
This was all very pertinent, as the Synod was beginning to look at the theme of participation and mission; and this is what the Church asks of each one of us – that we both participate in the Church itself, and also become an active part of her mission to the world.
Much is being said in this present time of the issues affecting the Church in the world, and the seeming dissonance between the two. This, of course, is the very impetus for the Synod taking place; and that Synod has reminded us very clearly indeed that all of have a part to play in doing something to address this. We are to be gathered in, that we might then be sent out.
It is far too easy for us to be complacent about our faith, to view is purely – and erroneously – as something which exists only within the personal sphere. The danger here is that our faith can become routine – it is something we do rather than something we are. It can be reduced down to little more than attending Mass once a week – and attending is certainly not the same as participating in the life of the Church.
For this participation to be authentic, we need to listen carefully to the final words said to us at Mass – commanding us to ‘go out and proclaim the Good News of the Gospel’. That is the ‘sending out’ which always follows the ‘gathering in’.
But we need to listen to this command and realise that it is being addressed to us – to every one of us. If we are already thinking about what to make for dinner, or what to watch on television once we return home, we may not hear that command; and when we do not hear, there is little chance that we will respond actively.
Our Catholic – our Christian – faith does not exist simply on a personal level; it has a very clear and deliberate communal dimension. Christ did not teach the Apostles only as individuals, but as a group, as the seeds of a Church. He gathered them in – and He then sent them out very explicitly to take His Gospel, His Good News, out to all the world. Our task is no less then this.
If this is so, then it is not sufficient for us to attend Mass only – we need to participate fully in it, and then do as we are commanded to do and take the message of that Mass out to all those we meet. Perhaps this is what is meant when we hear of in the Gospel of “worshipping the Lord in spirit and in truth” (Jn.4) – that worship cannot be mere habit or routine, but has to be something far more powerful and it has needs to be something deeply active within us.
Sometimes I wonder if this is part of what is happening in the Church at this present moment. In his Gospel, Saint Luke speaks about the Lord with “His winnowing fan in His hand” (Lk.3), separating the wheat from the chaff. Now, I hasten to add that I do not mean that in any judgmental way whatsoever, but I wonder if the Lord has a purpose of this sort in His mind as He allows the Church to be beset by the issues which are currently resulting in a massive exodus from the Church, at least in the western world.
Perhaps the Lord is using this moment in the history of the Church and of the world to ask us – do you really believe in Me? What effect is your belief having upon you? How are you living out that belief? What do your choices say – have you chosen Me, or the world? Me, or yourself?
Those are hard questions indeed.
And they are questions which we need to ask of ourselves individually, and of the Church institutionally.
I ask myself those questions. And I don’t always like the answers I give myself. I see very clearly that often, my lived-out response is half-hearted at best and does not always match what I profess with my lips; there is a mismatch between the two, between what I say and what I actually do. I see that the Lord might be generous in giving us gifts to use in His work – but we do not always put them to their intended use, or use them as fully as He desires us to do. And I am mindful that one day, He will call to give an account of this. Have I attended, or have I participated?
I might have been gathered in – but have I allowed myself to be truly sent out?