We’ve had a small selection of visiting priests in the parish over the last few weeks, to cover for holidays. All of them were from the same missionary order and so this missionary sense and outlook – not surprisingly – featured at various points in many of the Masses. More than anything, they reminded us of the missionary nature of the Church – and this means the missionary outlook every one of us must have in order to be authentically Christian and a living part of the missionary Church.
Being ‘missionary’ is all about looking outward, rather than looking inward. And a missionary spirit can manifest itself in small ways as much as it does in the broader ways.
Having a visiting priest is generally a good thing, depending on the particular priest you get. Perhaps more than anything, it is a gentle reminder that how ‘we‘ do things is not always the way they are done elsewhere – ‘our way’ is not the only way and not necessarily the best way; indeed, they may be done a little better elsewhere and this offers us an opportunity to learn something, if we are listening carefully.
Without that listening, that learning, that willingness to change in some way, we are essentially standing still – and that is contrary to the missionary spirit, which is very much about going out and going forward, and about sharing.
One of the dangers inherent in the local practice of our religious faith is the sheer parochialism of it all – at times, we are quite unable to see anywhere beyond the front door of our parish. Which is a real pity, as there is a whole world out there beyond those doors, and a great big Church from which we can learn and to which we can contribute.
I suppose it’s a bit like having a favourite book that we read over and over – while refusing to go into the library next door, where there is a vast selection of similarly good books.
We can be closed-minded in our outlook in religion as much as in any other area of our lives. I recall an occasion when I was training to be a nurse. The nurse who was mentoring me had told me to apply a particular lotion to a wound dressing and I asked her the reason for choosing this specific lotion. “That’s what we’ve always done,” she replied, unable to give a more robust response about the reason for her choice, and with a lack of any evidence to support this being the best thing to do.
I never forgot that reply and I recalled it often when training student nurses who were under my care. Thankfully, nursing soon realised that it needed better reasons to do things and now, nursing is renowned for being able to provide a strong evidence base for any decisions made.
Our parishes can be a bit like this. “This is how we have always done things” doesn’t offer much as a response to a question and it certainly does not show any willingness to engage in listening, in discussion or in so much as a possibility of being open to any kind of change, even where this is badly needed.
That question – “why are we doing it this way?” – is often the first step in a process that leads to the realisation that change of some kind is needed. Our present way is not the only way. And it is almost certainly not the best way. There may be a better way – but we won’t know unless we ask the question and then go looking for the answer to it.
Of course, all these things apply as equally to me as an individual as much as they do to any parish. It may be that I am personally standing still, looking inward, not being missionary, not asking the question and not looking for an answer to it.
And so perhaps a good place to begin is to ask myself that question.