Serious Challenges


Mass at Farrn St

SERIOUS CHALLENGES face not only Catholicism but all Christian Churches this Shrovetide as we prepare for our Lenten renewal of the Church.

We are living in a rapidly changing world in uncertain times politically, socially and culturally. And Christians and their Churches are changing with it, so much so that many Christians are beginning to question whether their Churches are in serious danger of losing not only their way, but losing their true denominational identity. Many Christians are increasingly giving up their practices of Sunday church attendance. All this is happening gradually and silently without much significant lay protest or positive reflection. Catholics since the Reformation have tended to respond rather passively to the authority of the magisterium for fear of somehow putting a foot out of line. 

Feelings tend naturally to be high during times of rapid change, and blame can too often be too easily apportioned in our increasingly complex world. Christian leadership is therefore much more challenged and challenging, sometimes too challenging for those who find themselves propelled into the hot seat of more responsibility than they feel they can reasonably manage. The question we must ask ourselves is where and how we are to recognise and discern the unifying voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to us in such a fractured age without creating greater dissension and division.

St Paul in his letters to the new Church communities that he and his missionary helpers were establishing, was passionate about the vital distinction between ‘law’ and ‘spirit,’ and how the law ‘kills’ and the spirit ‘gives life.’ This distinction is complex and bypasses the obvious point that both the moral law and the inspiration of the Spirit come from God. What Paul was therefore emphasising was the impossibility of trying to love God and neighbour only by trying to follow every detail of the moral law. This is not humanly possible because we all fail by our own efforts to reach moral perfection so find that we are ourselves condemned by our failures. As a result our worship becomes a kind of guilt-ridden empty formalism.

The Spirit however is fundamentally different because everything born of the Spirit is motivated by Christian love, which is transformative and drives us  beyond the prescriptions of the moral law. The very experience of Christian love includes the compassion and forgiveness, which gives us the humility to discern its origin in God himself.

But this need for the ‘people of God’ to realise the difference between obedience to the law and being led by the Spirit was not limited to first century Judaism with its Temple lawyers and pharisees. It is endemically human and has continued down the ages in the Church and in the Churches. It is a very human problem, unfortunately largely encouraged by the way in which the ways in which the Church has been exclusively administered by clergy particularly since the divisions between the Eastern and Western Churches and then the splintered  Reformation Churches.

These crises led to much more centralised and tightly controlled Church discipline, more prescriptive canon law, and encouraged strict conformity rather than imaginative inspiration, and an increasingly passive laity who therefore came to prefer predictability in form and content to any changes to a familiar traditional routine.

To a great extent Pope John XXIII, the Vatican Council, and particularly Pope Francis have provided a more inspirational model of ministry through their insistence on returning to the constantly radical and revolutionary original source of our faith – the gospel itself and its values.
Pope Francis has derived his own inspiration from the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises which obviously had a significant impact on his life as a bishop in Argentina. He is not proposed as an example of the way forward merely because he has been chosen as Pope during such a significant time of challenge to the Church and to Christian faith. His example is significant only because he has chosen to lead us back to the true spiritual source of our Christian faith, Jesus Christ himself as he is manifested to us through our understanding of the gospels in our time, and particularly through those significant teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

Our return to the authentic voice of the Holy Spirit is arguably the only genuinely right path we should choose as individual Christians and as the whole Church to follow in such times of challenge and uncertainty.

Our worship should provide the inspiration and grace to transform us and our contributions to the mission of the Church. The Mass has the greatest transformative significance, as it is essential for our weekly renewal of our baptismal covenant to love God with mind and heart, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. We do however have to ask whether our normal attendance at Mass really does in practice provide all of us sufficiently with the inspirational grace we need to live Christian lives in the challenging world in which we now live.

The Passover communion for Jews and so for the apostolic early Church was not only a communion with God, but a family communion with one another, and so a sharing of food in agape – meaning ‘in Christian love.’ This agape involved a sharing of food between rich and poor, so that nobody who was identified as a follower of Christ was left out. The Christian covenant was therefore fully exemplified in the act of Christian worship itself. There was no suggestion of the Church’s social teaching being some kind of optional extra. It was intrinsic to both worship and practice. Some sense of this understanding needs strongly to be reinforced now, when many Christians no longer see any difference in the values of being a Christian or not in their lives.

Like the ancient Passover feast the Eucharist is essentially a sacrifice, but to proclaim that the sacrificial victim is Christ alone is simply inadequate as a true explanation because, like so many other doctrinal omissions of the role of the laity, it leaves out the essential participation of the ‘people of God.’

In the ancient world the blood of a victim was seen as the victim’s life, and so what was being offered back to God was the life. The Fourth Gospel identified Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God’ through the witness of John the Baptist, and so what Jesus was returning to God was his whole life, and not his death – a life that was then returned to the people of God through his resurrection with the gift of the Holy Spirit to make up the risen Body of Christ formed through their weekly Holy Communion together.

Together we make up the risen Body of Christ, in which we are called to participate by denying ourselves, our personal interests and preferences, whether social, national, racial, or even sexual for the sake of that better, greater community or ‘communion’ which seeks only to follow the will of God by seeking only what is manifestly the common good of all in preference to any personal gain we may seek for ourselves. That alone we see as creating a human world worth living and dying for.

But we are liable to lose sight of it if the ‘institutional’ Churches to which we belong do not adequately attempt to represent it for us linguistically, imaginatively and relevantly in our Sunday Christian worship, most especially for the young. This particularly includes the atmosphere and various settings in which the Mass takes place with the fullest possible participation of lay men, women, and children. For Catholic Christians the significance of the Sunday Mass is essential to any full understanding of what is meant by the Christian covenant of love, with its Commandments first to love God with our whole minds, hearts, and souls, and the second to love our neighbour as ourselves.