Synod 9: CALLS FOR CHANGE
With falling vocations and lower church attendance particularly among the young in Western Europe there is a clear case for change to engender hope for the future. In the words of Mary Robinson, “Fear Paralyses, Hope Energises”. Here are two voices calling for change in very different but imaginative ways to rejuvenate the Church.
We are the Church
We, the people, who ARE the church (not the buildings or hierarchy) have been tasked by Pope Francis to provide input and a steer towards the future. If the Catholic church – or any Christian denomination – is to maintain relevance and dynamism it must lead and be seen to be leading in judiciously changing and adapting to appeal to younger generations.
To achieve this there is no point in tinkering around the edges by changing a few words in established prayers or relaxing one or two arcane rules. The change that is needed is radical. Jesus was a disrupter – an itinerant Jewish preacher, teacher and healer who has inspired the world for more than two thousand years. In today’s contemporary parlance of social media, he would be regarded as the greatest ‘influencer’ of them all. Yes, sadly – and rather bizarrely – there are some Catholics who are antisemitic, such people would do well to remember who Jesus was and where he came from.
In carrying on with the way things are it is only a matter of time before our churches are empty and we are left with almost no priests. So, starting with the church buildings: the restrictiveness of pews confines an otherwise adaptable space to the single purpose of formal worship. Yet, pews are a relatively modern introduction (dating from early Victorian times) before that the only bit of the church building that was considered ‘holy’ was the Sanctuary or Chancel. The main body of the building could be – and was – used for all kinds of community events and gatherings, which on market days might even have included animals and ale! In this way the church building was accessible and user friendly to all. Some of us have had a glimpse of this untapped potential during the pandemic in those churches where pews have been severely reduced in number or moved altogether.
Radical though this will seem to diehard traditionalists, we should think seriously about repurposing our church buildings in a sort of ‘back to the future’ move. If people – especially younger people – became familiar and comfortable with entering church buildings in this way they would be less put off or intimidated by the whole concept of church and thus be far more approachable and open to learning about the infinitely forgiving and understanding Jesus – who He was and what He stood for.
This is just a possible beginning in what needs to be done to reenergize the mission of the church going forward. There is so much more: for example, ecumenical outreach and inclusiveness – starting with the recognition that Christianity shares the same root as Islam and Judaism.
The ‘plot’ for all of us, without exception – past, present and future is simply this: we are born, we live and we die. It is the bit in the middle that matters what we do with it. At some point in almost everyone’s existence they will question the meaning of life, where we came from and where we might be going. This is a fundamental basic starting point and the Church, whether lay or clerical, would do well not to complicate things beyond this until such time as an interest to learn and understand more has been sparked.
We need to find ways to be the happy bearers of what is after all very good news indeed, life changing news about the non-judgemental, all-embracing love of Jesus Christ.
The Last practising Catholic in my family
Here in the developed West, our institutional Church is timid in the public sphere. It squandered its moral authority in scandal. It needs to demonstrate authentic repentance and contrition to receive forgiveness. It must show that it loves all people and take a giant step back from its positions on gender and sexuality. We are all neighbours, equal, unique and due love from our Universal Church – everyone without exception. We, its people, are the Church. All of us, including the lapsed and the not so devout, not just churchgoers. We each have a talent (maybe ten) – do not bury them, they are only ours to be used!
Like muscle, faith needs daily exercise to develop, so that we aren’t just Church when in pews, but that we take it into our homes, workplaces, fields and marketplaces. We need to let our beliefs drench our lives as water fashions the landscape; embrace the gentle power of the Holy Spirit and accept Her incessant calling to joy. When did we last discuss our faith and doubts with a (not so) like-minded friend/group of friends/stranger(s) in the pub/at work/anywhere outside of our church building? Have we paid this attention since we were children? We might learn something; we might be changed. What is our passion – be Church there – for example form a walking group or an art group to climb hills, follow waterways or visit galleries to contemplate great works together – and discuss; or identify what the community needs – and provide it – companionship, a foodbank, a litter pick, a scout group – be the difference that is needed.
And how/where/when do we pray? Do we lean towards formal liturgy or more personal and individual words and times? Do we pray the Divine Office, such as the hours of Morning and Evening; or would we find succour in contemplative prayer and meditation (eg www.wccm.org)?
We must each find the balance that is right for us – part active, part contemplative but not passive – so that our lives are informed by prayer and liturgy; works of love and charity; spreading the good news. As an individual, how can I help the hungry, naked and sick? Will I allow our planet to help those who suffer first and worst from climate change? Locally, and globally, when will our institutional Church confront the governments and the powerful so that it ceases to be complicit in the harms that are done in and to our society? How will we put Catholic Social Teaching front and centre for this new crusade? There are (metaphorical) dragons to be slain.
Being more aware of our faith could attract the young, disengaged and prodigal. I want to live in a Church where my family and friends would return. Without major change, I cannot see my grandchildren being baptised. I would be the last practising Catholic in my family. That is fine if it is what the Holy Spirit wants but I think She is asking me to do something about it. There is Tradition to maintain, but there are also traditions to refine or shake off. With fewer priests, a place to begin would be to ask more of the laity and build a less ministerial church where priests can focus on their unique calling; and to return to and continue the unfinished work of Vatican II. But please, not false nostalgia for the bad old days, that will not help us at all.
Final formulae to take away:
- ora et labora (Benedictine motto – by prayer and work)
- be the change you want to see (nearly Gandhi)
- every journey starts with a single step (ancient Chinese – maybe Lao Tzu)
- go, announce the Gospel of the Lord by the way you live your life (Mass Dismissal)