In his latest CathBlog, Garry Everett invites us to consider the basic mission of - and the greatest challenge for - the Church.
The old adage ‘records are made to be broken’ serves to remind us of the danger, or foolishness, of trying to nominate anything as ‘the greatest’. Yet such is the human capacity for comparing and measuring, we keep trying.
Some of us are even brave, or risk-oriented enough, to nominate the greatest challenge facing ‘the Church’, even the Church in Australia. Of course, the Church in Australia is a very slippery concept as became evident in the recent Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry.
Basically, the Church is parish-based, very local. As one moves further from this parish centre towards the periphery, the Church becomes too diverse to talk about as diocesan Church, or Queensland Church, and even more difficult to identify Australian Catholic Church.
However, we live in place we can identify as Australia, and within that set of political, economic, and cultural, realities we tend to talk about the Church as a reality known to us all.
Given that we share, albeit somewhat imperfectly, some impressions of that Church, we might, in fact be able to talk also about the single greatest challenge facing that Church.
Many such challenges come to mind, and many commentators, in the current time, have nominated the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by some clergy and religious, as the greatest threat or challenge.
Certainly the evidence outside of Australia would indicate that such abuse constitutes one of the most damaging disasters for the Church in its history.
My view is that there waits a greater challenge, perhaps the greatest challenge.
Put in its simplest terms, it is to rebuild the Church as ‘gatherer’. This is not an original image, because it is powerfully portrayed in the Old Testament, in the story of the return of the Jews from their exile in Babylon.
Just as the returning exiles did not know their future, neither do we know ours. They entered into dispute about challenges and options, and we are doing something similar.
For the exiles, Isaiah came to their rescue with an unpopular solution. God told them to gather all the outcasts and join them to those God had already gathered (the exiles). Isaiah revealed a God who wants to gather all into well- being, without exception.
Herein lies the greatest challenge facing today’s Church in Australia.
The Church needs to be the agent which gathers in the exiled, the outcasts, the marginalized. The Church needs to do this not as some secondary function following sacramental and liturgical priorities, but because this is the essence of the Church as envisaged by God.
Gathering is the Church’s core business, the heart of its mission. Today’s Church must gather, embrace and welcome home, not only those on the inside (eg church–going Catholics), but more importantly, those on the outside (eg the strangers, those ‘not like us’, the outcasts.)
This might seem sensible and relatively easy, until we try to describe those whom God has in mind as outcasts or strangers. At the time of the Exile, God, through Isaiah, made it quite clear that this outcast group was to include orphans, widow, eunuchs and foreigners. These were the very people for whom the Israelites had virtually no regard.
The wonderful Scripture scholar and teacher, Walter Brueggeman, offers us his contemporary view as to whom might be included among today’s outcasts. He nominates two broad groups.
Firstly he identifies those ‘made exiles by the force of our society....This includes the poor, gays and lesbians and other displaced folks who are variously visible and vocal among us.’
Secondly, he identifies an interesting group: ‘Those whom the world may judge normal, conventional, establishment types.’ He says: ‘The large failure of old values and old institutions causes many people to experience themselves as displaced people.... anxious, under threat, vigilant, ill at ease, in pursuit of safety , stability, and well being, that are not on the horizons of contemporary society.’
These two broad groups seem potentially inclusive of all who dwell in Australia today.
Australia, through its political processes and structures, is about to debate the issue of gay marriage. Opposing viewpoints are already being marshalled and tested in the public forums, in cities and churches.
The potential to create exiles is significant; the opportunities to gather are becoming smaller.
In this one example, it is possible to see the greatest challenge to the Church. Can we rise to the vision given to us by God, over and over through the generations, of being a people (a Church) who gathers in the anawim, the poor and outcast?
Here is the vision in the words of Isaiah:
“Is not this the fast that I chose: to loose the bonds of injustice;
To undo the thongs of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free;
To bring the homeless poor into your house;
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”( Isa 58:6-7)
- Garry Everett is currently Dep. Chair of Mercy Partners in Queensland; a former Dep. Director of the Queensland Catholic Education Commission; and a previous Chair of the Archdiocesan Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.