BY NOEL CONNOLLY
Today we are called to proclaim Jesus in a radically new context, a pluralist one. Christendom is over and is unlikely to return. There will be no new age of one privileged faith and culture, at least in the “West”.
The Enlightenment, the growth of science, the emphasis on the individual, and the process of secularisation, has taken away the supportive culture and plausibility structures we Christians have been used to. The institutions and customs that gave us credibility are now problematic, and secularism has undercut religious explanations.
We have been moved from the centre to the margins, from privilege to plurality, and from being at home to feeling threatened. Faith is now a decision against the tide.
So how do we evangelise in such a culture? The first thing we must do is to stop regretting our loss and come to appreciate that pluralism is our reality and may even open new opportunities for faith and evangelisation.
We need to look for the Spirit’s presence in our postmodern society.
Mission history teaches us that the Church has always been truest to itself when it lived in a pluralist world, when it had to explain its faith and tried to learn from the faith of others. This was true of the early Church, of the Fathers and in most Asian countries. We were often at our worst when we had too much power and control.
The Australia we are called to evangelise in is home to many faiths and cultures. According to the last census, 47% of us were either born overseas or have a parent who was. And our Church is increasingly multicultural in its membership and clergy. Pluralism is inevitable and natural.
People still hunger for God and for spirituality, but they do not look to the Church alone for answers. Many take a little bit of wisdom from here and there. We may not like that but we will have little credibility if we are defensive, negative and not open to pluralism.
We must recover the spirit of Gaudium et Spes. We live as fellow pilgrims who appreciate and share the joys, anxieties of our brothers and sisters. We search together with them for meaning, goodness, truth and beauty. And as Peter advised us, we are always “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” 1 Pet. 3:15
There are three missiological principles that are important to remember.
- All cultures, even ours, are places for transcendence and encounter with God. The Holy Spirit is active in our modern world. It is our job to discover, celebrate and build on this presence. To ask ourselves what is the Good News in and for this culture?
- All cultures are also human constructs and are therefore ambiguous, containing “seeds and weeds” which need to be rejoiced in, condemned and evangelised.
- The Gospel can only be received, appreciated and lived within a people’s culture. We have to speak to them in their terms, to find the evil and transcendence in their lives, to speak to their fears and hopes. Only an inculturated Gospel will call to deep and lasting conversion.
There are three possible reactions to our “postmodern” world: hostility, innocent acceptance or discernment. And discernment must always be done out of consolation or appreciation not fear or anger. We will be much more convincing evangelisers if people feel we know, respect and enjoy them. This is especially true with Australians who have always suspected religious people with all the answers.
Our task is not so much to “pump religion” into people as to draw it out. To do this we must know the mystery in our own hearts and be ready to share it in a way that speaks to the mystery in our brothers and sisters.
Noel Connolly is a Columban missionary priest. He is a member of the Columban Mission Institute, Strathfield, in Sydney, and of the Broken Bay Institute. He also lectures in mission at the Catholic Institute of Sydney.
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