Pope Francis and the challenge of being church today
Ann D Clark Lecture delivered by Most Rev Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta, Evan Theatre, Penrith Panthers, 18 August 2016
Part 4: The challenge to go to the margins
Pope Francis constantly calls us to move beyond the security of the status quo and take the risk of going to the periphery. The church must be the church of the poor and for the poor. The church must go out of itself in order to be close to those in need. Conversely, the church that does not go out into the world keeps Jesus imprisoned.
The church without its missionary impulse is unhealthy. For him, this missionary impulse has little to do with doing the minimum, with complacency and mediocrity. In fact, it has everything to do with taking risks and living with enthusiasm and commitment. We should not be content with the status quo, especially when that status quo is less than what God wants for us as individuals and as a community. Australia is a wonderful country but where it is in terms of its treatment of asylum seekers, Indigenous and marginalised people should trouble us.
If one can detect the direction of Pope Francis’ pontificate, it has something to do with the movement from security to boldness, from inward looking to outward looking, from preoccupation with our status quo, safeguarding our privileges to learning to be vulnerable, learning to convey God’s compassion to those who are on the edges of society and church.
Hence, our challenge is to accompany people from the margins into a journey towards the fullness of life and love. It is to embrace the call of the Second Vatican Council to identify with the joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of those who are poor and in anyway afflicted. It is to be the bearer of joy to those who are most deprived of it. To do this, he/she must be able to live in and bridge the yawning gap, the liminal space between the ideal and the real, between what the church teaches and how the people respond.
We feel torn between the two. As representatives of the church and her servants, we want to be faithful and preserve her unity and integrity. And yet, on the other hand, we know that we must also walk with our people, identifying with them in their struggles, their questions and their uncertainties. We know that the faith and its radical demands cannot be compromised and accommodated to suit everyone’s interpretation. At the same time, the 50 shades of grey that life can present to the people in the real world demand that we walk with them in the search for truth in love. We look to Christ for inspiration in the way he immersed himself in their world and walked with them on the journey to liberation.
In fact, history has shown that religious life is invariably involved with a critique of the status quo, a dissatisfaction of accommodation and a search for fresh and radical ways of following Christ. The challenge for those who wish to live the ideals of the Gospel is to not lose sight of the divine pathos and God’s preferential option for the poor.
It is a vocation of the Christian leader to be with his people in their hopes and struggles, anxieties and fears. He/she is to be “a Malcolm in the middle” who occupies in betwixt and between, liminal, peripheral and precarious places. It is not easy to be in the middle, and to be loyal to both ends of the spectrum, to belong to the Church of orthodoxy and yet also to minister in the world of the unorthodox. That is really between the rock and the hard place as they call it. Yet, that is the calling of the leader, because we are meant to be at the coalface, in the messiness of it all and at the same time in fidelity to the Gospel. We are sent to the strong and the weak, the wholesome and the broken, the churched and the unchurched, the pious and the impious, the normal and the bizarre. We are sent to them through the gate, who is Christ. We are sent often from the inside out and not from the outside in. Like Christ in his ministry among the sick and the lost, we are called to meet God in the most unlikely people and places.
Pope Francis challenges all of us to divest ourselves of clericalism and elitism, and return to the purity of the Gospel. His constant call to the church to be less concerned with itself and to be more outward looking encourages us to walk with our people in the ambiguities and complexities of their lives. The self-referential church steeped in a culture of splendour is in stark contrast with the church of the poor and for the poor. It is the latter that we who pattern ourselves according to Jesus the prophet on the margins endeavour to serve. It is like new wine in new wineskins. The leader for today’s church and today’s world is like Christ among the marginalised, the sick and sinner.
How can we respond to the challenge of being a church at the margins today? Where are the new “peripheries” and new “horizons” in Catholic education that we are called to be and to offer nearness and proximity?
To read the full text of the Bishop’s lecture, click here.