Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Homily for Catholic Religious Australia Conference, Leura, Blue Mountains.
21 June 2016
We live in a competitive world that reckons value is in numbers and measures its mark by its size. Frequently, we are seduced by the idea that the bigger and stronger is the better and that success and power trump failure and weakness. Even the Catholic Church is caught in this seduction. We boast about being the largest denomination in Australia. On the cover of the Catholic Weekly this week, there is a list of the Church’s services: how many people we employ, how many hospital beds we have, how many students we educate… Not that being big in size necessarily implies anything negative or undesirable. But if scripture is any guide, we need to know a thing or two about powerlessness, smallness and weakness.
I came across a book which has a curious title “The Shrinking of the megachurch”. It is actually an autobiography of an evangelical pastor who was so successful, he could have built himself a church bigger than Hillsong. But he asked himself at the crucial time whether he should be an empire builder or the kingdom builder. The empire builder is preoccupied with success, influence and expansion. He is driven by ambition, power and self-image. The kingdom builder on the other hand is concerned with mending and strengthening relationships. He is guided by the self-sacrifice, vulnerability and powerlessness of the Humble Servant. The pastor opted for the latter, hence the title of his book. He purposely chose to be the kingdom builder and focused on building communities and relationships.
Looking at our history as a Church, I wonder if at times we Catholics have been more empire builders than kingdom builders. I remember in my childhood, parish priests would try and outdo one another as to who would have a bigger congregation, a bigger church and even a higher steeple. That’s just the competition among Catholics, not to mention with other religions. At one seaside resort, the Buddhists built a giant statue of a sleeping Buddha. But we Catholics refused to take it lying down. We built a much bigger statue of Christ on the hill overlooking the ocean. The triumphant King of kings seemed to be looking down on the sleeping Buddha with glee!
The bigger the better mentality is the antithesis of the Gospel. Frequently, when Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, he challenges our idea of greatness; he subverts the tyranny of the majority. The Kingdom according to him does not manifest itself in size, in success and in power. Instead, it is found in smallness, in insignificance like the yeast, the seed, the coin etc… It is like the gentle breeze that Elijah experienced and recognised as the subtle and silent presence of God.
Scriptures chosen for this Eucharist speak about the way the universe and everything in it are being directed by God’s loving providence. Creation great and small is marked with divine vitality. In Christ, all things are imbued with light and life, which cannot be quenched by the forces of darkness and death. However, God’s way of directing creation to its destiny is often contrary to ours. We see the evidence of this in life, death and resurrection of Christ. In the Word made flesh among us, divine vitality is manifested in vulnerability, strength in weakness and grace in apparent failure.
Dear fellow religious,
We are living in a time of diminishment as far as the Church’s size and influence are concerned, at least here in Australia. But if the Kingdom is like leaven and yeast, then size, numbers and status are not as important as the quality of our witness. Religious are like leaven and yeast. We are not so much the ground troops for the Church as the catalysts for its renewal, exploring new frontiers and possibilities. Our job is to inspire and to keep the fire of the Gospel burning for the sake of the Church and the world. Like the Jewish midwives Puah and Shiphrah, our job is to reframe the harsh reality before us into a vision of hope for the remnant people to flourish again. The Church is not meant primarily to be a service or business provider but a sacrament of the Kingdom, which is invisible and unquantifiable. Perhaps we should learn to shrink the mega church mentality and grow the Kingdom mentality instead. Perhaps we should learn the art of vitality in smallness, we should learn to increase the quality of our faith and relationship in this fallow time.
But then again, the shrinking is being done for us whether we like it or not anyway. We are being shrunk to become a smaller Church and hopefully a more humble and authentic sacrament of the Kingdom. It is in this time, this Kairos moment, that we have an opportunity to focus on building the Kingdom in our witness of faith, hope, love, goodness, humility and vulnerability.
May we grow in our authentic discipleship, in our service and in our capacity to be the Kingdom builders. May Mary of Nazareth, the finest example of suffering in hope intercede for you and accompany you on the journey of faithfulness. Using the words of St Paul, we thank our God every time we think of you. As we pray for you today, we pray with joy. For we are sure that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.