29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Isaiah 53: 10-11; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45
17 October 2021
Since Peter’s profession of faith at Caeserea Philippi, Jesus has made three predictions of his passion and death after which he would rise again in three days. After the first prediction, Jesus tells everyone that if they want to follow him, they will need to renounce themselves and take up their cross. After the second prediction, the disciples argue with each other on the road about which of them is the greatest. Jesus tells them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.” After the third prediction, the disciples get indignant with James and John who had asked Jesus for a special place in the glorious future. Jesus tells them that “anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all.” So it’s a pretty constant message. Even third time around, the disciples just don’t quite seem to get it – and they just keep fighting with each other.
No doubt James and John thought they had the inside running. After all they were the only ones Jesus invited to join Peter when Jesus went into the house to raise the daughter of Jairus from death to life. This was the select trio once again invited to witness a privileged moment – this time on the mountain at the Transfiguration when the voice from the cloud declared “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”
Though given no reserved place when Jesus came into his glory, James and John were once again especially chosen to join Peter when Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his death praying, “Take this cup away from me. But let it be as you, not I, would have it.” After the third prediction of his passion, Jesus had asked James and John, “Can you drink the cup that I shall drink?” They said they could, and Jesus said they would. They’d have later had cause to wonder what those words meant after the events in the Garden of Gethsemane. This discipleship is not about honour, glory and position. It’s about service, and it comes with a good deal of suffering.
At the end of the first General Assembly of our Plenary Council, the organisers published a two page description of “The Journey So Far” acknowledging the voices of victims and survivors of abuse, First Nations people, women, people at the margins and in rural areas, and people with diverse experience of sexuality and gender. The organisers affirmed, “Each of these voices has been a powerful reminder that the Church, as a sign of the kingdom of God, has the vocation of being an image of Christ and an icon of grace to the whole human family.” They saw the Church as a mirror.
During the assembly, one of the periti, Fr Richard Lennan drew our attention to a lecture delivered by the German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner just after Vatican II entitled “The Function of the Church as a Critic of Society”. While warning against the Church playing politics, Rahner made the point that love of neighbour “has to impose its influence in a world that is constantly sinful, a world of injustice and self-alienation on the part of humanity. And once we recognise all this, then it becomes clear that this unity between love of God and love of neighbour implies an attitude of protest and criticism of society.”
Rahner welcomed the increasing “difference and separation that has grown up today between the Church and secular society”. He insisted that “the Church cannot act as a higher authority to manipulate or control …autonomous secular society” and that “culture, history, society, state and the economy are all matters which the Church neither can nor should in any direct sense control, guide or manipulate”. But the nature of the function of the Church as critic of society “consists in opening up ever anew a perspective which transcends the concrete social reality such that within this perspective the social reality concerned appears in its relative value, and so as capable of alteration.”
The Church holds a mirror to society; the Church holds a mirror to the state; the Church holds a mirror to the market. The Church holds a mirror to those who make decisions in these autonomous secular domains. Isn’t this precisely what Pope Francis did with his encyclical Laudato Si, being a servant of all, and being last of all – not seeking the places of honour, power, preference and glory? Now we have the world leaders about to gather in Glasgow embracing a goal of zero emissions by 2050. Back home, that’s now being backed by the Murdoch press, the Business Council of Australia, and even Cabinet ministers like Peter Dutton, none of whom welcomed Pope Francis’ intervention six years ago. Pope Francis was not playing politics. But he was critiquing society, the state and the market.
For the Church to be credible as a critic of society, it first must be a critic of itself, holding the mirror to itself. I daresay this is the area of greatest tension to emerge during the first general assembly of our plenary council. Rahner reminds us that the Church itself is a social entity always needing to be critiqued. The Church itself can be the mirror to society, state and the market. But the mirror itself needs to be clean. The Church “stands again and again in need of reform in respect of her forms of institutionalism. Applying this to the Catholic Church, it means, for instance, that the relationship between clergy and the people of the Church, the relationship between centralization in the Church and autonomy on the part of the subdivisions of the Church, the introduction of democratic structures, and much else besides, constitute subject-matter for an ever-fresh inquiry, and are subject to historical change even though, on a Catholic understanding of the Church, certain specific structures belong to the jus divinum of the Church and are abiding.” The Spirit is calling us to that ever-fresh inquiry, being open to historical change, while being committed to the maintenance of the key constitutive elements of the Church.
Rahner concludes: “To understand the significance of a critique of the Church conducted from within the Church herself in this way does not mean that the critical dialogue with the official Church which we conduct must always take the form simply of a peaceful and friendly discussion between two bodies who are at basis totally at one from the first. We can already see in the controversy between Peter and Paul that this critical dialogue can also take the form of a face-to-face confrontation, a genuine struggle as to the shape of a future which neither of the disputants can plan beforehand in any adequate sense.” Though committed to deep listening and discernment, we should not expect passive agreement.
After three predictions of the passion, the original disciples were still fighting with each other on the road, with some being indignant at others who wanted special reserved places. We should not be surprised that there will be ongoing disagreements on the journey to the next stage of the Plenary Council. Unity and agreement will be found when those who want to be great become the servants of all, and when those who want to be first become the slaves of all.
Only after holding the mirror to ourselves as Church, might we then credibly hold the mirror to our society, our economy, our nation, and our world – enhancing the place of victims and survivors of abuse, First Nations people, women, people at the margins and in rural areas, and people with diverse experience of sexuality and gender. Like James and John, none of us will have the inside running. We are all called to service.
 The First General Assembly of the Plenary Council, The Journey So Far, available at https://plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/First-Assembly-Concluding-Statement-FINAL.pdf
 Karl Rahner, ‘The Function of the Church as a Critic of Society’, Theological Investigations, Volume 12, Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1974, p. 229 at p. 241.
 Ibid, p. 236
 Ibid, p. 234
 Ibid, p. 235
 Ibid, p. 231
 Ibid, p. 233
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA). He has been appointed a peritus at the Fifth Plenary Council of the Australian Catholic Church.