Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta – Address to Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta System Leadership Day, Rosehill Racecourse, 25 January 2018
Forming students and communities for the Reign of God
Part 2: Catholic education is to form builders of God’s Kingdom
We live in a competitive world that reckons value in numbers and measures its mark by its size. Frequently, we are seduced by the idea that the bigger, 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. Even CEDP is often touted by the local media as a powerful organisation. 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 Shrinking 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 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 of 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. 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 et cetera. It is like the gentle breeze that Elijah experienced and recognised it to be the subtle and silent presence of God.
Let’s be clear once again that we are not just a business organisation. We are meant to be much more than that. The Church is a sign and a sacrament of God’s love in the world. It might adopt best business practices in the corporate world. But ultimately, it is not primarily about competition, expansion and dominance. It is more about communities and relationships. It is more about being fellow pilgrims and humble servants. The Church has only one real model with which it must measure itself and that is the example of Christ. Perhaps we should learn to shrink the megachurch 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 graced 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. I often tell religious and priests that numbers are not necessarily the measure of success and diminishment is not necessarily a sign of failure. It is the quality of our relationships and communities that matter.
The fallow time allows us to grow more deeply in our identity and mission as people and communities that reflect the values of the Kingdom more than any other measure of success. Catholic education is concerned with the formation of the whole person rather than just knowledge and skill set. It forms communities that foster the call to Christian discipleship of each member and honour its call to be a community of disciples.
Part 3 will be published tomorrow.
To read Part 1 of Bishop Vincent’s address, click here.