Read Archbishop Stephen Brislin’s homily at the Bicentennial Mass.
Remember the past with gratitude, live the present with enthusiasm, and look forward to the future with confidence. These words of St Pope John Paul II have provided the framework for our bicentennial celebrations over the past year. We have recalled the past with gratitude, we have recalled especially the Religious Congregations who came to southern Africa and who are responsible for establishing the Church throughout the region. But we have also not forgotten the ordinary men and women who, over the past two centuries, have sacrificed so much, and with such generosity, that we can rejoice today in the faith that has been handed on to us.
As we bring to a close this year of celebration, it is appropriate now to look to the future – not only to look to future but, as the Pope says, to do so with confidence. The baton of faith is in our hands, we are entrusted not only with our faith but with the faith of future generations. We bear the responsibility not only for the present, but for the future. As we turn to the future St John the Baptist provides an example for us. At the time of his birth, people asked “what then will this child be?”. The question we have in our hearts “what does the future hold?” We are all too aware the rapid and confusing changes in the world and the Church, and so perhaps that question does not inspire much confidence or hope within us. The very foundations of our faith and values seems to have slipped from beneath us – even in our own families we experience this divergence from what we believe. For some, the words of the first reading might resonate in their hearts “I have toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly spent my strength”.
But knowing we are entrusted with the baton of the faith another question arises – it is the same question many asked John the Baptist when he was baptizing in the river Jordan. They went to him and asked “what must we do?”. Given the complexities and confusion of our times, we to ask: what must we do?
The life of St John the Baptist points to the answer. St John the Evangelist, writes of him in his Gospel: “He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light” (Jn 1:8). Our mission is to bear witness in the world, to be the light of the world as commanded by Jesus himself when he said to his disciples You are the light of the world (Mt 5:14), resonating the mission given to the people of Israel in the First reading of today’s Mass: “I will make you a light to the nations that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth”. We share in this magnificent vocation, a calling that is given to us in baptism. We are not the true light but, like John, a witness to that light. The Light is Christ. The early Fathers compared our light with that of the moon which reflects the light of the sun. So we are meant to reflect the true light, Christ the Lord.
On the one hand we have this illustrious and humbling mission. On the other, it is difficult for some to embrace it with confidence, as they encounter so many changes. Fundamental Christian values are not only questioned but dismissed. Those we love question or even reject religious belief and practice. This dent to our confidence and self-esteem is the result of four major reasons.
(a) Secularization: Religion,especially in the West, has lost its social and cultural significance. The role of religion in modern societies has become restricted, faith lacks cultural authority, religious organizations have little social power, and public life proceeds without reference to the supernatural. i The practice of religion is tolerated but is viewed as a private affair that should not impinge on the public domain. Faith is ultimately considered subject to secular law, even in areas of moral teaching.
(b) The Abuse cases: The number of cases of child abuse by Catholic clergy and others, as well as the bad-handling of a number of those cases, has caused a deep lack of confidence in Church authority and has weakened faith. Rightly, we experience deep shame as a result of what has happened. We know that this has happened due to human weakness and that it does not mean that faith is wrong or that it is not the true faith. But a consequence of the abuse cases is disillusionment and insecurity.
(c) Divisions within the Church: The Church is, and always has been, diverse. This is a blessing and richness from God – we are many parts, but one body, united by faith in Christ. But the aggressive adherence and promotion of ideologies, even within the Church, is divisive and tears people apart.
(d) Advances of science and technology: The rapidity of scientific and technological advances potentially gives rise to feelings of incompetence the we are not qualified to address pertinent issues that impact on people and society.
The problem with losing confidence in our faith or our mission, even if we know the reasons for it, is that it can lead to a siege mentality. We are tempted to seek security by remaining among like-minded people conversing and dialoging among them, fearing to go beyond what is comfortable. It may cause us to idealize the past, believing in “golden era” of our faith which we should try and re-capture. This is a foolish endeavour since we live in the world of here and now with all its present problems, mentality and attitudes. Of course we must remember and learn from the past, but we can never turn back. We can only look to the future and embrace the challenge to be the light of the world and a light to the nations. The words of author of the Book of Hebrews captures the sentiment we require: “But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved” (Heb 10:39). We need to regain our confidence in the mission of the Church and what God expects of us.
In his book The Shape of the Church to Come, written in the early 1970’s, the famous Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, made a prediction about the future. He suggested that the Church will become the “little flock”, diminished in numbers. He says, “We are a little flock in society and we shall become a much smaller flock, since the erosion of the preconditions of a Christian society within the secular society still continues and thus takes away the ground more and more from traditional Christianity”. But his conclusion is more important than his prediction. He says that the only defense that will lead to success in promoting the Christian faith is a missionary offensive – in the words of the last three Popes – a New Evangelization. The missionary era of the Church is not over and never will be until the Kingdom of God is brought to perfection. Mission is integral to what it mean to be Church. The nature of mission may be different from what it was 200 years ago, its shape may have changed, but it is part and parcel of what it means to be Church.
And so, perhaps the first step of regaining our confidence in the future is to recognize that the Church is and always will be, “the little flock”, not necessarily in terms of numbers but for the mere fact that we do not have, nor should we have, political, economic or military power. We depend only on the strength of God and thus we need, as our first step to being the light of the world, to re-affirm our faith in Christ’s abiding presence, to re-affirm our belief in his message and to acknowledge that he has chosen us as his instruments. St Mother Teresa says that we are like the power lines running alongside the streets. “Unless the current flows through them there is not light. The power line is you and me, the current is God. We have the power to allow the current to flow through us and thus to generate the light of the world – Jesus. Or to refuse to be used and thus allow the darkness to spread.” We may feel the insecurity of a decline in numbers of practising Catholics in some countries. But as another famous Jesuit theologian and mystic, Urs Von Balthasar, said “the Church does not dispense the sacrament of Baptism in order to acquire for herself an increase in membership but in order to consecrate a human being to God and to communicate to that person the divine gift of birth from God”. The numbers are not the most important thing, those willing to accept their baptismal consecration to God is what counts.
So what must we do?
Firstly, to express our willingness to be Christ’s instruments, to be the “moon” reflecting his light, by focussing our lives on Christ and submitting ourselves to his commandments and to his will. The commandments are not out of date, Scripture is the living Word of God speaking to us at all times – it cannot be relegated to the past or interpreted as being for a specific culture, as some would have.
Secondly, not to succumb to the attempts to “privatize” religion, wittingly or unwittingly, or allow ourselves to neglect the mission that we have been given “to the world”, not to be intimidated by the so-called progress. Pope Benedict XVI has said: “Many scientists in our times say that the universe has to come from something; that we should look at this question again. At the same time, people are acknowledging a new understanding or religion, not just as an ancient, mythological reality but as something as having an inner relation with the Logos”. In the words of Mother Teresa, to allow the current to flow through us and so light up the world.
Thirdly, to be compassionate to people in their struggles. Despite all the changes in the world, people are still searching for meaning and seeking the purpose of life. The superficial image of self-sufficiency and self-reliance is deceptive. Many are struggling to make sense of their lives. Pope Francis has pointed out that many are afflicted by loneliness and isolation, especially in the anonymity of city life. People are thirsting and hungering for truth, for compassion and for mercy.
Fourthly, we know that the greatest gift the Church has to offer humanity is salvation. But it is also that we have something to offer that makes the world more human, just and caring. In the words of Cardinal Murphy O’Connor: “The Church has a perspective and a wisdom which our society cannot afford to exclude or silence. The Church’s teaching has the whole human good in mind; that is why it is not simply one lobby group among others”ii. I will name just three examples:
The first is our fundamental belief in the dignity and sanctity of life – whether the life of a strong healthy young person, a mentally challenged person, a person who lives on the street, one who is at the end of his/her life, or life in the womb. Each person is made in the image of God, and thus no person should be exploited or enslaved, demeaned or derided. Each has a place and it is incumbent on all to respect life and for those in authority to protect it.
The second is the economy. The Church does not offer a blueprint on economic practice but does argue that the economy is at the service of people, rather than people at the service of the economy. No person should be treated as a commodity, the economy must operate within a moral framework and must advance the common good and provide opportunity for all.
The third is the profound and beautiful teaching that the Church has on marriage and family. We cannot be fulfilled as persons without others. The family is the foundation of society and consistently, people express the importance of family in their own experience. Yet, we live in a era of experimentation with the meaning and structures of marriage and family.iii The undermining of the concept of marriage as a life-long commitment of fidelity between a man and woman, open to the transmission of life, threatens human flourishing by denying a fundamental good of society.
We have no reason to be ashamed of our faith – it is the way to life and salvation. We have no rieason to shrink back or allow ourselves to be intimidated by what we perceive to be an indifferent, hostile or frightening world. We do not succumb to being blown in the wind like a feather, going this way and that way, in order to accommodate what seems to be an insatiable desire in the modern world for novelty and sensationalism. We do not retreat into a laager, seeking a comfortable space for ourselves. We do not dream of a mythological “golden era” of the Church and try to re-capture something that, in fact, never existed. As much as we may feel that we are like a voice crying in the wilderness, even that we may have laboured in vain – we have faith that God is still at work in the world, that his Kingdom is indeed like the mustard seed, tiny but steadily growing into the biggest bush of all; that God’s presence in the world is like the gentle breeze in which Elijah recognized God’s presence, not in the noisy sensational mighty wind, earthquake or fire. Our trust is in the Cross of Christ and so we proclaim the message of repentance, calling people to conversion.
Negativity and pessimism are the greatest enemies we have to face. The homilist at the Youth Day Mass last week made a brilliant point: he asked the young people whether a ship sinks because of the water around it. Of course it does not. It sinks because of the water that gets into it. While we remain realistic and with our feet on the ground, our faith brings hope and we can never allow pessimism to destroy those most important gifts of hope and belief.
Last Friday, a group of us bishops were walking down the hustle and bustle of Plein Street towards the Chancery, talking among ourselves. A shop keeper called to us. He said: Fathers, why are you walking stooped with your faces down. Lift your faces, you are men of God”. His words are reminiscent of those of Jesus who said that when we see “these things happen”, stand up and lift up your heads. We lift our faces and look to the future, confident but not arrogant, filled with hope not despair, focussed on Jesus Christ not on pessimism, always committed to keeping the commandments and walking in his ways, repentant, active in love for God and neighbour, affirming our belief in the reality of beauty, goodness and truth. For God has created what is beautiful, good and true; amidst the scars and distortions caused by humans, we neglect to recognize that beauty. But when we look beyond the surface, we recognize God’s hand in the unfolding history of the world and we encounter Christ our Saviour.
And so we face the future with confidence. We turn to Our Lady Assumed into Heaven, Patroness of Southern Africa, and we seek her protection and intercession. She who points us always to her Son Jesus, will never desert us. With her loving kindness and gentleness she will show us the way to continue to be the missionaries that her Son has called us to be, to continue to witness and proclaim the faith, and to always see beyond, recognizing the goodness that still holds sway in the world.
iiCardinal Murphy-O’Connor: Gaudium et Spes – The shape of the Church past, present and to come… 27th February 2009