Faith Matters

Fr Martin Henry: Planning for the future should draw on the wisdom of the past

The Church is often met with calls for change - drawing on the wisdom of the past is helpful with the future remains a blank page, says Fr Martin Henry

The Church cannot avoid any general clamour for change in society - but how should it approach the issue?

AT times of confusion and uncertainty, it is only natural to think that something is amiss in the way life is organised, and to assume that change is called for.

While arguably every age has its discontents and corresponding desire for change, in some periods the desire for change is more acutely felt than in others.

Today's world would appear to find itself in the latter category. And this general feeling does not spare the Church.

For no matter how strongly it may claim not to be 'of this world', the Church is most definitely 'in this world', and can hardly avoid being influenced by it.

Whether its own contemporary internal confusions are simply a reflection of larger movements in the world, or are compounded by them, is, however, a difficult question to answer.

Also difficult to answer is the question whether the Church should allow itself to be influenced by worldly wisdom as it seeks to change or to reform itself. For self-reformation is, we are often assured, one of the Church's prime duties (ecclesia semper reformanda - 'the Church always needs to be reformed').

Interestingly enough, though, the Second Vatican Council's document on the Church, Lumen gentium, expressed this idea not as ecclesia semper reformanda, but rather as ecclesia... semper purificanda ('the Church always needs to be purified' [Ch. 1, Section 8]).

Be that as it may, the idea of how 'reform' or 'purification' is to be achieved still leaves open the question of the possible benefits or otherwise of taking a leaf out of the world's book in coping with such a process.

The now well-established ways of the world for dealing with its internal problems include (leaving aside recourse to arms) reliance on tactical resources like think-tanks, 'brainstorming' sessions, conferences, elections, 'five-year' plans and public consultations.

For politicians and governments, such tools of the trade would seem to be not only respectable, but necessary. How else is enlightenment to come in tackling vast social and economic problems?

Should the Church follow suit? Perhaps. But maybe it should consult the past first. The past may not be an infallible guide to the future, but at least its wisdom can still be consulted, whereas the future remains a blank page.

In that sense, it might be worthwhile looking back at the first 'missionary' endeavours of the apostles mentioned briefly in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 6.

In the chapter in question, Jesus sent out his apostles to preach and heal, and when they returned to him, as the gospel tells us, they "told him all they had done and taught" (Mark 6:30).

Yet curiously, even disconcertingly, Jesus doesn't seem to be particularly interested in his apostles' missionary activity. He apparently doesn't even ask them how they got on.

They don't discuss tactics or strategies for new endeavours, as we might perhaps have expected, given our own modern perspective on such matters.

Their 'faith experiences', as they might be described today, aren't scrutinised to enable them to be better prepared perhaps for the future.

Instead, Jesus simply says to his apostles: "You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while."

We might wonder why Jesus reacts as he does. Now, it might well have to do with the fact, which the gospel also reports, that many other people were turning up and the apostles "had no leisure even to eat" (Mark 6:31).

But it is still, I think, interesting to find that Jesus isn't reported as discussing with the apostles what they had just experienced in their missionary journeys. Why, we might well ask, does he point them instead in a different direction?

The answer to this question must presumably be at least in part connected with the fact that God, our origin and final end, is always more and also other than everything else that we strive to reach or actually attain in this life, or indeed enjoy or suffer in this life.

In other words, God, to be God, must be greater than our history, greater than our problems and defeats, but greater also than our victories and triumphs.

God is of course, we believe, interested in our whole life. Otherwise he'd hardly have created us in the first place.

But if we take our history - and that means, if we take ourselves - too seriously, then we run the risk of letting this other truth slip into the background, if not into complete oblivion. And this other truth is simply the fact that God is greater than our history and greater than our life.

It was maybe to prevent the apostles from falling into this trap that Jesus invited them to go to a lonely place to rest.

There they would at least have the possibility of reflecting on something even more important than all their apostolic activity, or even of learning truly for the first time that human beings have not been created by God simply for this life and for their history on this earth, but that they have been created above all for a share in the divine life.

There is, however, no way to God – and the rest of the gospel passage just alluded to underlines this truth – which leaves human need out of account. Jesus may well have gone with his apostles to a lonely place, so that they could rest, but when he saw the distress of the people who had followed them, he "had compassion on them... and he began to teach them many things", as the gospel recounts (Mark 6:34).

If people back then followed Jesus because they perceived he combined a shadowing of God with an instinctive awareness of human need, this might indicate that the Church's attitude to the future should be primarily guided not by any fixation on 'learning outcomes' for its 'pastoral strategies', but rather by paying attention to both sides of the original Christian coin, namely to seek God, but without ever losing sight of human need and the need to alleviate it.

Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.

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