Why The Church, Intervention of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin - OTHER DOCUMENTS

Why The Church, Intervention of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin


It is often said that asking the right question is as important as giving the right answer. Monsignor Giussani has certainly asked the right question. He has asked a question and he has challenged us to put that question to ourselves and others.

It is question to which we must be able to give a convincing answer when we speak about the Church, both to our own people and others who are indifferent or alienated from the Church. But it is a question that the Church, as it were, has also to put to itself in order to arrive at a pastoral practice which will reflect what the Church truly is.

“Why the Church” is an all important question for the Church in Ireland. Census figures show that religious affiliation in Ireland remains very high by European standards. This applies to a wide range of parameters. But one can notice a drop in the number of those attending regular Sunday Mass and in some areas in Dublin this drop is quite dramatic. What is this saying to us and how do we interpret it? What answer are people giving to the question “Why the Church?”

Since my return to Dublin just less than a year ago, I have been asking myself and others what will the Church in Dublin look like in ten or twenty years time? The Church remains the same and yet the Church changes. I can say, for example, that I entered the Dublin diocesan seminary in 1962, a few days before the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and that I left that seminary seven years later, into a different Ireland and a very different Church. The external structures of the Church inevitably vary from culture to culture, from historical situation to historical situation.

I have said on another occasion that for generations the Church in Ireland was very much a doing Church. For a whole series of circumstances the Church assumed a multitude of responsibilities in society, and fulfilled them at times very well and at other times clearly less well. Most of my generation of priests entered the seminary to do something for people. We were impressed by priests who were good and mirrored goodness in everything they did. Most of us were very surprised when we entered the seminary and the first thing we were asked to do was philosophy, not quite the material for an action-oriented teenager.

Many who come from an epoch when people looked to the Church as a doer must ask themselves today anew “why the Church?” In my youth, someone who wanted to work for and with people found the priesthood one of the most attractive forms of response. Today there are so many ways in which one can be involved in shaping the future of society and enabling people to realize their God-given potential or in releasing people from the forces which imprison them. Many of the things which the Church did in the past are being done just as well or even better by other community organizations. In many cases, it must be added, the quality of that work is due to the efforts of people who draw much of their commitment from their Christian faith, but who realize that faith in action within structures which are not Church structures.

But the mission of the Church is in the first place about the inward journey. It is about bringing people to Christ and helping them to discover through this encounter with Christ their own dignity and worth. It is a mission to lead us towards the depths of what our existence is about, though reaching towards the heights of transcendence. The Church is about being rather than doing. It is about encountering Jesus, the human incarnation of God, who leads me to discover what I am searching for in my life and who offers me meaning and hope in my everyday existence. It is when I abandon myself to Jesus that I fully find myself. It is when I know Jesus that I most fully understand humanity.

The encounter with Jesus is always, of course, an encounter with his gratuitous love. Being a member of the Church, means being one who allows that gratuitous love to work through me. It means trying to mirror that love in my life, even though my efforts will always be imperfect and limited by egoism, self-centeredness and sin.

Asking the question, then, “Why the Church?” should help us focus on the essentials of being Church. If we do not understand the essential Christ-centred nature of the Church, then the Church will appear to many as just a mixed bag of providing welfare, of being nice to people, of doing good and having a number of values. If that is all the Church is then it becomes just one benevolent organization along side others.

Christian faith is much more than that. It is that “much more” which is what makes Christianity attractive! It is a radical option to allow ourselves to be loved by Jesus and to share that love totally with others, who become our brothers and sisters in the Lord. It is in a new space of mutual giving, of welcoming and receiving one another in which God appears present to us. That is the significance of the words of Jesus in Saint Matthew: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Mt 17, 20).

The act of faith must be a free individual choice. It is a free choice to follow the path of Jesus. Christian faith, however, is not just an individual question. Mons. Giussani stresses very much the role of the Christian community. The Church founded by Jesus is founded on the community of believers. This community is not any ordinary community, but one shaped by Jesus himself, with its own special characteristics. It is a communion. Mons. Giussani teases out in a fascinating way a number of lessons we can learn for today’s Church from looking more closely at that original community of the believers in Jesus Christ.

In the brief period of time allowed me, I would like to set out just one or two of the reflections which struck me most, as I in turn reflect on the future of the Church in Dublin

The first aspect which struck me might seem so obvious as not to need repeating. The Church is a religious reality. I can only understand the Church when I have a mature understanding of what that religious nature means. Giussani notes that “if the religious aspect has not been sparked into life or is childishly retarded, it will make it difficult for me to judge the religious fact objectively, with a critical eye” (p.6).

I would like to make three comments on that.

Firstly, many of the criticisms of the Church are made on the basis of applying non-religious criteria to a religious reality. The non-believer is certainly free to criticize the Church or, for that matter, to express appreciation of what the Church does, and to do so from his or her own viewpoint. He cannot be expected to do otherwise. But criticism of the Church which does not attempt to understand its religious character can never really address the reality of the Church, just as criticism in the field of physics or economics must show at least minimum appreciation to the laws of physics or economics.

It is curious that the chances of a religious leader getting coverage of an address or talk in the media today is almost in inverse proportion to the level of the specifically religious content of the talk! The “good news” apparently is not news! But religious leaders’ views on nearly anything else seem always to make the headlines.

My second comment is that, of course, at times religious leaders themselves must take some of the blame for this. History shows us that there is a recurring real danger for Church leaders to allow other factors to overshadow the specific religious nature of the Church and indeed of their own mission. This can happen by being overly political, overly paternalistic or overly populist. It can happen by allowing the structure of the Church to drift towards being more a replica of any public organization rather than appearing as a communion of faith, a communion of worship, a communion of service and a communion of mission.

At a later point in the book, Giussani stresses that faith is about freedom. “The Christian ideal will be actuated only to the degree that a Christian, with all his or her freedom, chooses” (p.134). An authoritarian Church style is an attempt to deprive the believer of his or her own maturity in the faith. It is often an attempt to impose faith on people or even worse to impose things that are not essential to the faith. This happens when Church leaders drift into an authoritarian mode.

This can result from good intentions and from very different motivations. It is useful to remember that there is “conservative authoritarianism” and “progressive authoritarianism”! Even in a secularized era, for example, people to look to the Church for moral guidance and prophetic comment. But not every critical comment or opinion by an ecclesiastic is prophecy. Church leaders have to respect the freedom and maturity of Church members and remember that they can only bind a person in conscience on those matters which are in some way closely derived from the Gospel message, as the Gospel is read in Church tradition.

The Church can have no political manifesto, even though it might be popular to have one in some cases, especially if it were to criticize certain political figures. Beyond the central issues which derive from the Gospel, I cannot impose a particular political line in areas where persons should be free to make their own responsible decisions. This does not imply that the Church has nothing to say on the realities of the world. The recent Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Gregis, on the role of the Bishop, stresses the prophetic role of the Bishop in the face of the challenges of the time. The Bishop is called “a prophet of justice” (#66). One of the principle ways in which he carries out this mission is by unmasking false visions of human relationships and providing criteria for judgment which come from the “radicalism of the Gospel”. The Bishop can indicate what appears to be the more likely line of conduct which will lead to the realization of Gospel values. He can indicate the fundamental Gospel principles which should guide the behaviour of Christian.

And this leads me to my third comment. The road to change in the Church is always the path to conversion and evangelization. It is the road along which the Gospel is preached in its essentials and people are called to “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mt. 3, 2).

When I talk about this path, I am always reminded of the path of the disciples with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Conversion and evangelization are the task of and for all in the Church. We are all called, like those disciples, to journey with Jesus, and to enter deeper and deeper into his mystery. The disciples set out from what is so often the position of many: the factual, almost journalistic account, of an observer. They ask: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place” (Lk 24,19). As the journey goes on, Jesus begins to explain and interpret the scriptures about himself and their hearts burn as they begin to understand. Finally they fully recognize the Lord in the breaking of Bread in the Eucharistic communion.

In our Church we will have people whose links with and understanding of Jesus will be varied. There will be persons on different levels of faith. There will be those who remain on the level of the observable without deeper commitment; there will be those who ask questions and who bit by bit become more impassioned and committed; there will be those who come to the knowledge of Jesus and his mission through the full communion in the Eucharist.

The Church will always be a communion of sinners and saints, of those who reach a mature faith and of those who remain blocked at some stage. Evangelization means helping all to move to a deeper and closer relationship with Jesus and through that relationship encountering themselves and what makes their “heart burn”. The Church is not simply institution like any another administration. Its membership rules will have to be flexible in embracing those who sincerely seek Jesus and who take steps to deepen that embrace. We cannot ask for a “certificate of saintliness” before membership!.

Let me move on to another reflection of Mons. Giussani. In a very genial way he draws our attention to another paradox which makes it once again difficult to fit the Church into normal administrative structures. It is the paradox of the divine channelled by human reality. “What characterizes the Christian mystery is the revelation of the fact that God communicates himself to humanity through human persons, through human life”. How can finite men and women witness adequately to the God who is transcendence and absolute? The messenger would appear to be totally inadequate to the message he or she is asked to bring. Will the messenger not inevitably misled the seeker?

Saint Paul is clearly aware of the disproportion that is involved in the task. He repeats to the Corinthians (1 Cor 2, 4) that he came among them in weakness, in fear and great trembling. He can only repeat then that what he spoke and proclaimed was not meant to convince by philosophical argument but to demonstrate the convincing power of the Spirit.

There is a similar affirmation in a work by Karl Rahner dealing with the priesthood but which applies also to the Church. “Persons are offended when someone appears to do God’s business and still is only a human. They want messengers who speak more brilliantly, heralds who preach more persuasively, hearts that burn with a hotter flame… But what is the terrible and happy truth? Those who come are weak persons, who live in fear and trembling and must pray over and over ‘Lord, I believe, help my unbelief’ and who must beat their breasts ‘Lord be merciful to me a sinner’” (Meditations on the Sacraments p.61). And yet these same weak persons preach the faith that conquers the world and bring the grace that makes redeemed saints out of lost sinners!

Giussani and Rahner stress the fact that the preacher must preach not himself or herself but Jesus Christ. The evangelizer will only be effective when he or she clearly speaks in Jesus’ name.

Giussani goes even that little bit further with a wonderful insight: “If the divine chooses the human as a means of self communication, then the one who accepts this method, the Christian, becomes and remains just that: at once an instrument of the divine, but also a human who maintains his or her own particular temperament” (p. 129). It is unusual to speak of human temperament as an instrument of evangelization. But it is useful to realize that evangelization is not mono-colour! God transforms human qualities and permits the communication of God to be incarnated in human temperament. Human temperament is a condition which God accepts and transforms into an instrument. In this sense every individual Christian is called to be an instrument of evangelization, with their name, their history, their hopes and dreams. We all have our talents and each of us can bring our own witness to Jesus. We should not be afraid of the new when it comes to methods of evangelization. To do otherwise would somehow be to affirm that some method has a monopoly on evangelization. The Church must however be rich in the diversity of humankind which is its own way a revelation of God.

The Church is fundamentally communion and belonging. It is communion with Jesus and belonging to his mystical body. The members of that body become his people. The early Church understood itself as a communion invested with strength from on high. The coming of the Spirit was a foundational dimension of the already existing community of the disciples of Jesus. They were very much aware that their lives had been jolted by the gift of the Spirit. “This gift from on high, Giussani points out, “is not to be considered a mechanical extraneous investiture” (p.89). He presents it rather as a new level of self awareness, a new personality which is born into them, into their hearts. The members of the Christian community remain themselves, but they are changed into newness by the radical newness of the gospel.

This new personality also gives them the ability to preach the newness which Jesus brought into the world. This new personality means that the message of Jesus is so integrated into their person that they become prophets of the significance of the world and the value of life. Jesus is with them with strength and wisdom.

The early disciples were very much aware that their lives had been jolted by the gift of the Spirit and jolted not just as individuals but as a community. You cannot be a solo Christian. Gathering is always a dimension of the Church. Christianity is not an individual comparative study of values where I pick and choose what I like and where I go it alone. Christianity is challenge, the antidote to the individualism and the utilitarianism of modern culture.

Someone who is trapped in an individualist and utilitarian logic will inevitable ask the question “Why the Church?”, and feel that really there is no need for it. If the individual is the primary unit of society and my fulfilment becomes the criterion for fulfilment and interaction, then there is no need for the Church as community.

Giussani emphasizes especially that the community of the disciples is a particular one, it is communion. And he develops the concept of communion in terms of sharing in joint ownership (cf. p. 95). What is shared in joint ownership is the fact that Jesus Christ is the fundamental reason for living. As Giussani notes; “The property the first Christians shared was the mystery of Christ. This was at the root of their fellowship. It was not a joint ownership is the sense of power sharing. The only key to fellowship was the Lord “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also that you may have fellowship with us and our fellowship is with the Father and his only son Jesus Christ” (cf. 1 John 1, 1-7)

That fellowship is not something which can remain closed. What the disciples have seen and heard they must proclaim. The disciples are called to proclaim the good news to those they have not yet known. Their task is to make the name and the message of Jesus known in every corner of the world and to every new generation. The motto is “Go: teach all the nations”. The Church is always a community of mission. Giussani quotes from De Lubac “The Church only became self aware when it was aroused to the missionary task its Founder had indicated and it was mainly though this task that it was revealed to its own eyes”.

This must apply to Church today. It is only when the Church is outgoing, is missionary, that it will grasp what it is and what is its mission. A tired, stagnant Church will only loose the essence of its own identity. A safe, careful Church will fossilize in its own safety. The Gospel is not the text of yesterday. It brings a radical newness to every generation. Failure to recognize that and to have the courage to “put out into the deep” is in the long term a failure of faith.

The Church must be an enthusiastic Church. Faith is always a leap into the unknown. It is a risk. It is the risk to open ourselves to the gratuitous love of God, which is grace. The grace, which we in no way merit, is as Giussani notes “of divine value, since only the self communication of the divine is totally gratuitous”.

Opening ourselves to that grace we realize what the Church is, as Giussani defines in the last sentence of the book: “What the Church intends to teach us to do is to expand our capacity as individuals along a road of freedom, and to seek and experience the truth to which the Church introduces. This forms the outline in time of the authentic stature of human beings, constantly thirsting for reality, for true being” (p.234).

There are many who ask the question “Why the Church?" because they wish to be critical of the Church. If we interpret the mission of the Church as Giussani has, then all of us, and especially we as believers, should asking “Why the Church?” so that we can answer “We need the Church; we need that encounter with Jesus who reveals ourselves to ourselves” – and in that way our answer as individuals and as community will be authentic!

© Fraternità di Comunione e Liberazione. CF 97038000580 / Webmaster / Note legali / Credits