Church must be a communion of life, light and love in the service of humanity
RITE AND REASON: An answer on question of what the church is for can start upon leaving the Sunday Eucharist
THE INTERNATIONAL Theology Symposium which opens tomorrow in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, just before the Eucharistic Congress, takes up a central theme of the Second Vatican Council – namely the notion of the Catholic Church as communion.
Fifty years ago, when the council began, the new stage of history then opening got the church to review its direction and mission. Increasingly rapid advances in technology, a new sense of global interdependence, massive cultural and social transformations, including in traditional forms of community life, were all having major repercussions on religious life.
Against that backdrop, the council set the compass for the church. It pointed very definitely in the direction of communion.
But what does “communion” mean? In everyday conversation, we talk of someone “making his or her first holy communion” or “going to communion”. But the deepest sense of communion is that as a people, nourished by the Word of God and the Eucharist, our own inter-relationships in Jesus Christ form that space of communion in the world where God is particularly present and made manifest to others.
The church isn’t simply an organisation for dispensing sacraments, an agency that does good works or a self-sufficient corporation. It’s as a community gathered in mutual love that the baptised are called to be a sign pointing to and communicating the Kingdom of God that has begun to irrupt definitively in history in Jesus Christ.
At a time of word fatigue, people want to “see” Jesus present among those gathered in his name. And this is what the council underlined. Yet even now, the notion of the church as communion hasn’t been sufficiently explored in areas such as co-responsibility on the part of all, lay and ordained; the way of common discernment in decision-making; the contribution of women in the life of the church; the recognition of how we belong to a world church.
Yes, the council wants us to see things anew. It is like viewing a familiar object or landscape. Move even a few centimetres and you have a new perspective on that object or landscape. It isn’t that the object you are looking at changes, but you see it in a new way. Likewise, the Second Vatican Council invites us still today to take a new look at the church, understand it from a particular angle, and act accordingly.
As a great Pentecostal event, the council lets us hear what the Spirit is saying to the church for today: look at who you are from the angle of communion, focus on making the church a school and home of communion, learn a spirituality of communion. We need to go deeper into what communion means because simply tweaking structures will serve little purpose.
With recent painful events in the church in Ireland, many ask: what is the church for? Behind the cry that rises up against sinfulness and failure in the church can be heard a plea to all the baptised to express our genuine communion of life, light and love in the service of humanity, starting from the moment we leave the Sunday Eucharist, and meet neighbours on the road.
While a theology symposium has for a long time been part of preparations for an international Eucharistic Congress, this year’s event is the first to dedicate a full day to ecumenism with papers from Prof Geoffrey Wainwright of Duke Divinity School; Canon Nicholas Sagovsky, former canon theologian of Westminster Abbey; Dr Julie Canlis, University of St Andrews (Scotland); Metropolitan Emmanuel (Adamakis) of France, president of the Conference of European Churches; and Cardinal Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
As well as providing in-depth treatment of the foundations of the notion of communion, more than 30 speakers from 15 countries (not counting 25 emerging scholars giving short papers) will reflect on topics such as family, economics, education, evolution, art, music, lay ministry, priesthood and mission. With more than 300 in attendance, it will be the largest international theology symposium hosted by the Theology Faculty of Maynooth.
Rev Brendan Leahy is Professor of Systematic Theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth and co-editor with Prof Salvador Ryan of Treasures of Irish Christianity: People and Places, Images and Texts (Dublin, Veritas, 2012)