Hard times, fruitful times


THINKING ANEW:THE Eucharistic Congress, which ends tomorrow, is not only important for the Roman Catholic Church but for all who believe that the Christian faith can be a force for good in the life of this country. Notwithstanding many failures of recent years, there is a fine record of things done well and an unfailing availability to the people in times of need and personal loss.

At the RDS last Sunday Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said that the church is “on the path to renewal”. Some will be tempted to think that this means returning to an era when churches exercised power and control as part of the establishment. That day has gone. It is arguable that when this has been the case in the past the church, especially at a leadership level, has become worldly and lost its way. And those who dared to question were silenced in defence of a mistaken and confused understanding of orthodoxy.

When we talk about the church it is important to remember that Christianity was originally a minority movement with a message that inspired people and a set of values that challenged prevailing social and political norms. And while the early Christians were clearly focused on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, they were very aware that their mission was to the present and about the future.

A Eucharistic prayer makes the point: “We remember his passion and death, we celebrate his resurrection and ascension, and we look for the coming of his kingdom.” The church has been faithful in remembering and celebrating but perhaps less faithful when working for the coming of the kingdom because it is costly and may require us to reconsider some of the old certainties. The failing ecumenical movement is a perfect example of our resistance to change and renewal. If the church is serious about renewal it will have to exchange living in the past with working for the future.

In tomorrow’s Gospel we are given a model of the church at work in the world. The parable of the seed growing secretly and the parable of the mustard seed don’t appear at first to be very radical, but in fact they point to the powerful activity of God in small beginnings and using people thought to be unsuitable. This is illustrated in an Old Testament reading where Samuel is guided to the seven sons of Jesse in search of a successor for King Saul. As each one is presented he is rejected “for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” One son is missing, David the youngest. He was left at home to look after sheep – too young to be considered – yet he is the one finally chosen and in time becomes a great leader of his people.

The church will not necessarily lack influence in shaping the life of the nation operating as a minority movement. If we consider faith-inspired achievements of recent times they were accepted because their advocates made sense to the wider world: Mother Teresa, Archbishops Tutu and Romero and people in Ireland such as Gordon Wilson and Peter McVerry. Martin Luther King did not get the civil rights act passed in America simply by going to church or quoting Scripture. Inspired by his faith and believing that God’s kingdom was about justice for his people, his compelling arguments convinced enough people to support him.

There will undoubtedly be different views as to the success or otherwise of the Eucharistic Congress but they won’t alter the fact that these are difficult times for the whole church. But the American writer Jim Wallis reminds us that where God is concerned difficult times can often be fruitful times if we are open to his guidance: “God breaks in at the weak places. God’s spirit is active in the most unlikely places – the poor, broken and humble places. The power of God is most realised at the point of our vulnerability, our risk-taking, and our letting go. To be vulnerable means to be available to the power of God’s love.”