Wednesday, 24 December 2008
What is the future of the Church?
At the Adelaide ordinations on Saturday Archbishop Wilson of Adelaide made a comment in his sermon that while some people think the best days of the Church are behind us, he doesn't agree.
I was a little puzzled about what he was getting at, and talking to someone else later it seems I was not alone. The sentiment basically sounds right to me - but I'm not at all sure that I am on the same page as the Archbishop in terms of the reasons for this!
So I thought a little speculation on where the Church is headed might be a suitable lead up to Christmas when we not only celebrate the Incarnation of Our Lord, but also look forward to his coming again!
One view - quite popular amongst some traditionalists, fed by numerous (mostly non-approved) visionaries - is that the second coming is very imminent indeed.
We can all certainly agree that we are living in the end times - but frankly speculating on the timing seems to me as fruitless now as it was amongst the early Christians who literally expected Jesus to return before they died.
We have to live as if we could die, or face the Second Coming at any moment - but also continue to work for our won salvation and the kingdom in concrete ways until it really does happen.
The Spirit of Vatican II vision
A second school of thought, still alive, I suspect, in the minds of a particular (ageing) generation is that of a broader, more inclusive and loving Church where everyone is saved really, regardless of what they believe or do. It's the South Brisbane/Acatholica model that focuses on social justice and ecumenism at the expense of doctrine and liturgy.
This is a view that seems to me pretty hard to reconcile with Scripture (remember all that stuff about entering by the narrow gate!). And you would have thought that the evidence was pretty overwhelming that this style of religion was a failure in terms of appealing to the masses - declining congregations, the shortage of priests, and closing churches say it all. But somehow what seem to the rest of us as blatant evidence of the lack of fruit coming from this approach, is somehow or other often regarded by insiders as a sign of virtue...
A smaller Church?
A third view is that the Church will be much smaller in the future, but more fervent, and that may be an objectively better situation.
The reality is that the current Pope has suggested that the Church is already much smaller in reality than many seem to think it is! The Gospel story of the wheat and tars being sorted out at the time of the harvest is a salutary one that all cafeteria Catholics might usefully reflect on....
But that doesn't mean we should be satisfied with that situation!
The Church is surely healthiest when it aids the maximum number of people in reaching heaven. We down here of course can never know when that is. But prima facie, a Christian society where a high proportion of people practice their faith actively, attending mass frequently and participating in religious exercises of all kinds regularly - as was the case for example in the High Middle Ages in many places - seems more likely to be serving the purpose of salvation than a minority faith in a society practicing a culture of death.
Of course we have to look to our own salvation first, even as we celebrate the coming of the saviour of the world on the Feast of the Nativity.
But we should also be looking forward though, to Our Lord's last instruction while on earth, namely to go out and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all that Christ commanded.
So perhaps a new great missionary age is dawning. And if that was what the Archbishop meant, a very appropriate message for ordinations for a religious order such as the Dominicans founded to convert by preaching!
In any case, with all the wonderful liturgies about to be celebrated over the Christmas period, do a little preaching of your own, and do your best to entice along any lapsed or uncatechized family and friends to Midnight or another Mass, and hope it marks the start of a return (or discovery) of the saving truth for them this Christmas!
And I wish everyone a happy and holy Christmas as we celebrate this Vigil of the feast today.