In two articles for this newspaper I asked my readers to direct their attention to the gift of free will given to all members of the human race. This gift from God’s loving regard for the human race, is given so that we may each individually chose to declare the wonders of this creation and the still greater wonder who is God Himself. For a Christian the proclamation of the mystery and majesty of God must include the affirmation that God is one and shows Himself to us as Three Divine Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These truths are known to us through God the Son taking to Himself the human nature we know as Jesus Christ, who was born, lived among us, was killed and rose from death to life here and in heaven. Jesus Christ has commissioned us to freely decide to declare these truths to all men and women as an act of loving service desired by God to secure an eternity of fulfilment for those who believe and live these truths.
The Catholic Church is the instrument established by Jesus the Lord to present to the human race through the ages what God desires to give to those who freely choose to accept the fruit of His love. I wrote at some length in the previous articles of the foundational elements established by Christ. These elements are the College of Bishops preserved in unity by the Bishop of Rome the Pope; the inspired Scriptures in the Bible; the seven Sacraments. By the gift of these elements Jesus Christ made sure that no matter how the human race develops in this creation His Church has the resources to proclaim the Gospel of salvation that calls all human beings to holiness for entry into the joys of heaven. But now as we enter the 21st century after the life of Jesus Christ on earth we must take note that the majority of our brothers and sisters have not used their free will to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Redeemer.
The human race is flourishing like never before in terms of numbers alive. Many of our number barely scratch a living while others are submerged in an abundance of material resources and are entranced by the complexity and facilities in the material world made available by science and industry. The Catholic Church is greater in number of adherents than ever before but only a minor part of our race has heard and accepted the message of salvation brought us by Jesus. We Catholics must ask ourselves how are we carrying out the duty laid on us by Christ to proclaim the Gospel to the people of our times.
I remember in the middle of the 20th century a much-discussed question among some of the clergy was on “mission or maintenance?”. In other words, should our priestly work be directed at “keeping the show on the road” or should our efforts be focused on reaching out to those who did not know Christ or had not accepted Him as Lord?
At that time I was an academic teaching in one of my order’s seminaries but using the long holidays to undertake parish missions mainly in the Southwark diocese. It was in the exacting business of going from house to house calling and encouraging their occupants to “make the mission” that it became clear to me that mission and maintenance are closely entwined. Where the parish community was vigorous and confident conversations with lapsed Catholics and non-Catholics about the call to accept Jesus into their lives seemed to find ready listeners. But where the parish community was dispirited and lacking in a sense of commission from Jesus to declare God’s love for the human race, it was extremely hard to evoke interest and action in those I visited. But in both types of parish community there was little or no sense of being part of a dynamic community that had been entrusted with the high calling of being entrusted by the Son of God to change a sinful world from its mistaken and futile ways to bring all men and women to the wonder of union for all eternity with God.
Faced by the challenge that the majority of the human race are still apparently untouched by the coming of the Son of God, Jesus Christ our redeemer into our world, how must we respond to this challenge? The first and necessary point of departure in meeting this challenge is at hand. It is in the communities of the Catholic Church: the parishes, dioceses, organisations and societies already imbued with the Holy Spirit. In my previous articles I reflected on the way in which Jesus, while respecting human free will, laid the foundations on which the Church could develop and respond to the divine purpose for the human race as it explores and shapes the creation given it by God. Now it is for us in our communities to understand and develop under the guidance of the Holy Spirit a dynamic presence in each community to exercise the privilege of announcing the good news of the Gospel.
“Dynamic” can mean a force that promotes change and progress in any body or system. It is a most useful word to describe in the Catholic Church the operation of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised this gift to His Church after He had gone to the Father in order to lead His faithful followers into all truth. It is a gift that is particularly appropriate for our world that is in a process of constant development. So while maintaining and using the gifts given by Jesus to found and enhance His Church, that Church in all its members in this creation is not simply looking back and celebrating the past but is by divine purpose pressing on to a future that will only reach completion when the Father has decreed it. The details of this decree have not been revealed to us.
The dynamic of the elements in the Catholic Church can be frustrated by lack of faith and charity in the individuals who make up the social groups in the Church: the associations, parishes and dioceses etc. Looking back with a nostalgia for times past that induces inactivity in the proclamation of the Gospel, whatever the difficulties of our own times, is not an option for the true follower of Christ. Thus it behoves all the members of any group to reach out to any other member who is not fully open to the grace and gift of the Holy Spirit and also to acknowledge and cherish this marvellous gift in oneself. This unity of understanding and purpose is a central necessity for the work of evangelisation. It was required by Jesus at the Last Supper in His prayer for unity among those who follow Him.
The preservation of unity together with awareness of developments in society are particularly significant for the work of spreading the Gospel. It is also necessary that each group in the Church takes care to be aware of the challenges launched at the Church and her teaching by those who are opposed to the message of Jesus and His Church. The advances in the sciences are used by some to declare the irrelevance of God for our capacity to understand and utilise the gifts of this universe. Some scientists seek to avert our attention from seeking the ultimate source of this universe of transient elements and unexplained ultimate origins.
It is essential that all those who are given the call by their baptism to evangelise should be well versed in the realities of the life and words of the historical Jesus. There must be no watering down of the challenge He presents, not only to the people who encountered Him 2,000 years ago in Palestine. All Catholics should be convinced of the significance of our Redeemer to all men and women since His time down to today and on to the future. We are given the call to evangelise by our baptism. We must remember the gift of free will that is God’s disposition for all mankind as explained above. This gift must be respected. But the desire of our Creator that all mankind should freely chose to be redeemed is the essential factor in the work of evangelisation. It is this conviction that is rooted in the gift of God-given charity that spurs us on despite the rebuffs and disappointments that are encountered.
We have noted the size of the challenge on the Catholic Church to respond to the duty laid on her by Jesus Christ to preach the Gospel to all mankind. Following the insights of the Second Vatican Council I have insisted that this is a task for all in the Church.
This high calling given by Jesus is not to be answered only by the ordained: deacons, priests, bishops with the Pope. These men have a leadership role among other duties in the Church. But that role will be futile if those who they serve are so lacking in faith and charity that the call of Christ is left within them in a kind of selfish silence.
Unless the parish or local group is sustained by those who want to communicate the love that God has affirmed to us by sending Jesus Christ into our world, the saving message of the Gospel will have little chance of being heard at the local level. And if the message is not heard at the local level then at diocesan, national and international level the divine generosity in sending Jesus Christ to the human race will be impeded or even suspended.
There are obvious consequences for those who are charged with leadership in the Church, They must do their utmost to ensure that all the baptised are kept aware of the dynamic of the calling given them by Jesus Christ. Each in his own way and circumstances is called to proclaim the Good News which is Jesus Christ.
The Rt Rev John Jukes OFM Conv is an Auxiliary Emeritus Bishop of Southwark