A church that is local, personal, external, communal (and poor), Part 1

Here’s why I said in a recent Facebook post that Pope Francis may be using the same consultants as my employer. As we at AARP figure out how best to help people, a theme that has emerged is the need to be local and personal in communities, something that we have as a thread of our history but aren’t primarily known for. As the only membership organization larger than us in the US, it appears the Catholic Church has identified the same strategy.

Early on (15), Francis cites John Paul II stating that “the missionary task [spreading the good news] must remain foremost” and asks, “What would happen if we were to take these words seriously? We would realize that missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity. [italics in text]. He then quotes the bishops of Latin America as saying that the a church “cannot passively and calmly wait in our church building.” To spread the good news, we must be externally focused.
Later, he says “it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear.” (23) Externally focused.

It’s not just enough for Christians to be out in the world; to be effective, we need to be involved in people’s lives. “An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives…it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizer a thus take on the “smell of the sheep”…[such a community] is also supportive! standing by people at every step of the way.” (24)

While Francis defends the parish (what we think of as a church community) as an institution that hasn’t outlived its usefulness (and outlines the functions of a parish along the lines I mentioned in the last post), that defense is dependent; “This presumes that it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few…In all it’s activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers.” (28)

People often think of a Church building as a place that is protected from the riff-raff. That isn’t what Francis has in mind: “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door…Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacrament be closed for simply any reason…The Eucharist…is to a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” (47)

A local and personal Church is not the same as a private one; local and personal is also communal: “The individualism of our postmodern and globalized era favours a lifestyle which weakens the development and stability of personal relationships and distorts family bonds. Pastoral activity needs to bring out more clearly the fact that our relationship with the Father demands and encourages a community which heals, promotes and reinforces interpersonal bonds.” (67)

In the call to community, the built environment often works against us. In cities, “Houses and neighbourhoods are more often built to isolate and protect than to connect and integrate,” frets the pope (75). And social media doesn’t help: “Today, when the networks and means of human communication have made unprecedented advances, we sense the challenge of finding and sharing a ‘mystique’ of living together, of mingling and encounter, of embracing and supporting one another, of stepping into this flood tide which, while chaotic, can become a genuine experience of fraternity, a caravan of solidarity, a sacred pilgrimage. Greater possibilities for communication this turn into greater possibilities for encounter and solidarity for everyone.” (87)

The Church has to be communal, like it or not: “Many try to escape from others and take refuge in the comfort of their privacy or in a small circle of close friends, renouncing the realism of the social aspect of the Gospel. For just as some people want a purely spiritual Christ, without flesh and without the cross, they also want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.” (88)

So put your smart phone down and look around.

And poor: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” (49). “The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor.” (58)

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