Marian Lecture 2018: 29 May, Sydney and 31 May, Melbourne
A New Generation of Church in the way of Mary
Marist Association of St Marcellin Champagnat
Thank you for the invitation to speak at this forum and to have the opportunity to share the podium with two very distinguished Catholic leaders of our country.
It is so great to see so many of you who are enamoured to the ideals of St Marcellin Champagnat and who are committed to carry on his legacy in the context of educating and forming Christian leaders for the future. The Marists, like the Franciscans, are resigned to the inevitable fate of diminishment and even demise. But we also realise that we have something precious to pass on to others.
One of my favourite images that speak to religious life today is that of Simeon and Anna holding the infant Jesus in the temple. They have an important role to play even if they find themselves confronted with their own demise. In the words of St Paul, they are like earthenware vessels holding the inestimable treasure of Christ. If like Anna and Simeon, they are faced with old age and mortality, they should not fear as long as they can pass on to others the hope, the light and the salvation that they have seen.
Much has changed since the pioneer Marists put into action “God’s mission with Marian joy, hope and audacity” in colonial Australia. They are no longer a force they used to be. Yet, they are not sitting around, moping and hoping for the good old days to return. They are busy getting on with the mission God has given them to do. They are thinking outside the square by virtue of their charismatic audacity. They are busy with nurturing and delivering new life. Some religious are like wine. They get better with age. They live prophetically even as they grow old gracefully. They are like the embers in the ashes that will start the fire the morning after. The words of St Paul may best describe what many religious like the Marists are doing today “Death is at work in us but life in you”.
I am of the view that we have entered the new era, which is characterised by a thirst for full citizenship in the church on the part of the faithful. The church is being reclaimed not primarily as the church of the ordained but the church of the baptised and the community of disciples. It is time for a whole new generation of church to live out their baptismal identity and mission. You are this new generation of church. Your commitment to the Marist values gives us reason for hope in this time of uncertainty. The charism of Champagnat is being reborn in ways beyond the traditional structures of religious life. Like the Aboriginal pioneers who refused to sit on the edges of the shrinking billabong, this new generation of Marists go to where the river flows in order to explore new frontiers of engagement and new possibilities of solidarity.
As followers of Champagnat, we are particularly inspired by the example of Mary who embodied the missionary impulse of the church. Pope Francis reflected on a “Marian ‘style’ to the Church’s work of evangelization” in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Guadium. He spoke of the “interplay of justice and tenderness, of contemplation and concern for others” and concluded by calling us to implore Mary’s maternal intercession “that the Church may become a home for many peoples, a mother for all peoples, and that the way may be opened to the birth of the new world.” In other words, we must not fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion on account of the hostile environment around us. Mary’s example of engagement and solidarity provides us with the impetus to move from security to boldness, from inward looking to outward looking, from safeguarding our privileges to conveying God’s compassion to those who are on the edges of society and church.
In this reflection, I’d like to suggest a number of ways we can facilitate the birthing of the kind of church that Pope Francis speaks about. I’d like to think that you, being the new generation of Marists, are especially called and empowered to bring about the church, which Mary embodies: the church that is never closed in on itself or without passion for the Kingdom, but rather a home and a mother for all peoples, refuge for the poor, an oasis for the weary and a hospital for the wounded.
GOING TO THE PERIPHERY:
Ever since Pope Francis unexpectedly came onto the scene, he has challenged us to reclaim the spirit of the Gospel. For him, it has little to do with security, comfort, complacency and mediocrity. A self-serving and self-preserving mentality goes against the very nature of what it means to be a Christian and church. He makes no qualms about the need to take the risk for the sake of accompanying those at the margins. “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”.
In promoting a church of engagement and accompaniment, the pope has embraced a bold fresh way of being church. For a long time, the Church had been understood to be on its way to becoming a perfect society in and for the world. It was a defensive, fortress Church. Other Christian Churches were considered aberrations from this road map, not to speak of other religious movements. However, Gaudium et Spes – the guiding document of the Council – presented a new paradigm: the church is not an enclosure which protects its members against the sinful world. It is a fellow pilgrim with the men and women of our age. It is a church incarnate in the world. Therefore, it is time not of fearful retreat, disengagement and self-referential pomp, but of accompaniment and engagement.
Pope Francis’ image of the church as a field hospital initiates a dramatically different model of church. His strategic visits to other Christian denominations, most recently to Lund in Sweden where he remembered Martin Luther and the beginnings and legacy of the Protestant Reformation, and his encounter with other world religions, demonstrate his determination to lead the church away from the model of the perfect society toward a model of a pilgrim church. He understands the church’s mission in terms of responding to God’s call to participate in his great project of creation and reconciliation.
Francis declares: “The thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity”. That is his vision of the ideal Church. Not a perfect society, nor the enclosure for the privileged but a refuge for the poor, an oasis for the weary and a hospital for the wounded.
The field hospital is not concerned about defending against threat of encroachment and loss of its status and privileges. Instead, it goes out of itself to respond to the needs of those whose lives are at risk. It engages with the world rather than withdraws into enclaves. Indeed, as Pope Francis reminded us, we need to be in prisons, hospitals, the streets, villages, factories. If this is not so, the church will be an institution of the exclusive that does not say anything to anyone, not even to the church herself.
The Pope describes the missionary outreach being paradigmatic for all the church’s activity. In other words, it pertains to the very nature of the church to embody the missionary journey of Christ. Therefore, he continues “we cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings”. We need to move “from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel”. Later on, in the Exhortation, Pope Francis recalls Mary as a model missionary. She is the woman of prayer and work in Nazareth, and she also sets out from her town “with haste” (Lk 1:39) to be of service to others. Her being one with the poor and the lowly makes her the Christian model of solidarity and accompaniment.
Like Mary, we are called to leave our comfort zone and to be in the peripheries in order to offer nearness and proximity. We are sent to the strong and the weak, the wholesome and the broken. We are to be a “Malcolm in the Middle” who occupies in betwixt and between, liminal, peripheral and precarious places. Like Jesus in his ministry among the sick and the lost, we are called to meet God in the most unlikely people and places. Like him who often immersed himself at the margins, we too must be in that frontier space. It is that precarious liminal space where the true cost of our discipleship is counted, because we dare to walk with the Samaritans of our time, just like Jesus did before us.
MARCHING TO A DIFFERENT DRUM BEAT:
One of the most important roles that I believe the new generation of Marists is called to embrace is to be prophetic. Just as your religious forbears, you are not meant simply to be a labour force in the church. You are not simply doing the things that the brothers used to do but can’t do now. You are meant to be much more than the sum total of what you do. You are meant to act prophetically and to make the spirit of the Gospel alive in the service of the Church.
Religious, I should remind you, have something like an innovative function for the church. They seek to renew her vigour by the radical commitment to the Gospel. Against the tendency to accommodate and compromise on the part of the mainstream, religious who march to a different drum beat, hold the rest to the dream. In this sense, they are doing the greatest service to the church not primarily by their institutional ministries but their radical witness at the margins. It is for the sake of the Kingdom that they are called to be that still small voice. Yet undeterred by their smallness, they raise their prophetic voice; they speak for the voiceless and make them count.
At their best, religious are a kind of shock therapy of the Holy Spirit for the church. They are a form of a dangerous memory within the church. They hold the church to account in what she is meant to be. What made Champagnat a prophet was not that he founded a teaching order. It was his critique, defiance and transcendence of status quo. In offering education beyond the established system, he went against the prevalent culture. The boundary breaking spirit of Jesus was alive in him. That is being prophetic and rekindling the dangerous memory and we owe it to Champagnat to reinvent and reimagine his charism in our own situation.
Like the prophets of old, religious stretch the boundary and expand the normative. Like Jonah, they challenge the exclusivism of the system and call it to measure up to God’s inclusive and universal love. Like Jeremiah, they keep one eye on yesterday and the other on tomorrow; they reframe the harsh reality around us into a hopeful future to unfold. They do so not by repeating the practices and customs of yesteryear but by reimagining the charismatic spirit that drove our founder in the first place. The words of Ezekiel in the Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones describe what religious do. “I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive”. That is their prophetic mission.
Thus, you who are the new generation of Marists are challenged to reimagine the charism of Champagnat. It pertains to the new custodians to put fresh sinews and fresh skin to the Gospel that it may come alive again for our people in our time. You are to be agents of the Gospel, leaven and yeast for the world. The boundary breaking spirit of Jesus spurs us on to go against the prevalent culture. When the prevalent culture treats poor women and children with disdain, we dare to embrace them; when it rejects certain groups of people like asylum seekers, LGBTIs, we dare to reverence their dignity; when migrants, and the poor are discriminated against, we dare to walk with them and take up their cause.
I believe that we are called to be prophetic insofar as we dare to name and to critique the anti-Gospel attitudes of the world around us. More importantly, we seek to reframe the harsh, unjust and inhumane realities that many experience into an alternative vision of hope and promote those values that will lead to the fulfilment of that vision. Thus, whether the issue is the indigenous peoples, refugees, ecology, gender et cetera, we must show our students the way to a Gospel-centered culture of love and compassion, solidarity and service in the world where there is so much fear, indifference and marginalisation.
LIVING IN VULNERABLE TRUST:
Finally, what we need in this time of transition is that of vulnerable trust. As we are cut loose from the safe and secure moorings of the past and launched into the treacherous waters of the future, we grow in the awareness of paschal rhythm. We realise what needs to die and what needs to rise. We must learn to live as a minority in the midst of a secular society. We must learn to influence it not as lords and masters but as fellow pilgrims. We must learn to engage with others and to act as leaven in a critical and disbelieving world. We are meant to be that crucial yeast in critical times.
Mary’s example of vulnerable trust as shown in the story of the wedding feast of Cana is instructive. We are told that the wine ran out in the middle of the wedding banquet in Cana. “They have no wine left”, the observant Mary pleads with Jesus. Then, despite being told that his hour has not yet come, she instructs the attendants with confidence, “Do whatever he tells you”. In other words, Mary has absolute trust in her Son. This trust was not based on her foreknowledge of his supernatural powers. “Trust me. My boy Yeshua can do anything. He has Midas touch”. No, I contend that this trust was born out of a deep and personal relationship – it was a kind of trust that enabled Mary to remain at the foot of the cross and believe in the triumph of God’s plan despite limited or even contrary evidence. Mary’s faith was instrumental in accompanying the people in crisis and in preparing them to welcome the graced moment of the new wine.
Like a wedding at Cana, we also experience a situation of crisis. We have been drinking the good wine of our institutional charism. But we also know that the old wine is running low and near empty. The Marist brothers are as aware of this much like the motorist is aware of the “low fuel” sign. We can react with fear, despair or denial. This was the way many Israelites reacted when faced with the barren desert. I suspect many of our contemporaries do the same with respect to the crisis in the Church. There is something hauntingly similar between the Israelites’ penchant for certitudes of Egypt and many of Pope Francis’ critics’ demand for dogmatic clarity. Mary provides us with the alternative, that is, with the absolute trust. This trust tells us that we are not indispensable and even our institution is not indispensable. God alone is indispensable and we must cultivate our relationship with him above all and in spite of all things.
This trust also allows us to live this fallow time, this transition time between the old wine and the new with optimism, or as Pope Francis would say, with the joy of the Gospel. We don’t know the fate of our congregation. We don’t even know how the church will fare with its problems. But what we are confident of is that the new wine will flow in God’s own “hour” even if we have to wait until the old runs out. Religious are never about immortality, quantity and numbers. The purpose of our existence lies not so much in our works but the sign value that we are. As catalysts for its renewal, we often occupy a liminal space rather than a centre stage. There on the margins, we explore new frontiers and possibilities. Our job is to inspire and to keep the fire of the Gospel burning for the sake of the Church and of the world. Like Mary, we accompany people in crisis and we show the way forward by cultivating faith and trust in God who alone transforms the water of our poverty into the new wine of God’s creative power and enduring love.
We are into a time of crisis. But crisis allows us the precious opportunity to learn the power of vulnerable trust, to act more prophetically and to live more fully, more creatively, more boldly, more at the periphery.
Marists have been known to be good travellers. They have explored new frontiers. It’s in their DNA to read the signs of the times and follow where the river flows. The Marist pioneers left France and became missionaries for the vast and distant areas of the Pacific. That kind of trailblazing spirit has characterised the best of Marist fathers and brothers. They are not meant to be settlers. They, like many religious, are at their best in times of transition and crisis.
The church is being reborn in ways beyond the traditional structures. Like the river that has changed its course, we have a choice to make. It is not in yearning for or holding on the known and the familiar but in reimagining the future and venturing into the unknown chaos like the old exodus that we shall find new life. This new generation of Marists are challenged to reimagine the future and venture into the unknown chaos with the trailblazing spirit of your religious pioneers.
May we, inspired by the example of Mary and Marcellin, have the courage to go on our missionary journey of engagement and solidarity. May we be strengthened to walk the journey of faith with those under our care, proclaim the message of hope, the signs of the new Kairos and lead them in the direction of the Kingdom.
Most Rev Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv
Bishop of Parramatta
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