From the Director - The Church in the modern world

Evangelisation is a major thrust in the Church today. Most Dioceses have established Offices for Evangelisation and the next Synod is to be on New Evangelisation. We have recaptured the missionary spirit and feel compelled, as Paul was, to proclaim the Gospel. However, there are important lessons from Vatican II’s The Church in the Modern World that we need to remember if we want to be effective missionaries.

This document was a revolution. It changed us from being a world-rejecting to a world-affirming people. We tried to share “the joy and hope, the grief and anxiety” of our contemporaries. We saw ourselves as a pilgrim people searching and learning along with all men and women of good will.

Historically the Church finds it difficult to relate to the modern world, especially the pluralist, secular, post-Christian Western world. We regret being moved from the centre to the margins, from being privileged to being one among many voices. We yearn for the supportive culture and plausibility structures of Christendom. Our normal reaction is to be defensive, critical and condemnatory. Vatican II was an important break, an attempt to be positive, to dialogue with the modern world and to abandon the prophecies of doom.

In mission theology there are three principles that we need to remember:

1. All cultures, even post-modern Western culture, are places to encounter God. The Spirit is active in all cultures. We have to have open and expectant minds to keep asking how is God present in this culture? What in this culture can we celebrate and build on? What have we to learn? One thing we should be humble about is that we are not preaching to a people devoid of a saving relationship with God. They know God. The Spirit has been there before us. As missionaries, our job is not to “pump” religion into people but to draw it out. We will not be attractive and credible missionaries if we give the impression of being superior, separate and always critical.

2. All cultures are also human creations and so are ambiguous. They contain both good and evil. Missionaries are prophetic dialoguers. We dialogue with respect but as prophets we must also unmask evil. However, we must be balanced and condemn out of love and respect. We all find it easier to accept criticism from someone we know cares for us.

3. The Gospel can only be received, believed, celebrated and lived within a people’s culture. As missionaries we must learn to speak to the sufferings and joys of the people in their culture otherwise they will not hear us and certainly will not feel called to conversion.

Paul VI in his exhortation on Evangelisation in the Modern World reinforced these points when he emphasised that the Church has much to learn. It not only evangelises but is in constant need of being evangelised itself. He also taught us, "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” Educationalists also insist that students learn best from teachers who are learning with them.

This is particularly true in Australia. Our relationship with organised religion has often been fraught but some modern sociologists, historians and theologians would claim that we are not without serious religious aspirations and feelings. However, we do not like authoritarian figures and we are intolerant of “God’s police”. Australians are suspicious of “Bible bashers” and preachers with "all the answers". Our “mateship” is grounded in shared experience. We want a conversation more than a sermon. We like our religion with its sleeves rolled up, practical religious leaders who share our lot.

Fr Noel Connolly SSC

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