Reflection - Leaving fortress church

As I returned from my walk around Avalon Park the other day I was surprised to see that one of the local landmarks, the wooden fort that stood beside the lake, had disappeared. Even though it was a relatively minor feature in the park I was a little shocked to see that it was gone.

Looking at the empty space where it had stood I found myself thinking about what is happening in the local church as we prepare for the introduction of third edition of the Roman Missal, the new English translation of the prayers of the Mass.

The liturgical landscape is changing.

In their most recent pastoral letter the bishops of Aotearoa/New Zealand made reference to the church as a “community of memory” whose faith lives have been shaped by the words we have heard, prayed and sung in the liturgy since Vatican II. These are about to change and the difficulty of adjusting to any change in ritual language was recognised by the bishops.

Because the way we pray not only reflects the way we believe but is formative of it there are no small changes when it comes to liturgy.

It goes to the core of who we are as a believing community.

One particular response to our Midyear appeal questioning missionary goals also reminded me how deeply mission touches into our identity as church. We are missionary by our very nature so changes in the understanding and practice of mission impact our sense of who we are at a deep level.

The understanding of church and mission that emerged at Vatican II shifted the ground from a largely defensive position taken at Trent by anxious bishops faced with the twin threats of the Reformation and the Enlightenment to one of engagement with the world. We moved out of “fortress” church. With a renewed sense that God is to be found beyond as well as within the church we went searching for where the Holy Spirit was moving in the world. We expected to find signs of the spirit and we did,  

•    in liberation movements that sought to free people from poverty, oppression injustice and exploitation and create living conditions marked by justice, peace, equality, joy and love. We recognise these as the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
•    in the great religious traditions of the world that have guided millions of people past and present to love of God and service of others. We are guided by the Holy Spirit to these same goals.
•    in the marvellous God-given gift of the cosmos in which we live and for which we have a special duty of care. The book of Proverbs (8:30) tells us that the spirit in the form of wisdom
is ever at play in the universe. We
read in (Genesis 1:1) that the Spirit hovered over the waters at the dawn of creation.
•    in the process of dialogue whereby minds and hearts are turned away from fear and hostility towards understanding and cooperation.

The second Eucharistic prayer for reconciliation says “your Spirit is a work when understanding puts an end to strife, when hatred is quenched by mercy and vengeance gives way to forgiveness.”

I am reminded also of the incident in the Gospel of Luke (9:49-50) where John says to Jesus “we saw a man casting out devils in your name but because he is not with us we tried to stop him.” Jesus replies “You must not stop him: anyone who is not against you is for you”. There can be a temptation to limit the influence of the Holy Spirit to the church (those who are with us). This saying reminds us that the Spirit blows where it wills.

The disappearance of fortresses can be disturbing but it can also be an opportunity for a more open and trusting engagement with what was outside.

Fr Patrick O'Shea lives at St Columbans Lower Hutt, New Zealand.

Read more from The Far East, October 2010