We need a missionary rather than a perfect church

Fr Noel Connolly SSC

As I travel around Australia promoting the Plenary Council I encounter both scepticism and hope. The most frequent question is “will the bishops listen?” At the same time there is a reservoir of hope in people. They love the church and want to be a part of its future. They want to talk and they want to be listened to. My hope is that we can build a church in which lay men and especially women can play their rightful role in the ministry and governance of the church, and where we can learn to trust one another, bishops and all the people of God.

But in recent weeks I have been giving more thought to the question posed for the Council, “What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?” The question refers to Australia not to the church. The Plenary Council is not just for our church but for our country. Even if we were to come up with a transformed church, if the country does not benefit we will have “failed”. We will have failed because we will have failed to be church.

Pope Francis keeps reminding us to stop being preoccupied with ourselves and to go out into the streets as missionary disciples prepared to get dirty and bruised. There we will find renewal and transformation. We must remember that the goal of mission is not primarily about the expansion or perfection of the church but the revelation of God’s love and the realisation of God’s liberating plan for the universe. It is a plan for a “Kingdom” larger than the church.

This revolution in understanding mission came at Vatican II when the bishops realised that mission flows directly from the nature of God, a loving community of three persons whose love gives birth to the universe much the same as parents’ love gives birth to children. And like parents, the Trinity continues to love creation wanting to draw it into their life. It is God’s mission.

Mission is God’s project and we are not the main actors. The church is neither the starting point nor the end point but rather the servant and sacrament of God’s mission.

The three persons of the Trinity are constantly creating, healing, reconciling, transforming and uniting the world. We are invited to participate in God’s life in the world.

The majority of “Kingdom good” done in the world today will not be done by Catholics or even Christians. It will be done by people of good will, including our secular brother and sister Australians.

God is present wherever men and women strive for justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation between peoples, cultures and religions. Our task is not only to strive for the Kingdom, but also to seek out, uncover, encourage, celebrate and build on the Spirit’s activity in Australia. To recognise this good requires humility, closeness, listening and discernment. The very things Pope Francis stresses.

We have much to gain from secular Australia. We can learn a lot about transparency, accountability, participation, the involvement of women, consultation and so forth.

In going out we may also be refreshed by what we learn of God and of the Gospel because we can be confident that God is present and working even in secular and plural Australia. We have much to give and to learn. “We are challenged to be people of depth, attentive to what is happening around us and spiritually alert.” According to Pope Francis those things are more likely to convert and renew us than a forensic examination and reform of the church.

Columban Fr Noel Connolly is a member of the Adult Formation Team with Catholic Mission Australia and is a member of the Facilitation Team for the Plenary Council 2020.

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Comments (8)

  1. Linda Behan:
    Aug 16, 2018 at 10:10 AM

    Are you wanting the Catholic Church to change itself fundamentally to fit in with the current godless, secular, perverted society that we live in? Are you advocating for the divorced and remarried to be able to receive Holy Communion without first having an annulment? Are you advocating homosexual persons who are practicising that lifestyle, to be able to receive Holy Communion? Or are you wanting to help those people rise above those difficult circumstances rather than pull the Church down to fit the circumstances of each person's life choices?


  2. Columban Missionaries:
    Aug 16, 2018 at 01:33 PM

    Dear Linda,

    Thank you for your comment, I am sorry for having offended you but I think you have misunderstood my column. I am not arguing that the church fit in with what you call “the current godless, secular, perverted society that we live in”. Although I would not agree with your description of Australian society. I cannot see how we will be effective missionaries if we have such a negative attitude to our brothers and sisters.

    Australian society is not perfect but it is not unmitigated evil either. All societies are made up of both “seeds” and “weeds”, as Christians, our job is to recognise and celebrate the good and condemn the evil.

    For too long the church has adopted a hostile, critical approach to the world. You seem to think I have taken the opposite position, namely a naïve all-accepting attitude, caving in to all secular society’s values. There is a third position, discernment. This is the positon Pope Francis is recommending. A discerning position accepts that there is both good and evil in any society and our job is to discern the difference.

    In The Joy of the Gospel Pope Francis encourages us to present a joyful, inspiring message rather than a critique of the world. He also invites us to go out into society and dialogue with people. We will not be able to dialogue with them unless we believe they have something worthwhile to say and we have something to learn.

    Noel Connolly


  3. David Cragg-James:
    Aug 16, 2018 at 06:46 PM

    Apologies, I am not a theologian. Taking her out of context, Sallie McFague argues in 'A New Climate for Theology' - "We meet God in and through the world, if we are ever to meet God. God is not out there, or back there or yet to be, but hidden in the most ordinary things of our ordinary lives." She further makes the point, "As the Catholic, sacramental sensibility has always insisted, the world is the only reality available to us and in and through it, we find God."
    These words do not seem to me to be irrelevant in this discussion.


  4. Linda Behan:
    Aug 16, 2018 at 07:55 PM

    Fr Connolly, you did not offend me. You seem to be unknowing of what is happening in Australia. Are you not aware of the complete degendering of Australian society because of same sex marriage, the perverted gender ideologies of the LGBTIQ activists infiltrating into our schools, even the Catholic ones, the islamic terrorism threat here in Australia, which we never had before, etc etc. I'm not sure which world you live in but I live in the real world and it's not so pretty at present. Pope Francis is renown for issuing confusing statements, particularly about the divorced and not validly remarried taking Holy Communion, amongst other things. God bless him BUT he regularly does not speak clearly on issues. The previous two popes were very clear on what they meant, this one not so much. Interpretation of what he says is subjective to whomever is reading his pronouncements. What are you advocating for women within the Church? Your article was not 100% clear but what I took from it was that the Catholic Church should be more "inclusive" and accepting and that women should play a greater part, that the lay people should play their role in the "governance" of the Church. What do these concepts translate to in real terms? To me it sounds like that you and Pope Francis want to go to the people on the ground and some of those people are living in mortal sin and ask them what the Church can do to make them feel better? That's my point about bringing the Church down to meet the current level of society. It's an act of charity, love and mercy on behalf of Christ's Church to tell it's people that their domestic "situations" are what the Church considers to be living in mortal sin, and to help them change those situations so as to not be living like that and it isn't done by thinking you can change Church teaching to fit in with what is happening today. You may call that critical Father. I call it an act of love and charity.


  5. Phil harris:
    Aug 17, 2018 at 04:59 PM

    I'm sceptical about being hopeful about achieving a "transformed church."
    Being a "lapsed catholic"( with the hope that the Church as an organisation can change to achieve the original Christian message.
    The original message (and that is even unclear when you look at when and by whom the gospels were written and the hierarchy and the rules and regulations were created over two thousand years) have diluted the original message.
    As Bishop Vincent Long allegedly said "The Catholic Church must die to the old ways of being church, steeped in a culture of clerical power, dominance and privilege. We must abandon the old paradigm a fortress church, which is prone to exclusivity and elitism."
    If there are more voices expressing similar sentiments then the Church may have a place in Australia.


  6. Grant Allen:
    Aug 18, 2018 at 11:06 AM

    I wish for a Church that is non-sexist, where women can be ordained as well as married men. I also wish for a Church where the laity are treated as equals with the clergy - not as people who are only there to pay, pray and obey!


  7. Greg:
    Nov 01, 2018 at 12:25 AM

    Linda, perhaps rather than condeming vast numbers of people (including the categories you mention) as 'mortal sinners', perhaps you need to look at your own life and ask if it is free of sins - both grave and non-grave and then ask yourself if you yourself are not in need of grace and mercy. Pope Francis's point - one shared by most orthodox theologians down the ages including Aquinas and Augustine and also St Paul, is all human beings have fallen short of God's glory and need saving. I get tired of traditionalist or ultra-conservative Catholics like yourself who claim on the one hand they hold all of the grace of God (usually supposedly of some practice like going to a Latin-language Mass or saying a special prayer like the Rosary) while they hysterically attack everyone outside of their small group and at the same time embrace dubious people and agendas, including open and contemptuous dissent for Pope Francis and his teachings, attacking or calmuninating other Catholics and non-Catholics, voting for people like Trump or other far-right political figures, and so on. I suggest the traditionalist Catholic movement needs like the rest of the church to clean out ts stables and stop throwing nasty labels like 'mortal sin' around under the pretend faux-cloak of charity disguised as vindictiveness and hatred...otherwise the church will continue to dwindle as it currently is towards a spiteful little sect of mostly far-right wing religious fundamentalists.


    1. Linda Behan:
      Nov 01, 2018 at 11:11 AM

      Where did I say that I "hold all of the grace of God"? That is your interpretation. It's not so. You obviously have an axe to grind against Catholics who follow the Faith. The problem lays with you, my friend, not me. The Church has tried liberalization by various individual priests and other clergy and it has failed miserably. Why not get back to basics within the Church and see how that goes? BTW, I didn't coin the phrase, moral sin, the Church did so how about you get off your high horse. I'm reading between the lines here but you may or may not be someone who is living in a state of mortal sin and doesn't want anyone to tell you the truth about your "situation". My belief is that the Church has continued to dwindle because it has tried to accommodate certain things by liberal clergy, which go against it's fundamental moral teachings. Regardless, we all need to hear the truth even if it is uncomfortable. My belief is that the full truth is found within the Catholic Church and bringing the Church down to the level of societal immorality, will not help but actually harm those who need to hear the truth. Jesus said to "go and sin no more". He didn't say "go and keep on sinning". That very important part of his message is lost. FYI, I am not a latin mass attendee. Maybe you should stop with the generalizations?


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