Fredrick Nietzsche, the atheistic, “death of God” philosopher, was fond of taunting his Christian friends with, “I’ll believe in your redeemer when you look more redeemed”.
Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium makes a similar challenge. He asks, what kind of missionaries are Christians who look like “Lent without Easter” [EG 6], or people “who have just come back from a funeral” [EG10], “querulous and disillusioned pessimists, sourpusses” [EG 85], “defeated generals” [EG 96]. He prays, “May the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervour, who have first received the joy of Christ” [EG 10].
He believes that mission is not about winning an argument, because only the beauty of God can attract. #15 Christians should present a beautiful, joyful and tender face to their secular brothers and sisters. The gospel is caught not taught. People believe only because they see beauty in our lives.
Francis was elected Pope to turn the church from being self-preoccupied to being one that was missionary and went out on to the streets and got bruised and dirty.
I have been thinking of Pope Francis’ challenge as we prepare for the second phase of the Plenary Council. Plenary Councils have a tendency to be church-preoccupied. We do have a number of governance issues to remedy. We need more accountable and transparent leadership. We must involve women more fully in the leadership and ministry of the church. We need to reach out to the youth, to improve the quality of our liturgies and have better formation for ministry and the priesthood. All these and many other challenges are important and hopefully the Plenary Council will address them. However, to be true to our missionary calling and to find happiness for ourselves, we also need to rediscover the joy in being Christian that we want to share.
From the beginning, Pope Francis declared that we should be a “poor church for the poor” and he displayed this by first visiting the Mediterranean refugees on the Island of Lampedusa, then he visited the youth prison in Rome where he washed the feet of young prisoners, including two young Muslin women. The first country he visited was Albania, the poorest country in Europe and then he visited Sardinia, the poorest province in Italy.
Before Francis, the major church programme was New Evangelisation, an attempt to bring “lapsed Catholics” back to the church. Worthy as this objective was, it seemed self-serving to many. A “poor church serving the poor” was much more attractive because it spoke of the Gospel. It was exactly what we would have expected Jesus to do.
So, even at a time when the church has never been more criticised and questioned it is important that we rediscover our joy in being Christian and share this with our secular brother and sister Australians. We may never be a perfect church but hopefully we can come across as a more attractive, “redeemed” and servant church.
Columban Fr Noel Connolly SSC 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.