Our ‘Vision’ — Aoife McGrath, PhD
I would like to add my thanks to the Association of Catholic Priests for bringing us together, and for creating the space for us to dialogue and reflect about being Church today. I began my journey as a member of the Church faithful, I became a student of theology, and I am now an employee of the Catholic Church. My thoughts on ‘vision’ come out of this context of personal faith, academic interest, and professional employment.
There are many concepts or values which I believe are central to any real and life-giving vision of Church in Ireland today. I will share three with you in the next few minutes: these are ‘real belonging,’ ‘active participation,’ and ‘shared calling.’
The first is the value of belonging to the people of God – that is, the Church. We are all gathered here today, perhaps, because we feel we belong to the Church; we have an interest in the Church because it is important to us somehow; we feel we are part of it and so its future concerns us. I certainly would not have been able to become so involved in the Church, personally and professionally, if I didn’t really feel I belonged. Yet, there are many people who, like us, are baptised into the Church, but who don’t feel they belong.
This may include people who have consciously chosen to leave the Church, or those who seemingly drifted away. However, it certainly includes some people who are actively involved in church life: they go to mass weekly or even daily, and perform essential tasks within their parish communities. In speaking with these people I have found that they don’t see themselves as part of the Church. For them, the word ‘Church’ refers to priests and religious. They have no difficulty with this understanding of Church either; it is simply the notion they grew up with. But the concept of real belonging contrasts with this idea greatly.
Real belonging means I am part of a greater whole; one member of a large family. I became part of this family when I was baptised. So each baptised person, no matter what their state, age, gender, or sexual orientation, belongs to the Catholic Church. Together we form a community of people, the people of God. God binds us together, gives us a common goal (to share in the communion of the Trinity) and a shared purpose (of witnessing to the coming of God’s kingdom).
This notion of the Church as the People of God was offered by the Second Vatican Council in 1964 as a key to unlocking the mystery of the Church. Of course, for me, this Church Council was a moment in history, not a direct lived experience. I only heard about the Council and its teachings when I became a student of theology. However, this is one of its teachings which rings true in my experience, almost fifty years later. And yet, as I have mentioned, there are still many who don’t realise that this is what the Church teaches: that by virtue of their Baptism they are part of the people of God; that they belong to Church; they are ‘Church.’
So the concept of belonging remains central. Without it people will fail to see how valuable they are in the eyes of God and in the eyes of God’s family. As we seek to renew our Church, we need to emphasise that each baptised person is chosen by God to be part of this family, with an equal share in its mission to spread the Good News of God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion.
Moreover, each person is also blessed with an equal, but unique, ability and responsibility to fulfil that mission. This leads me to the second value: active participation. It is only out of a sense of real belonging, that a person will be moved to actively participate in the life of the Church. If I feel I am part of something, I am more likely to have an interest in its activities and feel a sense of responsibility towards getting involved. Only then, too, will I appreciate my true worth and understand the value of my participation.
Many in the Church today, however, do not experience that sense of worth or value. For instance, in my interaction with people who perform essential tasks in parishes, I regularly hear the phrase ‘sure, I am only giving a hand to the priest,’ or ‘I help out when I am asked or when he is stuck.’ This indicates a distancing between the people and the tasks they perform. We don’t ‘own,’ nor are we responsible for, the things we do within Church. In addition, other people, who are less inclined to get involved in church activities, say ‘I was never asked to,’ ‘it’s the same people all the time, they don’t need me,’ or ‘I would be no good at that.’ If, in our Church renewal, we emphasise the belonging and active participation of all the faithful, more people may begin to recognise and appreciate Christ’s call to them, as a baptised person, to participate fully in the mission of the Church. They may then recognise their responsibility for actively participating and appreciate their significance in the life of the Church.
The last concept that I will mention refers to that call of Christ to all the baptised – a calling which we all share. I believe too few in our Church today recognise Christ’s call to them. There are still many of us who believe that God only calls a few, who respond by ‘dedicating their whole lives’ to God and the Church. The term ‘vocation’ thus refers only to those who take vows or are ordained: only they are said to have the vocation to holiness, to spread the Good News, or to serve the People of God. Yet, for many years the teaching of the Church has recognised that ‘with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation, all the baptised share in the same mission of Jesus as the Christ.’ So each baptised person receives the call from God to spread Christ’s message throughout the world and thus receives a share in the activity of the Church.
God not only calls, but enables people to fulfil their tasks: each baptised person receives the necessary grace and gifts from the Holy Spirit for this purpose. There already exists therefore within the Church a diversity of vocations and a multiplicity of gifts. It is our task to discern or recognise them. This should form a significant part of our Church renewal today.
In sum, for me, a real and life-giving vision of Church speaks of a Church where all the baptised faithful experience a real sense of belonging, where each person values their responsibility and opportunity to actively participate in the life and mission of the Church, and where the gifts and vocations of every person are openly discerned, valued and embraced for the sake of building up the Kingdom of God in the Church and in the world around us.
Our ‘Vision’ — Aoife McGrath, PhD