The Church's mission priority: to search for its 'lost sheep'

The Church's mission priority: to search for its 'lost sheep'

Andrew Kania

In his collection of essays,  Priest and Layman, published at the dawn of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, the French Dominican theologian, Yves Congar (1904-1995), on analysing personal experiences with brother priests, wrote (pp. 191-192):

"Our ecclesiastical mania for classifying people into good or bad sterilises our apostolate. And so one sees priests, excellent administrators of their parishes, really losing their apostolic zeal. They bestow great care on the maintenance of their church and their school; they faithfully administer the sacraments and teach doctrine clearly, which is all excellent, but without any real concern, they neglect all that part of their flock which needs evangelising. Sometimes they don't even pay sick visits, however elementary, among the world of the 'bad'. When one thinks of the pastoral parables in the Gospel, especially of the lost sheep, one shudders to imagine the result.

"Nowadays the proportion of the faithful sheep and the lost would rather be reversed. It is not one per cent, but rather ninety-nine, who must be sought outside the sheepfold. But whereas the evangelising shepherd leaves the ninety-nine faithful sheep in order to seek for the hundreth which is lost, don't we sometimes stay with the faithful, at the risk of letting the others be lost?

Gospel message

Congar's critical comments came shortly after a rider that those who read his essay must understand the enormous esteem he held for the priesthood, and those, the vast majority of priests, who are living out their vocation in an exemplary manner.

Yet Congar's analysis points to a real problem that exists, not only within the Catholic Church, but in any Christian community wherein a toxic blend of hubris and self-righteousness begins to undermine the Gospel message, that Christ came not to stroke the ego of the saintly, but to lead the sinner to salvation (Luke 5:32).

The danger exists in the human soul that after we believe we have saved ourselves, or been divinely saved, that we turn our gaze on others we perceive to be not as good as us, and by so doing leave behind the stark humility of the publican for the self-congratulation of the Pharisee (cf. Luke 18:9-14). 

Whereas such a spiritual defect is something we all must eschew, this ailment is especially problematic when an institution or those who comprise the ordained ministry of a religious institution fail to evangelise or seek out the lost.

If the limit of our plan of evangelisation is confined to the walls of our church and those "saved" who fill the pews on the Sabbath then we indeed have a crisis of identity, a crisis that Congar so vividly and perceptively pointed towards over half a century ago.

It is all well and good to preach to the converted, to enjoy cups of tea with those who slap your back and shake your hand after Sunday Mass for a homily well done but, if we are to believe that less than ten per cent of all Catholics regularly attend weekend Mass, what are we doing as a Church to be authentic to the Gospel message of seeking out the lost?

There is a marvellous and quite ironic contrast between the first Christians proclaiming on street corners and the contemporary and very 'prim and proper' spreading of the Gospel to the elect in our parishes.

St Matthew's Gospel begins with the beautiful story of Joseph receiving from an angel words of comfort that his betrothed has conceived not through natural means, but by the will of God: "Now all this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: Look! The virgin is with child and will give birth to a son whom they will call Immanuel, a name which means 'God-is-with-us'" (Matthew 1:22-23).

How many times have we read this passage or heard this phrase God-is-with-us proclaimed or preached? Probably so many times that we have become desensitised to its rich beauty and message of hope and consolation.

So much is contained in this word. What does it mean for God to be with us? It means the Creator of everything, visible and invisible, loves to the extent of becoming Incarnate and takes on our condition. The God who knew no hunger or thirst or cold became a man and was thirsty, hungry and cold.

The God who is immortal chose death and suffering in order to purchase for us an eternal life. All this is encapsulated in the word Immanuel. Indeed Yves Congar became acutely aware of the need for a priest to emulate the notion of "God-is-with-us" after he became a prisoner of war and lived and slept with his "parishioners" in their squalid, confined cells which became his church.

As a Church we must seek to live out the fullness of this name, Immanuel, searching to understand how people live and die in the modern world - genuinely longing to know what are their anxieties, frustrations and difficulties - and letting them see that we will share their pain as well as share their meal.

The Church ceases to be vital and becomes a quaint reminder of times gone by when it fails to act on her mission, a mission that Christ, the Immanuel, directed to us: "Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you" (Matthew 28:19-20).

For Christ taught, yes by words, but more powerfully by his actions and by His living and being immersed in the life of His disciples. Christ shone as a witness of goodness and hope among the most profane and sinful of men. He sought to be with them, in the very marrow of their everyday and mundane lives, revealing that God is only too ready to reach down to the darkest corners of humanity in order to grasp a willing hand and restore a fallen individual to original glory.

Congar writes, as to the true nature of priesthood: "[Cardinal] Suhard said in the sermon at his jubilee on 5 December 1948: "To save Paris means first of all to save the souls of its inhabitants. But it means also to save the city, to take it in charge as it is, with its past, its future, and the complex problems of its present. If I pass these by, if I have no concern for them, I am neglecting half my mission, for from the moment that they present themselves in my territory, its problems become themselves my diocesan subjects'" (Congar, p. 220).

The God that was with us when the angel declared as such to Joseph is still with us today in our every breathing moment. What the Church desperately needs to fulfill its mission are priests willing and energetic enough to meet God where His fallen flock are, and from this vantage point to help restore them to Him. For God most assuredly will judge us, for not only what we have done but what we have failed to do. He will hold us to account for expending energy seeking the found, while failing to search out the lost.

Dr Andrew Thomas Kania is spiri tual director at Aquinas College, Perth, WA.

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