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May 2, 2013

Why the Gospel is not an ideology --
Archbishop examines what a "self-referential church" is -
Can cities become places of human fulfillment?

In this edition:
1. When the church is not self-referential.
2. Centrality of Jesus to church's renewal.
3. Faith's challenge to move beyond our limits.
4. Current quote to ponder:
a) The kind of cities we want.
5. When ideologies enter church life.
6. Is the Gospel an ideology?

1. A Church That Is Not "Self-Referential"

"A church trapped in inner church squabbles will never be attractive to others," Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, said April 24 in a speech at Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York.

Earlier, in a March 28 homily for the Chrism Mass in his archdiocese, the archbishop said, "A church which is not riddled through and through with real and enthusiastic commitment to Jesus Christ will be an empty, self-serving organization to which no one will be attracted."

Archbishop Martin spoke in several recent speeches and homilies about the challenge faith confronts in contemporary times and the risk to the church of misplaced priorities. He thinks church renewal today cannot be limited to institutional reform, but will come about when a greater accent is placed on faith and its meaning for the lives of contemporary people.

In his Fordham speech, he predicted "the church will relinquish many of the institutional roles it has held in Ireland." However, he advised, that "does not mean that the church should retreat into sacristies or into private values systems. If anything, its presence must become even more vigorous within society."

In part, the archbishop's comments come in the context of the sexual abuse crisis that struck the church in Ireland with blunt force. On the one hand, the archbishop is asking what the crisis implies for the future of the church in his country and what changes are needed.

However, Archbishop Martin's intent also has been to reflect upon remarks Pope Francis made about a church that is "self-referential" and that, as a result, fails to rise to the challenges of the new evangelization.

Pope Francis, speaking to a gathering of the College of Cardinals in Rome just before the start of the conclave at which he was elected, cautioned against a "theological narcissism" that, instead of looking out into the world, only looks inward. He said, "When the church is self-referential, inadvertently, she believes she has her own light."

The Argentine cardinal about to be elected pope said, "The evils that over time happen in ecclesial institutions have their root in self-referentiality and a kind of theological narcissism." He cautioned the church against living "within herself, of herself, for herself."

In his Chrism Mass homily, Archbishop Martin thanked God "for a pope who shows us that simplicity and humility are not signs of weakness and concession, but signs of strength" - signs of strength that, indeed, "comes from faith."

However, the archbishop thought it would do little good for Christians to feel "good about the new pope if we do not make our own what he is saying and teaching and doing."

What this involves in the first place, he said, "is allowing Jesus to surprise us and for us to find the courage to change." The archbishop said the church in his country is "at a critical juncture," and "the only valid answer is an answer of enthusiasm and optimism, of commitment and renewal in our own lives."

In his recent presentations, Archbishop Martin has called attention not only to what he believes the church and its people must do to meet the challenges of faith and evangelization at this point in time, but also what kinds of thinking may lead the community of faith in the wrong direction.

He hopes, it appears, that the church and each of its members and communities will be prompted to move beyond self-referential notions of faith.

. . . 2. Jesus' Centrality for a Renewed Church

A way to move beyond self-referential notions of faith is to accent Christ more fully, Archbishop Martin indicated in several recent homilies and speeches. In this, he is attempting to take up the lead of Pope Francis, who has accented the need to focus on Christ.

In his first homily as pope, delivered March 14 in the Sistine Chapel to the cardinals who elected him, Pope Francis said: "Confess Jesus. If we don't do that, we will be a pitiful NGO [non-governmental organization]." Also, during his general audience April 3, the pope said to young people:

"You, witnesses of Jesus, pass on the witness that Jesus is alive, and this will give us hope, it will give hope to this world, which has aged somewhat because of wars, because of evil and because of sin."

Archbishop Martin's question in an April 13 presentation at Dublin's Trinity College, an institution with Anglican roots, was this: "How do we share our Christian faith in the culture of our time?"

The tendency in talking "about the presence of the church in contemporary culture and in the modern world," he suggested, is "to speak about how the church should be present in the structures of the politics and the economics of the modern world, especially through social analysis and social commentary." Also, he added, people might talk "about reform of church structures and forms of ministry."

But here Archbishop Martin recalled remarks made during the October world Synod of Bishops in Rome by Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, who recently retired from that post. Archbishop Williams, he said, chose in speaking about evangelization to begin "with God and how we come to understand God and enter into a relationship with God."

"In a world in which human advancement is high on our daily agenda," Archbishop Williams "chose to speak of 'self-forgetfulness,'" Archbishop Martin explained. But this forgetfulness, Archbishop Martin suggested, is not a matter of "self-denigration or a return to a type of spirituality of self-hatred." He said:

"Looking at the light of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ is contemplation. Without that sense of self-forgetfulness that comes from contemplation, we run the risk, as Archbishop Williams says, 'of trying to sustain faith on the basis of an untransformed set of human habits -- with the all too familiar result that the church comes to look unhappily like so many purely human institutions: anxious, busy, competitive and controlling."

What does faith and what do believers "have to offer" to today's world? Archbishop Martin also talked about this in his Chrism Mass homily. What can be offered to the world "is not the witness of a powerful institution, even a renewed institution, or simply the witness of organized doing good, but the witness of meaning, of helping people discover in Jesus Christ what their life is really about and giving a hope that sustains."

Archbishop Martin advised his listeners, however, that "we can only do that through witness, through what our own lives say to others."

. . . 3. Faith's Challenge: Moving Beyond Our Limits

In his homily for this year's Easter Vigil Mass, Archbishop Martin commented that "a tired and disillusioned church will never produce great energies of newness and life."

Instead, he repeated the message that today's church must "witness more concretely to the message of Jesus. It has to witness to meaning in a world which many find meaningless and in which many are tempted to live their lives without searching for its meaning."

The church needs to be "restructured and destructured" in his country "to allow it to witness to the sense of meaning and purpose that Jesus brings to the lives of believers," Archbishop Martin said.

At Trinity College, the archbishop remarked on the radical change that contemporary societies have undergone. Actually, he said, "the pace of social, scientific and political change is increasing."

A challenge hidden within this atmosphere of rapid change could generate fear among Christians and prompt them to shy away from the risks that need to be taken to introduce faith in meaningful ways to our world. He said, "In the face of the rapidity and uncertainty of change we may become fearful in new ways and reject the risk that is necessary to really hope and to translate our hope" into the reality of our life.

Following the lead of Pope Francis on another point, Archbishop Martin said that "bringing the message of Jesus Christ to the outskirts of our society inevitably involves . . . 'breaking out.'" But what does "breaking out" mean?

Archbishop Martin said this term involves "breaking out from ourselves to follow Christ, breaking out from a tired faith based on pure habit and breaking out from being imprisoned in our own dissatisfactions and frustrations, which only impede the creative action of God working in and through us."

Faith, the archbishop repeatedly has said, "is always a leap into the uncharted. . . . It is a challenge to go beyond our own limits and beyond our own narrow certainties and the distorted understanding that comes from them." The problem, he insists, is that "without faith our true self can so easily be undermined by human deception."

In his Trinity College talk, the archbishop recommended, in line with Vatican Council II, that people of faith search today "for the signs of the times." However, he said, today this will mean "not just the signs of our contemporary culture, but above all the signs of God's presence and his call to us, so that the freshness of his message can break out and flourish anew in our church and in our society."

4. Current Quote to Ponder

What Kind of Cities Do We Want? "Can the city be a place of human flourishing? If so, what is required? . . . Whatever the activity of the city might be, we are all in it together, like climbers tied together by invisible ropes where the well-being and fulfillment of each is in some ways dependent on others. There are ties of trust and solidarity to be recognized and developed. The institutions of business and commerce . . . have as their foundation precisely such common bonds. . . . Community is created and common destiny established through the vision, commitment and relationships which good people form. . . . We yearn for love, for relationships of deep friendship and for our lives to have meaning and to make a contribution. Far from being an externally imposed duty on us, the desire for the 'good' lies deep within us. It reflects our deepest nature as sharing a common humanity and as called into a life of relationships with others. This desire and this call invite us to recognize that other people matter. Respecting others and seeking their good is essential to my own good. Seeking the good and responding to its attractiveness takes us out of narrow, self-centeredness. It is the path to true human flourishing and fulfillment. The truth is we are all secretly tempted to be good." (From an April 11 speech by Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England. He spoke in London to a conference on the kind of cities people really want.)

5. When Ideologies Enter Church Life

Pope Francis voiced concern in a homily April 19 about ideologues who falsify the Gospel. He spoke about ideologies and problems connected to them during a morning Mass in the chapel at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican guesthouse in which he has lived since his March election as pope.

"Ideology" is a difficult term to define in a precise way. In his observations, the pope described ideology more than he defined it, but like some of his predecessors he did not welcome ideologies that make their way into the church.

Perhaps his comments will spark lively discussions in the church about ideologies and how they influence the life of faith nowadays.

Pope Francis spoke of ideologues who "cut off the road of love and also that of beauty." In these ways, he indicated, ideologues reduce faith to "a matter of intellect."

According to a Catholic News Service report on the homily, the pope said that "when ideology enters into the church, when ideology enters into our understanding of the Gospel, we understand nothing."

Ideologues "falsify the Gospel," the pope stated. He said that "every ideological interpretation, wherever it comes from -- from one side or the other -- is a falsification of the Gospel."

People guided by ideologies have been present "in the history of the church," the pope observed. These people, he commented, "end up being intellectuals without talent." Again, he said, they become "ethicists without goodness." Moreover, he continued, ideologues "understand nothing" when it comes to beauty.

What did he mean by "ethicists without goodness"? There should be more than enough in those words alone for experts and commentators to chew on for a long time to come!

Pope Francis prayed in his homily that God will free the church "from any ideological interpretation and open the heart of the church, our mother church, to the simple Gospel, to that pure Gospel that speaks to us of love, which brings love and is so beautiful. It also makes us beautiful, with the beauty of holiness."

In the pope's words, "the path of love, the way of the Gospel, is simple." It is, he said, "the road that the saints understood, . . . the road of conversion, the way of humility, of love, of the heart, the way of beauty."

6. Is the Gospel an Ideology?

The Gospel the church preaches is not an ideology, Pope John Paul II said. In a number of speeches and documents he mentioned oppressive ideologies outside the church that attempt to deprive people of their dignity, trample upon their rights or set people off against each other. Several times he drove home the message that the church's faith does not constitute an ideology.

"The Gospel is not a theory or an ideology! The Gospel is life!" Pope John Paul used those words when he spoke in 1995 to participants in the World Youth Day held in Manila, the Philippines. He made this point during the event's prayer vigil while speaking about the mission of youths in all parts of the world.

Pope John Paul asked, "Why is Christ sending you?" The reason, the pope explained, is that men and women everywhere "long for true liberation and fulfillment. The poor seek justice and solidarity; the oppressed demand freedom and dignity; the blind cry out for light and truth."

However, said the pope, "you are not being sent to proclaim some abstract truth. The Gospel is not a theory or an ideology! The Gospel is life! Your task is to bear witness to this life."

A similar message was delivered during Pope John Paul II's 1998 visit to Cuba. During a Mass in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution, the pope said he had come to that nation to bring "the good news of hope in God," to share the "message of love and solidarity that Jesus Christ, by his coming, offers to men and women in every age."

Immediately, he added that "in absolutely no way is this an ideology or a new economic or political system; rather, it is a path of authentic peace, justice and freedom."

His homily that day explored various "ideological and economic systems" that over the past two centuries "encouraged conflict," that "contained the seeds of opposition and disunity" or that relegated religion "to the merely private sphere, stripping it of any social influence or importance."

Other social and economic systems, he said, subordinate "the human person to blind market forces" and often have placed "unbearable burdens upon less-favored countries."

In contrast with such systems, the pope spoke of the church as "a teacher in humanity. Faced with these systems, she presents a culture of love and of life, restoring hope to humanity, hope in the transforming power of love lived in the unity willed by Christ." The path the church proposes to the world is one "of reconciliation, dialogue and fraternal acceptance of one's neighbor, of every human person," he said.

Another time Pope John Paul spoke of ideology came during his 1994 visit to Mexico. "The church cannot allow any ideology or political current to wrest from her the banner of justice, one of the first demands of the Gospel and the sign of the coming of God's kingdom," he said in a speech to representatives of Mexico's indigenous peoples.

"In the face of the many negative factors that could sometimes lead to pessimism and discouragement, the church continues forcefully proclaiming her hope for a better world," Pope John Paul said.