More and more, I hear derogatory speeches on the subject of the movement of Catholics away from the Church to the independent churches and the “failure” of our pastoral care especially when one compares it with the “success” of the new age movements, the Pentecostal churches and other evangelical churches and sects. If only this was a healthy self-criticism.
Certainly, I would like this to be a genuine criticism which takes into account the objective parameters corresponding to each place and each situation and not to appearances which often hide terrible traumas and human misery.
I will begin with a generic portrait of most of the missions in sub-Saharan Africa. Often these parishes cover an area that is subdivided into Small Christian Communities. The size of each community varies from one region to another. Each Small Christian Community is organized around a leadership which is in direct or indirect contact with the Parish Council. Each small community assures the provision of some ministries depending on the ability and capacity of its members. So a SCC can provide catechism lessons for children, provide help to those who are poor and sick, console those who are afflicted, prayer and Gospel sharing on a weekly basis and the important feasts in the life of the Church. The idea is for Christians to live a truly fraternal life in the manner of the first Christian communities described in the Acts of the Apostles.
The Sunday celebrations of the parish to celebrate Christ are reflected in all these communities coming together to lead a Christian life located in their respective neighbourhoods. This means that in certain urban parishes, there are up to five Eucharistic celebrations on a Sunday. This is not negligible, and one rarely sees this in the Pentecostal churches whose “liveliness” we extol.
What is special about the Catholic Church? What can she point to in the field of pastoral care? What are the strengths she can rely on to do better. to live in tune with the times and move forward? These questions invite us to cast a certain objective look on all the means that the Church has put in place over the years to serve the Christian faithful at all levels. I do not want to answer all these questions in the present article; I would prefer to leave that to the care of each community or group which is searching to deepen its pastoral commitments.
Nevertheless, I should point out that rare are the pastoral or religious organisations which have so much literature to hand as that of the Catholic Church in various areas such as liturgy, spirituality, pastoral work, education, catechesis, doctrine etc.
Long gone is the time when the Church enjoyed complete control regarding thoughts, as she claimed “a monopoly of the truth.” Today, and this is not such a very bad thing, she is obliged to face up to her past and present errors, to let herself be challenged by a society which sees things differently (sometimes without God). She has to live in direct confrontation with those who have chosen to follow other values different from the ones she advocates. The present day Church is called to live humbly in heralding, as she has always done, the virtue of humility.
This “up front” struggle, coupled with the guilt that results from the awareness of the errors she perpetuated and the horror of the mistakes made in the past, sometimes leads the Church to turn in on itself and adopt extreme attitudes such as inappropriate self-justification and inopportune self-deprecation. The solution can certainly be found somewhere between the two extremes.
I would rather propose an approach in which one judges a tree by its fruits. While acknowledging that some fruits go bad on the tree, this does not take away from the fact that the tree still can produce good fruit. What was the intention of the “founder of the Church”? What was his dream for humanity? How has the Catholic Church tried to carry out the will of its “founder?” By doing what in the world? Does the Church have an absolute certainty that since its foundation, it has never committed any errors or faults? Has the Church been warned in the scriptures of this possibility of being wrong sometimes?
While keeping a sense of proportion, the men and women of the Church should not lose sight of the freedom and especially the responsibility of each member of the faithful regarding their own choices. You can instruct a people and bring them to the point of receiving the sacraments, but you have absolutely no power over the choice that they will make regarding the practice or non-practice of their faith according to the teaching of the Church, which had accompanied them on their (spiritual) journey. It may be that a person makes a choice contrary to what you would have planned or wanted; is everything lost for all that? That would be to forget that the “ways of God are unfathomable”.
If we make the choice to respect those who are always present, nevertheless, we should spare no effort and, in faith, go out and seek those who are lagging behind. I remember organising meetings, but at the time they were due to start, only 5 of the 30 people expected were present. This led some people to say, “there is nobody, lets postpone the meeting”… a conscientious leader, will look at the goodwill and effort of those who have come despite the already heavy demands being made on their time.
From the beginning to the end of his public life, the Lord crisscrossed Palestine to proclaim the Kingdom of God, the Good News. It is from Him that the Church learnt about missionary zeal. Pope Francis has never stopped reminding the Church that she has a vocation to be a community that “goes out”, following the example of Jesus to meet the people of her time in their actual circumstances and to announce the Good News to them through attitudes and actions that lift people up. The Lord also took the time to take care of those whom he had called to be with Him, those who walked with him.
The pastoral challenge, at a time when churches are emptying in certain countries, would be to stimulate the Christian community that we are caring for, to help it become aware of its missionary dimension. We need to do this in such a way that it is not only the parish priest, the chaplain, the deacon, the “servant of God” who chase after those who “no longer come to church” but that the entire Christian community adopts a “going out” attitude to meet their brothers and sisters who have “let go” in one way or another. This also includes those who have been offended by certain attitudes they met in the community of faith which is the Church. The entire Christian community should be a witness to the love of God and to remind people that Christ wishes them to be always with Him. Thus, the whole Church would be a “going out” community. However, to get to that stage, we must know how to take good care of “those who come”, those who are available for the Lord.
The local churches should take their courage in their hands and address in an appropriate and innovative way, the needs of the Christian faithful of all ages. All this demands a lot of truth and humility, a little bit like the path taken by the Apostle Peter. The mission of the Church, internally and externally still has a future! “And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”(Mt 16, 18-19)
Freddy Kyombo, M.Afr.