As most Catholics will know, the Plenary has been held this week – or at least its First Assembly. But perhaps we should say: “As most Catholics will not know, the Plenary has been held this week.” After all, a major background issue to the Plenary and one presumably mentioned many times throughout its deliberations has been the common acknowledgement that the Church has a major problem on its hands, one common to the relatively affluent nations of the world: while the Church counts millions of Australians as Catholics, millions of those who might call themselves Catholic are non-practicing and have little regard for the Church’s significance in almost any area of human life.
Given this reality, the fundamental question which we are all called to answer – whether as non-practicing Catholics or daily Mass goers – is a relatively simple one. It is Christ’s question to His disciples. Who, He famously asks Peter, do you say I am? How we answer this question determines everything.
Catholics who join Peter in confessing that Jesus is in fact the Messiah for whom Israel has longed and yearned over millennia (some historians date Abraham to approximately the 18th Century before Christ), now face a world utterly changed from that which their ancestors experienced in their own lives.
They are much smaller in number than their ancestors as a percentage of the officially Catholic population. Whereas their forebears lived in a world where Christianity had been in a general sense the informing spirit of the times and its moral principles based on the intrinsic dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God had been – more or less – commonly accepted, today’s Catholics live in the midst of a world which has decisively rejected everything they believe as being most important: God, love of neighbour, marriage, family, children, the moral compass required to protect these – and so on. We live, in short, in a world which has rejected us.
Furthermore, our society and our culture are rapidly hardening their attitudes towards we Christians and our faith and seeking to impose in ever more authoritarian and totalitarian ways that rejection upon us and our children. From abortion to euthanasia to refugees and migrants to religious freedom and what we are allowed to teach our children, the state is increasingly seeking to impose its diktat and its core value of totalitarian atheism on Christians and their works everywhere.
So the existential question most in the minds of those who believe in Christ might simply be described as ‘how am I to live?’ In a sense, this has been the question at the heart of the Plenary, albeit posed in different words.
Catholics who believe that Jesus said what He meant and meant what He said and have made the decision to confess Him in season and out must now choose to live even more entirely counter-cultural lives. This especially means that to express and live our faith in Him we must live as far as possible in communities. These communities can no longer simply be once-a-week gathering points for Sunday Mass, but must be communities where families form bonds of friendship which affirm each other in our faith and witness to children and young adults that Christianity is not – as their contemporaries assume – abnormality but normality itself, the best possible way to live one’s life.
This effort of forming serious communities of Catholic faith requires – overwhelmingly – lay men and women, husbands, wives, mothers and fathers to consciously act to create them. Clergy and religious, obviously, must be drafted and harnessed in this work. In short, parishes must be transformed from weekly drop-in centres into living communities of faith and outreach, busy pretty much every night of the week with activities for families, couples, young adults and children. Gatherings to pray together and to purely socialise with each other based on the common denominator of our faith in Jesus and His Church will provide the fellowship, formation and affirmation (and dare we add courage?) Christians need to live out our vocation as the Baptised, the light of the world and its leaven.
This is undoubtedly to propose a major reassessment of how we organise ourselves, a radical change in our consciousness of who we are and how we exist in the world. From this general approach will come the well-formed marriages, the well-formed mothers and well-formed fathers, the men and women who form our own families and go out into the world to radiate – as best we can – the reality and light of our Saviour who is also our Brother, Jesus Christ. In short, we might say that the key question for the Plenary is not so much ‘what is the Holy Spirit saying to us?’ as ‘how, concretely, do we live out our faith in our families and our daily lives, transforming our parishes into living communities?’ But then, these are ultimately the same question.