In a recent speech to the Association of US Catholic Priests, Bishop Robert McElroy, an American Moral theologian commenced his speech by saying that ‘We are living in a wonderful moment in the life of the church’. He identifies that the authentic renewal of the Second Vatican Council ‘remains the foundation and the challenge for those who seek to deepen the theology of the church and bring it into the life of the world’. His speech explored the pastoral theology of Pope Francis and identified that we are living in an intensely rich period theologically.
I was reminded of Bishop McElroy’s comments as I walked to Mass on this recent very cold Sunday morning. I had received an early morning text message from the accompanist to say that she was unable to attend this week. Our principal cantor was away on a well-deserved holiday (we have a small volunteer parish choir which means attendance from week-to-week can fluctuate).
I felt disheartened. It had been a busy week and I would have greatly appreciated some time at home. But it wasn’t just that, I was tired because facilitating the music on a weekly basis for the parish can just sometimes feel like hard work. And I must admit that on this occasion it didn’t feel as though we were living in such a wonderful moment. 'How are we making visible the richness of Vatican II?' I was thinking gloomily and, just for a moment, I found myself thinking: is it worth it? Really, is it all worth it?
This is the temptation, I suspect, for many of us involved in parish ministry. In the face of uncertain Mass attendance and lack of parish community engagement, we can find ourselves wanting to go back to the past or give up rather than leaning into whatever this change of era is holding for us. Because it’s hard to lean into uncertainty. It’s hard to lean into change. So, I entered the church stilled the negative spirit, blessed myself with holy water and set to work.
The Israeli museum holds in their permanent collection the hauntingly beautiful painting by Rembrandt van Rijn of St. Peter in Prison
(or St. Peter Kneeling
). St Peter has been arrested and is painted in a prison cell in Jerusalem. The figure of St Peter is bathed in soft light although his surroundings are in darkness. Two large keys lie beside him – thought to represent the keys to the kingdom of heaven. His hands are clasped in prayer and his tilted face holds an expression of deep sorrow. He looks desolate. But we know that he will soon miraculously escape this prison – a hint given to us, perhaps by the light. All is not dark; all is not lost. There is a potential for transformation.
And perhaps this is what our missionary hearts need to lean into. That the world is bathed in light because God has blessed us with the person of Jesus and graced us with the work of the Holy Spirit in creation. And while life is complicated we have twenty-first-century tools to help make sense of these modern complexities. And we are blessed with the inherited knowledge that the world is full of mystery and that we can learn everyday a little more about what the Paschal Mystery means for us in our time. This is the holy mystery that unfolds in and around us on a daily basis.
And when we are discouraged and fearful we can remember that we have ancestors who modelled for us a way of negotiating the rough and tumble of community life while walking in Jesus’ name. Their hearts and imaginations were filled with urgency about spreading the news about Jesus because their lives had been transformed by their relationship with them.
And so perhaps Bishop McElroy is right after all – we are in a wonderful moment in the life of our Church! May we lean into the Lord and allow him to uphold our lives and may our missionary hearts expand to enable us to embrace life’s complexities so that we can share the Good News with which we have been blessed – that Jesus is alive and at work, even in this our post-modern world.
As we enter this period of transition in the Archdiocese, our thoughts and prayers are with Archbishop Hart as he comes to the end of his time as Archbishop of Melbourne, and we wish him every blessing as he moves into this new stage of life. At the same time, we hold Archbishop-elect Comensoli in our thoughts and prayers as he prepares to assume the role of Archbishop of Melbourne. Welcome to the Archdiocese!