It is good to tell stories. The narrative has a way of gripping its hearer and coaxing her to become invested and involved, partly because our own lives unfold in narrative form. It’s how our God chose to convey His message to us through the scriptures. However, I can’t help but be a little bothered by this, abstract thinker that I am, and I suppose I would have had God give his Word to me in the form of a philosophical treatise.
I note this fact not only to cite one of the many very good reasons for why I am not God, but also as a forewarning and apology for the fact that this blog post is not much of a story. It’s narrative arc can be fairly comprehensively summarized in the following: “Cameron goes to a conference, and has some thoughts.” In future posts I will try to tell more stories and offer more direct insight into the happening stuff. But today I will share with you some of my recent reflections on ministry in general. My hope is that these will not be taken in complete abstraction from the many stories to come or those that have already been published by Mary, Ben, Joy, and myself. Rather think of this post as presenting an underlying theme which will continue to be somehow present in the broad narrative of Teach Bhride’s ministry, and (I hope) in the narratives of all who seek to serve God’s church.
On Tuesday this week, I had the privilege of attending the Eleventh Annual Religious Education Inservice at the Hotel Kilkenny. The conference gathered together teachers from four or five different dioceses in Southeast Ireland, including our own Diocese of Ferns. However, I was atypical among the guests in that I am not a full-time teacher, and most of the work that I do in classrooms wile in Ireland will be with Primary school children (Grades 1-6), wheereas the invitees to this conference were mostly secondary school teachers (Grades 7 and up). Still, I was able to glean a lot from the talks given in the ballroom of the hotel, and their scope was broad enough that they offered some helpful perspective on ministry in general, and not just ministry to children. Two particular ideas jumped out at me in the keynote talk, which I think will be worthwhile to try to re-present to you, readers. For a bit of background, the talk was given by Fr. Eamonn Conway, a priest and university head of Theology and Religious Studies from Limerick who had been involved as a key-player in the 2012 Roman Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation. Incidently, the main thrust of his presentation was to link up the work of secondary school teachers in Catholic schools with this apostolic movement that has come to self-identify as the New Evangelisation.
The first take-away point I wish to reproduce here came up early on in the talk when Fr. Eamonn was trying to concisely state the aims at the heart of the New Evangelization. This was the gist of what he said: (a) the modern context in which the New Evangelism must take place defines its goals. It is a context in which the historical person of Jesus and the name Christian are not unknown to the world. People have some idea of what Christianity is but are insensitive to its central message or its value, and many have left the Church after having been baptized. (b) In light of this, the New Evangelization is not so much about dispensing eternal truths to people, nor effecting in them upright moral behavior. First and foremost, it seeks to lead others into a personal encounter with the Living Lord, Jesus Christ.
This second point is what seized me. Certainly, a deeper understanding of divine truths and greater moral purity are to be desired for all and are bound to come about as fruits of conversion, but it seems right to me to regard this experience of personal encounter with Jesus as most fundamental to a life of Christian faith, and as the essential first step on the way to entry or re-entry to the Church. But this brings forth the question, what can I do as a minister? I can lay open to someone the Church’s theological doctrine as far as I understand it, and recommend to him certain practices and disciplines that come out of its ethical tradition. But as far as personal encounter with Jesus goes, it seems like that part is up to God to work out, and up to the individual before God to respond.
One of the biggest challenges in my Faith life over the years has been the nagging fear of an injustice in the spiritual economy of grace. God has blessed me by making himself present to me so strongly- through the loving actions of others around me, powerful moments of prayer, and the sacraments of the church- that it is absurd to imagine me ever losing faith in the reality of His Love. Yet if there’s anything that threatens to shake this faith of mine, it is when I stop looking at my own life in isolation, and turn towards the lives and experiences of others who have not had any such experience of God in there lives as to fix themselves incontrovertibly in their memories, as mine seem to have. And humility and honesty about my own sinfulness cause me to hesitate before chalking it all up to a difference in human responses to God’s love. I have known people who feel like they are truly seeking yet not finding an experiential relationship with the Loving God. They believe this encounter has not been granted them. No doubt their seeking is imperfect, but then again so is mine, constantly riddled with temptations to look the other way, despite the beauty of what I have seen.
Has God really only chosen only a few and abandoned the rest as some Protestant theologies of limited atonement are content to imply? Thankfully, Catholic doctrine bars this way of interpreting what I observe in the faith lives of others (or the lack thereof). It teaches that God desires all humanity to be united with Him and that He extends to everyone the grace needed to bring this about, and so Catholicism prevents me from going down the road of worshiping a very dark image of God, or opting instead to reject in disgust the spiritual gifts with which God has given, seeing them as products of some random, twisted nepotism.
No, the answer to my ongoing struggle is found not in claiming that those of us who have been blessed with a strong faith are the chosen few destined for God’s kingdom. But we are chosen by God for something, as was Abraham. And He says to those who are drawn into this special relationship with Him: “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless them that bless thee and curse him that curseth thee. And in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). We are chosen to be the conduits of God’s grace and the carriers of this great nation, the kingdom of God, so that it may be shared with ‘all the families of the earth’, according to God’s plan. I think also of St. Teresa of Avila’s prayer to the faithful:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which He looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world.
This is what the New Evangelism is getting at in supposing that we the faithful, the servants of the Church, though mere humans, have a direct role to play in offering to others a personal encounter with Christ. God may not choose to grant to every non-believer thirsting for truth the same privilege that he gave to Abraham and Moses (and to me in a manner at a few crucial moments of my life) of hearing His voice directly in a moment of prayer. But if we make our voices His own, our hands and feet and eyes His own, He will allow the world to encounter Him personally and directly through us. But of course this puts an immense amount of responsibility on those of us who are chosen, those of us who for better or for worse (and it’s for better!) are stuck as believers. And it puts a radical perspective on Teach Bhríde’s ministry here in Wexford. We are not here just to make liturgy services more beautiful with our musical talents, to make learning about God and the Church more fun for young children, or to build up a spirit of community in the parish (which, as has been mentioned repeatedly in past blogs, is already very strong here in Clonard). All of these things describe various shapes of our ministry but not the central goal. First and foremost, we are here to be Christ to others.
Briefly, I’ll close by mentioning one more salient point that was brought up at the conference because it ties in so closely with what it means to be someone else’s encounter with Christ. Fr. Eamonn spoke about modern attitudes toward the idea of spirituality, noting that they tend to be entirely fixated on self-actualization. However, true spirituality, Fr. Eamonn said, cannot just be aimed at self-fulfillment but must also strive for self-sacrifice.
I believe Christianity teaches that self-fulfillment is only attained through self-sacrifice. In the language of the Gospel narrative, our Resurrection and deification (which goes even beyond self-fulfillment) only comes through our acceptance of the cross. But because of our sinful nature, we cannot skip the cross; in fact we cannot even begin to understand what true self-actualization consists in without it. And it was good to be reminded of this because living out that self-sacrifice is the only way to be a good New Evangelist and make Christ present to others.
As someone who is endeavoring to transform my whole life into one of ministry and service to the Church—both here and now as a lay volunteer in Ireland, and in my future beyond this, perhaps as a priest—I am often stuck for how best to explain to non-Christians why I have chosen to shape my life in this way. I first think along the lines of self-fulfillment and respond in a language we can all understand, explaining how I truly believe—based on the stirrings I’ve felt in my soul and my passions and desires—that this is the only way for me to attain happiness.
But how much more powerful is the answer that turns this thinking on its head—without contradicting it—by centering on self-sacrifice! “I’m doing this so that the kingdom of God can find a home here on this earth, in this town, on this street corner, in this moment. I’m doing this for you.” I want to be able to answer in this way, provided that it won’t scare off my interlocutor in a given situation. More importantly, I want it to be true. And I must admit I still need a lot of help to get to that point. May God grant the grace to make it true, for myself and for all others whom he has chosen in this time to be the faithful servants of his kingdom.
God bless you all!