postheadericon Being Church in Asia: New Evangelization and Challenges

Being Church in Asia: New
Evangelization and Challenges
Joseph Mattam, SJ.

(Asian Conference on New Evangelization, 4-6/9/2012, Ishvani Kendra, Pune).
Since some time, the expression “New Evangelization” has come into our theological and ecclesial vocabulary and the Pope has called for a Synod to articulate a vision and strategy for such an endeavor. This is addressed primarily to those who were once believers and are now no more interested in the Christian faith; millions in Europe and America show no more interest in the ‘faith’ that once governed their life. Proclaiming the gospel to such persons is not going to be an easy task. However, this invitation to New Evangelisation (NE) is a grace filled moment for the Church to return to Jesus and rediscover itself in the way Jesus had envisaged his Body to be in the world, as the salt, leaven and light.  If the Church responds to this invitation and becomes the kind of Church that Jesus wanted, then this NE will be a great blessing for the world.  This calls for a lot of honesty; we need to look at the past and see where we have gone wrong which has led so many to leave the church. It seems to me that the only way we can do this NE is by going back to the very old pattern of the early church of the first century, when there was a lot of enthusiasm, zeal and commitment to Jesus. Obviously, we cannot turn back the calendar and the clock, but we can look back to our roots and rediscover the essentials that we seem to have allowed to slip away.
In this paper I shall not focus on the normal themes like the wider context that affects the message, as we are familiar with our context: religious pluralism, religious intolerance, communalism, and fundamentalism; the massive poverty of the millions; illiteracy; female infanticide; child labour; abuse of women and many other factors that deeply affect our  mission work. This is an important area that we have to keep in mind. But I rather want to focus on the reasons for the present impasse, which unfortunately the Lineamenta does not seem to do, and see what it is that is going to be ‘new’ in our present day approach. Without a proper diagnosis, one cannot prescribe a remedy.
1. The Old Approach
At first we shall look briefly at the ‘old’, as what happened in the past has its effects on the Church today, and especially on the abandoning of the faith by millions of ‘believers’. In the early centuries, ‘gossiping the gospel’ by every member of the believing community was the way the faith spread; also the mutual love of the members of the community brought in followers (Acts). Later with more aggressive evangelisation, due to the natural-supernatural divide that made baptism absolutely necessary for salvation, evangelisation came to be the task only of the Clergy and Religious. In this period certain emphases marked our efforts.

1.1 Great importance to doctrines

The evangelisation work in the past emphasized a great deal (far too much) the importance of dogmas, doctrines and statements of faith formulated and taught by the Church.  Faith itself was understood as an assent to these truths. Catechism books emphasized doctrines and children had just to memorize many unintelligible formulae. This emphasis had devastating consequences like heresy hunting, the Inquisition, burning of heretics, torture, witch-burning and other cruelties in the name of the God, and divisions in the Body of Christ. There was a time when people were in awe of words like ‘hypostatic union’, ‘transubstantiation’, ‘consubstantial’, etc, but today people just do not care about these and similar words; they just ignore such.  I am not saying that doctrinal developments are unnecessary; they all had their reason at certain time in history; but now we need to go back to the Gospels and present Jesus to the people. What was originally a revolutionary, counter-cultural movement became dogmatic and ritualistic rather than being faithful to its original call to be radical, revolutionary and prophetic. There was also a shift from experiencing Jesus to thinking and talking about Jesus.

1.2 Emphasis on cultic practices

Another emphasis of this period was cultic practices and rituals. The Church has built thousands of beautiful churches and developed elaborate, lengthy liturgies in various Rites. The number of sacraments grew and finally, thanks to Peter Lombard’s synthesis, the 4th Lateran Council declared that there were the present seven sacraments. Prayers, Novenas and other devotions too grew, as also the number of saints and blessed, though it was during John Paul II’s time that the greatest number was added to the list of saints and blessed. The mediatory role of the saints was very much emphasized, as God came to be seen more and more like the emperor, inaccessible to the ordinary, requiring mediators on earth and in heaven. So, our unique God-given Mediator, Jesus suffered a setback.

1.3 Monoculturalism

Mono-culturalism ruled the Church for centuries. The church as it was in Europe was literally transplanted in the so-called mission countries allowing no creativity in these countries. Examples abound: Mateo Ricci, de Nobili and others who attempted something in line with the culture and habits of the people were not only opposed but were condemned. The perennial theology of St Thomas was compulsorily taught everywhere and that too, in Latin. That assured uniformity which was considered a great value. The Church remained basically Euro-centric; even today when one looks at the number of office bearers in the Vatican Curia and central commissions, and the number of Cardinals one sees that it is mostly Euro centric, though there are more Christians in Africa and Asia compared to the European countries.
1.4 The Clergy-Laity Divide
The clergy-laity divide is another characteristic of this period that has deeply affected the life of Christians. Without denying the great good the clerics have done throughout the centuries, we must not ignore the harm it has done to the Church. This division which was not known for the first two centuries, would eventually control the life of the Church. This division does not stem from Jesus, for he did not seem to want a two-tier Church made up of a superior class called Clerics and an inferior class of the laity. For Jesus, all his followers are equal as brothers /sisters/friends (Matt 23.8ff; Jn 13), though they have distinct functions. Paul was clear about the distinction of charisms and functions but without the notion of a hierarchy of persons (1Cor 12. 12ff; Rom 12.4ff; Eph 4.11ff) and was unaware of what today we call ‘priests’[1].
Jesus did not leave behind him a hierarchy, a class of people called “priests”. Whenever he used the term ‘priest’ it was about the Jewish priests for whom he had little regard (Luke 10.31; 17.14). Jesus never spoke of himself or any of his disciples as priests; the gospels and the genuine Pauline epistles do not present Jesus as a priest. If Jesus had spoken of himself as a ‘priest’ that would have totally misled the people about his identity and mission. Only the letter to the Hebrews, with justifiable reason presents Jesus as a priest and his murder as a sacrifice; but then that is the end of priesthood. The main function of the Jewish priests at Jesus’ time was offering sacrifices, and Jesus, like the prophets before him (e.g., Amos 5.21-22, 25) was opposed to sacrifices (Matt 9.13; 12.7); his cleansing of the temple, the prediction of its destruction and his words to the Samaritan woman (Jn 4. 21-24) show that he wanted a completely new form of worship and a new type of community which would give primacy to interpersonal relations over cultic acts (Matt 5.23; 25. 31ff). Jesus does not seem to have interest in cultic practices. His visits to the temple were primarily to teach. Through his attacks on them the temple priests became the arch enemies of Jesus and, ultimately it is they who turn him over to the Romans. Had Jesus wanted the priesthood to be the backbone of his community, definitely he would have spoken about it. The generally held view that on Maundy Thursday Jesus ‘ordained priests’ has no foundation in the NT.  Besides, from what I have mentioned above, it is clear that Jesus could not have thought of ordaining ‘priests’ before his death, as ‘priests’ were not in his horizon. Professor Herbert Haag of the Catholic Universities of Tubingen and Lucerne says: “The New Testament does not recognize any priesthood, whether sacramental or universal” (H. Haag 1997: 72)[2]. Quoting Haring, Haag says: “The Church of the first three centuries did not know…either the concept or the reality of a ‘clergy’” (p. 45); he traces the formation of classes of priests separated from the people back to the “fall of the Constantinian era” (p. 45).
          The NT had a multiplicity of ministries, but by the 3rd century these are channeled into the threefold ministry of Bishop, priests and deacons, formed into a hierarchy of an order of priests. With this, there emerged a class called the laity, the non-clerics. Clerics are the norm, just as when we used to speak of ‘non-Christians’ the understanding was the norm was ‘Christian’. “The brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Pet 5.9) eventually became 2 classes, the ordained and the non-ordained, one superior to the other, and their distinction became characteristic of the Church.  The majority of the members of the Body of Christ are devalued, as only the ordained can hold offices in the Church, preside over the worship and participate in the decision making processes.
1.5 The leaders Jesus wanted
Jesus spoke about and wanted to leave behind him leaders who would be different from leaders in the world and gave them very clear and precise instruction. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you, must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave” (Matt 20.24-28); “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no one your father on earth…The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matt 23. 8-11); “But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves… I am among you as one who serves” (Lk 22. 24-27); see Mark 10. 35- 45 and John 13. 1-18).
Can anyone recognize in the present day Church leaders(Reverends, Lords, Graces, Excellencies, Eminences, Holiness) the kind of leaders Jesus envisaged? The function of the leaders Jesus wanted to leave behind was to “feed my lambs”, “take care of my sheep” and “feed my sheep” (Jn 21.15-17); namely, to care for and build up the community, and not the service of God by offering sacrifices and by producing and defending doctrines. The early disciples of Jesus followed his teaching and practiced the “brotherhood throughout the world” as is evident in the writings of Paul. While, he was conscious of his authority as an apostle (Gal 1.1), he speaks of himself as a servant (1 Cor 3.5), others as his brothers/ sisters/ fellow prisoners (Rom 1.13; 1 Cor 1.10; 2 Cor 1.8). Paul commissioned Timothy and others to leadership in the community by laying hands on them, but this cannot be seen as an ordination to the ‘priesthood’. The idea of a ‘priest’ does not arise in the first two centuries. Haag concludes: “This survey has shown that all ministries are the creation of the Church. None can be traced back to Jesus, not even that of the bishop, and least of all that of the priest.” (Haag,108). The ministries arose as response to the problems the community faced (e.g., Acts 6).
The later leaders either ignored or refused to follow the teaching of the Lord, and on their own authority declared themselves ‘priests’ busy with ‘sacrifice’, and patterned themselves on the empire, taking titles, dress code and behaviour pattern from the empire system: Reverends, Lords, Eminences, Excellencies and Holiness which have nothing to do with what Jesus wanted, and in fact, are explicitly opposed to what he had wanted. The empire system with its craze for power, privileges, wealth and luxury corrupted the leaders. The civil societies of Greece and Rome were highly hierarchical and that is the pattern the Church leaders followed instead of the Gospels. They also moulded God unto the image of the emperor. Yves Congar, in Power and Poverty in the Church,[3] has shown clearly how this development on the pattern of the empire happened. At a time when the Bible was not read by the people, any practice could be defended as coming from the Bible; but today, as everyone can read what is in the Bible, and biblical scholarship is spreading very much, we may not ignore what is given there so clearly about the leaders and how they have deviated from what Jesus wanted.

postheadericon Sadbhavana Forum

By Fr. William sj