Recently I was part of a panel which was interviewing people who were hoping to enter full-time ministry in the church. One of the questions we asked everyone we interviewed was: “What, in your mind, is the greatest task facing the church today? What, in your dream of ministry, do you most want to accomplish?”
One man, when asked this, answered without hesitation: “The major task of ministry today is to bring people to accept Vatican II. Too many people are blocked in terms of renewal.”
That is a laudable answer, though, in my opinion, an unfortunate one. Too many of us, people who can still remember the pre-Vatican II church, are people who are dealing more with the past, our own and our church’s, than with the present and its real needs. Because of this we tend to confuse our own religious issues and wounds with the real religious needs of the world and most often end up missing the forest for the trees. Let me try to explain:
What is the greatest task facing the church today? What should ministry strive to bring about?
Long before Vatican II (or, indeed, the Vatican) is ever mentioned our task is to try to awaken within people the sense that God exists, that God is alive, and that, because of this, there is a challenge and a consolation that is deeper than they have ever imagined. Our first task in ministry is to tell people that they are being held, unconditionally and inescapably, in the hands of a living and loving God and that this God is delighting in them. Before anything else, we need to remind people that God is real and that, because of that, there is a deep goodness and sense to everything, including their own desires, temptations, and tortured sensitivies.
The rest of ministry flows from that. Somewhere, down the line, there will need to be talk, important talk, of church, of dogma, of denominational boundaries, of moral codes, of liturgy and worship, of authority structures and about who should be ordained, and perhaps even of Vatican II. But these latter things, all of them, are parasitical by nature, they take their blood out of some other life, in this case, from the life which appears when people realize that they are unconditionally loved and held by the source and origin of all life. As that realization sinks in, it will bring with it, slowly, the awareness that it is, after all, a demanding thing to fall into the hands of a living God and many of the things that Vatican II talked about will then become important issues. But that comes later.
Thus, the task of religion is to evangelize desire, to make the whole world and everyone in it understand existentially the truth and the implications of Augustine’s famous prayer: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
As we look at our world today (and at our own children!) we need to be clear that this is our most important religious task. We need to evangelize our world’s desires by revealing the consolation and the challenge of God; otherwise the irresistible physicality, lure, and wildness of pagan beauty will continue to take away both the world’s breath and most of its capacity for virtue and worship.
The last quarter century has produced libraries full of valuable scriptural exegesis, good historical correctives to bad theology and corrupt ecclesiology, sensitive moral insights, and every kind of useful suggestion regarding theology and programs for sacraments and liturgy. What it hasn’t produced are an effective missiology and effective missionaries for a first-world context.
Yet that is what is perhaps most needed today, missionaries who can evangelize first-world desire. The harvest is ripe, but the Christian labourers (who are on the right track) are few … as is evident from the fact that more and more people are turning to New Age spiritualities, pagan philosophies, and various ideologies in an attempt to make sense out of their eroticism, their restlessness, their innate moral promptings, and their innate grandiosity and religiosity.
The human heart today, as much as in any other age, sincerely yearns for to feel both the consolation and the challenge of God. Offering that is religion’s birthright …and it is our first task as a church.