LIVING WITH THE TENSION OF CHANGE AND GROWTH

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SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ ACTS 8:1-8; PSALM 66:1-7; JOHN 6:35-40 ]

We are all creatures of habit. We like routine. We live a robotic life, doing the same old thing day in and day out. In this way, we do not have to expand much of our energy or use our brain. We just drift through life each day, living in our comfort zone. We do not like change because change involves adaptation. It means going through the pain of adjustment. We resist change unless the changes we are making promise to make our life more comfortable and pleasant. The sacrifice of change must commensurate with the results of change.

But the reality is that nothing remains static. Things are changing even if we do not want to change. Even in our personal life, there will be deaths and new born babies. We all get older each day. Our needs and likes change with age and time. There will be departures of our loved ones. There will be new additions to the family. Our career will change. We will get married. Businesses and managements often change. So there is no way to prevent change from taking place. Nothing is static but everything is dynamic. We are not independent but inter-dependent. So when people and situations change, we will have to change to meet the new challenges.

This is true of the development of the Church as well. The early Church was rather complacent, living as a loving community. They were quite contented to have the Church grow within Palestine, particularly in Jerusalem. But then their security was threatened by the Jewish leaders. In the first place, the early Christians challenged the Jewish religious and cultural institutions and unsettled them. Hence, they reacted by persecuting them. After the martyrdom of Stephen, “a bitter persecution started against the church in Jerusalem. Saul then worked for the total destruction of the Church; he went from house to house arresting both men and women and sending them to prison.”

Because of the persecution, they were forced to move out of Jerusalem. St Luke noted that “everyone except the apostles fled to the country districts of Judaea and Samaria. Those who had escaped went from place to place preaching the Good News. One of them was Philip who went to a Samaritan town and proclaimed the Christ to them.” So the persecution caused the Church in Jerusalem to move out to other parts of Palestine to spread the Good News. This was the indirect positive effect of the persecution. Instead of stifling and suppressing the new Christian religion, it unwittingly forced them to move out to proclaim the Good News to other places. They found new communities. Indeed, if the early Christians had not been persecuted, and had Judaism accommodated the Christians, the early Church could have become just another sect within Judaism. The Church would not have become Catholic or universal. This is the irony of life. Without tensions, opposition and new challenges, we cannot grow.

Today, persecution of the Church is no less intense. Perhaps we are more civil and we do not kill each other, although violence still erupts and exist in some countries. But generally, the persecution of the Church is subtler in terms of discrimination, suppression or marginalization. However, the persecution is not just directly from outside of the Church but from within as the Church seeks to be relevant to modern society. As a result of globalization and technological advancement, the world has changed so radically over the last 100 years. Technology has changed the lifestyle and demands of our people. Today, we have to grapple with global migration, mass media, and changing cultures. Questions that our forefathers did not have to grapple with, such as cloning, euthanasia, in-vitro fertilization, sex change, and other bioethical issues. Lifestyles too have changed dramatically in our times because of the confluence of cultures, religions and races. This has resulted in transculturation, tolerance, assimilation and acceptance of the different traditions and customs. Family life has also changed. We no longer stay in the same place throughout our lives with three generations living under the same roof. The nature of the family, the composition, the role of women, the upbringing of children, the understanding of marriage and same-sex relationships – all these have changed.

In a changing world, either we take flight or fight or engage in dialogue. Flight would only make the Church outdated and out of sync with the modern times. Fight would make the Church an enemy of the world. Forcing the world to adapt to us would be a losing battle in this age of globalization. Indeed, the Popes since Vatican II understood this need for the Church to engage the world. If we just stay in our enclave, we will lose the world entirely. Since John XXIII, the Church has sought to engage the world and dialogue with the world on issues that are of common concern, especially in the areas of morality, justice and peace.

Pope Francis of course took on a more radical course in transforming the Church from a distant, cold, institutional Church into a more humane, compassionate and benevolent Church, especially towards the poor, the sick, the marginalized, women and those who are not in full communion with the Church, the divorced, those in same-sex relationships, non-Catholic Christians, other religions and the humanists. His personal touch with the poor, sensitivity to the sufferings of the people, victims of child abuse and his warmth and affectivity in meeting and dealing with people also have breached the distance between the Petrine Office and the People of God. Together with the Council of Cardinals, called G-9, the Holy Father is making institutional and structural changes to the time immemorial traditions and structures of the Church, especially with regard to the position of women and the authority of the bishops.

His pontificate is certainly unsettling to those who are not ready for so many changes, but for those who feel that the Church has been too regimental, doctrinal-based and lacking compassion and synergy with the world, it is a fresh wind. Pope Francis advocates a greater compassion for those who are divorced and remarried who are barred from receiving Holy Communion; and the pastoral recommendations in dealing with such marriages in Amoris Laetitia has caused much controversy. Besides this, he has unsettled many with the changes he made to the washing of feet on Holy Thursday to include women and even non-Catholics, celebrating a wedding spontaneously in mid-flight, saying that he does not judge those with have same sex orientation, etc. Certainly, there are tensions and even confusion on the ground as to what is the teaching and direction of the Church towards these issues which were then so clear until Pope Francis came into office. Before him, orthodoxy held the Church together. But today, it seems pragmatism leads the way. Doctrines are being compromised to reach out to those who do not “qualify” to be full members of the Church. So today, the battles are being fought in the Church between the dogmatists and the pragmatists, between orthodoxy and practice, idealists and the realists. This tension is inevitable for us to arrive at orthopraxis, that is, the right relationship between orthodoxy and practice.

Whilst this ideological and doctrinal battle is being fought, in the final analysis, what is of vital importance is to bring Jesus to the people. At the end of the day, what changes a person’s thinking and belief is not so much an intellectual conversion but a conversion of the heart. We are more feeling than thinking people. Ideologists can change their views overnight but heartfelt relationships take time to build and even to break. Indeed, in the early Church we see that people were converted not so much by intellectual discourse on the validity of Christianity in comparison to Judaism but it was by the miracles and signs that the apostles performed, as in the case of Philip’s ministry to the Samaritans.

That is why Jesus in the gospel said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst. But, as I have told you, you can see me and still you do not believe.” Just by seeing Him we will not have faith unless we have a personal relationship with Him. When we relate with Him with our heart, mind and body, we will come to appreciate His teaching and be touched by His love for us. So what is needed is relationship first. It is not to say that doctrines do not matter. Truth matters because love is built on truth. But we need to win over our people with love before we can lead them to a deeper understanding of the truth of love. Doctrines cannot change lives unless we have a prior relationship with Jesus and are reading the scriptures with faith and love. This is what the Lord affirms, “Yes, it is my Father’s will that whoever sees the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and that I shall raise him up on the last day.”

So the present thrust is to bring all to Jesus, to encounter His merciful love and compassion so that falling in love with Jesus, they would be brought to a deeper understanding of their faith, through study of scriptures and faith. Unless we have a common love for Jesus, there is no way for us to discern together in the spirit to find the right way to understand and communicate the tenets of Christ’s teachings to all. The modern generation needs to feel that they are loved, accepted and embraced unconditionally before they have the trust to dialogue with the Church. Unless people believe in Jesus, we cannot proclaim the truths of the gospel because it will fall on skeptical ears and hearts.

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