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A listening and humble church

30 November, 1999

In this public lecture, Diarmuid Martin, Coadjutor Archbishop of Dublin, assesses the need for change and renewal in the Church, looking especially at the necessity for the Church to listen and be humble, after the model of the Virgin Mary, mother of the Church.

“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world”. These are the opening words of the Letter to the Hebrews. They recall a fundamental stance of being a believer: we can only understand life, society and creation when we recognise that God has spoken to us and when we listen to his word with attention and reverence.

I was somewhat surprised, then, that when I spoke at my installation in the Pro-Cathedral at the end of last August, many people wrote to me saying that they were troubled that I spoke of “a humble and listening Church”. There is nothing new or revolutionary in saying that one of the first characteristics of being a believer indeed is having the ability to listen to the word of God: the ability to hear, recognise and discern God’s good news of love and what it means for us and for every human being.

Mary is the model
Mary is the great model of the believer and of the Church. She is also the model of the listener. She received and pondered the word. We learn from her to keep the word and to ponder it in our hearts (cf. Lk. 2:19). The Church can only be a humble Church, since it must follow the path of Mary, model and exemplar of the Church, who belonged to the humble and poor remnant of Israel. This remnant, because of its fidelity to the law and the prophets, was able to perceive the message and the identity of Jesus when he came into the world in the humblest of all possible contexts.

This does not mean that the Church is less an ecclesia docens. It goes without saying that it is an essential part of our Catholic faith that the Church teaches and that it teaches and interprets with authority. The Teaching Church must, however, be obedient to the word of God. Bishops are successors of the apostles not only because they are linked through apostolic succession, because also because they are the guarantors of the authenticity of the apostolic tradition. One is only fully a leader in the Church when one listens to, receives and accepts that apostolic tradition and passes it on anew.

To be a community of the disciples of Jesus, to be a prophetic Church, the Church must in the first place be a listening Church, an ecclesia audiens, to use a phrase of Karl Barth. The Church must first of all be a hearer, a servant of God’s word. The word calls us to faith and generates faith within us when we listen to that word. The Lord, in the words of the Psalmist, does “not ask for sacrifice and offering but an open ear”. We are made members of the Community through listening to the Word, as Jesus reminded his disciples that “my mother and my brethren are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice” (Lk, 8 21).

Sitting at the feet of Jesus
In attempting to understand what a listening Church might be, we can also look to another Mary in the Gospel, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. When so many people today seek value and self esteem primarily through activity and achievement, Mary shows us that are other factors more fundamental than “being anxious and troubled about many things” (Lk10, 41). As opposed to her sister, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to his teaching. Sitting at the feet of the teacher is the pose typical of the disciple.

I was rather surprised when I asked a friend from another European country, who had lived for some years in Dublin, what he thought of the Church in Ireland, when he responded: “the Irish Church is too much a doing Church”! It made me think. The peculiar history of the Irish Church was such that it took on responsibilities for getting things done in society. We brought this same tradition of service wherever Irish missionaries went. The Church in Ireland was a caring Church. It was a Church which helped people, sustained them, and provided a great network of caring services for them.

We were not, however, just a Church of Saint and Scholars, but also very much a Church of builders, builders of buildings and communities. Our great heroes were doers. Most of the priests of my generation entered the seminary to “do things” and many of us were slightly surprised when the first thing we were asked to “do” was philosophy!

The Church may perhaps have ended-up doing too much – often not for the wrong reasons – and have run the risk of becoming over attached to its works and structures and buildings. One of the challenges for the Irish Church is to move from being a doing Church to being a listening Church. We must never be obsessed with doing. There must always an element of abandonment in our activities, of seeking first the kingdom knowing in faith that these other things will be ours as well (cf. Lk.12 31). Listening to the Word of God must lead to discernment and also the capacity to let go of what is not essential in order to allow the essential newness of the Gospel to emerge.

Going out into the deep
The Gospel of this Sunday (Lk. 5), for example, showed us how it was only when Peter abandoned his own instinct (based on his long experience as a fisher) and listened to the apparently less rational intimation of Jesus that he realised what he wanted and in a way which surpassed every expectation. I am not against reason. But there may be times when we become entrapped in our own carefully negotiated and facilitated strategies which may not necessarily encourage us to take the risks of going “out into the deep”!

Evangelisation in a modern world means allowing that radical newness of the Gospel to emerge and to challenge ourselves and others. Even the word challenge is not enough: the phrase that comes to my mind is more like turning ourselves and our expectations head over heels! The one Message must be read and lived anew by each generation. Too often the Gospel and the Christian faith are looked on – and perhaps even presented by us – as yesterday’s message rather than as a radical newness which opens a future for each generation.

The radical newness of the gospel may lead us along paths that we may not have expected to tread. It may lead us away from traditional ways. It may lead to appreciate methods of evangelisation which we had earlier found not always to our liking. It will lead to overcome prejudices.

The radical newness of the Gospel must be brought into dialogue with the culture in which we live. At times that radical newness will lead us to appreciate the signs of the times, as they can be discerned through the major currents of thought of contemporary humanity and its searching. But it may also lead us to be critical of them.

Evangelisation brings with it the double task, springing from Gospel principles: of enlightening and discerning. It is the opposite of being uncritical. Evangelisation must always be something which leads us to examine questions in depth. It will always be a process which enhances us in the depth of our personality. It is far distant from ideology or any superficial new “ecclesial correctness”, similar to political correctness, which even though it is often professed supposedly in the name of Jesus, may easily lead us to fail to recognise Jesus as he really is in our midst.

Mysticism and action
A listening Church will always be a discerning Church, a Church which scrutinizes always the authenticity of its doing. I am a great admirer of the great founders and foundresses of the religious congregations of the nineteenth century who addressed the educational and healthcare needs of their people, here in Ireland, on continental Europe and in the New World. They were great doers – whose traditions many of you keep alive today – but they were very often also mystics, who were driven into their caring work by their deep understanding both of God’s love and of the human condition. The originality and success of their works were driven from that combination of mysticism and action.

I used the term “ecclesially correct” because it is easy today to create a special form of political correctness in religious matters, which is equally as empty as its secular counterpart, because it shares the same philosophical foundations. I said that we can be “obsessed with doing” because certain forms of religiosity can be an obsession, if all they do is leave people adrift in the search for novelty. I am not pointing the finger at anyone in particular. No one knows these temptations better than I do. Whenever we fall into such temptations, we remain empty in ourselves and we rapidly find that ministry itself becomes empty for us.

A humble and listening Church will quickly realise that all gifts and all ministries in the Church are not of our making but are received from the Spirit. Ministry requires the ability to listen to the Word

Evangelisation at the heart of mission
How does being a listening Church affect our task as evangelisers? Evangelization lies today at the heart of the mission of the Church. Evangelization means announcing, in word and deed, the goods news of Jesus to all. This means announcing that good news anew within in our believing communities, as well as to those who have never heard the Gospel, to those who no longer participate in Church life and to the future generations.

Evangelisation means also announcing the good news in the structures of the world within which we live and evangelising the culture of that world. But here once again we have to recognize that we can only evangelise in the measure in which we ourselves become open to the meaning and the call of the word of God. We must listen and hear, before we can preach and evangelize. We are ourselves part of that process of change, subjects to be evangelized anew ourselves.

I as a bishop must be evangelised. I must listen to the word of God and allow it to touch my heart, to shake me up, to bring about a conversion in myself, everyday. I am not sure we have fully understood how much “new evangelization” will require painful conversion on our part. New evangelisation is not a formula or a method. It is a way of reacting to the Gospel.

Evangelization is a common task for all the baptized. I do not like the phrase “involvement of the laity”. It has something of a patronising tone. Evangelisation is an irrenouncable task for each baptized person, not a concession by someone. Evangelization is a common task for all the baptized. Like the road to Emmaus, evangelisation is a walking together listening to Jesus, trying to fathom the depths of the scriptures and their meaning for our times. Together also we recognise Jesus in the breaking of bread.

New ways of evangelising
“New Evangelization” requires new ways. It is not a static concept. Ireland, because of its history never had to evangelise in the way that is necessary today. Our culture was filled with religious concepts. Think of the many prayers, greetings and blessings which are part of our Irish language and literature.

In the past, people inherited their faith, and, in a certain sense, we inherited our people. They were just there by being born and baptized. A priest moved from parish to parish and in his new parish he found his Church, his house and his congregation. They seemed to be just there. We have never had to evangelize in the missionary sense.

Now we have to reorient our pastoral structures. We have to turn them around (once again, given the radical character of the change required, we could use the term “head over heels”). We have to move from pastoral systems which just kept things going to focussed mission. This means in particular refocusing how we use our personnel and resources. Where existing structures are inadequate, they have to be renewed or where necessary removed.

Formation will play an essential role in structuring the new evangelisation. We need more occasions for the faith formation of lay persons. Education in the faith will have the character of individual formation, but it will always be geared towards on-going evangelization of the entire Church. Such formation cannot be limited to reflections on structures alone but above all on enabling people to enter into dialogue with the Word and to be ministers who can make that word talk in today’s world. The word proclaimed must be transmitted. Education in the faith is a life long process. We need on-going formation for all in the Church. Religious education does not end when you stop going to school. We have to embrace and welcome a wide range of initiatives of formation and faith education.

Teachers of prayer and of life
Prayer is at the heart of evangelisation. This changes our attitude to everything else in our lives. One of my favourite characters in the Gospel is John the Baptist. He was a Jewish saint. The text I like most is when the disciples of Jesus turn to him and say “Lord teach us to pray the way John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray “. It is as if the disciples of Jesus were jealous of the disciples of John! We need today true teachers of prayer, those who can teach others to pray and who are recognised in that way by society as true teachers of life. Religious communities must transform their houses more and more into schools of prayer.

When we pray, I said, we recognise the lordship and the transcendence of God. The world and all it contains belongs to God. It must be used in accordance with God’s design. If creation is the Lord’s, how can we not share the wealth of the world equitably, how could we squander the resources of creation, how could we maltreat or abuse any other person? Prayer helps us realise that human person is not placed in a position of dominance with regard to creation but rather of true stewardship. The Encyclical Centesimus Annus (#37) is interestingly very critical of human behaviour and its consequences for the environment. It stresses that at the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error, in which humans believe that they can make arbitrary use of the earthy, as though the earth itself did nor have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose. A new evangelisation which listens attentively to the Word of God will remind humans that we did not create the world with our own hands and that we should never attempt to set ourselves up in the place of God.

The family and parents have a special role in the new evangelisation. How do we help parents to carry out this task better? Much of religious education takes place in the school. Our teachers constitute a fantastic resource. But we must forge new forms of cooperation between family, Church and school. We have to look on family as a resource, where parents exercise their role as “priest, prophet and king”, flowing from their baptism. We need to provide much more support and education for parents as they carry out that mission. How to help families to become places where the word of God is known and listened to? This is a task that we have only barely begun to tackle, but it is essential for the transmission of the faith.

Women in the Church
New structures for evangelisation must reflect on the position of women in the Church. Jesus did not ordain women, but he was accompanied in all his missionary activity by women, something culturally quite extraordinary in his time. Heads must have turned in surprise. Today the Church must have a masculine and a feminine face. People should be surprised if women are not there at the centre of its evangelising mission. A Church without that feminine presence is not a Church after the manner of Jesus Christ. I am acutely aware of the expectations of so many women in the Church today, of their impatience and at times of their anger at promises not being fulfilled.

It is easy to say that all other offices in the Church except ministerial priesthood are open to women, and then to remain blocked in a closed, male clerical system. There is still a long way to go here. A church deprived of the evangelising contribution of women is working on less than one cylinder. Our parish communities and our diocesan structures need to change. Prejudices and fears by men, especially priests, need to be addressed. Theological formation for women is an essential step along the path towards greater inclusion as well opening towards a greater feminine expression within theological reflection.

Many people wrote to me, after I spoke in the Pro-Cathedral, to tell me to stop running after the fashionable trend of talking about women in the Church! They may have been a point in some of the comments which said “your real problem is that there are no men in your congregations any more!” A stronger feminine face in the Church, require an authentic masculine face alongside it. Masculinity must of course not be confused with patriarchy.

Parish renewal
Parishes must become communities. We still have parishes where there is not even a meeting among the priests. I have seen other parishes where there is very large involvement of lay persons, women and men. Parish pastoral centres would seem to be important resources for the future, and these were curiously lacking until recently at least in many urban parishes. Parish councils can facilitate and coordinate the work of new evangelization. The parish must be accompanied by a wide range of new pastoral and evangelising experiences. Much needs to be done in the use of modern communications media and in creating articulate use of the media.

We need local and national Catholic media. But Catholic media should not be tabloid, except in the size of the page. They should avoid sensationalism and superficiality. The purpose of Catholic media must be above to direct people to ask the deeper questions about their lives, not just remaining on the superficial.

The liturgy – word and sacrament – will be at the heart of the parish community. It is in the parish that the word is proclaimed and where the word is broken and heard. It is in the Eucharist that the Church is constructed. We have to give more attention to the quality of our liturgies. I would love to see a new liturgical renewal. I would love to see established liturgical resource centres, assisting parishes – forming parish teams – to improve the quality of their liturgy. Here again, such a renewal must be based on a process of listening, of listening to what “we have received”, concerning the mystery of the night before Jesus death. Creativity in liturgy is good. But it must be creativity which enhances and brings into greater evidence “what we have received from the Lord”. The Eucharist is not ours to create, but we must celebrate creatively what we have received.

The need for strong priests
We need priests. We need strong priests – robust in body, robust in faith – capable of facing the challenges of secularisation, able to interpret the world of Jesus so that it becomes a message of meaning and hope in the lives of our people. It is not easy to be a good priest today. Priests need support from their communities. Communities must encourage a new generations of priests from their midst.

Strengthened by the liturgy the Church becomes mission – mission in terms of evangelisation and being a sign of communion, therefore of caring and of justice, within society. “New Evangelization”, reaching out to those who are inactive, will not – in the norm – take place in the sacristy. We need an enthusiastic, constructive presence of the Church in the public square. “New Evangelization” requires that the word of Jesus is proclaimed in such a way that it becomes a message of meaning and of hope, which can be embraced by all.

One specific area where the message of the Gospel needs to be preached concerns the growing levels of violence and exploitation in our societies. We have to listen to the suffering this brings. I am shocked since returning to Dublin by the number of murders that take place, the result of a shameless gun culture, often managed by powerful criminals whose business is to destroy so many lives in another way, through the sale of drugs. This is something we can ignore only at our risk. Similarly I am worried about tendencies towards racism and xenophobia and the exploitation of foreign workers. One daily hears stories of immigrants facing difficulties and discrimination. These are not worthy of Irish society.

A listening Church
You will have noticed that when I speak of a listening Church I tend to stress the dimension of listening to God’s word. Many may have thought I would be talking about something else, about a church which was more dialogical in its tone, less authoritarian and more sensitive to the ways in which different communities thin. The two are not mutually exclusive.

When we listen faithfully and attentively to the Word of God, we learn a new style of living. It is the life style which we learn from Jesus Christ himself. We have to recover the notion of charity and love in the fundamental dimension of gratuity in our relations with others. That is the remarkable thing about love: we love gratuitously, we do not ask anything in return, just as Jesus loved us first. Listening to the word of Jesus will inevitably lead us away from any form of self-certainty and arrogance. It will lead us deeper into that fundamental dimension of Christian life which is self giving, gratuitous love.

This will involve openness to listen to each other and especially to the needs of those who are weakest and most vulnerable. It will mean learning what love and compassion mean, in the family, in community – including within our own religious communities.

A listening, compassionate and humble Church should be a people not hardened by the toughness of modern life, capable of bringing that simple compassion and hope which our sophisticated modern world needs more than ever.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin delivered this lecture in All Hallows College, Dublin, on 9th February 2003, as a contribution to a seminar on ‘Sharing the good news: moments of opportunity in parish life’. It is taken here from the Dublin Diocesan website.

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