Aidan Donaldson's book on the cost of Christian discipleship is based on Jesus's preaching that it is the poor, the outsider, the despised and the rejected that are special to God.
This book on the cost of Christian discipleship is based on Jesus’s preaching that it is the poor, the outsider, the despised and the rejected that are special to God, that the kingdom of God belongs to them (Lk 6:20) and the disciple’s entry into the kingdom depends on how s/he responds to their needs. The parable of the sheep and the goats (‘When I was hungry you gave me something to eat….’ Mt 25:31-46) is central to what the author sees Christ calling Christians to.
Against the background of what Naomi Klein inThe Shock Doctrine (Penguin 2007) terms ‘the rise of disaster capitalism’ bringing even more misery to the vast majority of humanity, one can appreciate the logic of this message.
Aidan Donaldson has learned from his work with HIV/AIDS victims and others oppressed by poverty and injustice in Zambia that the call of Jesus to follow him is not primarily to a ritual and legal type Christianity, but a radical option of serving the poor in love. Fr Peter McVerry SJ has been a strong influence on his thinking as has Archbishop Oscar Romero to whom the book is dedicated.CONTENTS
MAKING DISCIPLESHIP SAFE
1. A Strange Encounter one Sunday after Mass
2. So precisely what do we mean by Vocation?
3. Who was Jesus? – An Interesting Question
4. Making Jesus God – Making Jesus safe
THE CHALLENGE OF DISCIPLESHIP — OUR ‘COMFORT’ DISTURBED
5. Follow Jesus? First Read the Health Warning
6. Miracles and Signs of the Kingdom
7. Courage to Bear Witness
8. Not Knowing or Simply not Caring?
9. Loving the Poor and the Problem with Giving
10. Give Until it Hurts: The Wonderful Example of Enoch and Esther Banda
LETTING GO, EMBRACING MARGINALISATION AND BECOMING CHURCH
11. How in the Name of God did we get here?
12. Rediscovering the Jesus of the Gospel
13. Letting Go, Becoming Mission, Being Church
Conclusion: Go and Proclaim the Good News
143 pp. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie
AN UNSEEMLY EPISODE IN THE SYNAGOGUE
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people. (Lk 4:18)
Let us imagine the scene. It is the Sabbath in Nazareth – an important town in the Galilee region of the Roman Province of Palestine some two thousand years ago. A young rabbi has been invited by the elders of the synagogue to read from the scriptures. Whether he deliberately selected the famous prophetic passage from Isaiah or it simply was a pre-selected passage following a strict cycle of readings is unknown. Certainly the impact of his reading of the passage and his subsequent comments have had implications that continue to reverberate throughout Christianity today.
The young rabbi was, of course, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph (a carpenter) and his wife Mary. There is nothing incredibly remarkable about this other than the fact that, normally, a male child from such a marriage would, most likely, have ended up as a carpenter – as indeed we are told in Mark’s gospel ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?’ (Mark 6:3) – and not a rabbi. Some scholars have suggested that Jesus, himself, was not in fact a carpenter at all and that, rather, he was simply the son of one. Indeed, the above passage from Mark is the only passage in the gospels in which Jesus is referred to as a carpenter. On the other hand he is called or referred to as ‘rabbi’ or ‘teacher’ some sixty times.’ This dispute, however, may not be of the importance that some scholars maintain since the understanding of ‘rabbi’ as an exclusively distinctive title linked to a specific office only arose after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Whether Jesus was a carpenter himself or simply the son of one is of no importance. What is of significance is that Jesus was recognised by the officials and rulers of the synagogue in Nazareth as one to be invited to read the scriptures. Nazareth was no small town, nor was Galilee some backwater in the Roman Province of Palestine populated by uneducated, simple and isolated peasants. Quite the opposite. The people of Galilee were among the most religious of Jews in the world who were extremely well-educated in the Bible and its application. Many famous Jewish teachers came from Galilee and the people were known for their great reverence for scripture and the passionate desire to be faithful to it. This translated into vibrant religious communities, devoted to strong families and their country whose synagogues echoed to debates and discussions about keeping the Torah. They resisted the social and religious influences of Hellenism (despite the large Greek-speaking communities nearby such as the Decapolis), far more than did their Judean counterparts (who were, in fact, largely isolated from such influences). When the great revolt against the Romans and their collaborators (66-74 AD) finally occurred, it began among the Galileans.
It was in this devout community that Jesus was born and grew up, and spent his ministry among people who would have known the Scripture by memory and debated its application to life and (as we are told in Deut 6:5) were commanded to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ Like all children in first century Galilee at that time Jesus would have attended the local school at the synagogue starting study from four to five years of age in Beth Sefer (elementary school). The teaching would have focused primarily on the Torah, emphasising both the reading and writing of the scriptures. Large portions were memorised and it is likely that many students knew the entire Torah by memory by the time this level of education was finished. At this point (approximately twelve or thirteen years of age) most students would have completed their schooling and, in the case of girls, would have stayed at home to help with the family while boys would learn the family trade. Only the best students would continue their studies in Beth Midrash (secondary school) where they (along with the adults in the town) would study the prophets and the writings in addition to Torah and begin to learn the interpretations of the Oral Tradition. Only the most outstanding Beth Midrash students sought permission to continue further study with a famous rabbi often leaving home to travel with him for a lengthy period of time. These students were called talmidim in Hebrew, which translates as ‘disciples.
It is highly probable that Jesus was one of this latter group as it would have been extremely unlikely that anyone who was not trained and educated to the highest level would have been allowed — never mind invited — to read the scriptures in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The passage that Jesus read out from Isaiah in Nazareth would have been very familiar to all of those present in the synagogue. It is rich with promises of the good news of deliverance with the coming of the kingdom of God — including freedom from poverty, oppression, captivity, injustice and sickness — and continues with the certainty of God’s judgement and the promise of ‘a day of revenge for the Lord’ on those who have exploited and mistreated their fellow men and women. At this point those in attendance would have waited for Jesus to complete the reading from the prophet. After all, Jesus had stopped in mid-sentence — on a comma, in fact. This would have been highly irregular as religious Jews, like many adherents of other faiths, would have regarded (and still do) sacred scripture as the revealed Word of God and something that should not be tampered with lightly — certainly not terminated on a comma. The listeners no doubt would have waited for him to finish this passage promising the coming of the kingdom — some time in the future — and God’s accompanying Day of Judgement. Jesus did no such thing.
Instead, we are told, the young rabbi rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and, looking round at the attentive audience of elders, scribes and devout Jews, said to them, ‘This passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read’ (Lk 4:21). It is little wonder that there was outrage and demands that Jesus be taken away and thrown off the top of the cliffs above Nazareth (Lk 4:28-30). In claiming that ‘this passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read’, Jesus challenged the traditional Jewish understanding of the kingdom of God and of how and when this is to be brought about as well as publicly and openly announcing who he was and what he was about.
Jesus did not deviate at all from any of this throughout the rest of his life — either in his teachings or his actions. Indeed, the thoughts laid out by Jesus so clearly in the above episode are deepened and developed in an even more radical direction as Jesus goes about ‘his Father’s work’ — his mission. By the end, Jesus proved impossible for the Jewish religious leaders (and for that matter the Roman authorities too) to deal with — other than silencing him through putting him to death. After all, he had publicly befriended sinners and outsiders by eating with them (Mk 2:13-17; Lk 19:7), forgave sinners (Mk 2:1-12), defended his disciples when they broke Sabbath Law (Mk 2:23-28), healed on the Sabbath (Lk 4:31-37), publicly criticised and ridiculed the Jewish religious leaders (Mk 12:1-12; Lk 11:37-52) and condemned and physically opposed Temple worship (Lk 20:45-48). He affirmed the poor, the downtrodden and the oppressed and told them that ‘the kingdom of heaven belongs to them’ (Mt 5:3) and sent away the Rich Young Man and told him to rid himself of his wealth, give it to the poor and only then to follow him (Mk 10:17-31). He even called God ‘Abba’ or ‘Father’ (Jn 16:25-33) and encouraged his disciples to do the same (Mt 6:9-13). Little wonder that the Jewish religious leaders had to get rid of him.
The Jesuit writer and social activist, Peter McVerry, points out that it was Caiaphas, the High Priest, who above all others understood preciselywhat Jesus was doing by bringing the marginalised into society and the enormous significance his teachings had in undermining the Covenant – the very basis of the Jewish religion and the nation’s survival. According to McVerry:
Conventional [Jewish] religious belief held that holiness consisted in separation from all that is unholy, impure. If the People of God failed to exclude these sinners, the People of God would become, like them, impure. Then the wrath of God would be visited on the whole People of God, and the unique relationship that the Covenant of God created between the Chosen People and God would be at risk, and therefore Israel’s very existence as a nation, which was founded on that Covenant, would be in jeopardy (2).
Hence Caiaphas’ comment that ‘it is better for you to let one man die for the people, instead of having the whole nation destroyed’ (Jn 11:50). So the Jewish religious rulers, along with the Roman authorities who were all too willing to do whatever would further Roman imperialist strategy, ensured that this one man would die — and die a quite horrendous death through crucifixion — in order that, in their belief, the Covenant would be safe.
The challenge that Jesus’ teachings and actions posed and which led inexorably to his death should not be exclusively limited to the Jewish religious authorities and their Roman partners at that time. Indeed, it is absolutely imperative that Christians should make themselves aware of the radical essence of Jesus’ teachings and actions — the orthopraxis that underpinned his mission and that should, therefore, guide the church. Two thousand years ago the Jewish religious leaders and the Romans authorities collaborated to attempt to silence this revolution by killing Jesus. Perhaps we, within the church, have attempted to negate or neutralise this radical mission by making it (and Jesus) ‘safe’ — by portraying Jesus as the meek and mild miracle worker who cured lepers, restored sight to the blind, changed water into wine, fed the five thousand, raised the dead, walked on water, spoke of a ‘kingdom of God’ (somewhere in the future) and was, by the way, the Son of God. All of these are extremely important — but only if they are put in the context of his mission and person. The purpose of this work is to explore the person of Jesus, his teachings and his actions in order to unearth and restore the radical gospel of social justice that was central to his mission and without which the kingdom of God is put beyond the ‘here and now’ and the nature of God and the relationship between Father and Son is obscured.
A STRANGE ENCOUNTER ONE SUNDAY AFTER MASS
I was coming out of Mass in Holy Family Church in Belfast on a cold, dark and wet Sunday morning in mid-winter a couple of years ago when I was stopped by a concerned, agitated and somewhat irate fellow parishioner who asked me if I knew precisely how many people had attended Mass in Holy Family that morning. Before I had a chance to estimate/ guess or respond in any other way I was informed that ‘there were, in total, 107 at Mass and what do you think of that?’ And, again, before I had a chance to contribute my thoughts on the matter, I was then asked if I knew how many people under the age of fifty years of age were at Mass in Holy Family on that Sunday morning. ‘Less than thirty — and only eight children!’, I was informed before I had time to draw breath. ‘And do you know how many priests were ordained in Ireland last year?’ Once again, before I had time to acknowledge that I did not honestly know how many priests had been ordained the previous year, I was informed that nine had been ordained. I almost got to the point of sharing with my fellow parishioner that that might be good news as, at least, it was one more than children who had attended nine o’clock Mass in Holy Family that morning. However, as the reader may now suspect, my attempt at addressing any of my friend’s questions was cut short. I was at the receiving end of a lecture. ‘You should know these things. After all, you are a teacher. How’s the church in Ireland going to survive? What is happening to young people today and what are our schools doing about it?’ At that, my friend turned on his heels and headed off home having made his point concerning Mass attendance in Holy Family parish, the church in Ireland, young people, Catholic schools and the state of Irish society in general clear to one person at least.
I suppose if I had had a chance to respond to any of his observations and probing questions, I might have suggested the following:
1. On the apparent lack of numbers at Mass that day I might have pointed out that this may have been partially due to the fact that the weather was inclement, the time of year (being winter) was rather unwelcoming to rise from one’s bed and it was, after all, the early (9.00 am) Mass.
2. The rising age profile of those who attend Mass regularly is indeed an issue that we should seriously look at along with the falling number of young people who come / are brought to Mass. It is profoundly sad that the great gift of the Eucharist is not availed of by more Catholics on a more regular basis. Our relationship with ourselves, others and God would most certainly be immeasurably improved by celebrating the sacred mystery more often. At the same time, however, it might be important to reflect on the genuine spirituality and goodness of young people and ask how this might be developed. We might also ask why many baptised Catholics — of all ages — seem to fail to connect their deep-seated spiritual beliefs with institutional Catholic practice. We might also ask why some practising Catholics seem to fail to link their institutional religious practice (like going to Mass every Sunday) with social living.
3. I may even have pointed out that the primary educators in faith are parents and that the role of a Catholic school is to help in this handing on of the faith. I might even have got into an interesting and mutually informative discussion on the increasingly important cathectical role of the Catholic school in an increasingly secular society.
Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately) none of my imagined reply took place, given the lack of another participant. Nevertheless, it did give me food for thought.
We often read headlines in the press or hear on the radio or in everyday conversation about the lack of vocations in the affluent western societies today. Many people — particularly practising Catholics in Ireland — ruefully comment on the relatively small numbers entering the priesthood compared with previous times. The religious orders are, it seems, in an even more desperate state of apparent terminal decline with scarcely any new candidates offering themselves for formation in many countries in the affluent world. Not only are the numbers entering formation cited as evidence of the growing vocations’ crisis in Ireland; so too the age profile of priests and religious in Ireland add to these concerns. In a report published in 2007 on the age profile of diocesan priests produced by the Council for Research & Development (itself a Commission of the Irish Bishops’ Conference), the researcher Eoin O’Mahony painted a decidedly depressing picture of a numerically declining and ageing priesthood.’ According to O’Mahony, Ireland can expect a fall in the number of priests in active diocesan ministry from the then (2007) current 4,752 to about 1,500 by 2028 (2). The fact that the average age of Irish priests is currently sixty-one does not give much hope that this trend will be arrested — at least not in the short-term. David Quinn, a leading commentator on Irish religious affairs outlined the gravity of the situation to The Times thus:
The real problem is that the demographic has finally caught up and priests are retiring and dying at a rate of knots … It’s not a crisis, it’s a catastrophe and it’s happened in a generation. There used to be three priests for every parish but it’s becoming common for two priests to share three parishes. In the near future there will be just one priest for every five parishes (3).
Yet this scenario is only a part — and a very small one at that — of a much greater and much more fundamental problem. It is almost as if we were able to return to a previous period of time when Irish society produced great numbers of priests and religious, then we would not have a vocations’ crisis and that all would be well in the church and ‘God’s Ireland’. However, this would be a tragic and dangerous misreading, misunderstanding and masking of the real problem confronting us in Ireland and the western world today — as well as being based on a very narrow and incorrect view of vocation. The vocation crisis goes much wider and deeper than simply a downturn in the numbers entering priesthood and religious in Ireland. It also goes far beyond the church in Ireland. To state that we have a crisis with vocations is to admit that we have a crisis with human living and one that reaches far beyond the Catholic Church and Ireland.
SO PRECISELY WHAT DO WE MEAN BY VOCATION?
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood elements in the Christian Church is that of vocation. The word ‘vocation’ comes from the Latin vocare and means ‘to call’. In the gospel of Mark, the calling of the first disciples is given a position of extreme prominence. Mark’s gospel, unlike the other two synoptic gospels (Matthew’s and Luke’s), contains no birth narrative nor any details about Jesus’ early life. Nor does it commence (as the non-synoptic gospel of John does) with a presentation of Jesus as Logos, as the eternal Word of God who pre-existed the world (Jn 1:1), ‘was the same as God’ (Jn 1:1), ‘through him God made all things’ (Jn 1:3) and who ‘became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us’ (Jn 1:14).
In spite of the dramatic narrative stories in Matthew and Luke and the identification of Jesus as the eternal Word of God in John, the opening of the gospel of Mark is perhaps the most dramatic opening of all of the gospels. Mark opens his account of the life of Jesus with the following twelve word statement: ‘This is the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (Mk 1:1). The term ‘good news’ (taken from the old English term God-Spel) did not signify any ‘good news’. It was (and is) firstly the ‘good news’ of Jesus (which is the Latin form of the Greek Iesous, which in turn is the transliteration of the Hebrew Jeshua, or Joshua, or again Jehoshua, meaning ‘Jehovah is salvation’). The name itself was quite popular at the time of Jesus’ birth. But according to the first verse of Mark’s gospel, this Jesus was not simply ‘Jesus Bar-Joseph (son of Joseph) the carpenter’. He was a much more special and important Jesus than that. He was Jesus the Christ or ‘Messiah’ — the anointed one (of Davidic lineage) who had been set aside by God for the special task of delivering Israel from foreign domination and restoring a golden age of God’s rule (1). And if that was not a task and title in itself, Mark also gave to Jesus the most radical, eschatological and revolutionary recognition of all. Jesus was/is the Son of God! The understanding of this term by adherents of Christianity has remained unchanged from its first formulation by Mark to the present day as found in, for example, the Profession of Faith or Creed used in the Mass — and based essentially on the Creed of the First Council of Constantinople of 381 — in which Jesus is affirmed as ‘the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God … of one being with the Father’ (2). In this one apparently simple sentence of a declaration of faith, Mark, in a most radical fashion, proclaims our understanding of Jesus, our concept of the kingdom of God, of humanity itself and of each other. Having done that in the first sentence of his gospel, Mark then goes on in the rest of first chapter to describe the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan, the calling of the first disciples and the beginning of his mission.
The call to disciple
Mark places the invitation to disciples immediately after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and his time in the wilderness during which he must have considered what his mission would be. The Jesus who came out of the wilderness had a clear sense of purpose and fully recognised his role in proclaiming the kingdom of God. Mark tells us that after John had been imprisoned, Jesus went to Galilee and preached the good news — with a sense of urgency and imminence: ‘The right time has come and the kingdom of God is near! Turn away from your sins and believe in the good news!’ (Mk 1:15). The gospel writer tells us that after his baptism, Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee — about to start his mission. He encountered two brothers, Simon and Andrew, who were catching fish with their nets. Jesus invites them to come and follow him —’and I will teach you to catch men’ (Mk 1:17). Later, (a little further on we are told) Jesus issues a similar invitation to the brothers James and John. At once ‘they left their father, Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and went with Jesus’ (Mk 1: 20).
The brevity and apparent simplicity of the account of the calling of the first disciples only serve to heighten the tension and dramatic nature of the event. There is something fundamentally rich and compelling about this episode. The call itself —’Come! Follow me!’ is both an invitation and exhortation that requires (as it got) an unconditional and total response. What they were being invited and challenged into entering was a completely different world — a new order beyond and in many ways hostile to the accepted ways of thinking and living. Eamon Bredin points out that to accept the radical challenge to become a disciple of Jesus involves moving out of the familiar, outside one’s comfort zone and accepted ways of thinking and being, and accepting the path of discipleship wherever that may lead. According to Bredin:
Accepting [the call of discipleship] means being willing to set out and continue a journey which leads onwards, upwards and inwards … being constantly coaxed and lured forward by the newness of what God and his Christ wish to achieve in us and through us (3).
The idea of newness is of crucial importance here. In accepting the invitation to ‘Come! Follow me!’, all cease to be who and what they were, and become new people in a new world. For the four fishermen — and all others who likewise respond — the world they knew and in which they lived has, through their action, been utterly and radically transformed. The world as it was is now a world as it might become.
From discipleship to clericalism?
All of the gospels — and especially the three synoptic ones — contain numerous stories of and invitations to disciple. The Appointing of the Twelve (Mt 10:2-4), Jesus sends out the Twelve (Mk 6:7-13), Jesus sends out the Seventy Two (Lk 10:120) and the Great Commission (Mt 28:16-20) are but a few examples of when Jesus called, appointed / commissioned and sent the disciples out on a special task. The post-gospel books of the New Testament reveal a similar pattern in which local leaders emerged or were elected or appointed for each church (see: Acts 14:23;15:6, 23; 20:17, 28). These men were given responsibility to shepherd and oversee local churches (1 Peter 5:1-4).
It could be argued that a clerically-led church — as exists in the Catholic Church today — has its foundations in the ministry of Jesus when he sought out (or called) disciples and in the earliest development of the early church. There is, of course, nothing new in this. The appointment of leaders or elders is mentioned approximately one hundred times in the Old Testament (in, for example, Exodus 3:16; 4:29; 12:21; 19:7-8; Lev 4:13-16; Deut 21:39; 2 Sam 5:3; 17:4; Num 11:10-17; Gen 50:7). Their vital leadership role is displayed by their active involvement in every crucial event in Israel’s history. From the time they were slaves in Egypt to their arrival and settlement in Palestine, elders, through anointing and the ‘laying on of hands’ were commissioned to protect the people, exercise discipline, enforce the law of God and administer justice.
The clericalism and institutionalisation implicit and in embryonic form in the early church developed over the centuries and has led to a narrowing of the notion of vocation so much so that vocation has, for many in the church, become almost totally and exclusively identified with priestly and religious vocation. Perhaps this is why we, in Ireland, have become almost fixated to the point of paralysis with the numbers game of how many are entering the priesthood or Sunday Mass attendance rather than focusing on the real crisis in hand. Certainly the church in Ireland, like many other countries throughout the world, placed great importance on developing the institution and structure of church. This was — and is — no bad thing.
Without some form of structure, any human organisation will, inevitably, run the risk of becoming dysfunctional and, indeed, impossible. Religious traditions are no different. Without some centralised structure and agreed core beliefs and practices there is a danger that some sections and adherents will spin off in every direction. The growth and, paradoxically, the loss of direction of some sections within the Protestant tradition is a case in point. The various schisms and splits within Protestantism – and especially in some of the more evangelical Adventist churches – has led to a fragmentation and fracturing of churches and denominations on an incredible scale. What started as, initially, a protest movement within and, ultimately, led to a separation from the Catholic Church in western Europe when Martin Luther famously nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg in 1517, has now grown into an increasingly differentiated grouping of churches. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are currently more than 33,000 denominations throughout the world, having increased in number from 8,196 in 1970. Every year there is a net increase of around 270 to 300 denominations (4).
While it is generally accepted that the term ‘Protestant’ refers to those groups of Christian believers who share adherence to the core Reformers’ tenets of sola scripture (the belief in the Bible as the primary source of faith), sola fide (justification by faith alone) and the universal priesthood of believers, it can be questioned whether all of those who allegedly subscribe to the label ‘Protestant’ actually adhere to these fundamental founding principles. With such a degree of differentiation and separation, it is difficult to come to a common understanding of what unites followers of such an extremely diverse tradition other than a belief in Christ and a rejection of the Church of Rome. Some of the Pentecostal-Charismatic Churches (PCCs) that are springing up throughout some regions in Africa — notably west and sub-Saharan Africa — would appear to be espousing beliefs and practices that are highly questionable and certainly not Christian in any recognisable form. In particular, the past decades have witnessed the rise in a loose movement of independent schismatic offshoots of the mission churches and wholly indigenous sects which adopt or tolerate beliefs and practices such as ancestor worship and polygamy, accompanied by a strong belief in the existence of witchcraft and the need for exorcism. Such beliefs feed into the natural fear of HIV/AIDS and have led to accusations of children — labelled by unscrupulous ministers as ‘witches’ — being driven from their homes, excluded from society or even killed, with some Pentecostal pastors charging a life savings in order to ‘exorcise’ demons from children (5).
The Catholic Church has, thankfully, avoided such pitfalls. Fragmentation and schisms often lead to a breakdown in core beliefs, the development of alternative practices and the rise of ‘personal messiahs’. A great strength of the Catholic Church is precisely the opposite of the above that empowers Catholics throughout the world to be part of the same body of Christ and share in the sacred mystery of the Eucharist. Furthermore, in spite of the unfair and totally inaccurate portrayal of the Catholic Church as being some unreflective and unquestioning institution rigidly controlled by a dominating hierarchy demanding total and unquestioning obedience from a passive laity, what is remarkable about the Catholic Church is that it contains within it a wide and diverse range of voices and standpoints from some quite conservatives on one side and the more radical prophetic —and even revolutionary — elements (for example supporters of liberation theology) on the other. While these differing positions may sit uncomfortably with one another and have openly criticised one another (6), the fact that such debates continue today is evidence that the Catholic Church is certainly not the closed monolith as is sometimes suggested. Nonetheless, it is indisputable that, as the church has grown, so too has its infrastructure. This is inevitable of any large-scale institution never mind one that has existed for some 2,000 years and now has more than one billion members spread throughout almost 2,800 dioceses and a worldwide network of schools, universities, hospitals, missions, charities and social justice movements (7).
Jesus himself never intended to start an institutional ‘church’. He set his sights much higher than that. Jesus’ ministry was to announce and establish the kingdom of God. This was no pious hope; rather Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God with total and unshakeable conviction from the very beginning of his ministry until his death — and beyond. Indeed, his final instruction to his disciples before his ascension is rooted in his conviction that something new, final and salvific has taken place in and through him. The disciples were not simply to tell the story of Jesus or to urge people to live good lives (though they were to do this too). In the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said to his disciples:
I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Go, then, to all people everywhere and make them my disciples: baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And I am with you always, to the end of the age (Mt 28:18-20).
With that the disciples commenced to develop the ‘church’ that would build the Kingdom. Slowly, local communities of believers came together in different places and started to translate Jesus’ final commission, instruction and invitation into a new practical future. At one level, this might have been seen as a hopeless or at least almost impossible task. After all, Jesus had not given the disciples a’blue print’ or any written document or manual for reference. He also had left them at a time of great fear and uncertainty and asked them to abandon the known, safe and secure world to enter a yet-to-be-created new world in which the old is to be subverted and left behind. And all of this to be carried out by an apparently defeated and disorganised group of social outcasts!
However, although Jesus did not leave the disciples with a road-map or definite instructions on how to establish a new church, he did — through his example and teachings — give them (and us) much to ponder and build upon. Jesus did not conform nor compromise to the existent religious, political and social structures, doctrines and practices. He ignored the dichotomy between the secular and sacred. He deliberately sought out and included those who had been deliberately excluded and marginalised by ‘respectable’ society. He was deeply suspicious and hostile to the religio-political structures (as present in its highest form in the Temple in Jerusalem). And he commanded his disciples (us) to do the same. The very same impatience and urgency that infused his ministry in Galilee at the start of his mission was every bit as present when he left his disciples at his ascension.
Perhaps one of the most important ideas that the early disciples developed from Jesus in relation to building the church was that of communitas. The relationship with God was not to be of an asocial or individualised nature. The great German theologian and Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, succinctly pointed out that no one individual can be a disciple on his/her own when he stated that ‘being free means “being free for the other,” because the other has bound me to him. Only in relationship with the other am I free’ (8).
For the early disciples — like Jesus — one approached God in and through others. Time and time again Jesus makes clear — through his teachings and (especially) his example — that in responding to the needs of people in real-life situations one was creating and living out the Kingdom. Communitas is not about living in community or being part of a social network for any personal or selfish purpose. It is about something much more
important and revolutionary than that; communitas is about living totally for others. It is about the negation of the selfish individual and the subversion of the secure world. communitas involves the transformation and recreation of this world anew. It involves identification with the other so that their needs become our needs and their pain our pain. The feeding of the five thousand — the only miracle apart from the resurrection present in all four gospels — is a clear illustration of this other-directedness. To focus simply on the feeding of such a multitude with (apparently) five loaves and two fish, is to miss the significance of the miracle altogether and the role that compassion, communitas and discipleship play in it. In Mark’s account, for example, we are told that Jesus’ ‘heart was filled with pity for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd’ (Mk 6:34). And ‘so he began to teach them many things’ (Mk 6:34).
The message that Jesus taught was consistent and unchanging. He told this new communitas — overwhelmingly made up of the downtrodden, forgotten, despised, excluded, marginalised, broken and lost — that the kingdom of God was both for them and in them. Rather than bringing the people to God purely through ritual and adherence to the law, Jesus sought to show them that God was present among them when they cared for each other. And when the disciples came up to Jesus urging him to send the people away as they had nothing to eat, Jesus’ response was entirely in line with the new world he heralded —’You yourselves give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:31). Thus Jesus translates in a most practical way the essential meaning and living out of his mission.
It is this notion of radical solidarity with those in need that guided the early disciples as they sought to preach the good news and bring about the kingdom in this world, transformed and created anew. If wealth had a role to play in this new communion then it had to be placed at the service of those in need. Indeed, in the earliest description of life among the first believers in Acts of the Apostles, we are told of the communitarian approach which they had to private property and personal wealth:
All the believers continued together in close fellowship and shared their belongings with one another. They would sell their property and possessions, and distribute the money among all, according to what each one needed (Acts 2:44-45).
Again, it is further emphasised that the believers did indeed turn away from individualism and personal possessions, adopting an essentially totally other-directed approach to riches:
The group of believers was one in mind and heart. No one said that any of his belongings was his own, but they all shared with one another everything they had. With great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God poured rich blessings on them all. There was no one in the group who was in need. Those who owned fields or houses would sell them, bring the money received from the sale, and hand it over to the apostles; and the money would be distributed each one according to his need (Acts 4:32-35).
Fascinatingly, such an approach to money and property is a rather close formulation of the defining and utopian maxim of the radical German philosopher and communist thinker Karl Marx —’from each according to his ability; to each according to his need’ (9). What is also of interest is that already within a short period following Jesus’ ascension to heaven, the disciples had accepted an apostolic succession/ leadership that was entrusted to administer excess wealth to the poor. The emergence of a church leadership as a response to the invitation to disciple and an institutional articulation or objectification of Jesus’ teachings and example involves understanding renouncing power and embracing living for others. Authority and leadership must mean service and nothing else. Jesus warned the disciples against the wielding of power over others in a passage that still speaks to us today. The event took place on the road to Jerusalem. The brothers James and John appear to use the opportunity to ask Jesus for personal advantage. ‘Teacher’, they said, ‘there is something we want you to do for us’ (Mk 10:35). They were seeking positions of privilege: ‘When you sit on your throne in your glorious kingdom, we want you to let us sit with you, one at your right and one at your left’ (Mk 10:37). Jesus called all of the disciples together and instructed the new way in which they were called to act and live as communitas:
You know that the men who are considered rulers of the Gentiles have power over them, and the leaders have complete authority. This, however, is not the way it is among you. If one of you wants to be great, he must be a servant of the rest; and if one of you wants to be first, he must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people (Mk 10:42-45).
Again, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus expresses his opposition to greatness and placing oneself on a pedestal, separate from and above others when he condemns at length and in unmistakable terms the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. The episode took place in Jerusalem, probably outside of the Temple, in full public view of the crowds and the Jewish religious authorities. And lest the target of the young rabbi from Nazareth could have been missed, Jesus addressed the crowds and his disciples by stating:
The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees are the authorised interpreters of Moses’ Law. So you must obey and follow everything they tell you to do: do not, however, imitate their actions, because they don’t practice what they preach (Mt 23:2-3).
Having established in the minds of his audience who exactly he is talking about, Jesus then launched into a tirade of condemnation of their abuses:
They tie onto the people’s backs loads that are heavy and hard to carry, yet they aren’t willing to lift even a finger to help them carry their loads. They do everything so that people will see them. Look at the straps with scripture verses on them which they wear on their foreheads and arms and notice how large they are! Notice also how long are the tassels of their cloaks! They love the best places at feasts and the reserved seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces (Mt 23:4-7).
Not satisfied with having publicly identified, exposed, confronted, criticised and attacked the rich and the powerful Jewish religious leaders, Jesus then went on to condemn them and predict their punishment in no uncertain or hidden terms.
How terrible for you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You lock the door to the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces, and you yourselves don’t go in, nor do you allow in those who are trying to enter!
How terrible for you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You sail the seas and cross whole countries to win one convert; and when you succeed, you make him think twice as deserving of going to hell as you yourselves are!
How terrible for you, blind guides! You teach, ‘If someone swears by the Temple, he isn’t bound by his vow; but if he swears by the gold in the Temple, he is bound.’ Blind fools! Which is more important, the gold or the Temple which makes the gold holy? Also you teach, ‘if someone swears by the altar, he isn’t bound by his vow; but if he swears by the gift on the altar, he is bound.’ How blind you are! Which is the more important, the gift or the altar which makes the gift holy? …
How terrible for you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You give to God a tenth even of the seasoning herbs, such as mint, dill, and cumin, but you neglect to obey the really important teachings of the Law, such as justice and mercy and honesty. These you should follow, without neglecting the others. Blind guides! You strain a fly out of your drink, but swallow a camel! …
You snakes and sons of snakes! How do you expect to escape from being condemned to hell? (Mt 23:13-33).
Little wonder that the Jewish religious authorities saw Jesus as a threat to their privileged positions and way of life and that they decided that they had to silence him. Jesus’ opposition to them allowed for no compromise. He demonstrated that they, as interpreters of the Law had perverted and betrayed their authority by using it to oppress the people. It is this misuse of the Law — based on a separation of the sacred from real life — that is the very antithesis of what true discipleship and obedience to God’s Law should be about. The primacy of ritual, dogma, legalism and clericalism over the unconditional love and freedom to do good as children of God that underpins the Law led to an unfeeling, rigid and uncaring casuistry that oppressed the people — and especially those whom the Law had been used to exclude. And it was this that Jesus opposed to the point of rejection and death.
Lest we feel some sense of smugness when we read this passage and ‘tut tut’ at the hypocrisy of the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees, perhaps we should ask ourselves how this passage — rich in imagery, vehement in opposition, outspoken in anger yet not hyperbole or exaggeration — applies to us in the church today. If Jesus returned to earth today would he recognise us as true disciples — as ‘servants of all’ — or would he see us standing in condemnation and judging those who are outside of our interpretation of the Law of God?
1. On this question see S. George, Jesus Christ: A Carpenter of Nazareth? (Bloomington: Authorhouse, 2008).
2. P. McVerry, Jesus: Social Revolutionary? (Dublin: Veritas, 2008), p. 23.
1. E. O’Mahony, A Report on the Age Profile of Diocesan Priests Currently Working in Ireland’s Dioceses (Dublin: Veritas, 2007).
2. Ibid, p. 3.
3. D. Quinn, ‘Catholic Ireland faces new crisis – Ireland is running out of priests’, The Times (27 February 2008).
1. See J. E. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (London: Chapman, 1972), p. 569.
2. On this see R. Lawler, T. Lawler and D. W. Wuerl (eds.), The Teaching of Christ (Dublin: Veritas, 1978), p. 36.
3. E. Bredin, Disturbing the Peace: the Way of Disciples (Dublin: Columba, 1985), pp. 10-11.
4 D. Barrett, G. Kurian and T. Johnson, World Christian Encyclopedia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
5. The United Nations Human Rights Council has published the International Humanist Ethical Union’s (IHEU) statement on witchcraft in Africa statement that documents the abuse of children and the elderly by those who claim to be witches and by church leaders who promote a belief in witchcraft. See UN document A/ HRC/ 12/ NGO/ 11, p. 2.
6. The dispute between the conservative Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo (elected Secretary of the CELAM in 1972) and more radical Church leaders and theologians is contained in, for example, P. Sigmund, Liberation Theology at the Crossroads (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), See esp. pp. 3-13.
7. For greater details on numbers of Catholics and priests and their distribution by continent and for changes between 2000 and 2008, see Annuario Statistico delta Chiesa dell’anno 2008 (Rome: Holy See Press Office, 27 April 2010).
8. Cited in G. B. Kelly and B. F. Nelson, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (San Francisco: Harper, 1995), p.107.
9. Cited in K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), Vol 24, p. 87.