The Future of the Church

This address on “The Future of the Church” was given by Cardinal John Dew at the Cardinal’s Lunch on 28 August 2019. There are three Cardinal’s Lunches each year.

He hōnore, he korōria ki te Atua
He maungārongo ki te whenua
He whakaaro pai ki ngā tāngata katoa.
Tīhei Mauriora.
Tēnā koutou katoa.

As-salamu alaykum, Shalom, Greetings to you all

Thank you for coming today, and thank you for your attendance at these lunches. I would like to welcome especially the members of the Wellington Abrahamic Council, it is very good to have you in our midst.

This is the fourth of these gatherings with the first speakers being Sir Bill and Lady Mary English; the second the Irish Ambassador, Peter Ryan; the third Brother Guy Consolmagno, the Vatican Astronomer.

Today you’ve got me.  I have been asked to speak on “The Future of the Church”, which really is a bit presumptuous. I don’t know what the future of the Church is, but I do know that it definitely has a future. For anyone of faith there must be a future, despite the current scandals, the sex abuse crisis which has rocked and continues to rock the Church worldwide. Despite all of that and the pain and agony it has caused, there is a future….because we are the Church of Jesus Christ. There is no doubt in my mind that this crisis is forcing us to look deeply at ourselves and to examine where we need to be purified, where we need to be humbled, where we need to rely on and trust in God.

The Church of the future is certainly going to be different; it is constantly changing and needs to do so. Many people find change hard to cope with, but it actually does not worry me. Anything living needs to keep changing. I often think of the words of Cardinal Newman, soon to be canonized. He once said, “in a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, to be perfect is to have changed often.”  I was fortunate to discover those words in my second year in the seminary, they have stayed with me ever since.   Change will continue to be part of the Church, because we can never settle for mediocrity, or half-heartedness.  In fact, discipleship calls for a WHOLE-HEARTED response, all day and every day.

I give far more homilies than I give luncheon speeches. This is simply thoughts of mine as to how I see the Church needs to be in the future.

It is hard to be a leader in the Church today or anywhere for that matter. However, Catholics have the most incredible example of leadership in Pope Francis. He is giving us very clear examples of how to lead, and how to lead in such a way that we can be seen as joyful and hopeful…..that is what the Church must be in the future, full of joy and full of hope. As Francis has said more than once, no one is going to be attracted to an organization if everyone goes around with a “face like a sourpuss” or looking as if they “are constantly at a funeral.” About three years ago I presented Papal Medals to a couple who had been very active in their parish and in the local Catholic College for many years. Making a speech later the husband spoke about the first time Cardinal Tom preached in their parish and told the Congregation that “being a Catholic should be fun!” He went home that day and spoke with his wife and family, they all decided that from then on they would have fun! I want people to know they belong to a Church which is lifegiving and enjoyable.   “Negativity and sadness are not Christian attitudes”.

In 1987 Cardinal Tom stopped me one day when I was working in Youth Ministry. He told me that the bishops wanted me to go to work at the seminary and to be responsible for the formation of the first-year students. He later told me that he had never seen anyone go so white so quickly!  I was dreading it. I had no preparation for this kind of work, and after a few years in the Cook Island and five years in Youth Ministry the thought of living in an Academic Community was more than foreboding! As it turned out it was a privilege and I loved it.

I quickly discovered something; I had known it but never articulated it.  I used to say to the seminarians and I still say it to myself and to priests today, “Just be friendly.” I had been ordained only 11 years, but I had realized that most people do not ask us deep theological questions. Yes, it is absolutely essential to be formed theologically, but most of the time people just want us to be friendly and kind, to welcome them, accept them and show them they belong.  The Church of the future has to be friendly and welcoming…not just the

leaders, but ALL of us. I often say, “It is belonging that leads to believing, not believing that leads to belonging.” When the Church today, and in the future enables all people to belong, then we are the Church. It is not about what theological persuasion we are, what spirituality attracts us, what ethnicity we are, what age we are……we are members of the one body. “JUST BE FRIENDLY!” Being friendly is the human thing to do.   

Almost 30 years ago Pope John Paul wrote a document about Priesthood and about the human qualities needed in a priest. I hope in the future these qualities are seen even more, because the Church cannot do without them. I don’t believe however they are just for priests, they are for all of us…it is our human qualities that will speak loudly into who we are: Listen to what he wrote:

“Future priests should therefore cultivate a series of human qualities, ……. These qualities are needed for them to be balanced people, strong and free, capable of bearing the weight of pastoral responsibilities. They need to be educated to love the truth, to be loyal, to respect every person, to have a sense of justice, to be true to their word, to be genuinely compassionate, to be men of integrity and, especially, to be balanced in judgment and behaviour.

I have always said that ministry is about relationships, our parishes are about relationships, the Church is about relationships. Pope John Paul went on to say “Of special importance is the capacity to relate to others. This demands that the priest – or any of us who are baptised – not be arrogant, or quarrelsome, but affable, hospitable, sincere in words and heart, prudent and discreet, generous and ready to serve, capable of opening ourselves to relationships and of encouraging the same in others, and quick to understand, forgive and console……” (Pastores Dabo Vobis 43)

They are challenging words and very much needed for the future of the Church.    

The Church of the future has to be full of kindness, that means every individual is to be full of kindness. It is maybe best summed up in a saying of Suzanne Aubert, “Above all things let us be kind. Kindness is what most resembles God.”

I mentioned that most people are not going to ask us deep theological questions, and I believe that is true. However, the Church of the future – many of you here today – will need to be expanded theologically, through your own reading, through book groups, actual theological study. Most people do not do any further study – any religious education or theology once they leave school. There are endless opportunities for this. The world is more complex, the Church is more complex. Moral and ethical questions are more complex. Our Lay Pastoral Leaders complete eighteen theology papers as part of their preparation for their ministry. As they begin their studies the reaction of nearly every one of them is “Why didn’t someone tell us this before!” The Church of the future needs lay people who are formed theologically, because we will be relying more and more on lay leadership in the future.  Not just because of a severe reduction in the number of priests, but because baptism calls us to leadership.

I also want people to see that the Church is YOUNG. I am not speaking about the demographics of age. There may be a majority of older people in our congregations, but we can change that – the Church is forever young. I am talking about the Church being young in spirit. This is seen in Pope Francis, 82 years of age, but full of energy, full of wit, vital and alive, interested and ready to greet anyone.  It is the Spirit of God who keeps us young, open to new ideas and fresh ways of operating. The Spirit inspires us to do things differently- I am convinced that we should never be afraid of new ways of doing things. The Church can never be staid, it can never be boring- especially liturgically – because it is about life. Lifegiving, vibrant liturgies where everyone participates and is caught up in the ceremonies will bring life to the Church, which will energize us to go out and make a difference in society.

Pope Francis recently said, “A Christian is always young,” “when the heart of a Christian begins to age, so does his/her Christian vocation.”  “Either you are young in heart and soul, or you are not fully Christian.”

I am totally convinced that the Church of the future must be prayerful and reflective. It is our daily dialogue with the Spirit that allows us to go forward and which keeps us young and interested. Prayer is not just what we do on a Sunday. If prayer and reflection on the Scripture is not part of our life as individuals and as communities, there will be no future, because it is communion with God that energises and fortifies us. Daily reflection on the Scriptures, consciously applying the Gospel to daily life – to our work, our professions, our families- relating faith to daily life will be part of the future. The challenge for the individual believer and individual citizens is to know how to connect faith to life, to professional life, how to connect Sunday worship to work on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…and to be committed to that connection of faith and life. 

From the beginning of his papacy Pope Francis has called us to go to the edges, to the peripheries. There will be no future unless we go out to others, to others in need, to others who are struggling in life and looking for, needing hope.   For his first formal visit to a Roman

parish in May 2013 Francis chose not a Baroque masterpiece Church near the Vatican but travelled to the outskirts of the city because, as he told the parishioners “We understand reality not from the centre, but from the outskirts.”    Just before he visited that parish he said ‘We should not lock ourselves up in our parish, among our friends …with people who think as we do – but instead the Church must step outside herself. To go where? To the outskirts of existence, wherever they may be.”   Address 18th May 2013

A few weeks later he told Jesuit journalists from La Civilita Cattolica “Your proper place is on the frontier, not to build walls but bridges.”   (14th June 2013)

The Church of the future must build bridges. The current incumbent of the White House began his term in office by speaking about closing the United States in and building walls that keep people out. Pope Francis began his ministry by speaking about going out to the peripheries, reaching out to all. The Church of the future can never close in and protect itself, it is about going out and offering life to all. Our local parish communities can never be just about the parish itself; our parishes are always about serving others, reaching out to the world around us, especially the poor and lonely, the struggling, the stranger, the disabled, the hurt and abandoned.

Over fifty years ago the Constitution of the Church in the Modern World was promulgated…the very first lines say; “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”  (GeS 1)

The Church of the future must know that wherever there are griefs and anxieties, wherever there are joys and hopes…. they are OURS too, because “nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

Four years ago, Pope Francis wrote the now famous document on the environment, on the earth being Our Common Home, which we are challenged to look after. I have a favourite paragraph in that document. Francis is writing about the huge cities of the world where there is pollution, no clean water, buildings are decaying, rubbish is piled up in the streets. He writes “The feeling of asphyxiation brought on by densely populated residential areas is countered if close and warm relationships develop, if communities are created, if the limitations of the environment are compensated for in the interior of each person who feels held within a network of solidarity and belonging. In this way, any place can turn from being a hell on earth into the setting for a dignified life.”

That is the Church of the future, that is what I want to see

-the development and building of close and warm relationships

-communities being created

-people knowing that they are held within networks of solidarity and belonging

-our task, as Church, our task as fellow human beings is to turn what for some people seems like hell on earth into a setting for a dignified life.

That is the Church of the future.

At the very end of his letter on the environment, “Laudato Si” …remember Pope Francis has spoken about the pollution of the world’s cities and its oceans, the deforestation of the rainforests, – he is particularly concerned about the fires raging the Amazon forests in these days – he is concerned about the poor exploited by the rich, and how consumption of the world’s goods by the rich and wealthy is out of control. He has painted a sad and bad picture of the Earth, Our Common Home. But this is what he says:

“In the meantime, we come together to take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us, let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”  Laudato Si 244

I say the same about the Church today, of course we have our challenges, the universal Church has challenges. There are many issues which confront us ——BUT “In the meantime, we come together to take charge of this Church which has been entrusted to us, let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for our Church never take away the joy of our hope.” 

I want to conclude by quoting from two Presidents of the United States, ……not the current President.

I often quote President Harry Truman who once said, anyone can be a leader as long as they don’t mind who gets the credit.” It is a wonderful quote and says a great deal about leadership in the Church, where we are called to lead by example and to do so in a spirit of service. I also associate President Truman’s words with those of Pope Francis which I have heard him use often, The only authority we have is the authority of service.”  In the future any of us who are leaders in the Church can lead only when we are of service to others and not looking for the credit.  If we do look for credit it is another instance of clericalism, and the Church in the future can never be led by clerics or anyone else who assumes a sense of ENTITLEMENT.

The other quote is longer, it is taken from a speech of President Theodore Roosevelt which he made in Paris in April 1910, entitled “Citizenship in a Republic.” He said:

“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Why am I quoting what Theodore Roosevelt said? It is a great speech, think about what he says, The credit belongs to the man/woman who is actually in the arena… whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again.”

Align that to the Church today …

We are called to be in the arena, called to be in the arena which can be a very frustrating place to be, a place of scandal and deep

disappointment, but still the only place to be. I often think of the place in the Gospel where the followers of Jesus turned and walked away because they could not understand what Jesus was saying. They said of his words “This is intolerable language.  Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked them if they were going to go away too. Peter’s response was “Lord, who shall we go to, you have the words of everlasting life.”

It is hard, it is difficult, it is challenging, there are things we don’t like, human mistakes and shortcomings, BUT – there is no one else to turn to, we are called to stay in the arena. It is still a place of hope and inspiration, it is still a place where an enormous amount of good is done and people helped, given hope and encouragement.

In the future I want people to be in the arena being Intentional Disciples – making up our minds every day to live the Gospel, to live it wholeheartedly and with magnanimity and enthusiasm (my most favourite two words).

So, in the future

The credit belongs to those who are actually in the arena, whose faces are marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strive valiantly; who err, and come short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who do actually strive to do the deeds; who know the great enthusiasm, who spend themselves in a worthy cause; who at the best know in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if they fail, at least fail while daring greatly, so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

The Church can never be full of cold and timid souls ……

The Church can only be made of those who are in the arena and who dare greatly.

Today and in the future, we dare greatly ….

To live the Gospel,

to BE the living Gospel for all to see and hear

to be on a mission

in fact, to be a Mission

Today and in the future, we dare greatly….

Nō reira,

E te iwi kua huihui mai I tenei ra                                           

kia tau mai te rangimārie                                    

ki a koutou katoa

Tēnā tātou katoa.