One of my regular jobs as a child in a family that shared the care of the household was polishing the dining table. As stewards in the archdiocese, we, too, are charged with ‘care of the household’.
My five-year-old arms could only just reach the centre of the huge table, which made polishing it a little complex, but I loved the grain of the wood and its golden glow as the shine became more polished. I got to know every part of that table and the more I polished it, the more it seemed to become my table.
Far more important than the furniture or the fabric of a building, are the people who populate it – an emphasis that Pope Francis is urgently impressing on us. Pastors must have the ‘smell of the sheep’ about them. We must learn the contours of poverty in our midst, the people who are struggling, financially, emotionally – in whatever way. We must know them and care for them, so that we recognise increasingly that we belong to them and they to us.
Only with familiarity are we disarmed. When the poor are unfamiliar to us, they represent a potential threat – unpredictable, maybe dangerous – and call into question our way of life. So, when we pass on the street, we are wary, perhaps untrusting.
Archbishop John Dew tells the story of a parish which actively wanted to turn this unfamiliarity around, beginning its existence with a community consultation. Representatives of police, health and education were there to share their particular insights about the needs of the community, so that the new parish could begin, equipped with the knowledge of who needed care in its wider community.
When a parish is acting like a good steward caring for its wider community, it is starting to live eucharistically. It becomes a source of nourishment for its neighbours, a beacon of hope, bread that is broken for people who are in need. It knows ‘the grain of the wood’ and how those in need shine when a community that cares surrounds them. It knows that unless the power of the Eucharist bursts out beyond the tabernacle and the confines of the church building, it runs the risk of surrendering to what Pope Francis refers to as the ‘grey pragmatism’ of church life.
One of Pope Francis’ brother Jesuits, Gerard W Hughes, author of God of Surprises (2008), offers a glimpse of how this ‘grey pragmatism’ develops. He tells a story of Jesus inviting himself to your house. In a mix of happiness and nervousness, you tidy and clean everything thoroughly. When Jesus arrives you welcome him. He enjoys the time with you and asks if he can stay. Delightedly, you prepare the guest room and invite him to make himself completely at home. He does this. After just a few weeks, your initial joy at welcoming Jesus fades and you become a little tired of the endless foot traffic through your house – prostitutes, ex-prisoners, drug addicts. They always seem to be partying.
Finally, in a rare moment of quiet while Jesus is in his room, you sneak up to his door and turn the key. Then, to show due deference and respect, you place flowers in the doorway and a lighted candle on either side. You remember to bow stiffly and genuflect each time you pass the door.
It’s a story that tells of ‘owning’ Jesus and locking him in, thereby becoming a sanitised, inward-looking church. As we care for our household, the church, we must never allow this to happen.