Our hearts went out to the people of Victoria last month as a conflagration took the lives of more than 200 of their loved ones.
Bushfires in Australia are not uncommon. The fires play an important part in balancing the ecosystem helping to disperse seeds so that the gum trees can maintain their species.
They also help control the possum and pest population which is why the possum is protected there but a pest here.
But unusually high temperatures and fierce winds drove February’s fires to unexpected and uncontrollable intensity which mocked attempts to protect lives and property.
The shock of the devastation has reached across the Tasman to New Zealanders, many of whom know someone who knows somebody who has died or lost property or in some way been affected. The reaction among church people has been to pray.
Fr James Lyons composed a prayer and this has been widely used throughout the diocese.
The church response to the bushfires calls to mind the 50th anniversary in January of the announcement of Vatican II which asked the church to realise its presence in the world. This was a life-changing moment for the church in Pope John XXIII’s wish to throw open the windows and let the outside world in.
Arguably one of the most quoted documents of the council, Gaudium et Spes: The Church in the Modern World, locates the church firmly in the world with its opening sentence:
‘The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts.‘
Understanding the power of this sentence in light of the Eucharist as the integrating source of all the activities of a parish is central to our Christian mission. The more the church reaches out into the world, the more it needs to be true to its centre which is Christ. The more it is focused on Christ as its centre, the more it needs to reach out for the justice that Jesus demanded and eventually gave his life for.
I am indebted to Bishop Ken Untener who says in The Practical Prophet (2007) ‘It was at the Eucharist that early Christians learned what to do with their material goods. It was at the Eucharist that they learned of concern for the poor … that they faced the struggle to be inclusive’ (page 16).
The challenge for us then is to bring our concerns for those in trouble, be they victims of bushfires in Australia or of beatings and muggings in the streets of Wellington or Palmerston North, to Christ in the Eucharist, to ask why and to listen for how we as church must then act.
There is a message here, too, for pastoral planners whose plans will support parish leaders in looking ahead to where society needs the church to be in years to come.