The readings from the Acts of the Apostles which the Church has given us for the weekdays after Easter have given us an insight into an early Christian community facing many of the same problems the New Zealand Church is beset with today.
Guided by what they have learnt from the greatest ever teacher and the Holy Spirit, the apostles form a community which espouses the ideals of Catholic social teaching – to each according to their need, from each according to their ability. We are told they believed with one heart and soul and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything was held in common.
If we read on through Acts we know that the early community did not always live up to this ideal. For example, at the end of Acts 15 Paul and Barnabas part company over a disagreement, but there are many other instances of disunity.
Last month I was invited to a meeting of the Wellington branch of Catholics United for the Faith. These people, sincere in their faith, are keen to continue worshipping in a church where Devotions – Benediction and Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament – are the staple prayers of worship alongside the Mass. They told me they wanted fewer articles on social concerns but would like more about the devil, and personal sin, particularly on honouring the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday.
Reflecting on the sorts of disagreements that earlier community of Acts faced, I could not help thinking that not much has changed. The apostles were continuing Jesus’ challenges to a legalistic interpretation of Judaism in favour of a more accepting and loving community.
History would show that there have been many such squabbles in the Church with vested interests trying to dominate and various factions feuding with each other, each believing they were in the right.
The apostles faced an interesting situation with the Gentiles and held a council to decide whether they should be admitted to the community of believers. Acts 15 tells of the amazement when they discovered that God’s favour had obviously also rested on the Gentiles.
One of the great elements of the Catholic Church is its universality – many groups worshipping in myriad cultural ways, these days, incorporating their culture into their particular style of worship so that it truly expresses their hearts’ longing.
Thus the Church is big enough to accommodate the CUF people and those who enjoyed the fresh air and new ideas of Vatican II and everyone in between.
For all of us, though, change is tough and the Church is today going through a most painful period with many parishes set to lose priests in the next decade. There is a lot of grief in letting go of the old ways.
Like that earlier community we need to discuss, to actively engage with new ideas. We must embrace the change and work together in our parishes and pastoral areas to make the Church the best instrument it can be for helping us to realise the dream of the promised reign of God.