On Self-Absorption

CNS had a teaser of a piece yesterday. Pope Francis, before his election, took his turn talking at the pre-conclave meetings. A message that seemed to point at the institution has a resonance with Christian ministry. I’d like to read the whole speech. But CNS only gives us snippets. One of them:

The evils that, over time, happen in ecclesial institutions have their root in self-referentiality and a kind of theological narcissism.

What does that mean? Is this always true? Does it hold for parishes and chanceries as well as the curia?

In part, I interpret this as a direct criticism of the Small Church Getting Smaller meme we’ve seen of recent years. Why? Because that SCGS outlook, even the nuanced one presented by Pope Benedict that many of his followers have grabbed, pretty much takes God out of the equation. SCGS swims in self-reference: the way believers define membership, orthodoxy, what-have-you. Rather than do the work and let the Judge determine final placement. Like Jesus suggested. There is a tragic flaw in that self-reference often tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, rather than a natural consequence of some people being presented the Gospel, then walking away. To be sure, walking away happens. But maybe not in the same way as the self-styled orthodox expect.

The Holy Father’s approach seems essentially Ignatian. Trust. See what happens. Focus on God. But also look for God in the unexpected. I think the prime fault of Catholic neotraditionalism is that its advocates and believers have nailed down that God was to be encountered in certain ways at a certain time in the past. And so the instinct–the human instinct–is to return to the past, to what worked before. It’s like Moses going back to the burning bush in Exodus 4. Isaiah going back to the Temple in Isaiah 7. Isn’t there that saying, “You can never go back home.”

Certainly, there are things that have “always” worked, and will continue to be a good starting point. But Christians, especially in the postmodern age, should be prepared to ask, “What else might work?” and serve from there.

As believers, we do think we’re with the Lord, and he is with us. Why does that not always translate into our actions?

In Revelation, Jesus says that he is at the door and knocks. Obviously, the text refers to his knocking from the outside in order to enter, but I think about the times in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out.

The self-referential church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him out.

Put simply, there are two images of the church: a church which evangelizes and comes out of herself by hearing the word of God with reverence and proclaiming it with faith; and the worldly church, living within herself, of herself, for herself.

This should shed light on the possible changes and reforms which must be done for the salvation of souls.

This insight seems essentially evangelical. We can own our closeness to the Lord. We can acknowledge that we have been prepared as God’s instrument in the world. We have a place as a person within a community, and with a role to play. This is original Theology of the Body: the eye sees, the hand works, the legs propel. We work with others, and the mission gets accomplished … though we often don’t see how.

What does this mean in a parish, especially for its pastor and ministers? I’m going to need to give that a lot of thought as I reexamine my role in my parish. In what is mostly a bookkeeping measure, my new job title will be liturgy/campus ministry. Practically I’ve done campus ministry for the past five years, as about half the liturgy volunteers are students. On one hand, this is just about half of my personnel expenses coming out of the campus ministry endowment. But it also reflects a gradual refocus in the liturgy/music position in this faith community.

I’m going to be watching more carefully what is coming out of the pope’s mouth and from his pen in the coming months. Not that I wasn’t paying attention to Pope Benedict, but this evangelical focus with a wide swath of discernment is an opportunity. One side of that opportunity is personal: keeping watch that my service to the Church does not become something that’s about me. But also that I continue to explore the possibilities of the border between worship and evangelization.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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