Last Wednesday a group of Zimbabweans invited me to celebrate mass. There were about 20 of them there with their kids. I soon discovered that they meet every week, pray the rosary and have a Bible sharing. It was a family atmosphere where everyone knew and looked after each other. But they also reached out to the less fortunate. This set me thinking that this was what the early church looked like. Back then Christianity was a banned religion and the only way Christians could meet was in each other’s homes. There they prayed, celebrated mass and supported each other. But more than that they did not live thinking of their own interests only. Although they are a small group in the vast Roman Empire, they knew they were called to be the “salt” that the earth needs and the “light” that should be in the world. Salt gives flavour to food and keeps it from spoiling. In the same way, Jesus’ disciples must contribute to people savouring life without succumbing to corruption. Likewise, Jesus’ disciples can be bearers of the light to people that fumble in the dark, have no point of reference, and are desperate for some sort of meaning in life. Small is beautiful but it’s also powerful. These little communities dotted all over the place not only survived great persecutions but overcame the Roman Empire in the end.
Everything changed with the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century. Instead of being a banned religion, Christianity became the recognised religion of the empire. It was the flavour of the month. But there was a downside to this good news, namely, it was too easy to become a Christian. Their faith was no longer tested by fire. This meant that many were Christian by name only. For the next millennium or so there were many Christian countries but how deeply everyone was committed to Christ is another question.
Today everything is changed again. The church is once more a minority religion in a world that is becoming increasingly secular. Christians are now a small fraction of the human race. The social supports for religion in general and Christianity in particular are falling away. This means that living as a faithful Christian and taking discipleship seriously, is becoming a bigger challenge and requiring a deeper commitment than in the past. The Church, in the words of Karl Rahner, is becoming the ‘Church of the little flock’.
Karl Rahner goes on to say that while this is lamentable it’s not all bad news. Rather than simply complain about the decline of religion, Christians now have the opportunity to really live their faith once more. The new martyrdom may not ask us to die for our faith, though many are still asked to do that. Instead we are to witness to Christ in a secular world by putting our trust in God’s promise and persevering in our commitment to witness to the Gospel. There will be fewer Christians but it will be a community of people who have made a personal decision for Christ and are eager to witness to his presence in the world.
This new situation does not mean we become inward looking, taking care of ourselves only and forgetting the rest of the world. Jesus says we are salt, not just for our own little patch, but for the earth and likewise light for the whole world. Every Christian, therefore is called to be a missionary. We may be a small flock but we are called to be leaven in society as a whole. Pope Francis is very aware of this and warns against a church that lives locked up within itself, paralyzed by fears, and too far removed from problems and sufferings. Such a church can never give flavour to modern life and offer the true light of the Gospel. His appeal is: “We have to go to the outskirts.” “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.” Pope Francis is convinced that “the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm hearts.”
There are numerous examples of this kind of outreach that can give us great encouragement. One day a man visited Mother Teresa’s home for the poor and the dying in Calcutta. He arrived just as the Sisters were bringing in some of the dying off the streets. They had picked up a man out of the gutter, and he was covered with dirt and sores. Without knowing that she was being watched, one of the Sisters began to care for the dying man. He saw how tenderly she cared for her patient. He noticed how as she washed the man she smiled at him. She did not miss a detail in her attentive care for that dying man.
After carefully watching the Sister the visitor turned to Mother Teresa and said, “When I came here today I didn’t believe in God, and my heart was full of hate. But now I am leaving here believing in God. I have seen the love of God in action. Through the hand of that Sister, through her tenderness, through her gestures which were so full of love for that wretched man, I have seen God’s love descend upon him. Now I believe.
Last Wednesday was the feast of Blessed Benedict Daswa. His conversion to Christianity wasn’t a mere nominal gesture like joining a club. He committed himself fully to Christ and it showed in everything he did. When asked to pay R5.00 to a witch doctor to find out who caused the lightning that set fire so some houses he refused because he knew in his heart and soul this was anti-Christian. He also didn’t want someone to be named and shamed for a purely natural phenomenon. Had he paid that R5.00 he would never have been killed but he would have denied Jesus. Today he is Blessed Benedict for remaining faithful to Christ. Here was a truly African hero who was salt of the earth and light of the world in a hostile environment.
Sunday, 5 February 2017