Today is the final instalment of Fr Michael Bennett’s Guest Posts on the crisis in the Irish Catholic Church, A Look from Afar.
Fr Michael concludes with reflections on the concept of the ‘kingdom of God,’ juxtaposing it against the institution of the church. He argues that the kingdom transcends church institutions and that promoting it is the task of all people of goodwill – even those outside church structures. He also wants reconciliation to take centre stage in the Irish Catholic Church, recognising that this will be difficult, and that it requires both acknowledgement and forgiveness.
A Look from Afar – Part Four: The Kingdom, the Institution and Reconciliation
The Kingdom of God v. the Institution of the Church
The past focus on protecting the reputation of the church in the face of abusive priests has nothing to do with the kingdom/reign of God. The kingdom agenda involves working for liberation from evil in all its forms and the promotion of life in its fullness. It should be the primary task of the Christian community.
Each day Christians pray ‘your kingdom come’. The church nourishes itself (prayer, sacraments, etc.), not in order to become an enclave closed in upon itself, but in order to engage with society. It is meant to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The world is greater than the church. Promoting the kingdom involves outreach to the society in which we live, and penetrating every aspect of society (family, community, politics, economics) with the leaven of kingdom values (truth, dignity, justice, integrity). The kingdom agenda is very much related to the agenda of justice, peace and integrity of creation (see guest post three).
The Kingdom transcends the Church …
The church, however, has no monopoly over the kingdom. Promoting the kingdom concerns all people of good will. Those who work for ‘liberation from evil’ include agnostics, atheists, humanists, and the principled secular media who played a vital role (along with victims) in exposing the church abuse scandals and the scandals of bankers, builders and politicians. These people will not use the theological notion of ‘building the kingdom/reign of God’ to describe their efforts.
The anger, indignation and consistent critique of all that that has been life-denying in recent times is a far-cry from the unhealthy image of a largely compliant and uncritical Irish populace of past generations.
The coming of the kingdom demands a continuing restlessness with all that negates human life: poverty, homelessness, hunger, illness, disease, corruption, political manipulation, oppression, denial of human rights and violence.
A renewed focus on promoting a transcendent humanism – of the inherent dignity and right of each person made in the image and likeness of God – is the ultimate kingdom focus. Its promotion is the responsibility of all layers of the church’s life.
Church Governance must be Shared …
Where people desire to live together there is need for some structure but not a ‘top-down’ model where those at the top exercise secrecy and control, disconnected from reality. There is need and room for the institutional church, but a humbled and chastened one.
Church governance is predominantly a local issue. Although we belong to a universal church, the local diocese is not a branch office or a department of the Vatican curia. The collegiality of bishops in the wider church was promoted by Vatican II and is an important concept. Governance of the local church by bishop, priests and laity in cooperation should be the desired goal. Only then can the vision of the church as ‘the people of God’ (Vatican II) be genuinely implemented.
Reconciliation Requires Acknowledgement and Forgiveness
One can no more than hint at the task involved. Reconciliation is a broad ‘umbrella’ term covering many interrelated issues: justice, truth, mercy, apology, forgiveness and healing. All of these issues are very relevant at this point in time.
Reconciliation is a central task of the church and also one of the most difficult. There is a sacrament of reconciliation – oft-neglected but which can be incredibly meaningful. To be reconciled in the sacrament with God and with the community requires that one acknowledges the wrong that has been done and is genuinely sorry for it.
This is something that all of us struggle with and, in regard to the church scandals, those in the institutional church are criticised for failing to do. It would seem that some of the big fish among our bankers, builders and politicians fall into the same category of non-acknowledgment and denial, if one is to reflect on the scandalous bonuses, ‘handshakes’ and pensions they have received, and on the existence of tax exiles, etc.
Forgiveness is an aspect of reconciliation. God forgives us in Christ. Stories of forgiveness are many in the gospels, e.g., Luke 15: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son.
Jesus, the story-teller, is saying that the Father (abba) searches for those who are lost and rejoices when they are found. In the third story the father’s forgiveness for his prodigal son is unconditional, and is bestowed on someone who, according to Jewish law, had forfeited his right to forgiveness because of his behaviour. In Jewish law, an inheritance was only received after the death of the father. For a son to receive his inheritance while his father was still alive, meant that the father was figuratively dead for the son.
Forgiveness cannot be offered in a vacuum. It requires two sides to be present to each other. Getting to the point of authentic presence is so difficult. One side may not be there to be forgiven, a shadow spinning in a vacuum of denial.
But if both sides are present to each other the process of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation can begin and, with God’s grace, chinks of light can be discovered in the hardest of hearts.
(I wish to extend my thanks to Fr Michael for providing this stimulating series of posts)
Read Part One here
Read Part Two here
Read Part Three here
(Image of sculpture in the grounds of Stormont, sourced on flickr photosharing, by bennybulb)