The pope tweeted me this week. It was a brief message expressing his pleasure on opening a Twitter account, and offering his blessing. This first papal tweet went viral. Just a few hours later, over one million people were following him and were waiting to read his first question and answer.
“How can we celebrate the Year of Faith better in our daily lives?” The Pope replied: “By speaking with Jesus in prayer, listening to what he tells you in the Gospel and looking for him in those in need.”
Different people view the Church in different ways. Often the perspective that predominates is that our of parents’ prejudices. There are also a good number of people who speak of their antagonism towards the Church, basing their present attitude on past events. Many of these people are justified in their feelings. Too often the human dimension of the Church disguises the divine origin and activity that flourishes within the Church.
However it is significant that while we often meet people who have a negative view of the Church, it is rare to meet anyone who opposes God in the same way.
This reality is the heart of the Christian life. Too often in the past, the visible and human dimensions of the Church have become the focus. We might nostalgically recall the days when our churches were full every Sunday, and we dream of recreating that reality.
But this must not be our prime focus. In fact it is easy to fill a Church – if we employed a great pop music group, or arranged sponsorship to give spot pew prizes, the numbers would undoubtedly increase. If our goal was numbers, we would consider changing a few key teachings to appear more “inclusive” and humanly “welcoming”. Thanks be to God our goal is not human success.
Instead, our goal is precisely as tweeted by the pope: the church exists to help people to speak with Jesus in prayer, listening for his voice and listening to his word, reading, knowing and loving the Gospel, and looking for Jesus in our sisters and brothers in need.
And this is the heart of today’s Advent Liturgy. This third Sunday of Advent is known as “Gaudete” Sunday, or Rejoicing Sunday. The rose coloured candle on the Advent wreath is lit today. We remember that our reason for rejoicing is not that we are we are doing well, or that our Church is full of people every Sunday, but that (as today’s second reading proclaims):
“The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”. (Philippians 4)
The same is true in our home, family, social and work lives. Too often we think that the joy we seek is the fruit of earthly success and worldly achievements. It is true that we like to do well, and we prefer harmony to anxiety, but the deep joy we are made for continues to call our from within us even when everything is going well for us.
Early next year the Catholic community of the Hurunui district forms one new parish community of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Yes, our numbers are smaller than they have been, and this might cause us concern. But for God, the numbers are not important.
Remember that the transformation of the world came through the birth of one child. Thirty years later he gathered a few hopeless followers who seemed to work against him at every opportunity. But the Spirit of God worked through them, using their human weakness as a capacity for his divine strength.
Father Joseph Ratzinger wrote prophetically in 1969 – over forty years ago:
“The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members…
“It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek . . .
The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmasand even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain . . .
But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. People in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.
“And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as humanity’s home, where people will find life and hope beyond death.
Pope Benedict writing in 1969. Published as