Building Communities for Social and Personal Change
Pope Francis meets a group of immigrants at the pier in Lampedusa, Italy. Since his election, Pope Francis has called attention to an unprecedented global crisis. Never before have people and planet been so threatened by human sinfulness. Consider, for example, the massive global humanitarian crisis marked by refugee flows in nearly every region of the world. Or the ecological and human destruction resulting from our excessive consumption patterns. At the national level in many countries, including the United States, we are seeing a crisis in democracy and a rise in xenophobia, isolationism and nationalism.
In an address to popular movements in Bolivia last year, Francis summarized many of his passionate pleas for change, saying: “let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change. This system is by now intolerable… We want change in our lives, in our neighborhoods, in our everyday reality. We want a change which can affect the entire world, since global interdependence calls for global answers to local problems.
The pope’s call for change is not some partisan political ideology or a utopic rainbow dream. Rather it is a prophetic call deeply rooted in the Gospel with an eye to those human beings who live on the margins. It is a call, I would argue, of someone who has taken the Gospel seriously.
Our Responsibility to take the Gospel Seriously.
What if we took seriously Pope Francis’s challenge? In other words, what would it really look like if we took the Good News and witness of Jesus Christ seriously? While the Catholic Church has an enormous potential, with it’s global reach and institutional resources, many parts of the church are slow to respond to this apostolic challenge. Pope Francis decried this lack of action as a “practical relativism,” which “consists in acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist.”
Searching for a Mission-Driven Church
For many of us inspired by Pope Francis’s call, it is deeply disheartening to go into parishes that almost ignore the crisis facing people and planet today. For those of us who experienced dynamic campus ministries or spent years of our lives studying theology or serving the church in volunteer programs, it is often a struggle to find parishes where we are welcome. Many of the most devoted Catholic I know, feel like they are on the margins of the church that they love so much.
Many of us seek out “friendly parishes,” sometimes traveling up to an hour. Others find welcoming spaces in religious communities of apostolic women and men and their associated ministries (e.g., Nuns on the Bus, charities of women religious, Paulist Parishes, Jesuit Refugee Service, America Media…). We know, however, that the changing numbers will mean that these communities will be significantly different in the coming decades and we worry what that will mean for us and our children in the future.
So what are we to do? Here again, Francis offers an invitation. Toward the end of his address to popular movements, he writes: “the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change.”.
In other words, we cannot wait for others to organize for us – we must organize ourselves! For me, the model with the most hope to reinvigorate the church is the model of specialized Catholic action. According to this model, lay people organize themselves into local communities (small Christian communities, cells) to practice what has been called a “review of life.” A contemplative form of discernment that is rooted in Scripture and the lived experiences of the community members – (often following the “See-Judge-Act” method). Meetings could happen once a week, once a month, or even less often.
For the same reason that individuals must join together in local groups, so too must the local groups join together in national and international movements. There is power in a union. There is power in a movement.
For those of us who are professionals or intellectuals, the movement is the International Catholic Movement for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs – a movement with deep links to liberation theology, human rights, and the changes in the theology of the laity at Vatican II.
On September 17th, a few of us here from Daily Theology (Meg Stapleton Smith, Kevin Johnson), along with the Inner Room and some other partners will be having a day a reflection just outside New York City, to reflect on the topic: Becoming Christ in a Wounded World: Christian Commitment and Mercy in an Age of Xenophobia.
As part of our reflection, we will reflect on how we can build local small Christian communities or faith sharing groups that can link to one another in national and international movements.