by Jim Consedine

In Christchurch in the past five years, there has been huge disruption to daily routines and placement. People have been seeking out places of refuge — an ancient biblical concept — to meet and attempt to hold onto their membership in the wider community. This is particularly needed by the poor, the elderly, the sick, the disadvantaged and those still affected by the ongoing upheaval in our city. I have been impressed at how engaged many Protestant churches are in the daily lives of their communities. For example, in my local Methodist church in a bleak part of the red zone, a vibrant community church has developed to become the centre and cornerstone of this disparate community. There are several events on every day for the local people to participate in. This provision of services and programmes is meeting a real need in the lives of those who attend. Surely this is the Church witnessing to Christ in the best possible way!

I visit Protestant church halls twice weekly to Zumba dance, and find the same thing — a wide range of community activities happening every day. These activities range from bowls, providing movies, indoor games, free lunches, cooking demonstrations, soup kitchens, tai chi, Bible study groups, line dancing and hosting interesting visiting speakers. Mostly these events are funded by either koha or by the churches themselves.

At a basic level, is this not the church engaging with the wider community? I also regularly visit most of the Catholic parish churches in the city and surrounds. To my knowledge, none of them offer any of these services on a regular basis. I have been wondering why. I appreciate that some local buildings have been demolished because of the earthquakes. But many haven’t. These parishes are usually staffed by good priests and people and have large congregations. Yet their resources seem to be used rarely and  so few, and virtually by no one outside the Catholic family.

A basic question comes to mind, particularly in the light of the call of Pope Francis to be active in our communities and reach out to the poor “where the face of Christ is more easily seen”. Do our ecumenical friends have a better understanding of their baptismal charism and its obligations than we Catholic people? Do they understand themselves as “church” better than we do? Are the Salvation Army, the Protestant, Anglican and many Evangelical churches better structured in their theology and framework so as to encourage members to see that their mission includes local community-building? And outreach to the poor? Is this something we can learn from them? Do we focus more on parish membership and attending Mass than on a personal and collective commitment to Christ, which our evangelical brothers and sisters tend to focus on? One does not preclude the other, but is it a question of emphasis?

Is the widespread lack of knowledge of sacred Scripture among Catholics another weakness? Scripture and Tradition (doctrine) are our foundational pillars. Is our emphasis on doctrine rather than a love and knowledge of Scripture a weakness in our approach? Surely it should be both/and, not either/or? Bring these twin cornerstones, which include the Church’s social teachings, into the mix, and what a renewed Church we could have.

More fundamentally, is our model of priesthood in which ultimate authority in a parish rests with the priest, a hindrance in that lay Catholics generally don’t feel any imperative to build up local communities or provide resources to others “outside the fold”? I suspect that until we unpack that question and look at it honestly, we won’t really grapple with the other issues.

What about the Catholics?

Many think it is not our tradition to do such local things. Why not? What model of Church says we should minimise the command of Jesus to serve the poorest? Why do Catholic church buildings stand empty nearly all week, when so many people are in such desperate need for a sense of belonging, for community, even sometimes for the basics of life?Could this not be a starting point of evangelisation, which means “communicating the Good News”? The heart of Christ beats not just in the tabernacle, but in the community when people meet.

How do we practically recognise this? Where is the local Catholic outreach? Where are we building a culture that says that such outreach should be the norm?

These are very fundamental questions that we Catholics need to answer if we are to meet the challenge Pope Francis so frequently presents, ‘to smell the dung’ and bear witness to Christ ‘on the margins’. The dung and the margins are all around us. In that respect, does not Francis want us to further develop our current model of Church? Speaking of evangelisation, he wants ‘a poor Church for the poor’. Surely that involves a fresh think at a local level?

Does this require a paradigm shift in our thinking?

Jim Consedine is a priest of Christchurch diocese.