Church, community and mission Mark Richards
There was once an itinerant preacher in the country north of Jerusalem. What he taught, said and what he did was seen by those around him as ‘Good News’ (“gospel”).
When they came to reflect on his life and why it was life-giving, and when they looked at who they were as a community after he was dead, they recognised that he had done more than preach and teach. He had formed them as a community. They had all learned a core way of being that community by living in the way he had taught them.
This new life that he brought was given to them in two parts:
• a method to the formation he gave;
• a content to the message, told as stories of the kingdom, and as activities the community had in common.
Jesus taught by the way he lived
Jesus walked on his own two feet. He didn’t run, he didn’t ride, (other than when he was a little baby and on a certain afternoon as he entered Jerusalem). He walked, and as he walked he talked and discussed. Every day it seems, and on many named occasions, he stopped walking and he and his friends sat down at table; they talked and ate together. They formed a group of disciples – women and men who walked and lived with him.
As he walked, he called people by name. Some came to him with needs, but the disciples, the ones who were around him and walked with him, he called by name. He knew them and he invited them, to walk, to be with, to dine, to listen, to come apart with him, to be one of a group, to be identified as his followers and to serve. People responded to that call, and they walked with him.
Then at a certain stage he began to send them out to preach and teach and to do what he was doing. There was a goodly number of them, because he sent them out in pairs, and he sent 72 of them in this way: not alone, but with a companion (is it because it is ‘not good for us to be alone’?)
There were also noted times when he called them to a place apart, and to prayer. On top of a mountain, he took three of his closest friends and they saw his glory. Later, as a community apart in an upper room, they received the call to be servant, to be broken and poured out to share the fullness of life.
They went together into a garden where they prayed, or slept, and learnt that prayer is not simply joyful ecstasy; it is also the facing of reality and the pain of life. They left him alone – bar some of the women, who walked as he suffered. Then there were two walking to Emmaus; then as a community they were gathered in the room when he appeared and the Holy Spirit came upon them.
There was a method in all this. You and I are called to be disciples in the same way as the generations before us were called, and called by name. We are called to walk in a community that is characterised by telling parables, healing the blind, the lame and the deaf, sitting at a meal together; and we receive the bidding to go out and preach the Good News and serve the world in which we live.
How was this community around Jesus structured?
There was the preacher, and around him was a group of 12 – and maybe an inner group which was Peter, James and John – or clearly at other times, Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Then there was another wider group of disciples: 72, or 36 pairs, who were sent out to do what they had heard and to be what they had seen.
In all this we can discern a pattern which is life-giving. I can’t be a follower on my own; I am chosen by Jesus, and then I choose to be one with him and those others he has called. We are one, “one body, one Lord, one baptism”. This unity is a communion with all believers, a communion that demands openness and care, so that believers can truly be one.
That demands a Spirit, the Holy Spirit drawing believers together. That Spirit is given to us in Baptism, fully and freely, and the community proclaims that in it we are given the gifts (charisms) that are special to us and needed to create the whole body. We are a people of prayer, because we must, individually and communally, be aware of and inspired by (have breathing within us), the Spirit we share.
We continue in dialogue with the Spirit, and as such we are formed and vitalised. From the first days of the church the disciples went up every day for prayer as a community, and then on the first day of the week they gathered to listen to the word and to celebrate Jesus’ presence among them in the breaking of the bread.
We are a people who are aware that the gifts we have, the talents and the very gift of life, are given to us. You and I didn’t create ourselves; we received life through the love and life of others. Our response and the choice we make is to be thankful. As followers we know the way in which Jesus called us by name, in which he taught us the Way and spoke words of truth, and that these are words we don’t hear anywhere else.
It is in and through him that we have learnt the way that is fully alive. And therefore on a daily basis, individually and as a community, we come together to give thanks. We call this Eucharist; we live Eucharist and give thanks to God the Father, in and through Jesus and in the unity of the Holy Spirit. That is the public work of the church, to be a living sign of thanksgiving to God, a real sign of God’s presence in the midst of the world.
What is the content of the message Jesus gave us?
This Way Jesus asks us to live is different, as is the truth he invites us to believe. There is a fullness of content, and many before us have reflected and learned and taught that truth, which it is our turn to live and teach.
Jesus teaches us forgiveness; he teaches gentleness and humility; he teaches truth and respect of the poor and the marginalised; he teaches how to pray Our Father...
Jesus teaches – and this community has learned.
This Jesus community, this teaching, this Spirit, this church is not for itself. It has only one purpose: to go out and preach the good news to the ends of the earth. Moreover: “when you did this to one of these the least, you did it to me” – and when you didn’t do it, you didn’t do it to me. We are called in our mission and in our ministry to spread the Good News in what we say and what we do.
To summarise what Jesus taught and did:
• A community formed the disciples – and it forms us;
• They received a gospel;
• They were given public works, a liturgy of prayer and thanksgiving;
• This all strengthens and forms a people who serve the poor and weak and needy and bring them Good News, fullness of life and peace;
• To ensure that there was unity he then called some to be a ‘the rock’, an overseer of the talents and the gifts and to preach the good news publicly;
• and then in the early church they chose others to look after the resources and the needs of the widows and needy of the community, to distribute from those who had to those who had need, within the community.
I want to call these six separate offices ‘communio’, ‘teach and preach’, ‘prayer and liturgy’, ‘service of the needy’, ‘leadership’, and ‘stewardship of the gifts’. What the church has learned over the centuries is that one cannot have one of these without the others. All are required for Christian life and a Christian community to flourish.
I want to draw it all together into a simple model for parishes, school communities, for base communities and even for the structure of a diocese. Is it coincidental that there were/are six areas of ministry and mission; and Jesus arranged everything in pairs, so there were six pairs among the inner 12, and more than that, there were then six pairs of 12 among the 72. Here is a model for a parish or a base community (be it a school, a Marae, a religious community, a youth outreach, a JPD cell).
We organise ourselves so that there are two of us on the servant leadership group for each of these great areas of concern.
There are then at least six pairs of people who are focused on the leadership and organising of the ministry in each of the areas. And every baptised Christian has one talent in one of these areas, and it is for the service of the whole.
More than that, there is only one talent, one charism that you are called to exercise for the good of the whole at this time. Therefore, when we are planning we need to decide what is the most important element for liturgy, or prayer, teaching or proclaiming the good news; who are the most needy we can serve; and having focused on that, we then ‘send a pair out’ to design, organise, ensure that this ministry happens.
In a small community it may be that they are the two who do the visitation of the sick, or are the musicians for Sunday gathering. And once we are doing all that we need to do to fulfil the basic call of a Christian community, we can liberate our resources to carry out the things we would love to do, or we can add more resources to the central tasks if we find they are overburdened. This model helps us to focus and to support a rich and vital ministry.
Here is an an example. In any parish or church community that has ears to hear, there will be a call to seek out and welcome those who receive the Good News. This is called the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). When prioritising what the call of the Gospel is and what the church asks us to do, the first thing is to go out and welcome people in – and then to “baptize them in the Name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit”. In each ministry stream this should end up the highest priority.
What we see is a pair of the teaching/ preaching group and a pair of the liturgy/prayers and a pair of the service group and a pair of the community builders in strong debate as to who is going to take the lead in the development of the RCIA for the forthcoming year. And by the time we find that the cooperating communities of the Pastoral area are focusing on RCIA and its preparation, we should be able to liberate the resources and build a warm, vital and rich outreach. We will have the best of our catechists engaged, the best focus on music and where are we called to serve, and a pair purely focused on the introduction to the community and to the celebration of new life in the church.
The Lord, when he called the disciples, asked them to “leave everything and follow me”. The message hasn’t changed. The Good News is such good news that we are impelled to serve and to give and to love unconditionally. But the difficulty many communities find is that a small group holds too many ministries in few hands. This model is predicated on the theory of ‘one person one ministry”.
Yet we are ALL gifted with one charism for the up-building of the church and one for the mission of the church. What is yours, what is your son’s, your daughter’s, your wife’s, your husband’s? What do I know my neighbour is great at, and yet is not yet being called to bear fruit?
Finally, let’s celebrate when that talent is being gifted in the community, in the place you and I are called to serve and bring new life and the Good News to our workplace, our community and our daily life.
“ Give us THIS day our daily bread... and may your Kingdom come!” ?
Mark Richards is Manager of Pastoral Services Team in the diocese of Palmerston North and responsible for adult formation programmes
The Future in Parishes Alan Roberts
In writing this, I have before me Mark Richards’ article printed in this issue (pp.6-8). It is an article which makes sense to me and my purpose here is to comment from a practical point of view and hopefully expound on some points Mark has made. As I write, I am conscious that we in New Zealand are looking at new ways of running our parishes, as we try to live up to the laity’s right to be involved and as we find ourselves unable to supply a priest for every parish. Particularly affected are the laity who may be clinging to the model which leaves the priest as the focal point
Mark Richards begins his article by pointing out that Jesus formed his followers into a community. It is primarily through being community that we find the Risen Jesus to be life-giving. Cardinal Williams, when first beginning the Launch Out training programme for Lay Pastoral Leaders (LPL) in Wellington, made much of the fact that no parish would be closed. This brings home Richards’ point that community is the all important thing, but thereby raises questions about supplying Eucharist, and questions about the role of a priest.
Should a priest be asked to stretch himself out and risk burning himself out? I maintain that this will almost inevitably happen, simply because he will miss the nourishment from the primary community he is called to serve? Looking back I realise, especially as a young priest, how much the communities I served gave me. I know I thrived because of the friendships, fun, challenge and the questions which came from so many in those early years. I met with small groups and I grew with these people as we struggled together to face issues in the church of the time. I was inspired by their commitment and desire to create a life-giving community.
Today, I realise that the stress I feel is not in being asked to say an extra Mass or two but in missing out on what is happening in my home parish when I am away. As a priest I still need and enjoy community as much as the next person.
Richards next explains the aspect of how Jesus lived his ministry. He walked. This point is made to emphasise Jesus’ availability to listen, explain and be with others. Then, he sent out in twos those who followed him. In short, he wasn’t rushing around being the Messiah!
What a model of priesthood this is! If Jesus came today, I wouldn’t mind betting that many would label him “a lazy b!” Very quickly, it seems, Jesus let go of the idea that he was the only one who could pastor the flock. A priest, or a lay pastoral leader, has to understand this, and a parish also has to understand it. Evangelisation will never begin in our parishes unless this point is understood.
Just think: every person in our pews probably lives in close range to a Catholic who no longer practices their faith, or to someone who is searching for meaning through faith. In this light, believing that evangelisation is the responsibility of only the priest or the lay pastoral leader is just ludicrous.
Going out ‘in pairs’
Then there is the point Richards makes of Jesus sending them out in twos. Some years ago Team Ministry became a popular concept – but possibly because a young priest had to endure years of being a curate! The fact that we had to dream it up as a solution to a problem says plenty about the way we were then operating in ministry!
I was fortunate to be part of a Team (another priest and myself) after eight years of ministry. For the first time in parish, we worked in twos. It was a very satisfying time in my priesthood and, dare I say it, possibly the most blessed time. But more importantly, the community recognised it and gave us enormous support. Particularly blessed was our Catechumenate, and it was the community who made it live.
Looking back over more than 30 years of ministry, when I have worked closely with others it has been refreshing, enriching and complete. When I have worked alone, it has been frustrating, tiring and lonely. When that was allowed to continue, it produced
burnout and cynicism. It is foolish to work alone. You may satisfy your ego, but you’ll die in the end.
Gifts within the community
The Australian Scripture scholar, Michael Fallon, made the point some years ago while in New Zealand that a primary work of a pastor was to help parishioners identify their ministry. How could each parishioner serve in their parish? Richards emphasises: “I can’t be a follower on my own,.. that the Spirit is given to us in Baptism,.. that in the community we are given the gifts (charisms) that are special to us and needed to create the whole body.”
Today we are more conscious of bringing out the gifts of each one and my concept of Team Ministry has moved on. What I once gained from working with another priest I must now find in my parishioners. The shortage of priests necessitates this, but even so, I wonder whether we should not still work to find ways for priests or LPLs to follow the model Mark Richards proposes, namely that there are two on the servant leadership group for each of the great areas of concern, concerns which he identifies in his article.
Next, I want to refer to Richards comments on prayer. He explains how the disciples discovered that prayer was not just about joyful ecstasy but also the facing of reality and the pain of life. This is particularly worth noting because this kind of prayer is how we understand contemplation today. The distractions we experience tell us so much about ourselves.
The revival of Ignatian spirituality copes well with all this and encourages us to be before God as we are. Like the disciples in their master’s hour of need, we fall asleep when commanded to pray. Our prayer is just a frail attempt to open up and be filled with God. Teresa of Avila got so bored in prayer she shook the hour glass! But we persevere because we know we cannot do without it. And this principle applies to the laity who desire to build the reign of God, just as it does to any priest. As we employ the laity to work as leaders, then perhaps at least one of their hours each day of paid employment needs to be set aside for prayer.
I would note that at the present time our bishops are stretching priests out to provide sacraments for our parishes. I questioned the wisdom of this earlier. Is it not true that at some point we will have to ask what happens when we can stretch priests no further?
I think the model Mark Richards proposes gives us a clue, and would add that instead of leaving the smaller parishes without a priest, we consider leaving the larger ones where there is a greater variety of gifts to call upon. If we accepted the model Richards proposes, is it possible to set up and maintain life-giving communities which do not have a resident priest, yet still are very Catholic? I am not intending to negate the role of the ordained minister or the importance of Sacraments. But if the present trends continue, the day will surely come when we will have will have to choose to close parishes, or allow them to operate with only rare contact with a priest.