by Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu
Public media often portray Catholicism as legalistic, authoritarian and excessively moralistic. Media tend to judge the Catholic Church in terms of official statements made by the Church’s teaching authority. Sometimes, they even distort the statements themselves. Little or nothing is ever recorded on how the body of the rank-and-file members feel or think.
It never seems to dawn on the media folk that the Catholic Church today comprises an international family exceeding one billion people, who hold a vast range of diverse views on several matters, including Catholic doctrine and official teaching. The Catholic Church is not – and never has been – made up of unreflective passive observers who merely comply with the official teaching of Church authority.
An amazing shift
And there is something much more amazing about the Catholic Church today. Here are the hard facts. In 1960, 66% of Catholics lived in the Western world (this includes Australia and New Zealand) – henceforth: the West. This means that 34% lived in the South (Central and South America, Africa and Asia). Fifty years later, in 2010, 80% lives in the South, with only 20% in the North.
I hope you feel surprised, if not shocked, by that massive shift in a mere 50 years. Nobody set out to bring this about, and many analysts are quick to offer explanations related to shifts in population and a range of socio-economic factors. I suspect they are missing a crucial insight. As a believing Christian, I veer towards a religious explanation beginning with a simple but profound question: Is the Holy Spirit within and behind this movement? I answer affirmatively! Once one makes such a discernment, one quickly realises the enormous implications of what is transpiring for Catholics worldwide in our time.
This rapid shift to the South suggests that the Holy Spirit is birthing a new Church for a radical new Catholic future. The West is no longer the primary well-spring, and Rome is no longer the heart-centre of the Catholic Church today. In fact, there is probably more than one heart centre. An initial glance at the Catholic spread in the South indicates that the Philippines (for Asia), Nigeria (for Africa) and Brazil (for Central and South America) are likely to emerge as the new heart-centres.
What does this mean in practice? A major challenge for discernment: What is the Spirit up to? What kind of Church does she desire for the South? And what are the radical new elements she desires for the Church of the future? Imitating Europe (and the West) which is what the Catholics of the South are still doing – in extreme Roman fashion at times – will certainly not be the way forward. Rome belongs to the declining dying Church, so let’s heed the echoes of Resurrection hope: “Why seek the living among the dead?” (Lk.24:5).
This is a new hour of grace for the Catholic Church, the likes of which has not been known since the Christian faith first evolved over 2,000 years ago. There is no blueprint to follow, other than a concerted attempt of seeking hearts and discerning minds. It is the newness of this transition that is particularly challenging for a Church with such a weighted preference for the past, for tradition, for the old.
Is the Spirit invoking new wisdom for understanding and transmitting the faith, for the celebration of liturgy, for participation in the life of the Church, and for pastoral practice? And what is the future of the institutional dimension, heretofore seen to be so central to the Church’s life and function?
The Spirit who blows . . .
I detect an awakening dream of what this new Church might look like. Might a patriarchal papacy be replaced by a collaborative form of team leadership, in which a team – of say 21 persons – would comprise 5 Caucasians and 16 non-whites from the South, 14 women and 7 men, with an average age of about 40, honouring the youthfulness of the South. Sacramental practice could be returned to people’s innate capacity for ritual-making with clerical priesthood giving way to ritual-leadership called forth from the body of believers. Leadership would prioritise animation over domination, inspiration over doctrinal control, and a global spirituality that would emphasise commonalities rather than differences.
And perhaps the biggest challenge of all would be the calling forth of the Adult, among people who for far too long have been infantilized into passive submissive immaturity. Evangelization would recapture the Gospel vision of the Kingdom of God (the Companionship of Empowerment) and in the daring awakening of parabolic lore, people of adult faith would once more be challenge into co-discipleship with an adult Jesus serving an adult God.
Does it all sound too far-fetched? Can anything be too far-fetched for the Spirit who blows where she wills?
Diarmuid O’Murchu is a priest and social scientist, specialist in the study of Paradigm Shifts and Adult Faith Development, author of God in the Midst of Change (Claretian Publications 2013).