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What Is the Mission of the Church?

By Neil Ormerod

October 2009

Dr. Neil Ormerod was a Woodstock International Visiting Fellow during the 2008-9 academic year. He is a Professor of Theology and Director of the Institute of Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at the Mount St. Mary Campus of Australian Catholic University in Strathfield, New South Wales. His research at Woodstock involved ecclesiology, and in particular the relationship between history and theology. His previous publications include Creation, Grace, and Redemption (2007); Method, Meaning and Revelation (2000); Introducing Contemporary Theologies: The What and the Who of Theology Today (1997); and contributions to Vatican II: Did Anything Happen?, Theological Studies, and other publications.

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in Woodstock Report No. 95, October 2009.

 

 

In his address to the Woodstock annual dinner Bishop George Murry, S.J. gives an account of his ministry in Youngstown Ohio within the “Rust Belt”, that area of the US that was once famed for its iron and steel production. But with the collapse and restructuring of that industry it is now in a most difficult economic condition. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost. Household incomes have dropped, welfare dependency is higher and people and their communities are struggling to survive. It is a dire picture, but not one without hope as the Catholic Church and other church communities seek to respond to the difficulties in constructive and creative ways. Working together as the Ecumenical Coalition the churches have organized emergency social services, advocated with various levels of government and sought to encourage community cooperative movements to revive local industry.

Bishop Murry identifies three areas of ministry undertaken by the Church: “traditional ecclesiastical ministry; collaborative social action; and health care for the poor.” Of course the Church has a long history of involvement in the provision of health services to the poor and needy, but for some there might be a question mark over the Church’s involvement in “collaborative social action”.  What does it mean for the Church to be so involved? Is it “core business”? Or should the Church restrict itself to more traditional ministry such as liturgy, sacraments, education and so on?

To address this question we need to consider the relationship between the mission of the Church and the mission of Jesus. The central theme of all Jesus' preaching is that of the Kingdom of God. From the beginning of his preaching ("the kingdom of God is at hand", cf. Mark 1:15 and parallels) to his final actions in the last supper ("I shall never again drink wine until the Kingdom of God comes" cf. Mark 14:25 and parallels), the Kingdom is the core of Jesus’ preaching. Similarly all Jesus’ miracles, his table-fellowship and his reaching out to the poor and marginalised of society are about the in-breaking of the Kingdom amongst humanity. Jesus in fact embodies the Kingdom of God on earth. As one theologian David Bosch puts it, Jesus’ preaching of and action towards the Kingdom launches “an all-out attack on evil in all its manifestations”. ¹ This understanding of the Kingdom of God is reflected in the encyclical Redemptoris missio, by John Paul II, who said:

The Kingdom is the concern of everyone: individuals, society, and the world. Working for the Kingdom means acknowledging and promoting God’s activity, which is present in human history and transforms it. Building the Kingdom means working for liberation from evil in all its forms. In a word, the Kingdom of God is the manifestation and the realisation of God’s plan of salvation in all its fullness. (n.15)

The mission of the Church is then the prolongation of this mission of Jesus, to proclaim and promote the building of the Kingdom of God throughout human history. It will be an agent of personal, cultural and social change, as it seeks to move history towards a new situation that more closely approximates the Kingdom of God on earth. As John Fuellenbach notes, “the church as the community of those who have been chosen to carry on the vision that Jesus conveyed must define itself in relation to the Kingdom, which is meant for humankind and the whole of creation.” ² Again to quote John Paul II:

Through the Gospel message, the Church offers a force for liberation which promotes development precisely because it leads to conversion of heart and way of thinking, fosters the recognition of each person’s dignity, encourages solidarity, commitment and service of one’s neighbour, and gives everyone a place in God’s plan, which is the building of his Kingdom of peace, justice, beginning already in this life. (Redemptoris missio, n.59)

The mission of the Church might begin with the type of activities Bishop Murry identifies as “traditional ecclesiastical ministry”, but it can never end there. The more overtly religious elements of the Church’s life have a transformative purpose, a purpose which goes beyond the walls of the Church and into the world of culture, politics and the economy.

Indeed in order to understand the mission of the Church we must understand it in relation to the problem of “evil in all its forms”.

And so there is evil in it most personal forms, what the tradition calls personal sin. To this the Church brings challenge, forgiveness and healing through the offer of God’s grace in the sacraments. The Church challenges us to live morally upright lives, through its preaching and teaching. And these lives should be a beacon of light to the world, calling everyone to live in moral rectitude. The Church has always placed a strong emphasis on this.

However we have become more attuned to forms of evil which are of human origins but cannot be classified simply in terms of personal sin. And so we can recognise a cultural manifestation of evil where the dominant meanings and values of a society are distorted; where ideologies of racism reign; where human life is devalued or reduced to merely its economic component. Such cultural “sin” makes it difficult for us to even think that things could be different from the way they are. They infiltrate our imaginations, our minds and hearts. Part of the mission of the Church is to counter such cultural sin, to help build what John Paul II called a “culture of life”. Some of this requires the more specialised work of theologians analysing the dominant cultural forms and challenging them through journals, conferences and other activities. But some of it is just the way in which Christians promote meanings and values consonant with life through their conversations with family, friends and colleagues. These efforts of cultural transformation are also part of the mission of the Church.

We can also recognise another manifestation of evil in the actual political and economic structures themselves, what we call “social sin”. Like cultural “sin” this is not the product of our individual decisions so much as a corporate responsibility for the good ordering of society. Social sin is manifest in the breakdown of social order, the destruction of communities, in economic dislocation and social despair. We can see it for example in the present global financial crisis. Where does responsibility for it lie? Certainly there are some individuals who have been greedy, or dishonest, but the very financial institutions themselves have proved problematic. And so people have been looking at the rules of the game which seem to be fixed to favour some over others.

Of course the Church cannot impose solutions onto society. As Pope Benedict notes in his first encyclical Deus caritas est, “it is not the Church’s responsibility to make [its] teaching prevail in political life … the Church cannot and must not replace the state” (n.28) and so a “just society must be the achievement of politics, not the Church” (n.28). Rather the Church’s task is to “inform consciences”, “stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice”, and foster “greater readiness to act accordingly” (n.28). In fact “the direct duty to work for a just ordering of society … is proper to the lay faithful … called to take part in public life as a personal capacity” (n.29).

Nor does the Church have the resources to solve economic and social problems on its own. Even in conjunction with other churches and religious communities all it can hope to achieve is to assist those who are worst affected through these manifestations of social sin, the “heal the sick and the lame” so to speak; provide symbolic actions which might model ways of relating economically and politically which are more in tune with God’s kingdom; and provided support and encouragement to the community at large, to assist in political and economic advocacy to help turn the community around from its present state to one more conducive to human flourishing.

Indeed these are exactly the sorts of things Bishop Murry spoke of that evening to the supporters of the Woodstock Theological Center. In the works he described we witness a Church community seek to work towards the building of God’s kingdom through “working for liberation from evil in all its forms”. Without such work the Church’s mission would be diminished, impoverished and inadequate.

 


¹ David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991), 32.

² John Fuellenbach, The Kingdom of God: The Message of Jesus Today (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1995), 15.