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Synod on the Family – how to change things

February 1, 2015

Mark 1: 21-28                                                Sunday 1st February 2015

For most people faith is not a central part of their lives. True, millions see Jesus as a good man, a role model for leading a moral life, but they don’t buy our faith, assuming Church teachings or biblical stories to be irrelevant, ancient myths. Or they simply don’t trouble themselves to think about it.

So how and why do WE Catholics, despite the scandals and difficulties, continue to place our trust in what God’s Church teaches? This is what I’m going to cover today, and how it applies to the forthcoming Synod on the Family

Through faith we believe that Jesus is both a human being and God, and that He died and rose again. We believe that Jesus is still alive and with us today,[1] and we declare our faith publicly when we stand and say the Creed. In short, being a Christian means having a real encounter with Christ that actually changes our understanding of the world today.

But what is a personal encounter with Christ? This can happen when we are alone, but it most definitely happens when the holy and mysterious ‘Body of Christ’ gathers to celebrate a mass together: in the readings, in the prayers, in receiving our Lord in communion, and in sharing our lives together within The Church. Here are some signs that you have had an encounter with Christ:

  • are you moved by some message in the readings, in the homily, or in the prayers that strikes a chord that seems custom-made for your circumstances?
  • do you sometimes feel a strange frisson of excitement or joy when you come in to church, or when praying?
  • do you suddenly feel inspired to do something or find yourself strangely at peace?

Now, the next question is: How do we know that the encounter we have with Christ is something genuine? It could so easily be some sort of religious hysteria. How do we know for sure whether something is genuine? And how do we know that the teachings of the Church are true, not the product of centuries of repeating what has gone before, over time distorting the very teachings of Jesus? How does the Church today, just as Jesus did in the synagogue, claim authority in its teaching?

The answer is: We simply know what we believe or what we have experienced is good and is genuine. It’s the Holy Spirit working within us. In the gospel today the people listening to Jesus preaching in the synagogue recognised, through faith in God, that what He was saying was a new teaching and, crucially, they recognised what he was saying was TRUE.

The test we use[2] for recognising what is good and reliable Catholic teaching, (used for centuries), is to ask ourselves:

 Has this been believed by Catholics:

ALWAYS?

EVERYWHERE?

BY ALL?

But modern ideology is not convinced by this idea of relying on what our dead ancestors believed two thousand years ago. It is another real stumbling block for accepting Christianity. People will say things like,

‘Oh yeh. So you rely on the people who believed they could cure diseases with blood sucking leeches and boiled frog potions!’

This is really quite a cheap shot, a favourite amongst atheists, who deliberately confuse religious belief with scientific knowledge – two very different things.

Also at work in rejecting ancient wisdom is the effects of our modern culture, which values the latest fashion, the newest idea, the young, and tends to rubbish anything that is seen as “old-fashioned” or ‘out of date” or ‘historical”. In our fast-moving high tech, sophisticated and scientific and world, who on earth would want to believe in something just because people believed it centuries ago?

‘Surely you can think for yourselves?

Surely you should embrace the new, the exciting – not the old and boring.’

It’s this kind of thinking that makes people conclude, without looking at the evidence, that the Church is trapped in a time warp. We’re sometimes described as being ‘mediaeval’, therefore religion is irrelevant.

How do we answer that one?

The answer is that the Church always has been and remains a living spiritual entity. It was a living, spiritual entity in the Middle Ages….. and it remains a living, spiritual entity today, made up of 21st Century Catholics, who share a modern scientific understanding of our world, in a Church that continues to teach the eternal Truths that were revealed to it when it was founded by Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago. Those truths remain the same whether we read these truths from 1st century papyrus scrolls 12th century illuminated manuscripts or the very latest iPad. These unchanging truths are called ‘the deposit of faith’.

Now, the ‘deposit of faith’ is a rather strange term: it sounds like something has been dropped and landed on us; or it sounds like someone has put money in the bank!

No – the ‘deposit of faith’ means that the Church possesses the unchangeable Truth; it is God’s divine wisdom:

  • revealed most especially in the life, teaching, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ;
  • revealed in the history of the Jewish people;
  • revealed in the Bible, and
  • revealed through the Holy Spirit to His people throughout the history of the Church.

Let’s just focus on the final point: God’s wisdom IS revealed to His Church THROUGHOUT its history:

We are NOT just blindly accepting what has gone before.

We are NOT morons who rely on the faith of our ancestors to get us to heaven.

No, we rely on our own faith, HERE AND NOW.

God’s Truth is revealed to His Church through the ages. That means NOW.

So the rule is that the Church holds fast to what has been always believed, everywhere and by all. Not because of the past, but because of the faith of PRESENT, living Christians. The living Church today remains laced with the Truth. It is suffused with the Truth; it is overflowing with the Truth. And it is that Truth that is continually revealed to living, breathing Christians like you and me, here and now, through the Holy Spirit, through our faith in Jesus.

Does all this mean that we can re-write the Doctrines of the Church to fit with the difficult situations that face society nowadays?

No, it most certainly does not! The Church has a heavy responsibility to take great care of all that has been entrusted to it, to keep the revealed Truth safe from human thinking and human ‘knowledge’ that can, in fact, be very wrong.[3] The teaching authority of the Church (which we call ‘The Magisterium’) has guarded and will continue to guard Catholic doctrine against error.[4]

Yet, despite the wisdom of only moving very deliberately and carefully in discerning its style of teaching divine Truth,

“the Church is not bound by the ‘letter.’ Rather, she is constantly moved forth by the ‘spirit.’ The same Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, which ‘spoke through the Prophets,’ which guided the Apostles, is still continuously guiding the Church into the fuller comprehension and understanding of the Divine truth, from glory to glory.”[5]

And this is a Truth in itself. We sometimes forget, that we, both as individuals and as a Christian community – as the Church here and now in 2015 – we sometimes forget how we can have revealed to us a better understanding of that unchangeable ‘deposit of faith’ so as to be able to teach God’s message in our own times.

There’s a notable example that we should be focusing on through this year: The Church is calling on the Holy Spirit for inspiration today: as a world-wide Church, in our prayers we are calling on the Holy Spirit (who is in each and every one of us, courtesy of our baptism), we are calling on the Holy Spirit to inspire The Church, to be confident and bold in any decisions it makes at the forthcoming Synod on the Family next October.

This is an example of the way that our own spiritual efforts, through the Holy Spirit, animate the Body of Christ, the Church in our own times. This is an example of the way practising Catholics (like us!) through the ages have always held a pivotal, crucial role in discerning and directing the actions of The Church. Now, you don’t hear that very often, do you! But the laity, the ordinary Christians in the pews, share with their bishops the crucial role of being enlightened by the Holy Spirit to reveal what the deposit of faith means. Is this idea endorsed by the hierarchy of the Church today? Oh yes indeed it is! And I’ll tell you why…..

Only last year the International Theological Commission in the Vatican published a document which considered the nature of this phenomenon, which is known as the “sensus fidei”. Sensus fidei – the sense of the Faithful about what is right. And this document said, last year, 2014:

the faithful have an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, which enables them to recognise and endorse authentic Christian doctrine and practice, and to reject what is false. That supernatural instinct, intrinsically linked to the gift of faith received in the communion of the Church, is called the sensus fidei, and it enables Christians to fulfil their prophetic calling.[6]

Each and every one of us shares in Christ’s ministry as a priest and as a prophet – and we each receive this charism through baptism. But remember, this is not about twisting divine Truth to satisfy opinion polls, it’s not about chasing popularity at any price; it not about getting a majority of votes. It is something mysterious; this is something supernatural.

So this year we are praying together as The Body of Christ, the Church. Praying for God to inspire The Church to respond correctly to the difficult and complicated circumstances facing the basic building block of the Church – the Christian family. And then the bishops, as our leaders, are going to meet and discuss – and they too will be guided by the Holy Spirit.

The world does not ‘get’ that….. The world thinks in terms of short-term popularity, political scheming and coalitions. I heard a lovely comment on the radio the other day. Someone said, ‘I don’t know how it happened, but it’s fantastic that we have Pope Francis!’ Well I know how it happened….. it’s the Holy Spirit.

So what that document says about the ‘sensus fidei’ is very true from the very first example we have of it, in that preaching in the synagogue by Jesus. This remains the case today. The ‘sensus fidei’ is a vital part of identifying what is new and what is true in the circumstances of modern society. And that Vatican document went on to say:

“One of the reasons why bishops and priests need to be close to their people on the journey and to walk with them is precisely so as to recognise ‘new ways’ as they are sensed by the people. The discernment of such new ways, opened up and illumined by the Holy Spirit, will be vital for the new evangelisation.”

So, in this mass let each of us prayerfully use that instinct for the truth (that each one of us possesses through baptism). Let us use that instinct to discern authentic Christian teaching relating to family issues.

And let’s not beat about the bush here, what are we talking about? We’re talking about how the Church should respond to couples who are living together; couples who have split up; people who are divorced or have been abandoned; we’re talking about single-parent families; issues of birth control; and eliminating discrimination against gay people.[7] Cardinal Vincent Nichols has asked all dioceses to submit a report to him on the discussions held on these issues by 24th May so that he can be fully informed of what has been discerned and be ready for the debates and discussions at the Synod in Rome in October.[8] So the route to engaging in this process is one of discernment, one of prayer and one of communicating with our priests and bishops.

How can we put into practice the teachings and practices of The Church in very difficult circumstances, always being careful to reject what is false? The answer lies in praying as a Church; staying close to and following our Archbishop Bernard and all the bishops (both in this country and around the world), and praying for our bishops. And above all we need to pray for The entire Church.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI Christianity is not a new philosophy or new morality. We are Christians only if we encounter Christ.” General Audience, 3 September 2008

[2]Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” Saint Vincent of Lerins, c.434AD Commonitorium, Chapter 2.3

[3] c.f. 1 Timothy 6:20

[4] c.f. First Vatican Council, Session 3, Chapter 4 “And the doctrine of faith which God revealed is proposed, not as a mere philosophical discovery to be elaborated by human minds, but as the divine deposit delivered by Christ to his spouse, to be by her faithfully guarded and infallibly declared.”

[5] Florovsky, George (1961) St Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers. Sobornost, 4 (1961) 4, pp165-176.

[6] International Theological Commission 2014: Sensus fidei in the life of the church

[7] Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops 2014, The Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelisation: Relatio Synodi (English translation) 31 October 2014

[8] Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales: Reflection Document for the Clergy on Marriage and Family, December 2014.

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