Thomas Malone, American Catholic

January 6, 2022

“The mission-oriented Oblates of Mary Immaculate convened sixteen periti to play special roles in four symposia between 2002 and 2004 to explore whether our church is ‘losing ground’ within a secular culture—and how we might be missionaries to our children, many of whom ‘are no longer on the path of faith.’ He concludes that ‘What is needed today in the Western world . . . is a new missiology for our own highly secularized culture.’

This book by six of the participants summarizes the highlights of that exploration, with special attention to how we might find ‘common ground between polarized groups within the churches and between the Christian and the secular world.’

Particularly notable are: four chapters of introduction and overview by Ronald Rolheiser, well-known author of several books on theology, the chapter by Michael Downey, Cardinal’s Theologian of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and the chapter by Oblate missionary Ronald Young of the missiology department at St. Paul University in Ottawa.

Secularity is a term denoting a point of view that seeks to interpret life on principles derived from human reason without recourse to belief in divine authority and a future world. It is a characteristic of the modern interval framed in the context of the four eras:

ancient – covering all the years until St. Augustine;
medieval – the years from St. Augustine to Rene Descartes;
modern – from Descartes to the middle of the 20th century, and
post-modern – all subsequent years.

However, secularity has deep moral strengths that had their genesis in the Judeo-Christian tradition in combination with the qualities of rationality, logic and law from the Greco-Roman tradition. In a footnote, Rolheiser suggests that Western civilization is a ‘child’ of the marriage of these two traditions. In that sense, one of the principal fruits of the four symposia was the conclusion that ‘We are invited to have a certain biblical and Catholic attitude toward secularity, namely to love the world as God loves it.’

In the first symposium, Martin Downey posed the question, ‘How do we speak of God inside a culture that is pathologically distracted, distrusts religious language and church institutions and yet carries its own energy and virtue?’ Downey’s answer, endorsed by symposium participants, was to accept ‘The image, of Christ as the kenosis [self-emptying] of God’ as proposed in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: ‘He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are; and being in every way like a human being, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross’ (Phil. 2:5-8).

Participants in the symposia agreed that our mission to secularity must ‘be grounded in hope, risk, and openness rather than cynicism, fear, and intolerance. It must be non-proselytizing and non-combative . . . in solidarity with the poor, the vulnerable, the powerless . . . witness particularly to fidelity and stability in a culture too much given to infidelity and instability . . . and within secularity needs to incarnate a fuller maturity, a new inner-directedness, and a wider inclusivity.’ They described this mission as a new task, ‘[calling] for a new romantic imagination, that is, an imagination like that of Francis and Clare of Assisi, that can romantically inflame the heart with the beauty of God and the faith. Our real task is to make the secular world fall in love with God again. We recognized that this will not be easy. Our churches are aging and graying, and many of them are already disillusioned with romance, love, and faith.’

Rolheiser concludes that the major challenge of the symposia was to ‘reimagine our ecclesial structures’ on the basis of the gospels. In the last analysis, that is a challenge to each one of us. The book includes an agenda for responding to that challenge, in the form of 119 sound bites, ‘fragments of our conversations’ that emerged from the symposia. These fragments and the four symposia offer an inspiring agenda for reflection and action.”

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