…the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics.
Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), n. 4.
The challenge of the Church to constantly be aware of the “signs of the times” as it goes about its primary mission of proclaiming the Reign of God to the world, always seeking to bring the awareness of the Good News of Jesus Christ to bear on what it discerns. The task of doing so, of seeking to understand what is going on around it through the lens of the Gospel, is fundamental to the Church’s identity and very existence. If we fail to do so, then the mission is compromised; if we choose not to, then we can quickly find ourselves falling into a place of darkness and despair.
Yet reading the signs of the times is only the first part of the Church’s mission. Once we have read them, and sought to understand them in the light of the Gospel, the next part of the challenge is to respond to what we have discovered, to seek to respond from a place of faith in the power of the Gospel to provide a response to the needs of the world here and now, in this time and this place. The challenge to the Church consists of both these aspects, and we ignore it at our peril.
One of the seemingly ever present dangers that can lead to ignoring the signs of the times or failing to respond to them is a desire to hold on to what once was, to some mythical golden age where everything was ‘perfect’ or ‘safe’ or ‘known’. Yet no such time has ever existed in the life of the Church; it is a myth with no foundation in reality, the seeking of which will lead either to disappointment and disillusion or, worse, to rejection and abandonment.
We see this danger in existence in any number of ecclesial spheres and levels of the Church. Even at the level of parish or sub-parish realisations of the Church, the desire to hold on to what was once in the face of changing times, of developments in the world that are beyond our control, can be found in any number of places. It exist, I suspect, because the denying of change, of seeking to hold firm to things as we once knew them, allows the human psyche to handle the struggle of attempting to grapple with those things that are ultimately completely other to them.
Let’s face it, the other, the completely transcendent, can be particularly scarey. When you add a constantly changing and developing world into the mix, the possibility of being overcome with fear can be quite significant. Yet, we are told by Jesus to not be afraid, to continue to put out into the deep, paying out our nets, a wonderful image of precisely what we, as Church, are called to do in response to the signs of the times.
So what stops us from doing that? What keeps us preferring the safe and known?
Is it a lack of trust? Or of faith? If so, then perhaps part of the challenge of reading and responding to the signs of the times is to place our trust and hope ever deeper in the person of Jesus Christ.
If it is, however, simply a desire to not be moved from our comfort zone, to stay within the familiar and well-known, then we are being disingenuous to any claim we might make to being Church, a community of disciples, people who are for Jesus. We might profess ourselves to be ‘community’, but the possibility of truly being disciples, of being about the Gospel, has been surrendered in favour of looking inwards, of caring more about ourselves than the world we are supposed to be evangelising. And that is antithetical to any claim of being Church in the world.
How, then, can we ensure we don’t surrender our true identity as Church? The answer is both simple and complex: we need to read the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel, and the respond to what we have discovered from a position of faith. It is as easy and as difficult as that. Such an undertaking requires an almost complete abandonment of any claim we think we might have on being safe and secure; but the Church was never promised safety and security, only Jesus’ abiding presence to the end of the ages.
When we focus on ourselves, on our safety and security, the first thing that will suffer is the only thing that we should be concerned with: the Reign of God, its proclamation and its being made present through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, boldly proclaimed by the Body of Christ here and now in response to the signs of the times.
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the last words spoken by Jesus to his disciples are these:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Matthew 28:18b-20, NRSV
No mention of safety or security, just a reminder to be sharing what we’ve received. Perhaps we should take Jesus seriously, leave the safety of once what was, and go out and do it.