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Falling upward – hope on the horizon

Members of the laity have privately done degrees/advanced degrees in theology with little or no prompting from priests.

Fr Martin Sirju concludes his pastoral reflection on how he sees the Church today. Yet I will rejoice, and exalt in the Lord God my Saviour” —Habakkuk 3:18

Many readers may have found my take on the ecclesial scene pessimistic. I think pessimism is closer to hope; I’m intolerant of the sterile promises of optimism. Optimism is just another way of running for cover, not wanting to face what is there.

The first three articles (CN March 17, 24, 31) reflected a dismal context as indicated in the verses from the prophet Habakkuk that accompanied each article. Only after Habakkuk faces the grim reality of apparent desolation and decimation that he clings to hope.

I will now suggest what I see are signs of hope, possible ways of moving beyond our present. I here refer to the spiritual work of Ron Rolheiser entitled Falling Upward.

Rolheiser speaks of our early years of life, including young adulthood, as filled with certainties. We are on top of the world, know what we want, braving the world of work and family buttressed by the clear teachings of faith.

But then something happens, often in midlife, often unexpected—a broken marriage, loss of a job, death of a child etc—and our world spirals out of control, our sacred canopy shattered. If we want to move on in life, we have no choice but to face the darkness and depression, but having faced such we are at the end of the journey wiser, stronger and understanding God and life more deeply.

This experience of falling down ultimately has an upward telos, hence he entitles the entire experience “falling upward”. I think this is where we are in the Church today—we are in the process of falling upward.

What is the source of this hope of mine? First, scriptural: Jesus tells us so. At the end of the great commission (Mt 28), as if sensing we might want to give up, Jesus assures us: “And lo I shall be with you always, until the end of time”. What we are going through right now, what some call the greatest crisis of the past 500 years, will eventually blow over. A new dawn shall arise.

Ebb and flow

A second source of hope lies in history which shows the Church has always had its ebb and flow moments and right now things are pretty ‘ebby’. We have been through persecutions, the Dark Ages, the Plague, the Reformation, two World Wars and we will prevail over these very dark chapters of Church history.

But we can only move upward if we face the dark truths of our past that have made us fall downward. Like the traveller wounded, beaten and left at the side of the road to die, we will need ‘Samaritans’ to help us move on, including Evangelicals.

We should be confident. We have 2,000 years of collective wisdom and resilience to guide us but sometimes even the best of us get lost, so we stretch out our hands and get by “with a little help from our friends”.

The Archdiocesan Pastoral Plan (APP) is another source of hope. We have spent many months of hard work on it and it is nearing the implementation stage. I think it will help us if we really work at it.

One Samaritan that has come along to assist is the world of best management practices. By itself it cannot save us, but it can certainly offer us some help in stemming the decline and overcoming obstacles. It has come at the same time that Catholic experts locally in the field have begun making their observations about the contemporary Church known in a more publicly pressing manner.

Talented laity

But by far, my greatest hope lies in the talents of the laity. I am astonished by the explosion of talent I see among the laity. Their holiness is humbling and their pursuit of it forces us priests to look at our own endeavours in this area, often lacking.

I notice particularly the number of laity who have privately done degrees/advanced degrees in theology with little or no prompting from priests. This is purely the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit saw that we, as clergy, were not inspired to feed the flock as well as we could have. Not that we were against it, but neither were we active promoters of their theological edification.

Not finding it in the parishes nor homilies, they went searching for it themselves under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Armed now with advanced degrees in theology as well as their secular competencies the local Church is in a much better position to start facing some of its challenges.

Arresting the decline in our Church needs good leadership but it needs even more an openness to the gifts and talents the laity has to offer. Many of these searchers are women and they would be reading the tradition from their perspective coming up with their own methods, analyses and prescriptions.

Our emphasis on priestly vocations and the diaconate must go hand in hand with harnessing the talents of these modern “anchorites” who are offering a valuable contribution to the Church.

A concluding caution. We can be deceived into thinking this is an easy affair—we have the APP, we have the talent, let’s hit the ground running. I suspect, however, it is going to be a very rough ride.

The modern tide of secularism, the behemoth in the road, is not going to dissipate right now. But that ‘Death Star’ is not as invincible as we think. We have the saints to guide us, the Word to nourish us and the Eucharist to heal us. We have lost many battles but we will win the war.