Three things transformed the early Church and made it dynamic — being devoted to prayer and praying in groups, being dynamic, loving communities and reaching out and caring for the marginalised.
There is no reason Catholics in New Zealand cannot have the same impact as the early Church, because the Lord is with us, New Zealand theologian Fr Neil Vaney, SM, told the Auckland Eucharistic Convention.
But the renewal needed won’t happen if people just show up for Mass on Sundays and don’t do anything else, Fr Vaney said.
“Many Catholics are still under the impression that you go to Mass on Sunday because it is the law of the Church and if I didn’t go I would go to hell. I’ve always been doing this and it’s good for my kids and all that,” the Marist said.
“But the big thing we know now is that that’s not enough. The Eucharist . . . is not primarily a thing. It is embodied in the species in the tabernacle. But it is mainly the creation of all of us praising God through Jesus in our midst. Now we can’t do that as a people if we aren’t a people. If people just walk in and out of church on a Sunday and hardly know each other — that’s not going to create a transforming community. It is going to create perhaps some people who are finding spiritual nourishment for themselves, but it is not transforming them, it is not transforming the places they live in. It is not transforming their work.”
Fr Vaney cited studies by Sir Alister Hardy and Paul Hawker showing that many people in wider society do, in fact, have an experience of God, but, for a variety of reasons, don’t go any further.
A critical factor in this is that they lack a community that acknowledges the reality that they experienced.
“This is why Church and Eucharist and being together is so important for us. Unless you have somebody you can
talk to and reflect (with) and you can hear their experiences, you can’t grow it, you can’t let it come to life.”
After Jesus ascended to heaven, the Christian community gathered and devoted themselves to prayer, Fr Vaney said.
“All of us need to be in a nest of prayer. We live in a world that is very individualistic . . . But the reality is that we live in worlds in which the interactions, the
relationships, the values we have, are sustained by the people that we love. And if we are alone, that won’t happen.”
“We can’t allow ourselves to be taken over by the dominant economic myths of our reality,” Fr Vaney added.
“We have to be counter-cultural. It doesn’t have to mean we have to live like tramps or whatever. But it means that we have to know that the cost of the society we live in, the myths we live in, is loneliness, depression, loss of spiritual vision.”
Many people in New Zealand live by a materialistic ideal, but at the same time are spiritually impoverished, he said. Loneliness and isolation are increasing. There is inequality in New Zealand and many social problems, with many Government policies aimed at addressing
“Social policies can set parameters, and point out things, but only love of people can transform and make others love people,” Fr Vaney said.
Drawing on the thought of the founder of the Society of Mary, Fr Jean-Claude Colin, Fr Vaney pointed to the example of Mary.
“We look at the model of Mary and what she was in the infant Church. And she was not powerful, she was not a person who called all the shots. She was a person of deep, deep prayer and vision. She was a person who saw what needed to be done and she called Jesus to do it. And she knew that that entailed death, but new life came from it.”
It only takes a few people with vision and energy to rejuvenate a parish, Fr Vaney said, citing an example he had seen in Chicago. These people encouraged others, found out what the local needs were and encouraged people to meet them.
Fr Vaney challenged his audience to ask themselves questions about their own prayer lives and the prayer life of their parishes, whether there are prayer groups and spiritual direction available or not.
“What are we doing about our parishes? Are you talking to any young people and inviting them? Are you saying to people, let’s make a prayer group, let’s meet at people’s houses and talk about some of the eventualities.”
Fr Vaney said in an earlier talk that the Church is in a very difficult time, but it has been in worse times in its history.
He cited the papacies in the ninth and tenth centuries and the French Revolution as examples. But out of these times came great renewals in the Church, in different ways.
Most great movements in the Church, for example the Marists and the Jesuits, started from three or four committed, dedicated people together.
“That is so important for us to realise,” he said.