NZ priest asks: What is the Church for?

BUT WHAT IS THE CHURCH FOR? by Neil Darragh. Accent Publications. 2021. 204pp $40. Reviewed by Br RICHARD DUNLEAVY, FMS

An arresting title! The sub-title explains it more specifically: “What is the mission of the local Church?”. When I first leafed through the book from the back, I was struck by the fact that there were 15 pages of bibliography! My follow-up reading confirmed that this is certainly a highly-researched text, drawing on authors from all around the world. And its academic research quality is matched by its crystal-clear
explanations and definition of terms. It is not a narrative to be simply perused or lightly digested. It is the kind of book beloved by French and German professionals for such orderly structure and clarity.

In the opening pages, Darragh defines his theological approach through his instructive distinction between professional and “citizen” theologians. The latter are writing, not for their peers, but for the ordinary faithful and wider public within a local area.

He calls that “public theology”. The core and focus of this book is to clarify the meaning of “mission” for the Church and society today, based, of course, on the understanding of that term.

Not the 19-20th centuries understanding as ministry to foreign or non-Christian peoples, but the universal call to all baptised Christians to be evangelisers primarily in their own neighourhoods and nations. For
all of us to be “citizen theologians”, to whatever degree we can be.

The vision of that “public” evangelisation is to build the “realm of God” in our particular social milieu: ”realm” being the term more democratically acceptable than the traditional “Kingdom of God”. Each Christian community is challenged to go beyond the internal shepherding of its own flock, to engage actively in the Gospel transformation of all key local and regional social movements and activities in their local area, such as social welfare agencies, public boards and clubs, ecumenical networks, and other such committees. The purpose of that is not to “christianise” or religiously convert those groups, but to recognise that such collaboration within our pluralist society and earthly home is helping to build the “realm of God” for all.

A further enlargement of such a vision of mission is not just people-focused, but includes the care of our earthly home, the environment and climate change, requiring collaboration nationally and internationally as well.

I feel that a persuasive secret within the narrative is that the author has been not only a highly respected member of academia, but also a deeply experienced and appreciated pastor in parish and chaplaincy
work locally, interculturally, and internationally, especially in areas experiencing complex social
change to which he contributed effectively, not just with ideas, but also with sleeves rolled up.

He has a number of strategies suggested to help church communities wanting to find their way towards acceptance and inclusion by the various non-religious groups within the local secularist society.

That brings a theme tune of truth and experience ringing quietly throughout this book, which makes it an excellent practical handbook, not just for parish priests, chaplains, deacons and other religious ministers of all denominations, but also for formators in seminaries and religious communities, and for principals and
DRSs in our schools.

I think this book can also be a valuable corrective to too much navel-gazing — even nitpicking — within our own Catholic Church during this time of synodal discernment called for by Pope Francis. The vision and scope is vast, challenging, but also uplifting. Yours to enjoy. Another rich contribution from a Kiwi author, who has already served us so much world-class fare, to inspire and challenge us through the books he
has written or edited over a number of years here in our own backyard. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Br Richard Dunleavy, FMS, is a former secretary-general of the Marist Brothers. He lives in Auckland.

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