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Facing the wounds

The times in which we live: an historical-theological reflection

Listening to History and Reality

Vincenzo di Pilato

For the Church, and in particular ordained ministry, what does it mean to be in the world but not of the world? Precisely because of being 'mission’, God’s people cannot not be in relationship with the world according to the customs and language of each historical era. It is an adventure – filled commitment that leaves little room for rigidity, closed doors, or antiquated methods, but at the same time requires a careful discernment process in which the relationship between ordained ministry and laity is fundamental. The author is a professor of systematic theology.

Faced with the reality of today’s world, I will try to discern and offer here – as much as possible with ‘eyes fixed upon Jesus ‘(cf. Heb 12:2) -- a few reflections on the exercise of ordained ministry in society today and in the life of Christian communities.

Time and Place
In particular, I address my thoughts to ‘secular clergy’ within the wider context of the people of God. Taken literally, the word 'clergy' means 'a section (kleros (gr) lat, clerus) of God's people living in the world'. The Latin adjective ‘saecularis' specifically refers to bishops, deacons and priests who live 'in the world', not 'outside' it.

Similarly, ‘world’ translates from the Latin word, 'mundus'. In John's Gospel, 'mundus'represents the vital environment in which the Word of God finds his dwelling place, his tent, his space (Jn 1:14); it is the same space in which his disciples live and into which they are sent, whilst not being 'of the world’. (Jn 17:16,18).

saeculum, on the other hand, refers to time in the sense of duration, of occurring during a period of history.

To sum up: bishops, deacons and priests live in the world together with the whole people of God, fully conscious of the epoch in which they are living. The identity and mission of ordained ministry can only be understood in the light of these two Cartesian axes: time and place.

1. Church-world relationship
Sixty years ago, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council with the clear intention that the Church correspond more fully to the Gospel within the changing historical context in which she found herself. He called this process of making the Gospel relevant, ‘aggiornamento’(updating).

If we wish to look for the golden thread running through the Council, we need to retrace our steps in order to follow the turbulent relationship between the Church and the world over time. It is not by chance that the last Constitution to be approved was the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, which saw the most contentious discussions of the Council despite it being closest to the original inspiration of John XXIII.

Pope Francis appears to be following in the footsteps of his predecessors. The extremely polarised reactions that his pontificate provokes need - in my modest opinion - to be brought back to this ardent, much needed and unwavering choice. It is not a coincidence that recurring accusations in recent debates betray a certain fear, if we are not careful, of slipping into becoming disciples 'of the world' rather than 'in the world'. In fact, we often hear of the damage caused by secularism and worldliness, and the risk of it causing an indiscriminate easing of the believer's conscience towards all he or she is presented with.

Pope Francis has never been afraid to hide his concern regarding the risks posed by our relationship with the world. He sees the dangers of Gnosticism and Pelagianism as a threat that can result in a loss of faith. On a pastoral level, he has always warned against spiritual worldliness and clericalism (hierocracy). 

2. Discernment
If we take as our starting point the Word made flesh, then we can safely conclude that mundusand saeculum form part of God's salvific plan in Jesus.

However, this does not prevent all sorts of tensions – and even real ‘spiritual conflict’ - to arise between mundussaeculum and the 'believer's conscience’. With utmost patience and prudence, Christian tradition constantly invites us to extricate ourselves from our everyday, existential condition through 'discernment'. In this way, we become better able to distinguish between the 'spirit of God' and the 'spirit of the world' (I Cor 2:12). 

At an ecclesial level, this signifies an ability to 'scan' the signs of the times and, as a community, interpret them in the light of the Gospel as Jesus invites us in Mt 16:2-3. This evangelicalecclesial discernment, practised together in a synodal style, requires care and humility; acceptance and conviviality, listening and dialogue.[1]

Thus, we cannot limit ourselves to studying the mundus and saeculum as phenomenon, or only collectin