by Russell Pollitt SJ

“What do you think the Church should be doing in South Africa today?” It’s a question I often ponder and one that I often ask others. The responses are interesting and regularly rooted in two ideologies.

First, more conservative Catholics tend to think that the Church should be much more forceful in teaching Catholic doctrine and doing apologetics. Most times they suggest we should be enforcing the Church’s sexual morality teaching much more vigorously.

Second, more progressive Catholics think that the Church is not doing enough about social justice issues – poverty, unemployment and gender-based violence, as examples. Someone said to me, in answer to my question recently, “I think that the Church is a sinking ship and that you live in a parallel universe!”

Both groups generally tend to agree that the Church in South Africa, and the world, is in a rather difficult or messy place. Interestingly, however, in more heated debates, both groups tend to blame each other for the place we find ourselves in. At times, I detect a sadness or desperation or even defeatist resignation – from both groups – about the current state of affairs.

The more I think about people’s reactions to the question, the more I begin to wonder: Have both groups not missed the boat?

Should the Church not first and foremost be providing people with the space to be listened to, find comfort and accompaniment? Should the Church not be helping people to live in the midst of complexity, restlessness, anxiety, pain and fear without thinking it can offer all the answers? Should we not help people to see that when one door closes, even painfully, God opens another? Should we not be helping people to see that God is not put off by our weakness and sin, that God understands our complexity, our anger, our lusts and our despair?

What we fundamentally believe about God (not say or think) determines so much. Every Sunday we make a profession of faith when we recite the Creed. The Apostle’s Creed has a powerful line which is seldom understood: “he descended into hell”. Even when we go through hell or put ourselves into hell (sometimes by the choices we make, or others make that impact upon us), God descends into the hell we create. God can cope with our mess, our world, our church, our wounds, our guilt and our sin. Jesus “rises” we say, “on the third day”. That’s the key: Jesus rises on the third day.

Ideologies don’t sustain us, relationships do. Good relationships are first and foremost places where we feel heard, understood, loved, comforted and accompanied. Everything else will flow from this foundation.

Maybe I should rephrase the question to “Are we seeker sensitive?” That suggests, like Jesus, that we would reach out to listen, comfort and accompany before we enforce doctrine or think we have the solution to complex human problems or the struggles of our world. If we are seeker sensitive then we will comfort and be comforted in the knowledge that God sees the heart with the eyes of the heart. This is challenging, but isn’t that what faith really is?

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