The Church: are we really like Jesus?

What should the Church be doing now, at this point in time? What should the Church be saying to the world? This seems to be one of the critical questions we are being asked to ponder as we prepare for the Synod on Synodality in 2023.

These are important questions. As soon as you ask them, similar answers are given, depending on people’s vantage point: The Church needs to be more outspoken on moral issues like abortion! The Church must speak against sin. People have lost a sense of sin! The Church should engage with the youth. The Church needs to be more counter-cultural.

It is interesting that nobody suggests the Church should be a “field hospital”. This was the image Pope Francis used right at the beginning of his papacy. He said the Church should be a “field hospital for the wounded”. This is a different approach to speaking about moral issues or sin. Whilst it does not exclude them, it has a different focus. At the heart of being a “field hospital” is our commitment to coming alongside people, being with them where they are, rather than telling them what they should (or should not) be doing.

This is the big challenge the Church faces today: to ask ourselves why we are perceived as narrow, judgemental, hypocritical and out of touch with our society and culture. We are quick to defend these perceptions but not as quick to listen further and ask ourselves why these are held. A defensive and militant response towards popular culture does not help. It only further alienates the Church from people – many of whom are not necessarily outside the Church!

Might more people be searching in the Church – and not in the growing spiritual alternatives – if in our society and culture the Church was perceived as a place of healing for weary travellers, a place of accompaniment and friendship rather than an authority that pretends to have all the answers and makes a never-ending series of moral demands? Are we a place of dialogue and encounter rather than a place of rigidity that puts hurdles in the way of receiving sacraments and canon law above wounded hearts? Is our Church only for those who have ticked the boxes we have drawn?

Phrased another way: are we truly a hospitable place for all people? Or are we fearful that God’s grace might be wider than what we can cope with because of the categories we have defined?

As Christmas draws near, we are invited to look attentively at what God did in Jesus: he comes to live amongst us and accompany us as Emmanuel – “God is with us”. God, in Jesus, throws his arms open to all and is willing to embrace anyone who comes near. Jesus never denied seekers a place at the table or used the law to crush wounded hearts.

What should we be doing and saying for people today? There is power in saying little and – perhaps like St Joseph – listening more carefully to know the real wounds people bear and respond by becoming a field hospital. That is what God did in Jesus: became the field hospital amid broken humanity.

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church.

director@jesuitinstitute.org.za @rpollittsj
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