The World: Permanent Dwelling Place of the Gospel
Homily given by Bishop Mario Grech, Pro-Secretary-General of the Synod of Bishops and formerly Bishop of Gozo, Malta (2005-19), at the Priestly Ordination of four African Augustinians, Basilica of Saint Augustine, Rome, 4 July 2020.
Dearest Deacons Emmanuel, Cosmos, Jean-Paul and Nicodemus,
We priests, while we are not of the world, the Lord Jesus has sent us into the world. It is true that this world has its ambiguities and temptations, so much so that John exhorts us: ‘you must not love the world, nor the things of the world. If someone should love the world, the love of the Father is not in him’ (1Jn 2:15-16); but at the same time, the world is something so good that it has stolen the heart of God: ‘God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life’ (Jn 3:16). How can we relate to this reality?
One classical solution has been fuga mundi, flight from the world. Even Peter on Mount Tabor wanted to leave the world: ‘Lord, it is wonderful for us to be here, if you wish I will make three tents…’ (Mt 17:4). These days Peter has his followers! Unfortunately there are those in the Church who are convinced that ‘they are not of the world’, and they are determined to leave it behind them. They take every opportunity to ‘disinfect’ themselves. But they don’t always do it for valid reasons. Some of them feel so ‘perfect’ that they disparage and despise the world. It is sufficient to notice the language they use and the way in which they relate to others, believing that they are an elite. They are isolated within a closed circle and at a distance from the world.
But can the Church and the disciples of the Lord afford to retreat from the world? The missionary mandate of Jesus remains valid: ‘As the Father sent me, so I have sent you’. As Pope Francis teaches us, the Church is a Church that goes out, not in flight from the world but from itself - from its own self-preoccupation, from its closed-mindedness, from its rigid schemes of the past that prevent Jesus from going forth to meet the women and men of today. Our Holy Father has presented Jesus as one who ‘knocks on the door from inside the Church, trying to get out’. The Church that goes forth is not in fuga mundi, flight from the world, nor does it distance itself from it in an attitude of contemptus mundi, contempt of the world.
It is a missionary going forth, to a world that God wants to save. Pope Francis is right when he says, ‘If we want to bring the joy of the Gospel only to ourselves, we will become isolated, sterile and sick Christians’ (Message for World Youth Day 2013). It is in encountering the world in an attitude of openness that the Church announces the joy of the Gospel. In Evangelii Gaudium the Holy Father explains that following the example of the Lord the Church must not distance itself from the world: ‘... the Lord has taken the initiative, he has loved us first’ (24). The Church must know how to mix with people. It must not be afraid to dirty its hands for the sake of the world. Priests must not be obsessed with a pure and clean Church, but on the other hand they must be at the disposal of others and ‘accompany’ them where they are at. ‘A Church that is on a journey must be prepared to travel with everyone’ (Pope Francis, Talk given to the plenary session of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, September 2013). Even the negative aspects of the world are also an opportunity for encounter and dialogue with God and with others.
According to Cardinal Walter Kasper, the world is the permanent dwelling place of the Gospel. Therefore when we distance ourselves from the world, we distance ourselves from the Gospel. The world is a locus theologicus (theological place), a yardstick by which we measure the impact of the Gospel. The history of salvation and the history of humanity interact. There are not two separate journeys going in different directions - one for the people of God and one for humanity - rather, the people of God are companions on the human journey. Our task within the Church as members of religious orders, priests and bishops is to present the Gospel to the world and to search with others for ways in which to make it a reality in people’s lives. As a rabbi once said, ‘there is no Torah (the first five books of the Bible - Jewish Law) without flour, and there is no flour without the Torah’. Likewise, we can also say that there is no Gospel without ‘flour’ (the contemporary world), and there is no flour without the Gospel. The Gospel has to be incarnated. The world is the place where the Gospel becomes a reality.
This is confirmed in the recent document of the Augustinian Order, A Time for Hope, where it says (quoting Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exultate), ‘“even outside the Catholic Church and in very different contexts, the Holy Spirit raises up signs of his presence” (GE 9). In their doing they witness to love and, therefore, are the presence of God’ (1.2.2).
Dear Deacons, members of the Augustinian Order, in a moment you will receive the gift of priesthood and you will become priests for the Church in the world. Remember that you are not of the world but in the world. As the above-mentioned document of the Order says, ‘Augustinian community is not egotistical nor self-absorbed, it does not isolate itself nor entrench itself, but rather opens itself up to the world, it “is” in the world’ (220.127.116.11). I urge you to yearn for the smell of the world. Try to find God in the world. Take seriously the need to make the ‘city of God’ transparent to the ‘city of people’. Present the Gospel with a ‘human face’, because without it the Gospel will lose its attraction as the word of God. You will only be able to present this human face if you engage with the language of our culture in a spirit of discernment, so that the word of God can be heard in the words of people today, and so that it can be recognised as ‘fullness of life’ in the contemporary world. Through the intercession of our Father St Augustine, may the Lord continue to consecrate you in the Truth (Jn17.18).
This is a slightly edited and translated version of the original in Italian, published with permission.