This is the text of the Lecture given at Holy name by Werner G Jeanrond, Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford on 26 October 2017
© Werner G Jeanrond, St Benet’s Hall, University of Oxford
A CHURCH WITHOUT PRIESTS?
THE NEED FOR NEW FORMS OF LEADERSHIP IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
Lecture manuscript for personal use only
Reading the Signs of the Time
The Second Vatican Council invited all Catholic Christians to consider afresh their divine vocation, to promote the priesthood of all people, to read the signs of the times, and to live their faith here and now in an ever more intimate discipleship and love of Christ. Taking this invitation seriously, we are meeting a number of challenges today.
One such challenge is emphasised already in the title of this talk: a church without priests? Is it possible to be disciples of Christ without priests? For many Catholics, the answer to this question is no. Their form of being Christian builds on the authority and mediating power of priests. Such a faith could be called a clericalist faith. For these Catholics, it is impossible to imagine the Roman Catholic Church without a clearly structured hierarchy, which so far has been exclusively male. Even many so-called lapsed Catholics find it impossible to think of a church without priests. Although they do not participate themselves in the life of the church, they prefer the church to remain an institution professionally administered by the clergy. Incidentally, such non-participatory clericalism can also be found in many Protestant churches. Clericalism, thus, is neither a Catholic invention nor possession. Rather, it points to a great dilemma incurred by all clerically defined churches where a hierarchy of professional Christians is in the driving seat, and where a laity, distinct if not separate from the professionals, forms at best a second-class constituency. I wish to argue that clericalism is not a good way to build genuine communities of Christian discipleship.
How shall we interpret the particular sign of our time that fewer and fewer men are willing to join the ranks of a celibate male clergy? This sign of the times is not really new. We have known for many years that the type of the male celibate priest was dying out. The dramatically declining figures speak for themselves. However, rather than responding to this fact and thus reacting to the sign of the times, many bishops have admonished us to pray more fervently for more vocations to this kind of priesthood, though, as we now know, without success. What shall we do in this situation?
Three alternatives have been discussed so far: (1) The church could allow for a greater number of married priests and invite back those former priests who once left their priestly ministry in order to get married. (2) The church could invite women to be ordained as priests. (3) The church could be reorganised into ever-greater organisational units in order to match the ever-dwindling number of priests. I find all three proposals problematic.
The last one, adapting the diocesan structure of parishes to the number of still-working priests, reveals a blindness to the signs of the times and a profoundly clericalist understanding of the mission of the church and of the divine vocation of Christian women, men and children. Unfortunately, the majority of European bishops have adopted this sort of approach. As we have seen in many dioceses, it only leads to further disenchantment among the laity, but interestingly enough, also among many priests who now feel reduced in their ministry merely to serving as Eucharistic executives. One of my German priest friends is already looking after 26 smaller parishes, now grouped into five separate parish units with five times the usual amount of formal meetings to attend. He, like so many of the few still-working priests, feels instrumentalised by the bishop and the rapidly crumbling structures. Moreover, he is exhausted. I know many priests who try to do their best in the current situation, yet feel deprived of any possibility to exercise a genuinely pastoral ministry. They feel, to put it bluntly, like clerical cannon fodder in a hopeless battle.
What about the other two options, i.e. allowing for married priests and female priests? To be sure, such a move would profoundly change the organisation of the church as we know it. It would help to disentangle the ongoing confusion between the monastic profile of priestly life as it is promoted in the seminaries and the harsh reality of the lonely life of a priest in today’s church and society where the necessary support structures that once made a celibate priestly ministry possible in the first place no longer exist. The sublimation of sexuality requires a supportive community context. However, this context no longer exists everywhere. Even this is a sign of the times, whether we like it or not.
Pope Benedict XVI admitted in an interview with German television that the embargo on female priests had no theological foundation; it was merely a matter of tradition. Hence, the termination of discussion of the possibility of female priests proclaimed by Pope John-Paul II in his 1994 edict Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, remains unconvincing. Therefore, it continues to be challenged by priests and laity alike.
Ordaining both married and unmarried men and women to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church would certainly alter the shape of leadership in the church. To be sure, seeing families growing up in parish rectories would demystify any remaining sacred patina attached to the image of the priest as a pure and holy man. However, would it make the church more faithful to its mission and vocation? I think not. My scepticism results from my experience in Sweden. I have witnessed in the Swedish Lutheran Church how clericalism persists even now when more or less anybody can present himself or herself for ordination to the priesthood following the specified training and examination.
Add women and stir, as one feminist critique called the recent efforts to allow even women to join the ranks of the clergy, changes nothing in respect to the much deeper crisis of church and discipleship today. Hence, I wish to warn against putting our energy too quickly in the mere overhaul of the criteria for admission to the priesthood. Rather, I wish to argue that the particular model of the priest that has come about in the church’s response to its organisational needs in the modern industrialised society no longer seems adequate in our time of post-industrial individualised existence.
Hence, I am advocating first of all a renewed discussion of our common Christian vocation to discipleship before we begin to consider appropriate models of Christian leadership. Otherwise, we would put the cart before the horse.
Our Common Christian Vocation to Discipleship
The church is a community of disciples following Jesus Christ in doing the will of God. Thus, the church is characterized primarily by its response to God’s creative and reconciling initiatives. Called to help establish God’s reign on earth, the church must not confuse itself with God’s kingdom. Rather, following Jesus Christ’s ministry, death and resurrection, the church proclaims, lives and celebrates the good news, the gospel, of the arrival of God’s Kingdom here and now.
True, for centuries many Christians have thought of the church’s purpose in terms of preparing our souls here for entry into the next world. Thus, the ultimate purpose of this world created and loved by God has not always been adequately appreciated. However, once we remind ourselves that it is in this world that God’s reign is to be established, we cannot afford not to be interested in and concerned about the state of this universe with all its creative potential and all its present troubles shouting for healing. News of this world, then, is news about the state of God’s reign.
What is the church to achieve in this universe? It proclaims God’s good news and it develops strategies of acting according to Jesus Christ’s liberating message about God’s closeness to us and God’s will that we live in His presence as His free partners, freed from all kinds of oppression, and freed from all fear of threatening demons, evil structures and domineering powers. Accepting this God-given freedom takes precedence over all other commitments, be these to one’s family, one’s temple, one’s land, one’s school or one’s religious law. Jesus’ ‘relatives’ are said to be those who, like him, do the will of God.
His relationship to God was direct and did not require the mediation of a temple cult, though he did not oppose the ministries undertaken by the Levites as long as they served God and not their own status. Jesus proclaimed God’s love to social, religious and ethnic outcasts, such as the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). God’s people are not defined in terms of their citizenship, class, race or sex. Moreover, Jesus came to offer new life to the religious law, the Torah, whose purpose has been to order the relationships between God and his people, between the people themselves, and between the people and God’s creation. For Jesus, the spirit of love determined whether or not certain prescriptions and commands were all right, and not their letter.
We must ask ourselves to what extent we are prepared to accept this enormous freedom to love, which Jesus proclaimed, and to organise the community of Christ’s disciples accordingly. Do we wish to accept this spirit as the criterion for judging whether we are on the way to co-operate with the coming reign of God? If we are unclear about the criteria for discerning the particular dimensions of God’s Kingdom, we may remain confused as to where that reign is under construction, and as a result, we risk being misled by all kinds of pseudo-kingdom builders.
Hence, the most important test of Christian discipleship is our response to the radical call to love. Jesus invited everybody to join the work on building the Kingdom of God. Differences in personality, character and talent are not only not obstacles, but are one of the signs of God’s people. The disciples of Christ are a diverse lot! God’s people can never be a homogenous group. Nor should they ever be defined by class-thinking and status-defence.
Thus far, we have identified two dimensions of God’s coming reign: the freedom from all kinds of oppression, and the radical equality of all its members. A third dimension is the element of divine surprise. God’s presence in our lives, once we allow for it, has surprising and also unsettling effects.
Freedom to love, radical equality, and the readiness to be carried away by love beyond the boundaries imposed on us by ourselves or others are signs for the arrival of God’s Kingdom. Any state of our church at any given time must be measured at least in accordance with these criteria. Then questions such the following arise: are we as a community of Christ’s disciples responding to God’s invitation in the way described or are we not? Is our self-understanding as church marked by fear of losing power or by our readiness to embark on a journey with God into the unknown? Is our hope limited or radical? Do we take our present ecclesial institutions and structures more seriously than we ought to and if so why? Do we believe in the church or with the church in God’s love?
Naturally, every institution, including institutions of love, requires structures and officers that serve in accordance with the aims of the institution. Of course, we need ways of organising our responses to God and of passing on our love, hope and faith to others and to coming generations. Nobody seriously doubts all that. However, what is put to the test here is whether the spiritual and organisational steps which we have taken are altogether adequate, and whether or not the right set of criteria has been applied for their continuous evaluation. Unless we are prepared to question our self-understanding as the church of Jesus Christ again and again we may risk using our different forms of ministry too easily as self-serving rather than as God-serving.
In light of these reflections, we may wish to be more careful when speaking about ‘vocation’. All Christians share the same vocation and the same responsibility for their response to the divine vocation to proclaim, enact and celebrate the gospel. Any secondary thought about any specific tasks in the church is just a secondary thought. Hence, anybody claiming a specific call to a particular task within the community of disciples ought to be careful not to undermine his or her, or indeed anybody else’s, primary vocation. Moreover, it would be rather strange to claim that God has called me to a different class in his church when the very point of the gospel is to undo any such status or class among Christ’s disciples. Also, claiming that God has called you or me to the priesthood of a type once operative in previous periods, such as in medieval church and society and their understanding of sacredness, or in modern industrialised society with its homogeneous aspirations, would sound rather anachronistic. All types of ministry ought to respond critically and self-critically to the pastoral needs and circumstances of human life at a specific time and in a concrete place.
Similarly, Pope Francis has repeatedly pointed to the fact that realities are greater than ideas. The call to minister is universal, but the call to minister in a particular way is contextual. Therefore, we ought to be much more careful when we refer to priestly vocations in general. For what good would it do to send a priest into our post-industrial, post-modern individualistic culture who was trained to minister in a Neo-Platonist model of church where ideas are considered more important than realities? However, that is exactly what is happening right now in many parts of our church. Merely adding women and married men to this kind of ministry, therefore, would not be helpful. Rather, what we need is a new approach to our shared responsibility for the church and its many and diverse ministerial needs today.
If we approach our common vocation in this sense, anybody claiming a call to the priestly ministry must be able to demonstrate his or her ability to minister to the concrete needs and differing circumstances of the church in Newcastle, Burford, London, Derby etc. Ministerial competence is context-specific, Christian vocation is not. You will understand why I remain suspicious about the claim that a fuller commitment to Christian discipleship automatically should lead to priesthood. I find it impossible to believe that God prefers only celibate men for specific leadership tasks. Hence, the link between God and male power in our church must be broken. Moreover, let us be careful not to refer to God in order to sanction our own class- and status-conscious manoeuvres in the church.
Before we return to the question of which forms of leadership may be required today, let’s try again to read the signs of the times in terms of understanding in which world we are attempting to be God’s people and Christ’s disciples here and now.
Being Church in a New World
One of the great achievements of the Second Vatican Council was its willingness to engage with the world – as it was then. Especially in the 1965 Constitution Gaudium et Spes, the Council Fathers (all male) made a serious effort to understand their world. In this and other conciliar documents they acknowledged the need to respect the dignity and religious freedom of every person; they attempted to appreciate the scope of technical progress, the emerging global awareness, and the religious pluralism of humankind. These were great and necessary achievements. Seriously trying to understand and to know in which milieu we Christians live our lives and witness to the good news of God’s creative and reconciling project, had proven to be a liberating route for Christian theology and ministerial praxis. It has led to the emergence of a host of emancipatory theologies and related practical action, including political theology, liberation theology, feminist theology, womanist theology, queer theology, ecological theology etc.
Moreover, the Council Fathers were very much aware of the tension between Christian freedom and equality, on the one hand, and clerical absolutism, on the other. However, they were not prepared to deal with this tension with sufficient radicalism. Hence, at the beginning of the 1964 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, they stress the priesthood of all Christians, yet at the same time they reconfirm the ontological difference between priests and people:
Though they differ essentially and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are none the less ordered one to another; each in its own proper way shares in the one priesthood of Christ. The ministerial priest, by the sacred power that he has, forms and rules the priestly people; in the person of Christ he effects the Eucharistic sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people. The faithful indeed, by virtue of their royal priesthood, participate in the offering of the Eucharist. They exercise that priesthood, too, by the reception of the sacraments, prayer and thanksgiving, the witness of a holy life, abnegation and active charity. (LG 10)
Already then, the model of priesthood was out of sync with the emerging understanding of the church and the needs of the world.
Since the Council, the world has not stopped changing. The industrial age to which the Council Fathers tried to relate has gone, and with it all the former certainties and aspirations in terms of a stable Western middle-class as the bearer of Christian identity in European societies. The Eurocentric church, which the Council Fathers still represented, is no more. Today the Roman Catholic Church has most of its followers in the Southern hemisphere and, significantly, we now have a Latin American pope.
The definitions of medieval theology and the neo-Thomist attempts to overcome the challenges of modernity, of the enlightenment and of the increasing emancipation of Roman Catholic Christians in the industrial age no longer work or convince. Who today appreciates the finesses of the theology of transubstantiation? Hence, new theological models of church, ministry and leadership are required.
The feminist movement has exposed what were once self-evident power structures as patriarchal, sexist and obsolete. The critical perspectives of sociologists, philosophers, theologians, economists and psychologists have revealed how structures of power and control are formed, how they function and how they often are defended with reference to sacred and exclusive traditions in order to make them immune to change and correction. (As an Oxford head of house I know fully well how these structures work).
Increased attention to hermeneutics, i.e. interpretation theory, has made us aware of the necessary subjective perspectives in any search for truth. Moreover, it has undermined appeals to an unchanging, ahistorical truth, valid and administered in the same way in every epoch of humankind.
The postmodern turn to the subject has shifted attention from absolute truth, from society, church and academy to the individual subject. As a result, rather than looking for a framework of reference in life outside the subject, now the subject herself or himself has become the centre of the universe. Rather than a pilgrimage with others and a care for the relationship with others, the journey inwards has become the overarching concern in contemporary life resulting in an ever-increasing loneliness. Traditional community structures are fragmenting in our metropolitan cultures. We see more single-person households in our big cities than ever before. Communal values disappear behind the new search for individual experience and subjective cultural consumption. While the metropolitan citizen is able to move from one cultural hub to the next, persons without sufficient or any logistical means, often put their hopes in fleeing from poverty, oppression, war and disease, at times with the help of criminal facilitators and at the risk of their very lives. Some parents dispatch their children alone on the route to a better life in the wealthier west.
Most dramatically, the new lonely urban individual is, like all people on this globe, affected by the ever-increasing globalisation, digitalisation and post-industrial technological advances including artificial intelligence with its promises and threats. Today, hand held electronic devices allow anybody to relate to anybody in the world. No generation before us has ever enjoyed such global outreach and relational potential. However, the potential to put one’s own story, pictures and hopes into the World Wide Web for everybody to see and hear, to like or dislike, has as such not made life and love any easier. It is interesting to observe how often these days in the English language we refer to other human beings as ‘individuals’ and no longer as ‘persons’. While persons are characterized by their relationships, individuals are just what it says: isolated numbers that can be counted, calculated, forgotten or discarded, as they are not part of any larger body. Individuals at best form collectives, whereas persons are able to form communities.
In the Christian tradition, we proclaim the example of how Jesus of Nazareth went out of his way to reconnect God to all those who were excluded from the then ruling religious frameworks and civil contexts. In Western societies today, more or less everybody may be considered as a lonely subject in need of being reconnected with God, with other human beings, with God’s creative and reconciling project, and with his or her own emerging self. Hence, now when the need for pastoral ministry and spiritual direction is greater than ever, when each person is in great need of being found anew and introduced afresh to God’s love, many of our ministerial resources called to do this have disappeared. Amalgamation of parish structures, reducing the few remaining priests to sacramental executives and seeing bishops reduced to troubled HR managers further widens the rift between lonely people in search of community, on the one hand, and the church, on the other. Thus, from the perspective of the lonely subject today, at a time when one would need the church most, it has become largely invisible or preoccupied with its own ministerial misery. This misery and loss of trust is further exacerbated by the ongoing abuse crisis, which points to massive and horrific abuses of power, status and trust. Who would risk trusting such an institution to enlighten people on love and sexuality?
In sum, the chances of instilling new life into previous ministerial provisions and leadership structures in the church are nil. What is needed, instead, is a fresh, critical and self-critical approach to ministry and leadership. The time of the absolute priest, bishop, pope is gone. Today, the laity is, if not better, at least equally well equipped, educated and informed so as to take on responsibility in and for the church. Hence, we need models of co-operative ministry and of leadership marked by collaboration, delegation and consultation and, at the same time, sensitive to the respective cultural context. The ‘one-model fits all’ approach of the Roman Catholic past won’t work any longer in the fragmented and diverse milieu in which we now live, work and pray. Once more, realities are greater than ideas!
Today, there seems to be a remarkable consensus: what is most urgently needed is a new culture of love. Here, Christian and secular voices agree, and the co-operation between different religious movements has much to offer. This cry for a new culture of love offers us Christians a unique opportunity to revisit our tradition for best practices of love and to provide our world with credible examples of concrete personal and communal witness to the love of God, our fellow human beings, God’s creation, and our own emerging selves. For Christians, the lonely subject is not at the centre but the person invited by God into a dynamic network of responsible relationships.
This could also be the place to review best communal witness and practice among the different religious orders and congregations. For example, the ongoing discernment of universal apostolic preferences in the Society of Jesus could offer further inspiration. In his letter to the Jesuits in October 2017, the recently elected Superior General Arturo Sosa recalls the elements that have most characterized the mission of the Society of Jesus since the Second Vatican Council: “service of the Faith, promotion of the Justice of the Gospel, and efforts to dialogue with other cultures and religions”. At the centre of Jesuit attention is the ministry of reconciliation in Christ which God the Father realises through the Holy Spirit.
Reconciliation is today the most heartrending cry of humanity. Since biblical times Reconciliation has been a central, intrinsic dimension of the pursuit of Justice, that is, of the earnest efforts to restore the fine fabric of manifold relations that constitute the human being according to the original design of the Creator. The mature fruit of Reconciliation is Peace, the sublime situation in which human beings not only recognize one another’s dignity, relate together in harmony, and guarantee the basic right of all, but also for the integrity of Creation as a whole.
Father Sosa, however, is fully aware of the tension between discerning Universal Apostolic Preferences, on the one hand, and attention to persons, times and places, on the other hand. No strategy of mission and love in the church, however important as horizon for Christian praxis, must ever bypass or neglect the real and concrete life of men, women and children.
Love at the Centre
In the past, Christians often pointed to their faith and faith traditions in the hope that their contemporaries might be impressed and eventually persuaded to join in. However, as long as faith was understood primarily in terms of the dogmatic content of what Christians were expected to assent to, the dynamics of faith as a lived relationship with God and each other took second place. Yet, what we believe in is less important than how we believe. Our faith praxis is likely to be more credible to others than citations from our catechisms. That we believe in love and its redeeming nature is of less consequence than how we are seen to love each other, God and God’s creation.
Confronting our lonely post-industrial single person households with pamphlets on Christian love won’t work. However, inviting our isolated and uprooted fellow human beings to come and see how we live, care, share, celebrate and pray, as Jesus did, might offer them and us a new and transformative sense of Christian community. If we could reduce the noise of faith a bit and instead increase our praxis of love, we might allow ourselves to be drawn into the dynamic transformation which the Holy Spirit is prepared to bring about.
Hence, a new paradigm of church is required today. We no longer need to pretend to have models for the perfect society, for a hierarchically structured anti-world fortress that claims to possess and administer the truth to our souls for the benefit of eternity. Instead, we may wish to follow Pope Francis, discern God’s will here and now, and view our church in terms of a field hospital or a pilgrim movement – besides and with other pilgrim movements and field hospitals in this world. Here the challenge is not to proclaim Christian love as distinct from other forms of love; rather the challenge is to bring about a Christian culture of love and community that contributes to the transformation of our world through the dynamic confluence of divine and human love.
Obviously, love is not understood here in romantic or sentimental terms. Rather, we need to rediscover the power of love to establish and transform communities of disciples in and for this world. Hence, Christian discipleship calls women, men and children into this world and not to saving their souls in isolation from this world. God has created and God loves this world. God wishes to establish eternal relations already here and now through his gifts of love, of hope and of faith. However, love comes first for God is love (1 John 4:8+16). And yet, love is much more than a feeling; it is hard work.
Facing otherness is never easy. And facing God’s radical otherness remains a tough challenge. The aim of love is not to reduce otherness, but to respect and enjoy it. Thus, our approach to a community inspired by and engaged in a culture of love requires respect and attention for otherness. Otherness is the substance of true love.
New Forms of Leadership in the Catholic Church
Our reflections on the present vocation of the church has helped us to re-evaluate the general vocation of all baptised Christians as the foundation on which to consider the current needs in our part of the world for specific ministries. We have seen that merely adding married men and women into priestly offices will not work. Rather, we need a more thorough discussion on the sacrament of holy order. Of course, the embargo on the ordination of women has to go. In addition, the ancient ontological models of priesthood and hierarchy as male domains should be replaced by community-oriented models of ministerial service.
Ministry means first and foremost ‘service’. It is a service to the people of God and at the same time a service to God. One of the greatest dangers of misunderstanding what ministry means in all Christian churches is the concept of representation. By that I mean that Christians look to somebody else as the one who is Christian on their behalf. All too often priests and even theologians are considered to represent some kind of a professional Christians, paid to be Christian so as to offer assurance that the non-professional Christians might be saved. Such a concept of ministry, though still cherished in many Christian churches, is not only wrong, but also diametrically opposed to the arrival of God’s reign. God’s reign can only happen when we all allow it to happen. God respects the human freedom to say ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ and does not impose His gifts on us. As a result, no priest can provide assurance of the arrival of God’s Kingdom on somebody else’s behalf. All a priest can do is to proclaim God’s presence in our midst so that it may unfold its creativity if we listen to it, accept it and respond to it accordingly. God’s reign is close when we respond, but it remains distant as long as we do not.
In this context, we also need to review the role of the sacraments in the life of the church. Amalgamating parishes to ensure the continuing administration of the sacraments by the few remaining priests, completely misinterprets the vocation and dignity of Christian praxis. If the sacraments are all that is left of our church, our church is dead. If coming, receiving and leaving is what is left, then Christian community has died. The sacraments are God’s gift to a vibrant community and not an anchor to be thrown at isolated individuals. Sacraments outside of vibrant communities make no sense. Hence, we ought to be careful not to reduce the sacraments to mere objects for the consumption of atomised persons in need of some magical link to transcendence. Sacraments and church belong together. Thus, let us not allow the misuse of the sacraments as yet another object of consumption for today’s lonely cultural ‘capitalists’. Again, reducing priests to sacramental executives and reducing the sacraments to objects of isolated consumption neither builds Christian communities nor advances the arrival of God’s Kingdom.
We Christians, therefore, ought to liberate each other as well as our bishops and priests for the hope that guides us and inspires us. Building the church in response to God’s call requires love, hope, courage and faith – and in this order. We need leadership in how to build a culture of love. This culture will create new space for hope – not for our little hopes for this and that, but for the great and radical hope that we can embark on a pilgrimage with God to new shores under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Joining this pilgrimage requires courage: to let go of the old paradigm of the church as sacred society over and against the world and embrace the unsettling model of the church as field hospital with a mission to bring God’s healing and peace to our wounded world. Finally, we should have faith, meaning, we should dare to trust in the dynamics of the coming reign of God that necessarily transcends all of our models of church.
This is the horizon in which new and more adequate forms of leadership may be considered and developed. Of course, this can only happen in the specific contexts of the church. Embracing subsidiarity and decentralisation will be a joy for those whose service to God and one another is not motivated by status and careerism, but by love, hope, courage and faith. Love embraces difference. A culture of love inspires every person to contribute what they can for the wellbeing of the community. Some are more talented to serve as spiritual accompaniers, others as parish leaders, others as priests, others as youth workers, others as musicians, others as social workers and advocates, others as prayer leaders, others as carers for the old and disabled, others as Bible study leaders, others as communicators, others as evangelists, others as teachers, others as outreach specialists etc. A vibrant parish community needs us all.
Having outlined his model of ministry and leadership in 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul concludes his reflection in Chapter 13 with praising the culture of love as the culmination of any such model;
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor 13: 1-3)
We have received God’s gifts of love, hope, courage and faith to empower us to build his reign in response to his invitation in Jesus Christ. Let us accept these gifts and get started. We do not need to wait for permission to love, hope and believe. If we start to build vibrant and inclusive communities right here where we are and to identify the different needs and talents in a critical and self-critical spirit of love, then God will grace us with His transforming presence. What more do we want?
© Werner G Jeanrond, St Benet’s Hall, University of Oxford