Filling up the Churches

An abridged version of this article was published in the Sunday Times

Fr. Alfred Micallef SJ was a lecturer at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Malta.  He is now retired although he continues as a visiting lecturer. At present he lives at Mount St. Joseph Retreat House, Mosta.

Filling up the Churches

Louis Aliot, the vice-president of the extreme right French National Front, together with other leaders of the party, criticized the French bishops for speaking up for refugees.  These leaders have been very irked by the pronouncements of the bishops and rather than answering the bishops’ statements they preferred to chastise them for having spoken at all on matters which they maintain are of no concern to the bishops.  

They urged them to concentrate on filling up their churches rather than on interfering in politics.  In Aliot’s own words: “Catholics should concern themselves with filling their churches and should let the political parties manage public affairs.”

There is no doubt that filling up the churches should be of great concern to the Church leaders.  Notwithstanding, it should not be the first and foremost concern.  Their first concern is to help Christians live and to enlighten others about the values of the Gospel.  These include social values: the creation of socially just structures, the caring and protection of the poor and of the weak, the inclusion of the marginalised. 

Christianity goes far beyond pious devotions.  Of course, those who would like to have it their way would be very happy to see the churches full of pious people praying in churches without thwarting their devious paths.  Not that pious faithful should be denigrated! On the contrary, they are to be commended as they pray to the Lord of justice to enlighten those in power to also work for justice.  

Trying to silence the Church is déjà vu.  Its perpetrators are usually those who do not or would not distinguish between politics and political parties.  Politics is everybody’s concern and the concern of the Church in a very special way because the Church has been commissioned with continuing Christ’s own mission, namely, to bring about the Kingdom.  It is paradoxical that some political leaders and journalists chastise the Orthodox Church in Russia for not being critical of President Putin!

The term “the Kingdom” has often been interpreted to refer to heaven or to the Church itself.  Of course, these interpretations are correct but the Kingdom is much more.  It is the world as God would like it to be, a place where justice and peace reign, where people care for one another, where egoism or the advancement of a few gives way to the common good.  The Church should be a model of this Kingdom and heaven would be its complete realization but the Kingdom Christ speaks about is also very earthy.  It begins now!

This is why the Church is obliged to defend the poor and the weak and to speak for them who have no voice, be they, refugees, human embryos or foetuses, marginalised people.  Pope Francis had no scruples saying that building walls to keep people out was not Christian.  

Contrary to what Aliot said, it is not up to the political parties to manage public affairs.  Political parties make their contribution.  Governments are there to govern but they do not have a blank cheque.  They are bound by the common good.

Unfortunately, some of their choices do not lead to the common good.  Many leaders of African countries would not give up their posts even after losing elections; in other countries genuine opposition is stifled in different ways; corruption reigns supreme.  As a consequence, the weak continue to suffer.

When this happens, each and every individual is obliged to draw their attention.  Nor can the Church be silenced.  The Church speaks both through its individual members and also through the pronouncements of its leaders.  Christ was not silenced.  He vehemently criticized the leaders of his time because of their unjust governing.  

Of course, the Church is very conscious of our human weakness and our incapability of fulfilling this task unaided.  As a consequence, it would be very happy to see churches full of people praying to the Father that by his grace, His Kingdom may come.

Alfred J Micallef sj 

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