Archbishop's Advent Pastoral Letter 2003
My dear People,
Thank you all sincerely for the wonderful support you gave in recent years to the Archdiocesan Synod that commenced in 2001, and reached completion with its promulgation of priorities in July this year. A number of people have said that their lives were changed by the Synod, and I am sure that the lives of all of us who participated, including that vast multitude of people involved in its preparation, were touched in some significant way. Behind all the activity of the Synod lay the Holy Spirit shaping its discussions and inspiring its conclusions, which have already borne fruit and will bear even greater fruit in the future. Special moments on our long Synod journey together will forever remain in my memory. Who can forget the Ecumenical greetings of Church Leaders at our opening ceremony in May, or the passionate words of young people in the final session three days later? As well as these bigger moments of the Spirit there were also the quieter moments, especially the choice of Jesus Communion and Mission as a theological background for all our Synod activity. If the Synod did no more than help us grasp those three theological realities it would have been more than worthwhile, because they will provide the framework to carry this Archdiocese confidently into the future, as a relevant and attractive sign of God’s presence among us.
Already this year we have talked a great deal about Jesus as “Prophet of the Kingdom” who calls each one of us into his Mission of transforming the world. Christ proclaims a dynamic view of God’s reign into which each and every one of us is called, irrespective of our talents. No one can excuse himself or herself from playing a role through misguided feelings of inadequacy or lack of talent, because for God each and every person is important and has a role to play that no one else can play. In the aftermath of the Synod there was great emphasis on the Mission of Christ and the Mission of the Church, both of which share in the one Mission of God - the renewal of creation for the benefit of all. Each and every one of us is called by Baptism to participate in this life-giving Mission of God. However, leaving Mission aside for the moment, I wish to reflect briefly on the Church as Communion.
CHURCH AS COMMUNION
Each and every one of us enters the Church through baptism. Our membership is not the type of membership we might enjoy if we joined a social or sporting club. Church-belonging does not lack this social dimension characteristic of all clubs, but membership in the Church means much more than mere social contact. In a club we are drawn together by our common interest in some area of life, whether frivolous or serious. Such common interest is true also within the Church. Nevertheless in the Church we are also joined at a much deeper level of fellowship, because in the Church we are joined together in the fellowship of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Such joining-together happens at many different levels. At its simplest but very important level, we are joined with God and one another, as part of creation, as creatures of God. At this basic level of creation we can truly say that we are brothers and sisters with one another, at a level of connectedness we rarely notice, just as we also often fail to notice our special relationship with all of creation -– the plants, the animals, the earth, the sea, the sky, the moon, the stars. Like ourselves, all these realities, because of creation, have a relationship with God and us so intimate that the great St Francis of Assisi could rightly refer to heavenly bodies as ‘Brother Sun’ and ‘Sister Moon’.
Nevertheless our relationship does not merely stop at the level of creation, important as that is. At a much deeper level, which the Church names Koinonia, a New Testament Greek word which means ‘participation (in)’, “communion (with)” and “fellowship (with)”, we are joined to one another in and through a conscious relationship to God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Such relationship is a participation first and foremost in the Trinitarian fellowship of God, whose persons live in a unique mutual relationship of giving and receiving love. Individually, because of Jesus Christ our brother, we are invited to participate in God’s internal and external love relationship where we are intimately linked with all people who have lived or will ever live in the Church, as well as those who now live on in the presence of God. Focussed only on this world such communion is most perfectly reflected when we gather in Eucharistic worship as we are doing now, hearing the word of God together, responding to the word of God together, eating the body and blood of Christ together, and at the bidding of the celebrant going forth together to transform the world. We are meant, as Church, to be a powerful sign to the world of what the entire world itself could become, if only it would allow itself to be drawn into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the Spirit, and then, through that relationship, with the universe.
However, as I said at the Synod, communion does not exist for its own sake but for the sake of the Mission of the Church – which is precisely to invite others to enter into communion. Without Mission communion is incomplete. As Pope John Paul II said in his encyclical on the Laity “Communion and Mission are profoundly connected with each other, they interpenetrate and mutually imply each other”. Communion demands to be fulfilled by going out in mission, then returning to even deeper communion. There is a dynamic relationship between communion and mission, a relationship of love, that deepens the more it engages the world. God desires a world in which people will treat others with the respect they deserve as children of God, a world in which harmony and peace will reign forever, for the benefit of all creation.
Sadly we undermine this God-given potential by allowing sinful divisions to take place and to fester, not merely between individuals in a Church, but also between the very Churches themselves. Divisions that are not repaired create an imperfect communion, which although still powerful, is a weak sign incapable of drawing us all together in mind and heart, and incapable of attracting non-believers to our message. Today the Churches are doing their best through the ecumenical movement to change this imperfect situation by seeking dialogue and co-operation with one another in order to deepen our flawed relationships. Sadly there is still so much further to go. The unity of particular Churches in Christ should be a priority of our prayers and actions today so that the one visible Church unified in Christ can be a sign to the world of what God wants the world to be.
So today my dear people I ask you to thank God for the ‘Koinonia’ we share together, and to pray to God that it may grow even deeper. As we move into this season of Advent to celebrate God’s great love for us in the sending of His Son as a child in the manger, let us thank God for the opportunity to participate in God’s life. Let us open our eyes this Advent to the presence of God’s Kingdom that surrounds us, as well as to our communion with God and one another that we need only open our eyes to see. May the Christmas that is fast approaching be full of God’s special peace in our own hearts, in the hearts of our families, our nation, and please God in the heart of our very troubled world. May each and every one of us this Christmas experience that participation, that communion in God’s life here on earth, that is truly the beginning of heaven on earth made effectively present at the first Christmas.
Sincerely in Christ,
Most Rev John Bathersby
Archbishop of Brisbane