The Anxious Edges of Mission

Fr. Patrick O’Shea
June 14, 2013

There was an item in the news here recently about a group that had started a fundraising scheme to place an ad on New Zealand buses that says “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It is one more in a series of what seem like concerted efforts to undermine religious belief which has been blamed not only for the lack of joy in people’s lives, as this slogan suggests, but for many of the conflicts happening in our world. It is time, some say, for us to finally let go of belief in God and start living.

That news item has given me much pause for thought. I have been thinking how some expressions of our Catholic faith, especially those with a strong emphasis on guilt and fear, on secrecy and silence, have generated serious levels of worry and made it hard for many to truly enjoy life. It is also true that religion has been a factor in many conflicts. Religion is one of the major fault lines along which society divides, and these fault lines which also include race, ethnicity, social status, gender and age are and have been points of conflict. The edges where differences meet are generally turbulent and volatile places.

Mission has always been about these kinds of edges. In the past it was common to think of these as geographical. Mission was something that happened overseas in cultures other than one’s own where the Gospel was not known or the church was still establishing itself. These days the boundaries of mission are closer to home. They are as close as the back fence or the church pew or even one’s own heart. The universality of mission has something to do with the fact that wherever people live they find themselves on one or more of these edges.

A great deal of attention has rightly been given to the edge where different religious traditions meet each other, and we have come to understand dialogue as a key element in mission. I don’t know that we have given enough attention to the edge where faith meets non-faith. This is one of the anxious edges of mission. From my experience of working with young people I am concerned that the present generation of young Catholics face a determined attack on faith from outside at a time when there are deep and serious questions within their tradition that make them especially vulnerable and defenseless against such attacks.

Many Catholics feel pushed to the edge of faith by things that have happened within their tradition, things that seem a long way from the vision of Jesus. We have witnessed a substantial exodus of people from church affiliation. A number of these have abandoned belief in God but many more suggest they have not crossed the boundary into non-faith. They continue their spiritual journey just in a new direction. Of the ones who remain within the Church many are trying to re-imagine faith in the light of the Gospel and of what is happening in and to our world while others try to re-establish the old certainties. All this means we are not well placed to relate to a world where many now believe that faith in God is infantile and incongruous with reality and should be abandoned. They are surprised that the religious urge has not already disappeared as its demise was confidently predicted centuries ago when Enlightenment thinking took hold in the West. Yet the religious urge remains, there is a growing interest in spirituality, and the majority of the poor people of the world still belong to a religious tradition.

Originally seen in Columban Mission Magazine June/July 2013