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Issue Date:  November 5, 2004

Called to shopping malls and soccer fields

San Antonio

If voyages to the four corners of the earth once fired the missionary imagination, today missionaries feel called instead to the shopping malls and soccer fields of the First World -- where, truth to be told, the “pagans” of postmodern age are most likely to be found.

This, at least, was the premise of a three-day symposium on the “Mission to Secularity” held Oct. 21-23 in San Antonio and sponsored by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

One tentative conclusion from the gathering of more than 200 missionaries, ministers and pastoral workers: Secularization, meaning the construction of a culture not explicitly premised on religious beliefs or institutions, may be a mixed bag, but there are still cracks through which the Christian message can penetrate.

“Secularity is the child of Christianity,” said Oblate Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, the convener of the symposium. “It may be a belligerent child, but it is not your enemy.”

Engaging secularity, according to Rolheiser, requires creativity on the part of missionaries, given that traditional institutions have increasingly less hold on popular belief and practice. He described this as a “post-ecclesial” situation.

The San Antonio gathering was the third in a series of gatherings on the “mission to secularity” sponsored by the Oblates, with the aim being to generate a book on the subject to be published by Crossroads.

The symposium was organized into six “streams” of reflection, each led by a distinguished Catholic writer, theologian or pastoral expert. Dominican Sr. Donna Ciangio of the National Pastoral Life Center led the discussion on ministry within parishes; Precious Blood Fr. Robert Schreiter, ministry outside parish structures; Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, preaching and evangelization; Fr. Michael Downey of Los Angeles, theology and spirituality; Rolheiser, vocations and renewal of religious life; and Basilian Fr. Tom Rosica, the organizer of World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, the sessions on youth.

Protestant Biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann delivered the keynote address, challenging participants to “out-imagine” secularity. He argued that secular culture is characterized by three negatives: a “numbing of the human spirit” caused by consumerism; a redefinition of human community from “the public” to “the market”; and a shift from a sense of the holy to a culture premised on technology.

“We have to change the subject,” Bruggemann said. “It’s about the miracles of God. We must speak of them morning and night.”

Others, however, offered a more positive reading of secularity. Downey identified seven gains it has produced: a turn to human subjectivity; the recognition that the person has rights and liberties, such as the right to education, health care and employment; freedom of and from religion; intellectual freedom; the centrality of the other; a recognition that the voice of the people matters; and “a deliberate refusal to accept the plausibility of an argument solely on the basis of authority.”

“I dare say,” Downey said, “that none of us would want to go back to a world without these elements.”

Though few participants disagreed that secularity has its positive side, there were different accents about how best to engage it.

Downey proposed a “kenotic” theology (in Greek, “kenosis” refers to the self-emptying of Christ). This means, he said, “to see God between the cracks,” sometimes in the very silence of the postmodern world about the transcendent. Downey noted that John Paul II, in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, urged theologians to develop the concept of “kenosis.”

Rosica, however, suggested that at least for the young, a more explicitly proclamatory and devotional approach is required.

“Young people have a great desire for the sacramental life of the church, for scripture and for catechesis,” he said. “There is a great thirst for piety and devotion, and the person of Jesus Christ must be at the center of it all.”

Rosica was critical of what he called “professional associations and theological elites” in the church who are mired in “polarization and labeling.”

“Young people have no patience for any of this,” he said.

Ciangio called for a revitalization of parish life.

“The ordinary Catholic parish is suffering from its ordinariness,” she said. “A church doesn’t have a mission -- a mission has a church.”

Rohr told the San Antonio gathering that secularity has both a good and a bad meaning, and that, ironically, the church is more likely to be shaped by the bad than the good.

“Christianity is not dying, but the assumptions of the Enlightenment and modernism with which so much of Christian belief has been intertwined, though without admitting it, is collapsing,” he said.

Rohr argued that Christianity has made the Gospel into a “winner’s script” in which success, power and wealth are celebrated and “brokenness and weakness” scorned, also inside the church.

“People feel Christianity is an exclusionary system,” he said, “but that’s not Christianity. It’s a worldview with which we’ve aligned ourselves.”

He said that an “incapacity to admit failure and weakness” was what “got the bishops in so much trouble” during the sexual abuse crisis.

Schreiter offered a reading of what some scholars call “second modernity,” a new culture now emerging characterized by a reaction against the fragmentation and centrifugal forces of postmodernity. He said its central thrust is “searching for the whole.”

In that light, Schreiter noted that fundamentalism, despite its claim to stand on tradition, is actually a “very modern reaction.” It tends to pick and choose among aspects of tradition, often privileging “secondary” concerns. He noted, for example, that Catholic traditionalists tend to focus on the Latin Mass and abortion, “neither of which made it into the Nicene Creed.”

At a practical level, one model for evangelizing secularity was a new project of the Oblates in Birmingham, England. Four young Oblates have been assigned to set up shop in the city’s Bullring Mall, purportedly the largest shopping mall in the world, with the idea of bringing the Gospel to the very heart of secularity.

Rolheiser described the project as an attempt to tap the “romantic imagination” of potential missionaries. He compared its aspirations to Thomas Merton’s book The Seven Storey Mountain, which inspired a generation of vocations to the contemplative life.

“For 20 years after that book, the Trappists had to beat men away with a stick,” Rolheiser said. “We need its equivalent in our culture today.”

As far as religious orders are concerned, Rolheiser said that one primary challenge is to foster communities with “the kind of personal and communal sanctity that gives us the right to ask a healthy woman or man to give his or her life to this community.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 2004

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