Why are so many people turning away from church? Some say it’s boring. Should priests take up juggling or magic tricks? My column is out today in the Scottish Catholic Observer. Read what I have to say. Full text will be here next week if you can’t be bothered to buy it.
Last month I quoted His Holiness, Pope Francis I, telling us to build the Church. We must be the evangelists spreading the Faith. That sounds exciting and really scary all at the same time. It’s exciting because it places us in the forefront of building the Kingdom of God on earth. It is scary because we don’t really know how to go about it.
A few years ago I was in Liberia with Father Gary Jenkins, an SMA missionary. I was learning about how a mission works, looking at the school, the clinics and the people working there. He was a very experienced missionary and was working in remote villages, bringing the Gospel to people who had never heard the Word.
At that time Liberia was emerging from a disastrous civil war and people were returning to devastated villages to try to pick up the threads of normal life again. I asked Father Gary how he went about introducing people to the Gospel. How do you get them interested? His answer was quite simple. The culture in those African communities was an oral one. Most people could not read and write so everything was in the spoken word. Their culture was passed down through the generations in stories. Father Gary told stories.
His stories were the stories of the Bible. He visited villages and told his stories to generate an understanding of what Christianity was about. He told me that Missionaries did not bring God to Africa. God was already there. The Holy Spirit moved in Africa before the white man and created a thirst for knowledge of God. What was new to Africa was Jesus.
This seemed logical but it all seemed a bit too simple. Father Gary agreed and offered to take me on a visit he was making to a village in the forest where he had started a small Christian group. The village was not too far away but was not easy to reach. We drove off the road and down tracks through the forest until we reached a river. There we were met by a boatman in his dugout canoe.
There were only two men who were allowed to ferry people across the river. He came back and forth until the whole party was across. We found ourselves on the edge of the village and walked in to a great welcome. We celebrated Mass in a hut in the centre of the village before sharing a meal there.
As darkness fell we were treated to a spectacular dance display where Magongo, a forest spirit danced through fire, displaying his power over that element. The boys from the mission who accompanied us stayed close to us in fear. The old religion still carried sway. Magongo is really a man in a suit of grass, not exactly what you would wear to dance through a roaring fire but that’s why it is so impressive.
I wondered what it was about Father Gary that impressed the villagers more than Magongo. It turned out that Magongo is a spirit dedicated to Father Gary and he bowed down before the priest after the dance. Now I was really puzzled. Father Gary eventually told me the story.
He had gone to the village, telling his stories and building a community but there was another group there, an Evangelical group who opposed his presence. They disrupted his attempts to have a Mass in the village and he eventually gave up. He explained to the village chief that the people did not seem to want him there.
That would have been the end of the story but for the start of a new war. The civil war was, as I have said, disastrous for the people. Many fled into displacement camps, seeking safety but often finding very difficult conditions. Father Gary stayed in his post throughout the war and did his best to alleviate the condition of the people and sought aid from many people in the UK. Many of you will have helped him via SIR and Mary’s Meals.
When the war finished and the people were returning a messenger came from the village. The chief wanted Father Gary to come back. He went to the village and asked the chief why he had sent for him. He had tried before but the people had preferred a different group. Why would things be different now?
The chief agreed that the people had been drawn to a different Christian group who had offered prosperity in this life. When the war came that group left. Father Gary had stayed and had continued to work to alleviate their difficult conditions. The people had realised that Father Gary brought more than promises; he brought himself. By his selflessness and good works he had shown them the true meaning of the Gospel message.
It seems to me that it’s not the telling of the story that is important. If we are to build the Church we must be prepared to give ourselves to be used. Evangelisation is the work of the Holy Spirit. We must allow the Spirit to use us to influence other people. We can be an influence by behaving like true Christians in the way we go about our daily lives and in the way we treat others.
Telling the story of Magongo dancing through the fire made me think back to the boys who were afraid of the forest spirit. At the time I was both puzzled and amused. These boys had been boy soldiers in the civil war and had seen dreadful things. They were Christians, firmly believing in one God and yet they still feared this other god.
The apparent weakness of their faith made me think of my own faith in one true god. Do I really have no other gods in my life? If that is the case then why did I make sure I had a lottery ticket last night? If my Faith was strong I would understand that money will not bring me happiness or satisfaction. I tell myself that money is useful and could be used to change the lives of so many poor people. It could do a lot of good.
I’m deluding myself. Millions could be put to good use, but the Gospel message is not about using easy money. It is about the hard reality of sharing the little we have, not the surplus we can’t think how to spend. If I won the lottery would I help the poor before or after buying myself a shiny red sports car?
Yes, there are still some false gods in my life and I need to recognise them for what they are. Only then can I live a life that truly teaches by example. Only then will I be able to live up to the task Christ set for all Christians; to lead the world to Him.
Now I’m not so sure of myself than I was when I started writing this. I need to go off and seek out those other false gods that might be lurking there, somewhere in the back of my mind.
You will find him there. Are there any false gods lurking in your background? They might not be dancing through fire but they could be hiding in that lottery ticket or that bottle of red. Oops, that might be another of mine.