‘The Gospels still work’

By  Deirdre L. Thomas, Catholic Register Special
  • February 12, 2007
secularityThe title of this book may be surprising. When the terms “secularity” and “Gospel” are included in the same sentence, they are usually contrasted. We naturally look  for the word  “versus”  between them. 
When we celebrate Christmas in a secular context the practical struggle to witness authentically to a faith story becomes even more concrete. Secularity and the Gospel: Being Missionaries to Our Children explores this challenge. 

Between 2002 and 2005, the Oblates invited National Catholic Reporter Vatican correspondent John Allen, Fr. Robert Barron, sociologist Reginald Bibby, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, advocate for refugees Mary Jo Leddy, theologian Richard Rohr, Salt+Light TV CEO Fr. Tom Rosica and others to speak at four symposia around the question of what it can mean today to be a missionary within a secular culture. As editor and interpreter, Rolheiser captures those reflections from the symposia in Secularity and the Gospel.  

The book is organized into four parts. The first part sets the stage and describes the context. The second details conversations at the symposia. The third provides background   resources. The final section outlines the credentials and interests of the contributors.  

Read part two, chapter four, “Fragments of Our Conversations” first, and then keep it in mind as you finish each chapter. It provides a nice refrain as you read through the melodies and harmonies of Secularity and the Gospel.

Juxtaposing the Gospel with secularity inevitably spawns a sense of hopelessness and frustration, leaving views polarized around awkwardly labelled left and right ideologies. In the book’s preface, Rolheiser states, “This is neither a liberal nor a conservative matter, because what’s at issue in the struggle to imagine a more effective way to be missionaries to our own children goes beyond the agendas of both liberals and conservatives. The imagination we are seeking is ultimately found in Jesus. Our struggle is to wake up to it.”  

The book fulfills the promise of the preface to be an alarm clock for the imagination of a faith community which names itself as missionary. Rolheiser speaks to everyone who walks in the steps of Jesus. Jesus called His followers to “go and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19).

Secularity is defined as “a term coined (around 1850) to denote a system which sought to order and interpret life on principles taken solely from this world.” This poses some recognized challenges for the person of faith and the book captures them well.  

“It is no secret that we, as Christians in the secular world, are having trouble passing the faith on to our own children. ... The most difficult mission field in the world today is Western culture, secularity — the board rooms, living rooms, bedrooms and entertainment rooms within which we and our families live, work and play,” writes Rolheiser.

In an era of dismissive tolerance reflected in statements like “they do not think like we do” or “everyone has their own opinion,” this book offers a perspective which challenges disconnected tolerance and seeks loving engagement. It asserts that secularity “is not an enemy to be fought, but a child to be loved.”

“These symposia were convened with the hunch that, while secularity clearly does bring elements that need to be challenged in the name of God and religion, it is still, of itself, a moral achievement and is more a friend than enemy to God and the church.” This perspective is confidently rooted in the assertion that “the world is flawed by sin, original and other, but is not fundamentally corrupted by it. Our engagement with secularity must be grounded in this truth; the world is flawed but not evil.”

To trust God to be God may be an ongoing faith-life challenge. We seek our role in the story. This can be empowering and it can potentially take ill advised directions. That motivation may be the root of some fear which asserts itself as misguided protectionism. “Too often there is an unconscious fear that our Scriptures, church and God are not up to the task and that they must be protected from the secular world. That fear masks a lack of hope. The Gospels still work!”  

It is this strong affirmation which reinforces confidence and hope.

The   second half of the title is Being Missionaries to Our Children. Little of the book explicitly explores evangelization with children, and yet the book accurately describes the reality of the context for this challenge.

Over the past three months, I shared a book study discussion about Secularity and the Gospel with a group of principals from the Peterborough family of schools. These principals daily interact with both the strengths and the subtle pressures of secularity while running faith-based Catholic schools. The life of a school has its own rhythm and urgency, and I thought the principals might need to cut short discussion of the book because of time pressures. In fact, just the opposite occurred. Discussions went on at length. What followed mirrored some of Rolheiser’s conclusions. Conversation quickly shifted toward practical projects to shape a community with young people where the good news about Jesus Christ is proclaimed.

Mary Jo Leddy’s words echoed in a variety of ways within our own conversations about children and young people. “Ron Rolheiser introduced this symposium urging us to consider our children. More recently, I have found myself taking my lead from them,” she said.   “I do see a new ethic emerging from them — a sense that the earth is our common good, what we hold in common. That is a transcendent concern, a concern that flows through and beyond local and national concerns, which is summoning them to new forms of sacrifice and commitment. I do know that they are summoning us to a depth of Christian life that is as promising for us as it is for them. They do not want or need more words.”

Secularity and the Gospel: Being Missionaries to Our Children is hopeful and it offers a creative re-imagining for secularity in light of the living Gospel.

(Thomas is Superintendent of Schools with the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board.)

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