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  • Fr. John Jennings

Our Sacred Stories: A Christian Vision for the 21st Century

As Christians, we have a long history – 2000 years. Those who have given us our Gospels, like the writer of Mark’s Gospel attempted to pass on the faith memories of our earliest ancestors. Writing at least a generation after the crucifixion, the writers depended on the memories of the Christian communities in which they lived, in the first century. They aimed to describe the significance of Jesus, his message and his mission in the light of their own world.

Their communities were small, they were a minority and their community of faith was not fully defined. It was evolving as it spread. The message and the mission of Jesus was intended to reach outward, to touch the world in which it was planted. Such evolution was sometimes seen as a threat. We see this in Mark’s Gospel. The disciple, John was alarmed that someone other than them was casting out demons in Jesus’s name. Jesus’s response is significant: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mk.9:38-40) Jesus sees no threat here.

There are times when we as a community, view our world as a threat. We see the “secular” as hostile to church and to things spiritual. We may even think we must do battle with the world and the secular. Perhaps it would be better to express the view that Jesus did in Mark’s story.

A few years ago Timothy Radcliffe, the former general superior of the Dominican Order wrote an article entitled “The Shape of the Church to Come.” The article discusses the manner in which our Christian church addresses the reality of living in a world that is secular, a world where faith, religion, church and Christian life might seem unimportant. This is not a threatening world for Radcliffe.

Fr. Radcliffe sees our world as the ground on which we work - where we sow the seeds of the Good News. For him, living in a secular society in the 21st century challenges us to see and proclaim the Gospel in a new light. He holds that our sharing of the Good News has much to offer to our secular society, not to correct it, but to build upon it. Radcliffe offers advice on a Christian vision for us.

[As church and society] we need a moral vision that neither locks us in a ghetto nor assimilates us to society.... We need a moral vision that engages us as people of the 21st century and leads to our flourishing. Many Catholics understand morality in a way that reflects an Enlightenment (i.e. 18th century) culture of control, obligation and prohibition. To be a Catholic is to accept the rules, starting with the Ten Commandments.... Commandments have always, obviously, had a role in Catholic morality, but with the Enlightenment they became central, rather than being part of our formation as people who seek our happiness in God....

The renewal of virtue ethics, especially in North America, promises a way beyond a voluntaristic morality. It is not so much about acts as about becoming the sort of person who finds happiness in God. By practicing the cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, temperance and justice, we can become pilgrims on the way to holiness. With the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, we are given a foretaste of the end of the journey. A morality founded on virtues [rather than commandments] is about the transformation of our desires rather than their control. (America 13 April 2009)

The Good News is - God has come among us, is with us, all of us. Revealed in virtues and love.

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