Sunday 5 November 2023

A Secular Age - and beyond

The Focolare Movement in Great Britain publishes a magazine 11 times a year, called New City. The name is shared with many editions in other languages published by the Focolare in different parts of the world. Following the charism of unity of the Focolare Movement, the magazine states its mission as follows:

New City works to promote mutual understanding and respect through dialogue. Together with our readers we want to discover how to "build bridges" in the different sectors of society and in personal life. We are convinced that dialogue, based on mutual love, is the only way to build a more united world which is based on universal values such as justice, equality, truth and peace.

The November 2023 issue can be viewed online here; and previous issues can be viewed here.

The November 2023 issue has two articles that address the question of how Christians should feel and act in a world that is recognised to be increasingly "secular" or "secularised". The articles of interest are the interview with Fr Patrick Gilger SJ starting on page 4 and the reflection by Robbie Young on pages 16-17. You will need to follow the link above and read these articles if you wish to understand my comments below.

Fr Patrick identifies three understandings of the idea of secularity: firstly, a political arrangement in which the Church is separate from the State; and secondly, a decline in religious belief and practice in the world around us. In a third understanding, however, Fr Patrick identifies secularity (the wording of the article at this point seems to have chosen this word rather than secularisation) as seeing in the world a plurality of world views and life styles, and therefore a kind of competitive space rather than one that sets out deliberately to target religious belief. The suggestion that follows is that Christians should see the process of secularisation in society as an opportunity for dialogue, as an opportunity to encounter potential collaborators rather than enemies, though they may be collaborators with whom we may never full agree. If, as Fr Patrick points out later in his interview, Jesus is still present in the world, this seeking of dialogue becomes a search to discover how He may be acting in places other than we might expect.

There is an echo of this thought in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, occuring in n.92. at the conclusion of the constitution: 

For our part, the desire for such dialogue, which can lead to truth through love alone, excludes no one, though an appropriate measure of prudence must undoubtedly be exercised. We include those who cultivate outstanding qualities of the human spirit, but do not yet acknowledge the Source of these qualities. We include those who oppress the Church and harass her in manifold ways. Since God the Father is the origin and purpose of all men, we are all called to be brothers. Therefore, if we have been summoned to the same destiny, human and divine, we can and we should work together without violence and deceit in order to build up the world in genuine peace.

 Robbie Young's survey is, I think, a prescient reflection on the background to our present day situation. I am particularly interested in what he describes as a "bonus" that our Western societies have taken on board, and that may provide that potential for dialogue:

For decades now Western societies have placed all their money on what was believed to be a knock-out combination of liberal democracies, free market economies, and science and technology, with a bonus thrown in that invididuals can choose their own values, moral codes and lifestyles. Perhaps it will be the bonus that will turn out to be the Trojan Horse. If selfishness, licentiousness, and consumeristic hedonism come to characterise the culture, how could it possibly survive?

 It is possible to be both over pessimistic and over optimistic when considering this path way of dialogue between Christians and wider society. The task can seem quite overwhelming if it is viewed in a wide perspective. But, as is the practice of the Focolare Movement, dialogue can be promoted in local and small scale contexts, among the people that you happen to know, with real chances of building unity.