In his book, “Beyond Belief,” Hugh Mackay, the Australian social researcher outlines the deep vein of ambivalence about religion that runs through Australian society: on the one hand many Australians do not actively worship, yet they still like to see local churches operating, and we still turn to churches to baptise our children and to educate them. Around two thirds of Australians say we believe in God or some ‘higher power’, but fewer than one in ten of us attend church weekly. So those of us gathered here for Mass are an extraordinary minority no matter how mainstream we might consider ourselves to be. And all of his means 90% of the population is seeking God in other ways, albeit not often consciously. Some are turning to psychology; others are developing practices from the Eastern tradition. Others are going back to nature. Others are joining the new fundamentalist churches and a host of other movements.
As the little flock of 8% of the general population what is our response to be to this phenomenon? It’s an urgent question because some of our own sons and daughters, and many of our friends, may have left the Church and are looking now for meaning in other ways. Do we simply become dismissive of what is happening around us? Or, rather, should we approach what is occurring around us with a more open and yet critical spirit of discernment? Pope Francis himself has advised us,
“Proselytism is a solemn foolishness, it makes no sense. We must get to know each other, listen to each other, and increase the understanding of the world that surrounds us. It happens to me that after one encounter I have the desire for another, because new ideas emerge and new needs are discovered. This is important: to get to know one another, listen to one another, broaden the circle of thought. The world is covered with roads that come together and draw apart, but the important thing is that they lead toward the good.”
A number of years earlier the Vatican itself sought to address these questions. In a most helpful document, the Pontifical Councils for Inter-Religious Dialogue and Culture stated:
“If the Church is not be accused of being deaf to people’s longings, her members need to do two things: to root themselves ever more firmly in the fundamentals of their faith, and to understand the often-silent cry in people’s hearts, which leads them elsewhere if they are not satisfied by the Church.”
I think this is one of the most important sentences for the situation with which we are face. It provides us with a dual challenge, both parts of which are so critical in the environment in which we live. If we were to only root ourselves more firmly in the fundamentals of our faith, then we could be consigned to a spiritual ghetto, a private reservation of the spirit. If we only sought to understand the silent cry in people’s hearts then we would be without anchor, without reference, and become lost in the landscape in which we are journeying. Both fidelity and creativity, together, are essential companions.
The Liturgy of the Word today underscores for us this particular challenge. In both the First Reading and the Gospel the focus is on a healing which occurs in someone outside the main tradition.
Naaman the leper was not an Israelite, and the Samaritan leper was not one either. They are stories of faith coming alive beyond the established tradition. For the Hebraic mind this was extraordinarily confronting. But from time to time, the people of God are challenged to the realisation that are not the sole owners of Truth, that they do not possess God, that God’s saving activity is operating everywhere.
In the Gospel Jesus is on the border between Samaria and Galilee, i.e. he is walking on the border between what is acceptable and what is not; he is out on a limb. Samaria was thought as a place of evil, a place of falsehood in Jesus’ society. It is not where the pious person would expect to find God. And yet, this is where Jesus is. And it is in a person from this place that healing occurs, and in whom faith comes alive. This is not just a story about gratefulness; it is a story about how faith and salvation occur in the least likely place. It is the story of the gracious hospitality of the Kingdom of God.
So let us not reject the strange ways faith might present itself in people, in our families, in our friends and in our society. Let us, rather, be truly grateful for the sovereign and creative power of the Spirit which works to bring healing and life to all. Above all, let us always be listening, and be ready to surprised. Then, rather than diminishing what the few of us do here each weekend, our amazement will lead us to honour and to deepen our appreciation of what we do celebrate here as the tiny number of the population who still consider church attendance important in our life. For what we enact here in our weekly Eucharist gives name, and meaning, to what God is doing in the hearts of all those around us who are not here this weekend.
And that truly is reason for celebration.
 Hugh Mackay, Beyond Belief: How we find meaning with or without religion, (Angus and Robertson, 2016).
 Pope Francis, “The Light that we have in the Soul,” An Interview with Snr. Scalfari, 1 October 2013.
 “Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life – A Christian Reflection on the ‘New Age,’ n.1.5. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/interelg/documents/rc_pc_interelg_doc_20030203_new-age_en.html
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