Ekklesia

Anthony Towey

This autumn brings the promise of two gatherings of significance for the local and global Church. ‘Adoremus’, a national Eucharistic Congress will see Liverpool host representatives from parishes across the country. Gathered for a time of teaching, devotion and celebration, it will combine that precious sense of pilgrimage and journey with the equally wonderful sense of Eucharistic homecoming around the hearth of holiness. Older readers may remember the ‘Easter people’ Congress of 1980 from a generation ago. While times have changed in so many ways, it is noteworthy that the sense of Mass as ‘source and summit’ and devotion to Christ’s Eucharistic presence remain focal for Catholic gatherings.

The Synod on Young People in Rome will have wider appeal. Preparations for this have been going on for some time now and with the added charisma of Papal presence, it promises to be a lively affair. The automatic transmission of faith from generation to generation has long been ruptured in the West as individual autonomy has gone into overdrive, and less demanding social identities such as sporting allegiance have replaced the kind of solidarities that created communities and characterized our lives in the past. Research tells us that such gatherings are important especially for young adults. Far from being an ephemeral experience, a Synod such as this one will prove to be decisive for many – they will attend as delegates and return as disciples.

I have been mindful of ‘gatherings’ since late June when we hosted the first Pastoral Review Congress which proved a blessing for all who came. As well as a roster of 24 workshops illuminating all corners of pastoral concern, plenary keynote speakers included David Wells whose genius is to make the Christian path bright with joyful and holy light. Austen Ivereigh presented on Amoris Laetitia and like Gerald O’Collins in The Michael Hayes Memorial Lecture (reprinted in this issue), he reflected on the ways in which Pope Francis is encouraging us to rethink our sense of being ‘Church.’

It is clear the Pope is trying to change our static, possibly architectural and authoritarian image of what this means with more vocational and humanitarian images. Envisaging the Church as a ‘field hospital’ and being challenged to bear ‘the smell of the sheep’ – these are striking metaphors and in one sense I am with him all the way. I do wonder, however, if our having physical ‘churches’ means we are hampered in our attempt to capture that sense of dynamism and movement that characterised our forefathers, who before they were called Christians knew themselves as followers of the Way. There wasn’t a place, they were the ekklesia – the ‘called out convocation’.

While there is some controversy about the way ekklesia has perhaps been misused in the past (‘called out’ connoting a ‘holier than thou’ disparagement of the world and of others) I think its paradoxical etymology is both attractive and insightful. Readers may agree that one of the reasons that ‘gatherings’ such as synods, congresses and pilgrimages are so powerful is that they give us an experience of ekklesia – being ‘called out in order to be together’. They simply and powerfully give us a sense of what it is to be Church in a different place. For a week, a day, an hour, a moment being away from home makes us realise we are at home. Around the Eucharistic table, where strangers become family, our re-location becomes a re-vocation.

Moreover it is wrong to set such experiences of ekklesia in some kind of false opposition with our regular gathering at Mass in our local parish. Ekklesia ‘experiences’ such as synods and pilgrimages have the potential to charm the mind into a second naiveté such that as T. S. Eliot famously said, ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ (Little Gidding).
In sum, if ekklesia is our identity then we should be at home at home and away. The Lord is with us always. We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song.   

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