Three Catholic bishops stood at the altar in a small European chapel recently. Invited to preside at Eucharist for the executive committee of Pax Christi International, they led in prayer a diverse circle of lay people and clerics, women and men, from the global South and the global North, from East and West around the world - a circle in which they participate as equals. To that celebration they brought challenges unique to the realities of war, poverty, and injustice that characterize the contexts in which they live and that define the work of the local churches they lead.
Within that small chapel another set of challenges was evident as well: None of the bishops were women - in fact, women in the circle felt less than welcome as prayer after prayer, reading after reading spoke exclusively about "men" and a male God. Beyond that, in most countries from which people in the circle came, the Catholic Church was struggling to retrieve its credibility and find the courage to identify and address the root causes of the sexual abuse scandal. In all of the countries, another challenge not yet owned is that of creating an inclusive and just Eucharistic community.
The Catholic Church in the global South will face challenges in the next five to 10 years that are both exactly the same as and profoundly different from those in the North.
From El Salvador to South Africa and Thailand, from Palestine to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from the Philippines to Venezuela, Peru, Mexico, and Central America, the struggles to respond to issues of justice within the church are very real, but the contextual challenges that loom are enormous.
- How to be relevant in these times, especially to young people - to speak in a language that makes sense in the context of globalization and instant access to vast amounts of information, addressing contemporary concerns in a manner that is credible and welcoming;
- How to be a respectful minority presence in Muslim and Buddhist societies, or an open Catholic presence in communities increasingly drawn to a fundamentalist Christian expression of faith, and how to promote religious and cultural tolerance;
- How to welcome and nurture the call to ministry of the people of God, moving beyond clerical privilege toward a model of community that genuinely invites the gifts of all;
- How to exemplify a commitment to the social dimensions of the gospel - willing to address the critical social issues of specific countries in the global South as well as the globalization of poverty, violence, and environmental destruction;
- How to be a credible player in the process of building a just and lasting peace in situations of violent conflict and war;
- How to end impunity, promote reconciliation, and protect human rights in post-conflict situations; and
- How to define and encourage good governance in impoverished as well as in rich countries.
The mission is a daunting one and the challenge is great, but the Spirit is strong and ready.
Marie Dennis, a Sojourners contributing editor, is director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in Washington, D.C.