These two great saints of the early days of the church, Peter and Paul, and the stormy relationship between them, express one of the great tensions in the life of the church: are we here to care for and build up the community of those who are like us, or are we meant to be reaching out to everyone in the whole world?
To begin with, Peter was very open to welcoming all kinds of people into the family of the followers of Jesus – he even had a vision that led him to make the wonderful statement ‘the truth I have now come to realise is that God has no favourites’ – but he soon bowed to pressure from those who didn’t want Gentiles included. Paul, who had been a persecutor of the Church, was so convinced that God wanted everyone brought into the fold that he argued with Peter and called him a hypocrite, and he dedicated his whole life to bringing the Good News to people of every race.
The leaders of today’s church are faced with a similar dilemma: do we put all our energy into looking after the dwindling numbers of people who still come to Mass, or can we find a new way of reaching out the millions of people who have never heard of Jesus, or who, although they’ve been baptised, have so lost touch with the faith that it is no longer a driving force in their lives?
There’s no question which side of the debate Pope Francis is on: he wants us to be an evangelising church, a church that is bruised and dirty from being out on the streets rather than sick from being confined in its own space. Of course we need to look after those who are faithful members of the church but the best way to do that is to encourage them to become fully committed to bringing the message of God’s love and forgiveness to everyone.
The bishops of England and Wales have taken up Pope Francis’ call with an initiative called Proclaim ’15 which aims to make each parish a missionary community. There will be more information soon about how you can join in with this but one date for your diary is Saturday 11th July: that day there will be a national conference to launch Proclaim ’15 and we will be having a Holy Hour that evening here in St Teresa’s to pray for the grace and the strength to find new ways of spreading the Gospel.