One of Pope Francis’ most frequent gripes is against the sin of “self-referentiality.” He absolutely detests ecclesiastical navel-gazing, and this should surely be a warning to ecclesiologists too. Studying the church and promoting its healthy behavior is not primarily about ecclesiastical politics or the temptation to gossip about the Vatican. What’s so bad about that? Well, it isn’t paying attention to what should be the primary concern of all Christians—a clear sense of mission. I recall so well the great British religious journalist of the later part of the twentieth century, Peter Hebblethwaite, talking book titles with me. I think he was considering writing a book to be called "What is the Church?" But he wisely shelved that title—after all, there are so many books with that title already on the shelves—and chose instead, "What is the Church For?" Smart move.
When thinking about the church, I find myself drawn increasingly often to the parable of the good Samaritan, and particularly on this question of ecclesial purpose. Think for a moment of the two religious leaders who passed by on the other side. True, Jesus mentions them as a warning against too narrow a sense of neighborliness. But think about them for a minute. Scripture scholars have all kinds of explanations of their failure to act, some of them not entirely unreasonable. But whatever their excuses, one thing is clear. They pass by unchanged. Because they do not engage with the wounded man, nothing happens for them. Wrapped up in their own concerns and perhaps fears, cocooned within themselves, safe and secure, taking care of themselves, nothing happens! St. Irenaeus had it right: no challenges, no growth. If indeed the world is “a place of soul-making,” then the opportunities need to be grasped—even, and perhaps especially, the ones that are uncomfortable or fearful.
Enter the Samaritan and, by the way, Jesus never calls him “good.” Again, of course Jesus is telling the story to make the lawyer see that everyone is one’s neighbor. But let’s think for a minute about the Samaritan himself, not so much about what he does, but about what happens to him as a result of what he does, and also of course what happens to the wounded man as a result of the Samaritan’s actions. Both of them are changed. Sure, the wounded man begins the process of healing, and the Samaritan is a few dollars short. But there is a much more profound gift-exchange going on here, as Simone Weil made so clear in her essay on “Forms of the Implicit Love of God.” The wounded man, whether he will live or die, recovers his human dignity in the way the Samaritan affirms him. And the Samaritan, in giving himself to the other in need, becomes more a person than he was before. In either case, this is the paschal mystery; in dying, we are raised to new life.
If the fundamental problem with self-referentiality is that it is stagnant, and if the opposite for the church is evangelism, and for the individual Christian, missionary discipleship, this does not mean that there should be no institutional purification and no individual self-care. But both these interior exercises can only be for the sake of looking and moving outwards. As is so often rightly said, the church does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of the world to which it is called. And as retreatants engaged in the final contemplation of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises know, their purpose is to renew contemplation in action. St. Ignatius’ first presupposition is that love is shown more in deeds than in words, and the contemplation unfolds as a profound appreciation of the presence of God in the world. Ignatius has in mind that the exercises will result in a conversion of heart, a radical change, that finds the love of God at work in the world.
One of the timeliest evangelical actions is then to counter the contemporary obsession with self, encouraged in different ways by social media, consumerism and deep-seated anxiety. The freedom that Apple and Google proposed to us has become slavery, to technology and to our desires. Countering this, the gospel is as subversive, if not more so, than it ever was before. In place of self-care we put concern for others, and like the Samaritan, we are both poorer and better for it. In place of “you can have anything you want,” we proclaim the discipline of choosing whatever is the more loving action, and we are the better for it, even and maybe more so when our untrammeled desires must be set aside. We embrace the cross for the sake of the world, but it is new life that we promote. Where the world is on the cross, we preach a gospel for which the cross can never be the last word, even if for missionary disciples it is through the cross of self-discipline that the world might be saved. And if this sounds hokey, think for a moment about the cost of restraining global warming, which will require radical lifestyle changes for all of us. Everything has its price, but the price may well be worth paying. In the end, a purer church can only be the one submerged in the messy particularities of a world on the brink.
Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.