It is essentially a question of priority, not an either/or. Is the faith community’s first responsibility to those who are already within its walls, or to those who are still outside of them? It seems clear that if a church does not address this question in an intentional way, the default position will be to serve the needs of those who are already within the community. As Paulist Fr. Robert Rivers puts it: “The people we need to reach out to are not around to tell us what their needs are. The people who don’t feel welcome aren’t present to tell us why. The poor who don’t feel at home in our church simply remain on the margins.”
A difficulty arises, in Jesus’s time as in our own, when religious people feel threatened by efforts to reach out to irreligious people. The sentiment often emerges that their gain must be our loss. But in the logic of Christ, we only stand to gain when we share with others the gift of faith that we have been freely given.
On February 15th of this year, Pope Francis gave a homily addressing these two basic possibilities for the essential orientation of the Church, inward and outward. The homily was based on Jesus’s healing of lepers and the way that the authorities often responded to such acts of healing with outrage and suspicion.
“There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost. Even today it can happen that we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking. . . .
The way of the Church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those essentially on the ‘outskirts’ of life. It is to adopt fully God’s own approach, to follow the Master who said: ‘Those who are well have no need of the physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call, not the righteous but sinners’ (Lk 5:31-32).
In healing the leper, Jesus does not harm the healthy. Rather, he frees them from fear. He does not endanger them, but gives them a brother. . . .
[T]his is the ‘logic,’ the mind of Jesus, and this is the way of the Church. Not only to welcome and reinstate with evangelical courage all those who knock at our door, but to go out and seek, fearlessly and without prejudice, those who are distant, freely sharing what we ourselves freely received.”
Here in the New Roads Catholic Community, we stand at a crossroads, too. What will our priority be? Are we going to be a church that fears to lose the saved, or are we going to be a church that wants to save the lost?
Take your next step: Set aside a few minutes when you can listen to God. Read Luke 15:1-7 (or even just one verse, Luke 15:4--“What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?”) several times, and notice what strikes you about this passage and what feelings emerge in reading it.