Brigid Reynolds s.m. and Seán Healy s.m.a.
It is accepted that family members look out for, and care for each other. This is seen as ‘natural’ and is expected as the norm. People who extend this care to include people living in their area are seen as generous and good neighbours. This sharing and caring makes for happy and vibrant communities which can provide some tangible rewards for the efforts invested. But what of people who are not related to us, people we have never met, people living in other towns or countries, should we care for them? What of other life forms, what of our environment, why should we care for it or make sacrifices that will not benefit us personally but will benefit the generations after us?
In our work in third world countries and later with CORI Justice we have often asked why people inconvenience themselves even to the point of risking their lives to improve the lot of people that will never know them let alone thank them for their efforts. Under the general title of Spirituality for Social Engagement CORI Justice explores firstly, what motivates people to work for the improvement of others especially when this work takes them into areas that are uncomfortable, unpopular, career threatening and even life threatening? Secondly, when people make this choice what sustains them in their life and work?
Through discussion with friends and colleagues it was decided to explore these questions by looking at specific issues which make life difficult for some people. What are the structures that keep people in these situations? What motivates people to maintain these structures? Who are the people who are trying to change or transform these structures? What motivates this work for change and how are people supported in it? We believe that spirituality is key to understanding this motivation and action.
We favour a broad understanding of spirituality. For us spirituality is the ‘habitual stance’ of the person; it is what shapes and moves the person and influences her/his relationships. These relationships are many and varied. They include relationships with self, people, institutions, environment and the Transcendent. This is a dynamic and inclusive understanding of spirituality that recognises that every person has a spirituality. Spirituality influences all our decisions and actions. Whether this spirituality is acknowledged and how it is articulated will vary with the person. There are many traditions of spirituality. The spirituality reflected in the work of CORI Justice is rooted in the Christian scriptures and in Catholic Social Thought tradition.
Christianity is a call to care for all of creation – “God saw everything that He had made and behold, it was very good”. (Genesis 1:31). It recognises the dependence of all on a caring God who is always faithful. We understand the Christian way of life as a following of Jesus. It is a way of being and acting that promotes the development of all people and the whole person simultaneously and in solidarity. (Populorum Progressio n. 43). This development takes place in the context of family, community and the wider society. It is facilitated by right relationships and is impeded when these relationships are strained, broken or are in short supply.
Jesus explained his mission in the words “I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). People and indeed all of creation are to enjoy fullness of life. It is a life where there is compassion, forgiveness, justice, peace, harmony, friendship, fidelity and truth. It is lived in an environment where physical, emotional, mental and spiritual development is encouraged and facilitated.
As followers of Jesus we are expected to be life bearers and to reduce the obstacles that stifle life. We are to be bearers of “good news”. In this daunting responsibility we are helped greatly by the Christian Scriptures and the Catholic Social Thought tradition which show us the way. Jesus lived out his understanding of his mission. He had come to proclaim the Reign of God. It was to be a situation where “the hungry are filled with good things” (Luke 1:53) and where the ‘lowly’ would be guaranteed their right to a part of the earth’s resources. As is shown in His actions and words, Jesus recognised that the social order of His day did not facilitate the development of all people. He advocated change and challenged those with power to bring about this change. He engaged with the social structures of his day. He named areas of oppression and challenged the leadership to live up to the ideals of their calling.
For the past two thousand years the followers of Jesus have promoted fullness of life and sought to bring this good news to all people but especially to poor and excluded people. Each generation, as affirmed by the second Vatican Council has responded “to the duty of scrutinising the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (Gaudium et Spes 4).
The Catholic Church through its large body of social teaching provides guidelines for Christian living. From Pope Leo XIII who called for major changes in the socio-economic order to the present day, the Church is calling us to transform society. Pope Paul VI has told us “it is not enough…to point out injustice and to utter pious words and denunciation; such words lack meaning unless they are accompanied by responsible political and social action”. (Octogesima Adveniens, n. 48) The Synod of Bishops in 1971 amplified this position in stating that “…participation in the transformation of the world fully appears to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel” (Justice in the World, n.6).
We understand this to mean that we cannot claim to live by the Gospel unless we are engaged in the social reality of our time in a way that brings about transformation. Pope John Paul II continuing this theme in Laborem Exercens called for a complete analysis to reveal unjust structures so that they may be examined and transformed to build a just earth (2). In Centesimus Annus he talked about the virtues needed to be involved in this transformation. ‘To destroy such structures (of sin which impede the full realisation of those who are in any way oppressed by them) and replace them with more authentic forms of living in community is a task which demands courage and patience’ (38). Recent social teaching alerts us not only to the structures that oppress people but also to the structures that cause destruction to the environment. “Today the ecological crisis has assumed such proportion as to be the responsibility of everyone….there is an order in the universe which must be respected … the ecological crisis is a moral issue” (Pope John Paul II, January 1, 1990). Social involvement is an intrinsic outcome of espousing Christian values. Engaging in activity to influence public policy and to generate structural change is answering the call to transform society which is a constitutive dimension of the Gospel.
For a Christian social engagement involves reflection and action. It is about ‘reading the signs of the times’ to determine what ‘good news’ is for people today. We believe it involves a three step process:
- Establishing the present social reality through research and dialogue. After reflection in the light of the Gospel highlighting the areas that need transformation. Prioritising the areas on which it is possible to work given the resources available.
- Articulating an alternative vision of society with specific targets for change.
- Devising action that will move society towards the targets identified.
Because the dominant culture tends to be a very comfortable one it is painful to critique it. It demands the ability to stand back from the status quo and view it through the lens of the Scriptures and Catholic Social Thought. Among the questions for the Christian community are the following: What supports the present generation of Christians in scrutinising the signs of the times? How can we be authentic in interpreting these signs in the light of the Gospel? What motivates and supports us in bringing good news to our brothers and sisters? This series of conferences with the subsequent publications is a contribution to the discussion of these questions.
In developing its work on Spirituality for Social Engagement CORI Justice has held a series of conferences on various aspects of this subject. Two books have been published by Dominican Publications in association with CORI Justice. A third is being finalised for publication.
The first of the books in this series is entitled Spirituality and Poverty in a Land of Plenty. We live in a country that has seen its prosperity grow dramatically over the past decade. Despite our Christian tradition we have failed to distribute this prosperity so that there is nobody in need. Rather we have developed a deeply divided, two-tier society. Among the obstacles to enjoying the fullness of life are poverty, inequality and social exclusion. This book addresses the questions of why poverty and social exclusion continue to be the norm for so many people in a society with a Christian background and where sufficient resources exist to tackle this issue effectively. It also looks at what motivates and supports people who stay with the struggle of trying to change this situation. There are also many insights from the margins of society on how the issues might be addressed.
The second book in this series is entitled Human dignity and Spirituality in a Globalised World. We live in a world that is changing dramatically. The emergence of globalisation is a major aspect of thee changing times. It presents many new opportunities and challenges in a wide range of areas. One of these is the question of how human dignity can be encountered, protected and promoted. This book provides some reflections on the scale of the issues to be addressed, highlights the capacities available and underlines the vulnerabilities of our people and our world. It also looks at the motives and values that support people who stay with the struggle to promote human dignity in the midst of exclusion, oppression and violence.
The third publication in this series will address the issue of hope.
The books can be purchased from CORI Justice. Each costs €7.95.