Universal Church- connected in faith across borders by Jacqueline Schlesinger

When our German group left a core group meeting in a parish in Bombay some weeks ago, a young women called: „We know each other just for a very short time, but we will miss you!“

How is it possible, that people from different cultures with different languages feel familiar to each other so soon? Is it because the world is getting closer? Is it because an encounter helps to discover that strangers are not that strange, that talking about daily life shows that sometimes we all struggle with the same problems? Or is it because we are all part of the universal church united in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church?
But what does “universal” church exactly mean? First of all it means that the Catholic church is a church which is present in the whole world. But it also says that the one catholic church implements in particular/specific local churches, which are all related.

And this relationship is very important: only if you are aware of each other and know about each other you become “communio”: it’s a community of learning, of prayer and of solidarity.

A community of learning and getting to know about each other is something mutual and is put into practice by the many partnerships of local parishes or dioceses of different countries around the world. In personal contacts and mutual visits the relationship deepens. You can read a lot about other cultures, the living environment of people or pastoral ideas, but to experience it is something totally different. The diocese of Limburg has partnerships with dioceses in Sambia, Cameroon, with Alaminos in the Philippines and with dioceses in Bosnia, Slovacia and Czech Republic. And there are not only visits of bishops and delegations, but every year there are eight young people serving voluntary services in the partnership dioceses and for some years now there are volunteers coming from Sambia, Cameroon and Bosnia to serve in our diocese for one year. It means living in a family, learning the language, doing the service for example in a kindergarden (the German volunteers mostly work in a social project), get to know the culture and most of all get to know daily life in this foreign country. No one of these young people returns unchanged, they all have found new friends, have learned to adjust in a foreign culture, have encountered another spirituality and faith in the local church of their host country and broadened their horizon in many ways. And when they return home, they are the best missionaries for universal church in their own parish.

But there are also a lot of partnerships between parishes. The parish I belong to has had a partnership with a parish in El Salvador in Latin America for more than 20 years. It started with financial help to support the parish after a long lasting civic war. But soon the first visits in both directions started and the partnership became connected with face-to-face contacts. For more than 15 years every child who celebrates the First Holy Communion in our parish gets a typical small wooden painted cross as a gift from the parish in El Salvador. No Sunday mass is celebrated without mentioning the people in San José in the Eucharistic Prayer. When the parish council in San José decided to take over a small school from the government, because the teachers were not paid and left and children of the parish had no chance to attend another school, the partners in Germany arranged a contact to a German relief organization which agreed to support the school. With letters and video clips brought back from a visit, the children of our parish learned about the situation of their contemporaries in El Salvador. As “Sternsinger” – which means disguised as the Three Magi, who walk from house to house in the first days of January, singing and bringing blessings for the New Year to all families – they started to collect money for this school project three years ago. With their help the school could has been built up again, even extended with new classes, a pre school has been added, new lavatories and a canteen could be built. Because of their efforts the first students in the partner parish San José will be able to do the final secondary school examinations in two years and there will be a chance to start a training as a carpenter or IT-training in the new training centre of the school. The children here are very proud, they have learned the meaning of the African proverb: Many small people who in many small places do many small things can alter the face of the world. It’s the initial point of creating a universal church where people know about each other, pray for each other and commit to each other.

Enrichment by encounter and exchange was also the aim of the “spring project” in our diocese some years ago. People from many different countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America came to stay in parishes in our diocese for two weeks and shared the life in these parishes. After that time they gave a feedback to the parish and shared from their point of view what they had experienced during this time. It was a very interesting learning process for the parishioners and it opened their eyes for a new sight of their work.

For me it was very important to get the chance to visit Mumbai with a group from our diocese of Limburg as a continuation of “Spring” for the first time five years ago. We were invited by two of our Spring guests to a return visit and focused on SCC. I had heard about SCC from the “spring”-guests from Tansania and Mauritius, who had stayed in our parish but I had no idea of it. When we visited the SCC in the parishes in Bandra and Khar I realized that I got in touch with my vision of church, the church I had dreamed of since I was young and now I could experience that this kind of church was already existing. What a revelation for me! During the following years I have come back several times to get deeper into this pastoral approach. And I’m still very grateful to all who helped me to understand.

Being aware of a more and more obvious crisis of a traditional pastoral care in Germany, learning from each other in the universal church is increasingly understood as a pastoral chance. Others forms of Christian community as can be found in the local churches like “fresh expressions” in the church of England, gospel sharing, celebrating the Liturgy of the Word, lay people ministering the funeral services become a source of inspiration for German dioceses. The idea of Small Christian Communities was spread in Germany by people who have got the chance to experience it in Asia, Africa or South America during the last ten years or listened to guests from other countries who shared their vision of SCC. To share the experiences means to learn from each other, be become enriched but not to copy the experiences, in fact to be inspired and search for an own realization of these experiences.
„-team from the Philippines who opened their institute to German visitors to learn how to become a participative church with a shared vision. The Bukal team supports our national SCC team during summertime when we offer training sessions for pastoral team from all over Germany.
And perhaps one day we can share our experiences of news way of being church in a fast changing world and the challenge of a consumer and post- Christendom culture.

Especially the relief organizations of the Catholic church like missio maintains vivid contacts to local churches all around the world. Beside mutual interest, financial support and common prayer, missio offers educational journeys to their partners and educational seminars in the dioceses to introduce to the situation of Christians in other countries, their questions and problems, matter of justice, child labor, women rights, environmental problems or problems caused by globalization to a general public to increase the awareness and understanding of correlations between these situations and our consumerism e.g.. During the month of October missio invites guests from a focused country to visit the parishes here, to give an impression of the situation in their country and tell impressively about their work in their local church projects.

Pope Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium: We can see that the different peoples among whom the Gospel has been inculturated are active collective subjects or agents of evangelization. Sharing faith and spirituality between peoples helps to evangelize each other, too. The Jesuit father Sebastian Painadath SJ offers regularly retreats of Indian Christian spirituality in Germany, a spirituality based on Indian culture and those who attend these retreats are deeply touched. The World Day of Prayer on first Friday in March enriches us with a liturgy prepared from women of a country and celebrated in more than 170 countries every year. It is one of the moments which gives us the feeling to belong to a worldwide community. It helps us to understand the words of St. Paul who writes to the Corinthians: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many”. To be members of Christ’s Body is not restricted to a parish, a diocese or a national church. Universal church means that we are asked to recognize that ALL peoples of all colors and all nations together crossing barriers of traditions, languages, gender and generations. make up that Body! It’s the experience of the Holy Spirit in these challenging, touching and sometimes overwhelming encounters of Christians of different cultures and local churches which help to understand that we all belong together as brothers and sisters.

Our Indian friends taught us the song: “Bind us together with cords that cannot be broken; bind us together, Lord; bind us together with love.” Let us continuously sing it together!

Jacqueline Schlesinger worked as a pastoral worker in parishes near Frankfurt. She is now the diocesan coordinator for the relief organisation „missio“ in the universal church department of the diocese of Limburg, Germany. She is also responsible for the development of parishes and SCC.

Published in the June 2014 edition of THE EXAMINER, A CATHOLIC NEWSWEEKLY in India

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