The Russian Czarina Catherine the Great once famously said “A great wind is blowing — and that gives you either imagination or a headache.” Today, this comment may ring true to many ears in the Catholic Church, as the “southern wind” blowing through our era is impacting the universal lived experience of the faith to a remarkable degree. The pope hails from Argentina, the Father General of the Jesuits comes from Venezuela, the leading story in the Vatican this month is either the Amazonian synod or the further internationalization of the college of cardinals with representatives from the fastest growing parts of the Christian world in sub-equatorial Asia, Africa and the Global South. For many of us, these developments fill us with wonder, hope and a vibrant imagination of what the future might look like. For others, it undoubtedly seems that familiar structures and patterns have become unmoored, and calling the ensuing vertigo that they are experiencing “headaches” is among the most benign descriptions they proffer for their feelings.
This is not a new or unusual reality for those of us acquainted with church history. In the not-too-distant past, many commentators referred to the Second Vatican Council as throwing open the windows of the church to the breath of the Holy Spirit. Others saw these developments as doing little more than ushering in a whirlwind of chaotic and tumultuous upheaval. Much further back in the story of our Christian witness, the tempests over the ongoing dynamics of church and state relations as empires rose and fell, or the turbulent unrest between the apostles themselves as to whether or not adult converts needed to be circumcised, caused similar blustery disagreements, and wintry periods of frigid reception among believers were not uncommon.
The signs of our times mandate that we look with new eyes at both the world around us, and at the Gospel which orders our lives. For our faith is not that of the dead, but of the living (cf. Mk12:27). For those of us who deeply love the church, always as a reflective means of encountering Another One and not as a self-referential end in itself, we find in the community not only “shelter from the stormy blast,” but also the dynamic and invigorating collective support for the audacity to approach culture time and again with bracing “joy and hope” (“gaudium et spes”). We are called to be ready always to give an account of the hope that is in us. That hope unfolds in a matrix of history and particularity in various times and places. But if the last 20 centuries have made anything abundantly clear, it is that the church which undoubtedly can play such a prophetic role to world culture often causes us to respond in turn: “Yes, but who will serve as prophet to the church?”
If we welcome the exhilarating gales of our day with imagination and a willingness to be propelled into an unknown future, instead of the spiritual migraine which results from envisaging headwinds at every turn, we may yet arrive at a shared destination that offers considerably more than we anticipated or foresaw. After all, the meteorologists ominously predicting the severity of impending storms are, as we all know, often mistaken.
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.