Pope Francis has reminded us that the Church is eternally youthful. No matter how old and creaky some of us may feel, the sight of so many young people gathered in Rio for World Youth Day is surely an encouragement. It is in this context that it is useful to remember something Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, long before he became pope. He remarked that the Church was going to have to be a failure before it could be a success; that it was destined to suffer shrinkage and humiliation; that it would have to stop flirting with left and right politically and become a truly spiritual entity. (You can read a good summary here.) I think that shows the continuity of thought and understanding between Francis and Benedict about the nature of the Church and its future development. Many of the things that have become dear to us over the centuries will have to go, but we are too close to them to see exactly what they are. Of this, however, we can be sure: the stripping away of what is loved and familiar will be painful, but it is a necessary part of our purification.
A friend wrote recently that some religious in the south-west were no longer able to wear one of the distinctive items of their habit because it invited loutish behaviour from those who didn’t understand it; that others had even had stones thrown at them — and this in England! The automatic respect that religion was once accorded has now gone. You may think that a good or bad thing — it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is what follows from this change. We need to understand that we are in mission territory. We can no longer go on making the comfortable assumptions we once did. Personally, I have no difficulty with that; but I wonder whether that is true of the Church at large. Are we prepared to be the kind of Church both Benedict and Francis have envisioned, or do we want something else — less challenging perhaps, but more familiar? It is a question each of us must ask him/herself.