UCA News
Jesuit Father Myron J. Pereira, based in Mumbai, has spent more than five decades as an academic, journalist, editor and writer of fiction. He contributes regularly to UCA News on religious and socio-cultural topics.
Finding a place for the Church in a savage world
It must become a sanctuary where the hungry, sick, persecuted and hunted down may claim safety and hospitality
March 21, 2023 03:06 AM GMT

March 21, 2023 03:25 AM GMT

We all know what a sanctuary is — a sacred space, usually the holiest part of a place of worship, where no one unworthy may enter.

By extension, the word is also applied to those areas where man or beast may reside safe and unthreatened.

In medieval times, an offender might claim sanctuary in a church, fleeing from the wrath of his feudal lord.

But in modern times is there any place of their own where those persecuted and hunted down may claim safety and hospitality, a place they can call "home?"

Or rather, is not homelessness a growing condition of our times, when more and more people are displaced by socio-economic crises, military violence, and climate disasters?

One symbol for this is the refugee crisis, which has assumed gigantic proportions in today’s world.

"Millions of refugees and displaced persons are still fleeing wars and persecution"

Millions of people – in 2017, the number was 68.5 million as reported by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) — are swarming all over, breaking down political frontiers, fleeing violence, fleeing climate disaster, desperate for shelter, for safety, and viable livelihood.

In December 1948, just a few years after the Second World War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was signed in Paris by countries belonging to the newly constituted UN.

Its 30 articles provided a juridical and legal basis meant to protect the dignity of all human beings. Remember 6 million Jews in Europe had just been brutally exterminated by the Nazis.

An integral part of this dignity is freedom — freedom of speech and expression, freedom of movement and association.

Ironically, it is these very freedoms that are under assault today.

For today, some 70 years after this signing, millions of refugees and displaced persons are still fleeing wars and persecution.

Whether it is the hundreds who cram the boats desperate to enter Italy, Spain, or Greece; the thousands who flee the devastation in Ukraine; or the hundreds who languish in prison camps in Myanmar or in Sinkiang; human rights seem to be of little value in today’s world.

In earlier centuries, Catholic theology imagined a “place” of waiting and purification, called Purgatory. Here, we believed, souls waited extensively before being deemed “fit and pure” to enter paradise.

Such places exist on earth today. They are called “internment camps,” “detention centers,” or “quarantine,” a sort of no man’s land. They are places of refuge for homeless people expelled from their countries, transient spaces where people wait interminably — often for years — hoping to be admitted into paradise, or dreading that they will be returned to hell.

"To be a Christian was to be hunted, arrested, tortured, and martyred"

This brings us to the most urgent question facing us: where should the Church be? What should the Church’s place in the world be?

This is not an irrelevant question.

For the first two centuries of its existence, the Christian community was a persecuted one:  to be a Christian was to be hunted, arrested, tortured, and martyred. Christianity lived underground, so to speak. The Church had no “public face.”

After the Edict of Milan (313) when Constantine proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of the empire, and it became advantageous to be a Christian, many things changed.

For one thing, the Christian community became wealthy and influential, the recipient of properties and benefices generously donated by the imperium and civil society.

But in reaction to this, various alternative ways of life emerged, amid efforts to remain true to the Gospels.

It is in these times that several hermits, anchorites, monks, and holy women fled the cities for the desert, seeking space and time of a different order from that of urban living.

They were the first “contrast communities” — in contrast to the wealthy urban Church, that is — the first initiatives that would later become a non-conformist religious life.

The mental image that most of us carry around of the Church is that of a stone structure, solidly built, of a certain impressive architectural style, with a large interior space for congregational interaction, be this public prayer, preaching, or choral chants.

In earlier times we lived in a religious society, where the cathedral spire or the temple gopuram was the most significant structure in the city, clearly visible and dominating the landscape.

"Our cities are also pockmarked with slums and decrepit housing, with polluted landscapes and stinking waterways"

No longer. Our cityscape is defined by other symbols — airports, convention centers, banks, expressways, and television towers. All these belong to the mercantile and technological age and possess a worldly glamor.

But our cities are also pockmarked with slums and decrepit housing, with polluted landscapes and stinking waterways, which most of its citizens perforce call "home."

Pope Francis is right when from the very beginning, his preferred metaphor for the Church is that of a “field hospital” where doctors, nurses and volunteers care for the sick and wounded. A “contrast community” to the savage world around.

In other words, the Church must be seen in terms of its presence in soup kitchens, refugee camps, night shelters, day-care centers and in prisons. These become the sanctuary where one encounters the divine.

And Christians are present here as healers, in direct response to Gospel, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Mt. 25, 35-36).

Finding its sanctuary in such a world must be a central question for the Church.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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