By Joshua Van Cleef
Exhausted by a deep emptiness, indifference and disorienting darkness, the world sat and waited. Then God spoke. And from God’s word came light, life and purpose.
This dramatic opening scene of Scripture speaks to God’s action in our personal lives, in our community and in salvation history. Further, it reminds each of us that we, too, are called to be “light to the world.” (Mt 5:13-16) The successive lighting of our Advent wreath echoes this twofold reality of God’s saving action and our Christian vocation.
As Catholics, our parishes, whether big or small, are similarly called by God to become communities of light that drive out darkness. Today, amid our challenging times of suffering and injustice, this call has become even clearer and more urgent.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has stated it this way: “In these challenging days, we believe that the Catholic community needs to be more than ever a source of clear moral vision and effective action. We are called to be the ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘light of the world’ in the words of the Scriptures (Mt 5:13-16). This task belongs to every believer and every parish. It cannot be assigned to a few or simply delegated to diocesan or national structures. The pursuit of justice and peace is an essential part of what makes a parish Catholic.”
As followers of Jesus, we look to Scripture and Catholic social teaching to guide us as we respond to this call as parish communities. Jesus sets a clear framework for what it means to bring his light to those around us (Lk 4:18-20), and so we can concretely reflect on our parishes in light of the mission of Jesus, the light of the world.
Parishes are communities of light when they:
• Bring glad tidings to the poor. This happens when parishes measure their ministry and the policies of their wider community by how they prioritize serving the most marginalized. (Mt 25:31-46) The pandemic has highlighted the many vulnerable populations in our midst, and parishes are called to respond in tangible ways.
• Proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. People are held captive by many oppressive forces, personally and societally, including sinful systems, structures and popular ways of thinking, which the dominant culture is invested in. Parish com- munities willing to proclaim liberty must also commit to exploring their own blindness to sin — racism, sexism, homophobia, white supremacy and other ideologies they may not be aware of.
• Let the oppressed go free. The Civil Rights Movement serves as an enduring reminder of the central role of faith communities in working for freedom and the importance of faith-based organizing and peaceful protest. This public witness must be rooted in what parishes do on a weekly basis, through a commitment to integrating Catholic social teaching in communal prayers, faith formation, preaching and activities.
• Proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. Catholics recognize the need for economic and social systems to align with our faith. When they don’t, it is the community’s responsibility to advocate for a more just system and commit to charity to mitigate the effects of unjust systems on the most vulnerable. This extends to our care for creation.
When we reflect on all of this, we can hear the call of Jesus to discipleship, to holiness and to justice. We know that the vocation of each Christian and the mission of each parish holds these three calls together. Indeed, action on behalf of justice and transforming the world is a “constitutive dimension” of the Church’s — and so our — mission. (“Justice in the World,” 6)
The call for each parish to commit to working for justice is clear and undeniable in dark and desperate times. Nevertheless, our response is still up to each one of us — each parishioner, family and minister. And this takes real courage and trust in Christ, the light of the world.