Whenever we have been at our best, as Christians, we have opened our churches as sanctuaries to the poor and the endangered.
We have a long,
proud history wherein refugees, homeless persons, immigrants facing
deportation, and others who are endangered, take shelter inside our
If we believe what Jesus tells us about the Last Judgment in
the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, this should serve us well when we
stand before God at the end.
Unfortunately our churches have not always provided that same kind of
sanctuary (safety and shelter) to those who are refugees, immigrants,
and homeless in their relationship to God and our churches.
millions of persons, today perhaps the majority within our nations, who
are looking for a safe harbour in terms of sorting out their faith and
their relationship to the church.
Sadly, too often our rigid paradigms of orthodoxy, ecclesiology,
ecumenism, liturgy, sacramental practice, and canon law, however
well-intentioned, have made our churches places where no such sanctuary
is offered and where the wide embrace practiced by Jesus is not
Instead, our churches are often harbours only for persons who are
already safe, already comforted, already church-observing, already solid
That was hardly the situation within Jesus’ own ministry. He was a
safe sanctuary for everyone, religious and non-religious alike. While he
didn’t ignore the committed religious persons around him, the Scribes
and Pharisees, his ministry always reached out and included those whose
religious practice was weak or non-existent.
Moreover, he reached out especially to those whose moral lives where
not in formal harmony with the religious practices of the time, those
deemed as sinners. Significantly too he did not ask for repentance from
those deemed as sinners before he sat down at table with them.
He set out no moral or ecclesial conditions as a prerequisite to meet
or dine with him.
Many repented after meeting and dining with him, but
that repentance was never a pre-condition.
In his person and in his
ministry, Jesus did not discriminate. He offered a safe sanctuary for
We need today in our churches to challenge ourselves on this.
pastors, to parish councils, to pastoral teams, to diocesan regulators,
to bishops’ conferences, to those responsible for applying canon and
church law, to our own personal attitudes, we all need to ask: Are our
churches places of sanctuary for those who are refugees, homeless, and
poor ecclesially? Do our pastoral practices mirror Jesus? Is our embrace
as wide as that of Jesus?
These are not fanciful ideals. This is the gospel which we can easily lose sight of, for seemingly all the right reasons.
I remember a Diocesan Synod within which I participated some 20 years
ago. At one stage in the process we were divided in small groups and
each group was given the question: What, before all else, should the
church be saying to the world today?
The groups returned with their answers and everyone, every single
group, proposed as its first priority apposite to what the church should
be saying to the world some moral or ecclesial challenge: We need to
challenge the world in terms of justice! We need to challenge people to
pray more! We need to speak again of sin! We need to challenge people
about the importance of going to church! We need to stop the evil of
All of these suggestions are good and important. But none of the groups dared say: We need to comfort the world!
Handel’s Messiah begins with that wonderful line from Isaiah 40:
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” That, I believe, is first
task of religion. Challenge follows after that, but may not precede it. A
mother first comforts her child by assuring it of her love and stilling
Only after that, in the safe shelter produced by that comfort, can
she begin to offer it some hard challenges to grow beyond its own
People are swayed a lot by the perception they have of things. Within
our churches today we can protest that we are being perceived unfairly
by our culture, that is, as narrow, judgmental, hypocritical, and
hateful. No doubt this is unfair, but we must have the courage to ask
ourselves why this perception abounds, in the academy, in the media, and
in the popular culture.
Why aren’t we being perceived more as “a field hospital” for the wounded, as is the ideal of Pope Francis?
Why are we not flinging our churches doors open much more widely?
What lies at the root of our reticence? Fear of being too generous with
God’s grace? Fear of contamination? Of scandal?
One wonders whether more people, especially the young and the
estranged, would grace our churches today if we were perceived in the
popular mind precisely as being sanctuaries for searchers, for the
confused, the wounded, the broken and the non-religious, rather than as
places only for those who are already religiously solid and whose
religious search is already completed.