Reviewed by Leonard DOOHAN, Gonzaga University, SPOKANE, WA 99258
A good start to this book would be to read the postscript, "The Church and I," in which the author presents his own life in three phases: 1934-64, from childhood until the end of his time as a parish priest, years he views as under challenged; from 1964- 86, his twenty years as a university professor, times of critique and criticism of the institutional church; and 1986 until the present, time spent in the Katholische Integrierte Gemeinde and its community of priests. The first period of Fr. Lohfink's life was one of extraordinary devotional growth, sparked by people like Romano Guardini. Unfortunately, all this growth was not solidly based, faith could collapse at any time and vanish from many Christian families (p. 315). The second period "was associated with a naive scapegoat ideology "( p.316 ) that blamed the institutional church for every lack of renewal. Lohfink acknowledges that his approach was unbalanced, and that his criticisms "were directed primarily against the apprehensive traditionalists within the Church and almost never against the follies of the other side" (p. 317). He suggests that the list of criticisms "had very little to do with conversion" (p. 317). Having expressed the emptiness of the efforts at reform, he concludes: "We longed for a Church in which the community of faith could be concretely experienced" (p. 319). For Lohfink the answer came when he resigned his professorship and joined the Catholic Integrated Community of priests in 1986 where he found a new sense of community and a new approach to theology (pp. vii-ix).
The book is divided into four parts. Part I's reflections on the Old Testament show that God acts through a community of people gathered in God's name, trusting in God promises, and ever open to the humanly unforeseen. Israel was such a people, recognizing God as the only god, creator of the world. They were led to this through revelation--the action of God who needs a special people, seeks to form them, and is willing to risk a history tainted with sin. God's revelation includes the salvation of the whole world and hence a society open to all, not restricted to a few. Lohfink goes on to stress that the salvation of the world demands a definite place which is first Israel and then the Church. God's choice is for the right people at the right time in the right place.
Part II describes the way of the chosen people and their experiences on the way. He starts with the notion of the chosen people as "gathered," a concept that becomes a central statement of salvation. God becomes the guarantor of the new community. They are a people who cannot exist without awareness that they are gathered by God--a challenge to reconciliation and total fidelity in which they acknowledge that God is more important than all else and that they have not earned being gathered but have it through God's election. This is Israel's experience in the exodus. It is concretized in the Torah and is their essential call, in spite of a history of resistance. Lohfink concludes with a personal reflection which anticipates the second half: "On balance, in terms of faith Israel's situation in exile was better than the current situation of the Church" (p. 97).
In Part III the author suggests that the decisive characteristic of the Old Testament is its radical openness to the future, that future which comes with Jesus. His limitless today--God's eternal salvific today--contrasts with the people's hesitant conversion, their "not yet" (pp. 134-138). In Jesus "Israel is being given a new center, and that center is Jesus himself" (p. 173). Jesus' "gathered" people are by no means "like-minded people; " so different, they share the same table, the same "missio apostolica," and the same "vita apostolica." They totally surrender themselves to "the new being-together that God desires to create" (pp. 176-177), and to the selfless service of others that is "the beginning of the genuinely classless society" (p. 182).
In Part IV Lohfink turns his attention to the characteristic signs of the Church, acknowledging that building this community of God is a risk, seeing some members as entombed in the present, unable to "free themselves from their rigor mortis" (p. 206). Rather, the Church must make a new exodus, transitioning from an old society to a new form of community life (p. 210). The author believes the Church "will only survive...if it returns to communities constituted according to the New Testament" (p. 217). "A Church that dares a new exodus in this sense need have no fear of the future" (p. 218). Gathered together as the body of Christ and as a place of reconciliation, shared faith, and mutual striving for wholeness, this community's deepest wound will always be disunity (p. 290).
Lohfink links his knowledge of the Bible and his experience in the Catholic Integrated Community to rethink the focus and values to which he and many others have dedicated much of their lives, only to find that it is necessary to return to the essentials of being God's people, God's community. He retells "an amazing history involving God and the world, a history God presses ever forward with the aid of a single people" (back cover) a gathered community which he hopes the Church will always strive to become. This book is an interesting personal reflection on the essentials of Church life, a self examination by a scholar priest looking back over his life.