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7th Consultation, Turku, Finland 12-16 June 2002

Pastoral Care as a Mission of the Church

Bishop Ilkka Kantola

(Bible quotations from the Good News Bible, Today`s English Version)

The fundamental starting-point of pastoral care is respect for the unique worth of the life of the individual. The task of the pastoral counsellor is to come alongside the individual who is in need of help. Pastoral care is sharing and offering help based on respect for the individual.

How does such work, concentrating on supporting and defending the individual, fit in with the churches` work as a whole? How does defending the individual fit in with God`s command of love and the community spirit demanded by religious communities? How does pastoral care, that often concentrates on the individual`s temporary distress, fit in with the churches` most important task, that of leading people to eternal salvation?

Pastoral care has to do with a person`s position before God. In any attempt to define the place of pastoral care, one must ask how God relates to the difficulties and problems of people`s everyday lives. What does God think of the worth of an individual`s earthly life? What weight does God give to the pain or joy, anxieties or happiness of a person`s life? Can we find out what God thinks? Can we find support for our ideas of pastoral care in God`s ideas?

1 Human beings are created in the image and likeness of God

The church`s view of man is based on the biblical accounts of creation. The beginning of the Bible relates how God created human beings in his image and likeness: "Then God said: `And now we will make human beings; they will be like us and resemble us`" (Genesis 1: 26). The Bible tells us that when God had finished his work of creation, he "looked at everything he had made, and he was very pleased" (Genesis 1: 31).

Human beings are created by God. Helping a person is participating in God's work of creation. When a pastoral counsellor helps a person in distress, he or she is taking care of the world that God has created. The early stories in the Bible describe how human beings were expelled from the permanent state of happiness called Paradise. They have to live in a world where there is pain and suffering, work and hardship. But a world that is subject to hardship is not entirely a godless world. God's love, care and goodness come into view from time to time. Happiness makes its presence felt from time to time. The basic structure of the post-Paradise world is that people must work for their own happiness and that of their neighbour. The individual and his or her neighbour can only have a good life through work, effort and sharing burdens. God's work of creation can be seen to continue because he gives his blessing to human efforts as and when he sees fit.

The Old Testament describes the human pilgrimage in this post-Paradise world. Sometimes an individual or community is certain that God has finally turned his back on the men and women he has created. But just as often individuals or communities cling to God with all their strength, in fervent prayer. All good things come from him, and from nowhere else. A person places his or her hope in God's faithfulness, trusting that God cannot reject what he has once created and declared to be good.

Pastoral care is a response to such people's prayers and cries for help. In every case the pastoral counsellor is God's ambassador and messenger. The pastoral counsellor is by his or her very existence a sign of God's faithfulness. Even when there is not a single mention of God. Every person who cares for another is a proof that there is goodness and love of neighbour in this world. Every person who cares for his or her neighbour is a demonstration that the work of creation contains something about which God said, "It is very good", something He was very pleased with (Gen. 1:31).

2. Incarnation

The worth of an individual's earthly life can be seen even more clearly in the New Testament. The most profound mystery of Christianity is the idea of the incarnation of God, God becoming man in Jesus Christ. The eternal God who transcends time and place becomes a human being like us in Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary and Joseph. The Almighty, holy God is suddenly Immanuel, `God with us`. Not just in our thoughts but as the God who inspired Jesus` teaching, words and deeds.

At the beginning of John`s Gospel we read the words:

"In the beginning the Word already existed; the Word was God. From the very beginning the Word was with God. Through him God made all things; not one thing in all creation was made without him. (...) The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us. We saw his glory, the glory which he received as the Father`s only Son" (John 1: 1-3, 14).

In Jesus Christ God`s love for this creation can be seen. Jesus comes alongside people in their everyday lives. The Gospels tell us of Jesus` teaching and preaching. Jesus spoke as one with authority, but he did not speak from a distance, in a one-sided way or talk about things difficult to comprehend. The background to Jesus` entire ministry was his interest in people. He was interested in how people coped, in how they were. He did not distinguish between physical, emotional or spiritual distress. Jesus took people`s physical illnesses seriously just as much as he did spiritual matters. He gave people the right to long for and feel the loss of all-round health, wholeness and the good life.

In this way Jesus acted in God`s name. In his words and deeds he declared that he was revealing his heavenly Father`s will. He is one with the Father. Therefore his deeds give a direct account of God`s will. In his face can be seen the face of God. In Jesus can be seen God, who desires to attend to the questions and difficulties of a person`s everyday life. In Jesus can be seen God, who asks a person what kind of help he or she expects from Him. In Jesus can be seen God who comes alongside a person to listen to him or her and share his or her pain. In Jesus` death on the cross can be seen God who is ready to bear pain and agony on behalf of human beings. A God who shows solidarity with men and women who are bowed down by suffering, guilt and shame. A God who is not a God of vengeance but a God of love.

Pastoral care is not so much a matter of doing as one of being. Pastoral care is not so much a matter of words as one of coming alongside people. Pastoral care is not so much speaking as listening. Pastoral care is not so much dwelling on heaven as consenting to corporality. As the church`s task, pastoral care is the incarnation of the Gospel, God`s love working in practice.

The pastoral counsellor must consent to the same as God does and consent to the limitations of his or her own body as well as the limitations of the counsellee`s human body. The counsellor must face up to the adversities and pains in his or her own life. The counsellor must consent to come to terms with the consequences of his or her neighbour`s corporality. It often happens that the counsellee`s body communicates more than he or she is able to express in words. A neighbour`s distress cannot always be conceived as thoughts or clothed in words. It is sometimes impossible to help him or her solely by means of words and thoughts. What is left is only the counsellee`s body and the counsellor`s body - corporality. The body is capable of expressing feelings and the deepest emotions of the soul even when thoughts cannot find shape.

This idea is expressed in an impressive way in Niilo Rauhala`s poem I speak:

I speak as my body speaks, as sings the curled up bird of my soul. Truth does not have a limit in this hour, in this hospital, in this room. The language of my body cannot be silenced by a single word, nor by silence, which comes to visit, nor by the calming injection that dulls the pain. Where suffering has greedily taken root, only you can reach, you who bore the cross of the whole world.

(Niilo Rauhala Heaven pulsates in one`s hands. Gummerus, Jyväskylä 1993)

In pastoral care the body which God has created and given is an important instrument of communication. Learning to master this communication has to do with one of the dimensions of incarnation. In traditional pastoral care, hymn-singing is a well-tried means of communication which functions partly at the linguistic and partly at the bodily level. Singing a familiar hymn gets the body to vibrate in a familiar way. The ears sense how the whole person is surrounded by a positive physical acoustic environment that strengthens the whole person. Music is a more holistic way of touching a person`s feelings than speech.

3. By loving your neighbour you love God

One of the most important issues concerning the different religions is how much emphasis they place on worship of God and how much on love of neighbour. The Old Testament shows that on occasion in Israel, religious activities connected with the worship of God entirely displaced the ethic of love of neighbour. The religion of the community had become a highly-developed system of liturgical and cultic rites. The purpose of religion was to keep God satisfied. The upper classes invested a moderate proportion of their means in religious rituals, so that they could be performed in as impressive a manner as possible.

At the same time the upper classes subjected the poor and weak in the community to all kinds of exploitation and robbery. The ethical ideals of the religion of Israel had been entirely forgotten. The upper classes perhaps thought that it was sufficient to observe the first part of the double command of love: `Love God.` The very purpose of cultic rituals on a grand scale was to show that people love God.

It was in such a situation that the prophets criticized those in power. In the role of God`s messengers they declared in forthright words that God does not want rituals on a grand scale but rather social justice and the ethic of love of neighbour. The book of the prophet Amos contains the words:

"The Lord says: `I hate your religious festivals; I cannot stand them! When you bring me burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; I will not accept the animals you have fattened to bring me as offerings. Stop your noisy songs; I do not want to listen to your harps. Instead, let justice flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry`" (Amos 5: 21-24).

God`s will is that life here and now might be a good life not only for the strong but also for the weak. God desires the kind of religious observance that can be seen in practice, so that society takes care of all people and especially those in need of help. Religion is not for God but for men and women. One cannot try to approach God while walking past one`s neighbour in distress. Religious observance faces the constant temptation to become distorted so that other urgent business does not allow time to stop alongside a neighbour in distress. The Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke`s Gospel is a relevant parallel to the diatribe of the prophet Amos.

"There was once a man who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when robbers attacked him, stripped him, and beat him up, leaving him half dead. It so happened that a priest was going down that road; but when he saw the man, he walked on by, on the other side" (Luke 10: 30-31).

That love of neighbour is loving God, is shown in an indisputable way in Jesus` parable of the last judgment. In Matthew`s Gospel chapter 25 Jesus declares that he identifies with the very weakest in this world, those who suffer the greatest rejection.

"He will put the righteous people on his right and the others on his left. Then the King will say to the people on his right, `Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world. I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.` The righteous will then answer him, `When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?` The King will reply, `I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these members of my family, you did it for me!` (Matthew 25: 31-40)

Love for God cannot conflict with love of neighbour. Pastoral care which seeks to provide help and support for one`s neighbour is at the same time love for the Lord Christ himself. The counsellor may in fact forget God`s command of love. What is most important is that he or she takes care of his or her neighbour`s well-being as the Good Samaritan did. Jesus` parable of the last judgment shows that what is most important is the desire to help one`s neighbour. What is most important is not helping our neighbour in order to show what good people we are in God`s eyes. In Jesus` parable the central point is that good people were surprised that their love for their neighbours was also love for God. As the apostle James says: "What God the Father considers to be pure and genuine religion is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world" (James 1: 27).

It is the church`s task to bring the kingdom of God to people and people to the kingdom of God. The church works so that men and women might gain the kingdom of God, both in this earthly life and for all eternity. Pastoral counselling is part of this task entrusted to the church. The emotional and spiritual support provided by pastoral counselling can change a person`s life, the counsellor`s life just as much as that of the counsellee. And so the Beatitudes uttered by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount prove true:

"Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor; the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them! Happy are those who mourn; God will comfort them! Happy are those who are humble; they will receive what God has promised! Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires; God will satisfy them fully! Happy are those who are merciful to others; God will be merciful to them! Happy are the pure in heart; they will see God! Happy are those who work for peace; God will call them his children! Happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires; the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them! (Matthew 5:3-10)

4. Theology lives by pastoral care

It is obvious that pastoral care is the church`s main task. The world and the people who live in this world need the church`s pastoral care. But there is yet another important point to take into account when considering the church`s role in pastoral care. The church, too, has a need to offer pastoral counselling. Without pastoral care the church`s theological thinking, teaching and biblical interpretation would be different from what they are today. The experience and knowledge gained in pastoral counselling has a significant influence on the church.

The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that in a sense God learned through Christ how people who are facing suffering and temptation can be helped. Through his sufferings and death on the cross Christ shared in the human lot. Therefore Christ, who is now with the Father, is able to help those who are burdened by various matters in this earthly life. The author of Hebrews writes of Christ: "And now he can help those who are tempted, because he himself was tempted and suffered" (Hebrews 2:18).

I think that the church of Christ must learn from people`s suffering in the same way. The church`s theology, teaching and preaching, in a word the church`s self-understanding, can only remain healthy if and when the church of Christ, like its Lord, consents to share in people`s sufferings and show solidarity with those who suffer. The church must not hide behind its altars. It must not entrench itself in its pulpits. The church that wishes to be faithful to Christ must follow his example. The church must go where people are. When the church makes observations about people`s lives and listens to their questions, it accumulates wisdom so that it can formulate and provide answers.

In pastoral care the church has a fruitful opportunity for learning something new. Through pastoral counselling the church sees people`s daily lives, and their real questions and pains. In this encounter with real life the church is not only in the position of giver or helper. In pastoral counselling the church itself learns something new. On the one hand, it can see how tremendously rich a treasure it possesses in the Gospel and in the tradition of Christian faith. Even today the Gospel has a miracle-working power. On the other hand, pastoral counselling helps the church to appreciate where it has not yet found the right way of interacting with people. The church thus begins to see the need to improve the services it provides and to assess whether the existing resources are being used in the most appropriate way.

The Finnish church has recently pondered the relationship between proclaiming the Word and caritative service or diakonia. It is the new things learnt in pastoral care that have given rise to some of the most interesting new ideas. Traditional Lutheranism has emphasized that the task of the ordained ministry is to proclaim the Word and administer the sacraments. Proclaiming the Word is understood as meaning preaching. The new way of thinking has dared to ask whether the content of the Gospel cannot also be communicated to one`s neighbour through caritative service. People can experience that God`s kingdom belongs to them even when they are not moved by the sermon or sacraments but when a Christian neighbour shows them love and care. The Gospels seem to encourage us to think that faith can be engendered through Christian love of neighbour. We can learn what Jesus knew by listening to what is observed and heard by the church`s pastoral counsellors.

Finally: we can say, on the one hand, that pastoral care is one of the tasks of the church. On the other hand, we are justified in hoping that pastoral care might be understood as the fundamental way in which the church is present and interacts with people in this world.


[May  2002]