speak a word of hope:
SONIA WAGNER SGS
The EJ Cuskelly Memorial Lecture 2002
The Evangelic Mission of the Church is to speak a word of hope to our world (Ecclesia in Oceania par. 26) by facing the divides in our church and in our country.
We are called to this mission of hope in a divided world; more inclined to criticism than gratitude; more ready to doubt than to believe; more prone to fear and depression than buoyed up by joy and hope.
In our current climate, Catholicism is too often seen as a grim religion, focusing on guilt, judgment, the pronouncement of right answers and sometimes defensively reluctant to dialogue. To be Catholic is seen as liability rather than freedom.
I am not advocating a wishy-washy centralism, a spineless lack of integrity, a mindless cheerfulness or a cautious lowest-common-denominator approach so as not to upset. Far from it! Nothing can be more insensitive and death-dealing to genuine gospel hope than what the Irish poet Seamus Heaney calls ‘the fixed smile of a pre-booked place in paradise’.
Where are the genuine voices of hope and encouragement? John Paul II wrote:
We need heralds of the Gospel who are experts in humanity, who know the depths of the human heart, who can share the joys, the hopes, the agonies, the distress of people today, but who are, at the same time, contemplatives who have fallen in love with God.
Bishop James Cuskelly MSC, was, I believe, such a person. As a Missionary of the Sacred Heart, through his leadership and ministry as Rector of the Kensington seminary, as Superior General of his congregation, as Bishop in Brisbane and through his inspiring writing, Bishop Cuskelly was a sign of hope for our church and world. It was my privilege to work with Bishop James on a number of occasions in pastoral planning in various parts of the Australian Church and with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. It is an honour to be asked to commemorate him tonight through this lecture.
My own life experience has caused me to ponder long and hard this question of divides. I was born of a mixed marriage-Catholic father and Anglican mother both staunchly committed to their church. As an Anglican I attended St Thomas, Camp Hill, for all my primary schooling. Lived in Brinawa St, on the other side of the tramline, and each day dressed in my convent school uniform I endured-so unjustly I thought-the taunts and jeers of the state school boys I passed on my way to school. On Sunday I was alert to avoid my convent school classmates as I walked again across the tramline, to the Anglican Sunday school.
At age fourteen, when I went to Lourdes Hill, I announced to the family that I was going to become a Catholic and go to Mass with dad. I had read the history books and concluded that Henry VIII was obviously wrong. Other more significant factors were my father’s faith and the witness of some amazing individuals at Lourdes Hill College and in the Camp Hill parish. I was received into the church by Father Eather MSC.
The direction given to me in preparing this lecture was, in the spirit of Bishop Cuskelly, to continue to probe and to question and to seek ever better ways forward for the Church in Australia. My aim tonight is to attempt some questioning and, as I do so, to be truthful, practical and hopeful.
Ecclesia in Oceania was published in 2001 some three years after the Special Synod of the Bishops of Oceania was held in Rome. This document with its major theme of communio, will be my starting point and framework. Then, I want to discuss, in the light of that document, the Report on the participation of women in the Australian Catholic Church, Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus, published by the Catholic Bishops Conference of Australia in 1999, especially as it highlights the divides that challenge us and holds out hopeful directions. Each document is in its own way a blueprint for action.
Ecclesia in Oceania
John Paul’s preferred category for ecclesiology is evidently that of communion. The reality of the church as communion is the integrating aspect, the central content of the mystery as presented in Ecclesia in Oceania. Social commentator Hugh McKay has predicted that,
Just as the Women’s movement in its broadest sense has been the most significant influence on social structures in the past twenty-five years, the impetus to rebuild community will be the movement of the next twenty-five.
Yet communio infers more than community. It cannot be understood merely in sociological or psychological terms.
Communio is a strong theme in Ecclesia in Oceania. In fact the word communio is mentioned forty times in the course of the document. It is noted that communio is already a vibrant reality in Oceania (par. 4). Yet, it is a mystery and a gift of the Blessed Trinity (par.10) and a spiritual bond of unity (par. 3). Communio is at the very heart of the church, always ecclesial (par. 10) and finds human expression in belonging and interpersonal relationships (par. 11). Communio is a source of unity in the Church-it holds the promise of forming bonds of unity within and between the churches local and universal (par. 9). According to Ecclesia in Oceania, the pope and the bishops have special rights, privileges and responsibilities in regard to communio. Communio is the special work of the bishops to promote (par. 11), and at the same time it fosters the brotherhood that exists between the bishops and the pope (par. 9). Communio, the theme and basis for all pastoral planning (par. 18) is expressed in the preparation of a diocesan pastoral plan with the faithful and their organisations (par. 11). The document gives strong support for practical steps to be taken in regard to inculturation of the gospel message. Communio will, it suggests, lead to new expressions of the faith and life of church in forms appropriate to indigenous cultures (par. 17).
This communio model of church, as Avery Dulles has pointed out, has many strengths but there are also some weaknesses that lead to unresolved tensions. If the church is free and spontaneous why do we need an institution or organisation? What is the relationship between the spiritual and the visible? What does communio infer in regard to Christian identity and mission? How do the concepts of church as a friendly network and as a mystical communion relate?1
Theologian Walter Kasper stresses the mutual responsibility that flows from an ecclesiology of communio, putting an end to pastoral practice based primarily on care and maintenance.
It pushes us firmly in the direction of an adult, co-responsible, participating community. An ecclesiology of communio demands a pastoral strategy which attempts to build up a true and active loving community. It means there may not be in the church active members beside passive ones.
When I hear the Church should…I hear I should. It makes me much more understanding and reasonable. There will always be more shoulds for the church and for me than I or we can ever be or do. The challenge is for all of us together, as Church, to come closer to what we say we are and hope for, to that which in reality is Church.
Communio is a compelling notion and yet so easy to damage. But how do we live it? Something to do with conversion; with being one in mind and heart; with moving away from the them and us divisions that impede us.
WOMAN AND MAN:
ONE IN CHRIST JESUS
The title of the Report of the Bishops’ Research Project on women in the Church, Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus, was inspired by the most frequently quoted scripture text of the research project.
All baptized in Christ, you have all clothed yourselves in Christ, and there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus’. (Galatians 3:28).
This words well the project’s ultimate goal of fostering gospel mutuality and respect for diversity.
The Pope speaks on women in Ecclesia in Oceania (par. 46) in highly supportive, if not glowing terms.
Women have always brought unique and indispensable gifts to the life of the church-without these gifts the christian community would be hopelessly impoverished. More than ever now the church needs the skills and energies, indeed the sanctity of women, if the new evangelization is to bear the fruit so earnestly sought.
Yet, at the same time, discussion of the ordination of women has been forbidden and leadership and decision-making in the church are too often linked to ordination. This seems to give a contradictory message.
Despite all the discouragement from the Vatican, much energy continues to swirl around women’s issues-or rather, the issues raised when women speak from their experience, because the issues are issues not just for women but for the whole church.
Purpose of the research project
The aims of the project were:
The research questions raised by Woman and Man attracted a huge response from all parts of Australia, from women and men of all ages, church goers and non-attenders. That response surely says that the matter is at once crucial and controversial.
Woman and Man - One in Christ Jesus: The Two Approaches 2
The following table summarises the differences found in the written submissions, public hearings, focus groups, and in the responses to the Catholic Church Life Survey:
The dividing lines are often drawn around how we approach change. Even if we want to live in the past and keep things as they are, it is not possible. As G. K. Chesterton in a passage from Orthodoxy reminds us,
All conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave things alone, you leave it open to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone, it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be painting it again; that is you must always be having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.
Division is a fact of life. The West is divided from the East, the North from the South, the rich from the poor (Ecclesia in Oceania par. 29), the city from the bush, the nation from the states, the healthy from the sick…the list goes on.
When it comes to the church, as followers of Christ it is not so much division that is the stumbling block. Rather it is the fact that the teaching of Jesus has had such little impact on the divided parties. We might have expected more evidence of reconciliation, justice and peace.
What holds us back from being voices of hope to our world, from true communio? Is it fear? Fear is corrosive of all communion. From the days of Pentecost the church has known fear and division. The community of Jerusalem quarrelled over the distribution of money, over interpretations of obedience to the Law, over who should serve (Acts 4:32). The mystery of our communion in the spirit does not mean a seamless unanimity. Questions, debates and differing opinions are signs of a church that is ever being renewed in the spirit. Ultimately they can be signs of hope.
At the Last Supper, amidst the painful divisions between his followers, Jesus prayed for unity in the service of the mission. He stayed at the table and prayed ‘that all may be one’ (Jn 17:22).
The sign of true charity is that it heals us of fear: ‘Perfect love drives out fear’ (1Jn 4:18).
BUILDING TOGETHER A CIVILIZATION OF LOVE AND PEACE (Ecclesia in Oceania par. 17)
Perhaps we need a new image to speak of church as we take up the challenge to ‘build together a civilization of love and peace’. It has been suggested that the word ‘bricolage’ is the best image to help us grasp the missionary activity of the church. It is from the French bricoler-to putter about. Construction or something constructed by using whatever comes to hand. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Tonight, rather than merely naming signs of hope-and I believe there are many-I want to explore and question two signs that are meeting with a mixed response.
Recognising Signs of Hope
The Commission for Australian Catholic Women. (CACW)
One of the strongest signs of hope to follow from the research project
was the decision of the Bishops, in May 2000 to establish the Commission
for Australian Catholic Women with a mandate:
In regard to Pastoral Associates in the archdiocese of Melbourne, in July 1998, Archbishop Pell said, ‘Certainly it remains part of Archdiocesan policy to promote and authorise Pastoral Associates…as significant agents in Catholic life’.
Paragraph 15 in Ecclesia in Oceania speaks in glowing terms of catechists in other parts of Oceania. There is no mention of this significant group of pastoral leaders in the Australian church who surely are a ‘sign of hope’. Why the silence?
Listening to All the Voices
Working together can sometimes highlight the divides and our disunity. On 7 May 2002 as the pope welcomed the bishops of the Antilles, he expressed concerns about the ‘deep complementarity’ not equality, that must exist between priests and the lay faithful. A poor understanding of this complementarity has sometimes led to a crisis of identity and confidence among priests, and also to forms of commitment by the laity that are too clerical or too politicised. When it is not service but power that shapes all forms of government in the church, be this in the clergy or in the laity, opposing interests start to make themselves felt. And this hurts the church.
While the Pope and the Bishops have been specially called by God to roles of authority in the church they, too, must take counsel with one another and with the experience of the whole church past and present. Are we allowing some groups to dominate the conversation while the vast majority of our church members are not feeling heard or included?
Drawing on ancient pastoral wisdom in this matter we turn to the Abbot Benedict, who stresses the importance of listening with the ear of the heart…and when important matters are under consideration, consulting even the youngest member since by the inspiration of the Spirit it is often the youngest person who knows what is best (cf. Ch 3, The Rule of Benedict).
The sensus fidelium, literally the sense of the faithful, is one of the norms of theological truth: it is the actual belief of Christians down through the centuries. This was a favourite theme of the nineteenth-century English convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, Cardinal John Henry Newman (d. 1890) in his On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine (1859; reprinted by Sheed & Ward, 1985). Newman wrote:
It is not a little remarkable, that, though historically speaking, the fourth century is the age of doctors, illustrated as it was by the saints Athanasius, Hilary, the two Gregories, Basil, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine ... nevertheless in that very day the divine tradition committed to the infallible Church was proclaimed and maintained far more by the faithful than by the Episcopate.4
As Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation reminds us, sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the teaching authority of the Church are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others (n.10). What ultimately holds them all together is the Holy Spirit; what immediately holds them all together is the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faith that the people of God share among themselves: ‘The body of the faithful as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One (see 1 John 2:20,27), cannot err in matters of belief.’ (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, par. 12.)
And we read in The Gift of Authority:
Those who exercise episcope are not to be separated from the ‘symphony’ of the whole people of God in which they have their part to play; bishops have to remain alert to the sensus fidelium…if they are to be made aware when something is needed for the well-being and mission of the community, or when some element of the Tradition needs to be received in a fresh way.5
Dealing with Differences: Presuming Good Faith
We must all hold ourselves accountable for our speech and actions and treat one another with at least the normal respect and courtesies we have come to expect in the wider society. We should not substitute labels, abstractions or blanketing terms-such as ‘radical feminism’, ‘the hierarchy’, ‘the Vatican’-for living complicated realities.
The plea of one of my friends who felt totally misjudged and labeled rings in my ears: ‘Don’t read me line by line. Read the themes and strands of my life. Look at the witness of my life. Listen to my story. Do not reduce any person or group to a simple ‘good’ or ‘bad’.’
Take the matter of feminism in the Church. Is it more feared than explored? Rejected than critiqued? Must we think in either/or categories? Is it possible to be both a feminist and a Catholic?
One of the by-products of the Woman and Man Project, especially the public hearings, was that it urged women to have confidence in speaking of their experience. Women were encouraged to come to their senses; to a sense of appreciation, to a sense of anger at injustice anywhere, a sense of support, a sense of ambiguity and a sense of history so they can see how individuals and movements have changed institutions and cultures.
We have to examine where and how we choose to interact and raise our questions. I am totally opposed to bringing our differences to the liturgy in a competitive points-scoring way.
A mature faith requires us to live in tension; to live the questions rather than rushing to answers that can silence us or others, or lead us out of the church. Many women find a place in the church by creating a place for others. Let us not look for applause or wait for permission. As a friend of mine says: It is much easier to ask for forgiveness than to seek permission!
Engaging the Realities of Our Contemporary Culture
‘All renewal in the church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion’ (Ecclesia in Oceania par. 19). We are being called to attend to the ‘big picture’. In the spirit of those stirring words from Vatican II,
The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts (The Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, par. 1).
Engagement is essential for mission. Ecclesia in Oceania (par. 24), points to the kind of engagement called for today: ‘There is need for a new apologetics in keeping with the words of St Peter: ‘Be ready to give reasons for the hope in your heart” (1 Peter 3:15).
Young women spoke of their desire for genuine engagement within the church.
No one speaks to young women and the Church’s position on certain issues shows a lack of understanding of the realities facing us. They have forced us to find our own positions on issues such as sexuality, contraception, divorce, social justice and the environment. This is because when we seek a position from the Church it is unreal and the Church is not open to the complexities of all these issues.
As one participant stated, ‘The church is not meeting people where they are at.’6
It is time to formulate good and original questions believing that questions are more important than answers. One good question can open the mind to many possible answers.
In the search for answers the mind trembles when it unveils zones of opacity, and I believe that the trembling of the mind says more about the truth than neat and clear prefabricated answers.7
Questions disturb the peaceful waters of our monotonous lives but are they not an important means that brings us closer to God? A Church without questions runs the risk of forgetting that it receives its life and identity from God and that it is accountable for all its acts. Furthermore, a Catholic community that would receive its questioning only from other churches or from the Vatican, without formulating its own questions, runs the risk of becoming a faceless community incapable of receiving and hosting the fire of the Spirit.8
The Great Australian Divides
We are a country of great divides-the city and the bush, the rich and the poor, to name but two.
Ecclesia in Oceania takes up the challenge of the divide between the rich and the poor (par. 29) and urges a sharing of resources between wealthier and poorer churches. Another rich/poor divide is, of course, within Australia.
The St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia issued a Report in May 2001-Two Australias -in which they point out the massive gap between the rich and the poor, a gap that is widening. There is danger of a division into two nations, one for the rich and one for the rest.
Poverty and inequality come at a high cost for us all. The obvious costs are in the areas of health, welfare, crime, productivity and economic growth. Less visible, but very real, is the cost we bear as a nation that risks having gained the whole world while we lose our soul.
The core of the solutions to this Australian divide revolves around regional initiatives, income redistribution, but even more importantly around the way we look at things. It is about minds, attitudes, spirits and ‘soul’.
Recognising that in many parts of Oceania, individualism threatens to erode the fabric of human society, the Pope again holds up as an antidote the rich possibility of ecclesial communio (Ecclesia in Oceania par. 12).
According to the environmentalist, Tim Flannery, individualism, amongst other forces, is leading us to become ‘future eaters’ living beyond our means. The most important change to the agenda needed to restore the balance is internal and intensely personal. In the end, individuals make the difference in the course of social change. Knowledge and skills matter and even more importantly, our convictions, our awareness, our spirits matter.
Yet, it is precisely at this level of the human spirit that we are suffering, if not malaise, then at least a deep hunger. Lots of Australians are turning to a variety of counsellors and therapists to find meaning in life. Hugh McKay, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, 8-9 June, gives the headline, A Hungry Heart Needs Food for the Soul to his article. He estimates that this week in excess of one million people will seek the services of a therapist. And this does not include the collateral services obtained from GPs, chemists, bank tellers, hairdressers, bartenders. Medicos report that they are often dealing with the ‘worried well’.
What does this trend mean? Certainly some increase in psychological disorders exacerbated by features of modern life-stress, materialism, feelings of emptiness. But there is another factor at work as well, and that is the fragmentation of the networks of personal support traditionally offered by family members and close friends. As a society we seem to be losing the art of intimacy and, with it, the capacity to sustain each other through life’s inevitable traumas.
CONCLUSION: A SPIRITUALITY OF COMMUNION
And what does this trend say to us as Church? Pope John Paul II speaks of the great challenge facing us as church, if we wish to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings
… to make the church the home and the school of communion: that is to know how to make room for our brothers and sisters, bearing each other’s burdens and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us…Let us have no illusions: unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, ‘masks’ of communion rather than its means of expression and growth.9
Do we need to come to a fresh appreciation of the needs of people for the spiritual journey? Can we be more generous and resourceful in sharing the riches of our ecclesial communio-resources for peacemaking, for justice and reconciliation. Much of the energy I fear is spent on concerns about the who and the how of our liturgical rituals and access is then regrettably blocked.
The gospel reading for the Tenth Sunday of the year-last Sunday-is timely in its message.
Go and learn what this means-I desire mercy not sacrifice. For I have come to call not the virtuous but sinners (Matt. 9:9-13).
The sexual abuse issues that have exploded in the media in these past weeks call us all as Church to account. We need to see the current crisis as an urgent cry to take the matter of personal integrity, accountability and responsibility seriously. We are at once a deeply wounded and richly graced community. The vow of celibacy remains difficult to understand and is often named as the cause for sexual abuse. This is to entirely neglect the data that comes from the statistics and from clinical practice which shows that most pedophiles are married and heterosexual. Pedophilia, and sexual abuse in general, is a heinous crime. Facing this honestly will not prevent us from preaching the gospel message. In fact it can only make our words more authentic.
To speak a word of hope will mean finding the wisdom and courage to speak truthfully and openly with words that unite rather than divide, which illuminate rather than obscure and which heal rather than wound.
The words of the saintly John XXIII are pertinent. Let there be:
Unity in what is necessary
1 Dulles, Avery, Models
of the Church. Image Books. New York, 1978. p.59
Clark, E. (1998), Five
Great Catholic Ideas. The Crossroad Publishing Company. New York.
Sr Sonia Wagner SGS is Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St Benedict. She is Deputy Chairperson of the Commission for Australian Catholic Women.