How can we rebuild our Church today?
As I considered the title of this conference, ‘How can we rebuild our Church?’, I have felt deeply its connection with every aspect of my life. If I may straight away expand ‘church’ into ‘community for the kingdom’ (See, for example, John Fullenbach, Church, Community for the Kingdom, New York, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, 2002) , then ‘rebuilding our church’ is one way of expressing my total purpose at this time – in my personal life, in family and community, within my Presentation Congregation , as well as in my work on behalf of the Irish Episcopal Conference.
And so I would like, in this session, to share with you some of the core beliefs which support me in this purpose, along with a brief account of the reason for the hope that is in me (1 Peter 3:15). I expect there will be points which you will wish to discuss – with one another as well as with me – as we go along.
Considering the title: ‘How can we rebuild our Church’ in this light, gradually the focus has become for me, ‘how can we re-found ourselves as community for the kingdom? ’ Right now, I wish to invite you to notice what happens to you if you too transpose the question in this way: ‘How can we re-found ourselves as community for the kingdom?’ …
The idea of re-founding may sound dramatic, but in truth isn’t that one way of describing where we are? We have been rocked to our core with the reports that we refer to as Ferns (2005), Ryan (2009), Murphy (2009), Murphy supplement (2010), Cloyne (2011) and all of that has transpired along the way.
There have been many attempts to identify the fault lines in our traditional way of being Church, and it’s probably true to say that we do not yet have the critical distance to offer a definitive analysis of what has gone so badly wrong. I engage with this question in the course of my work in Pastoral Studies from perspectives that are appropriate to that work, but I do not intend to pursue it here. Of this, however, I am convinced: any attempt to offer definitive solutions to complex dilemmas are highly likely to be flawed.
I prefer at this point to go back to first principles. Having been as shattered as every other person I can think of, I return for reassurance to the basics of my belief.
I was fortunate to have been in a wide-awake and formative environment in the period following immediately on Vatican II. It was in my Leaving Cert year that Vatican II drew to a close, and I pay tribute to the Presentation Sisters who ran our school, that they had us watch proceedings in Rome, in no doubt that what was happening there was of world-shattering importance.
So I will now turn to two basic principles that emerged, very soon, as we perused the teaching of the Council. These are the universal call to holiness and the priesthood of all the baptised.
UNIVERSAL CALL TO HOLINESS
Of the twelve other young girls who joined the novitiate with me in 1966, the majority discerned that what they were called to would be found in committed Christian life in, as it would have been described then, ‘the world’! Where, I ask myself, were the four who undertook the Presentation way of life going to live out our days, only ‘in the world’ too!
I still think of those days and mull over how urgently we needed then, and still need today, to probe what it means to respond to the universal call to holiness ‘in the world’, because there is still, in ways, an uneasy assumption that somehow holiness takes us out of the world.
How can we re-found ourselves as community for the kingdom, in the world? I suggest we need to constantly revisit our call to holiness … to life lived with God, as God’s gracious gift … to our baptismal identity as being ‘in Christ’, to the ever-present guidance of the Spirit. Where does such a holy life lead us? That’s our life’s work … to discern where we are being led. But the touchstone will always be those qualities of justice, love and peace, which are the marks of the kingdom or the reign of God – in the world.
My work at present puts me in touch with many groups who are committed, in their parishes and dioceses, to participating in the public ministry of the Church, for example through membership of their pastoral councils. I’ve noticed a definite shift over the past 20 years. Catholics have begun to talk about Jesus Christ! We have begun to see parish as community of faith, deliberately seeking ways to live out the gospel and give witness to its message, to proclaim the values of the kingdom … of ‘truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace’i in the world.
In talking about holiness, I am not avoiding the very real struggles we face, if we are to re-found ourselves as community for the kingdom. I am simply sharing my belief that I, as of those one called, am not ready or able to engage with this task unless I am guided by gospel principles and led by the Spirit…
PRIESTHOOD OF ALL THE BAPTISED
The second basic principle which was already making waves in 1966 was that of the priesthood of all the baptised. We know that Vatican II didn’t invent these principles. Rather it was retrieving the rich heritage of the early Church.
What provides a firm foundation for me in my life and work is our radical equality as baptised, as people called to participate in the mission of God in the world, to be the community of those who believe and follow Jesus Christ, to be ‘community for the kingdom’.
Nobody or no structure can undo our radical equality. But it is we ourselves who have to become and remain convinced of it. Ultimately, it is we who have to undertake with fidelity the implication of our baptismal priesthood. This we do through bringing our faith to life and life to faith.
It is true that in our Church structures and practice the radical equality of all is not always evident, nor even invoked. This is a challenge for all. In my work I listen to lay people who experience exclusion at the hands of some clergy. In equal measure I listen to clergy who are at pains to find co-workers among the lay faithful.
To take seriously our equality within the priesthood of the baptised is to take to heart our co-responsibility for the being and action of the Church, which Pope Benedict has emphasised (2 See Pope Benedict XVI, as Bishop of Rome, in his address to the pastoral convention of the diocese of Rome, 26 May 2009. See www.vatican.va ).
DIALOGUE AS PRIMARY LANGUAGE OF FAITH COMMUNITY
I believe that to re-found ourselves as community for the kingdom one of our first, most practical, challenges lies in the quality of our conversations.
I live now in a small community of four sisters. When we were first setting up our life together as this particular group, one of the commitments we made was not to say about another anything we had not, or would not, say to her. A second promise we made was to remind one another of this agreement, if one was showing signs of slipping up. The effort to live this commitment has a transforming effect. I offer the idea to you for your consideration.
A piece of work that I and colleagues have been involved in of late was to revise and enlarge the framework for Parish Pastoral Councils, first published in 2007. This included consulting those who had used the earlier publication. For the purpose, various groups around the country were invited to share their reflections. During the conversation in focus groups in Limerick, in particular, something of importance came to light: the need to be gentle in our relations in faith community. Priests talked about their experience of loss when moving out of a parish community in which they had shared so many key moments with parishioners and families. In this regard, we need to see the person in the role, and remember that the person needs time to make his transition and so in time to be available for equally meaningful engagement in a totally new community. We can take the initiative in reaching out, but we cannot command the performance of the other. Likewise, parishioners have their share of losses, especially in our time. Being attentive and compassionate, we can live the communion to which we are called, and through which we share in the life of God, three in one, in an eternal communion of love. In this way, we also learn to proceed through dialogue.
Catholic theologian and bishop, now Cardinal, Walter Kasper has named dialogue as the primary language of the faith community. Writing as far back as 1981 (in Introduction to Christian Faith) Kasper observed that, since the Spirit is given to the total Church, we must discern the guidance of the Spirit through dialogue between three important sources of wisdom: ‘the sense of the faithful’, the scholarship of the theologians and the authoritative teaching of the Magisterium. Kasper goes so far as to call this the constitution of the Church, but acknowledges that often we act as if we are in a state of emergency (of suspension of this constitution). [From 1999 to 2010 Kasper was head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. While uncompromising, his commitment to dialogue has been fruitful and is well documented.]
It is now recognised, 50 years on from Vatican II, that its major contribution was that it modelled the way of dialogue. As a result, talk of ‘implementing’ Vatican II may be said to be somewhat wide of the mark – to have taken an old mind-set to a new task. If Vatican II offered primarily a model of how to proceed, I suggest we need to find ways of replicating the processes of dialogue, and in this way experience the power of the same Spirit of God who guided the Council, and who is at work in our own time and place.
This disposition towards dialogue is, for me, essential to the work of ‘refounding ourselves as community for the kingdom’.