There are times in all our lives when an event is transformative, when something happens that makes a difference; there is a step-change and the person we were before is radically different from the person we become. There is no going back.
Such a step-change occurred in the life of the Church in March 2013 with the election of Francis as Bishop of Rome. The present successor to previous holders of that office is within the tradition of the Church, there is no argument with that. He has however shown us a willingness to break new ground through his evident easy relationship with people. Over recent months the internet has been littered with his examples of a simple life style that seems natural to him and puts others at their ease.
One key word must be dialogue, not just the dialogue of words but also of relationships. In recent years, groups have been formed in various parts of the world seeking dialogue, bringing together people whose commitment to the Church is faithful, but who also recognise real problems that cannot, must not, be ignored.
Such groups should not be seen as a threat, for their giving voice to current issues is all part of their pilgrimage as Christian people. They often meet with resistance from many directions, from those who seek the holy comfort zone of what used to be, or are fearful of where we might be heading.
Richard Rohr, in his recent book, Falling Upward, puts it this way. “This resistance to change is so common, in fact, that it is almost what we come to expect from religious people who tend to love the past more than the future or the present”.
Because some people are willing to take the risk of a journey, to question where we are and where we might be going, that should not make them the subject of suspicion. Their courage in leaving home should be applauded.
The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) in Ireland has raised serious questions over the last three years and have often been castigated for it. In the US, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, who met this week, who live out their vocation in a real and messy world, has had its integrity challenged by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Here in the United Kingdom, the establishment of the group a Call to Action (ACTA) in 2012 following a gathering at Heythrop College in London raised concern in some quarters when the only wish of those involved was to establish open dialogue for the good of the Church. Likewise, the Movement for Married Clergy, MMaC, has since 1975, sought an honest discussion on the “necessary” relationship between ordination and celibacy. Sincere discussion should be welcomed by both the hierarchy and the laity, for the good of the Church.
In the early days of August, we celebrated the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. We should remember that, now and then, we too are transformed, transfigured even, and the dwelling of God in us is allowed to shine through. Others see it, and are grateful for our being alongside them. Others feel it, in the gentleness of our touch or the carefulness of our hug. Others value it when we truly listen to their words of joy or pain and share with them times of great personal happiness or the darkness of desolation.
We mustn’t be afraid of challenging voices from whatever quarter they come, but ask only questions of their sincerity and then be willing to dialogue a way forward together.
In these days of fear for the future of the Church, and Christian values, one needs to understand the motivation of Pope Francis towards the opening up of the Roman Catholic Church to the priority of relationships between human beings – made in the Image and Likeness of God. Doctrine needs to be constantly up-dated to keep pace with the reality on the ground.
In today’s appalling situation of religious wars that are prompted by fundamentalist jihadists, who believe that they have the right to overturn the human rights of other people who do not conform to their own standards of religious purity, the Church has an urgent need to re-examine its doctrinal and social connectivity. The God and Father of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ has much more to offer humanity than the stark promise of vengeance – based on strict adherence to credal formulae, rather than the eirenic parameters of the Gospel. Freedom from hypocrisy and self-righteousness was one of the battles that Jesus had to fight during his short time on earth. The Church needs to expand its understanding of God’s openness to ALL people – regardless of race, tribe, social class, ethnic purity, gender or sexual-orientation. Pope Francis may yet turn out to be this century’s proclaimer, par excellence, of ‘The great love of God as revealed in the Son’ that this world sorely needs.
Jesu, mercy, Mary, pray!
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand
Chris McDonnell is the secretary of the Movement for Married Clergy