Are we for real?

Can the Church love enough to listen? In listening, can it dialogue? And if it dialogues, will it change?

from Online Catholics by Mary Bryant

Whether by coincidence or serendipity I attended two talks in one week that were by fact destined to be related.

The first was the launch of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ statement for Social Justice Sunday titled: The Heart of the Country – Dignity and Justice for our Indigenous sisters and brothers; the second was a talk by Fr John Prior SVD which focused on the importance of dialogue in Asia as way of engaging local culture and people in a Church that faces extinction. It was titled Mission as Dialogue: Compromise or Confidence.

The common ground for the discussion struck me as the need for the Church to openly engage in dialogue to address the past pain and trauma, to bring reconciliation and to create a realistic vision of the Church’s mission. While these goals were reiterated by John Prior, the complexity and prerequisites for this process must be fully investigated if they are to be achieved.

One extract from the Social Justice statement succinctly makes the point. It quotes Pope John Paul II from 2001, “it is the Churches’ task to help Indigenous cultures preserve their identity and maintain their traditions”. Another continues: “The Churches’ dialogue with cultures of our time (is) a vital area, one in which the destiny of the world… is at stake.” These themes were echoed and expanded by John Prior giving reference to the work of the FABC (Federation of Asian Bishops Conference).

Two questions the Social Justice Sunday statement raise for all of us are:

What has changed since the Pope spoke in Alice Springs 20 years ago?

Why are the circumstances that Indigenous Australians live in still so poor and embarrassing?

Any answers are determined by the lens through which you view the questions. It depends on the focus you choose to consider, whether it be health or land rights or justice.

The lens which I was forced to consider while sitting listening to John Prior was the role of the Church. How does the Church, which includes you and me, reflect its commitment to Indigenous people in the way it operates, organises itself and celebrates liturgy?

It is important for me to clarify what I mean by the word, Church. For me Church represents my experience as a lay parishioner who participates in liturgy in a local parish. The Church is often understood as the congregation that celebrates the liturgy together. However, power and decision making in the Church are not shared by this group. There are Parish Councils which make recommendations, but my experience of councils is that recommendations can be, and have been, overturned by local priests. I acknowledge that there are a variety of interpretations and meanings given to the word but I think I would be accurate in assuming my experience is the quite common.

The recent events in Redfern — surrounding the painting on the church wall of a mural quoting the Pope in Alice Springs 20 years ago, and the subsequent media coverage with comments by the local Parish Priest in which he called the mural vandalism — remind us that the Church is not one voice or even the voice of the congregation. It reminds us that the conversation is not equal; that the parties do not share power and there can be pressure on Indigenous people to join a non-Indigenous conversation and agree to participate in a celebration of Jesus that was not developed to respond or incorporate their culture.

A week after the mural event, a most serious outcome was described in a letter to the Parish Priest of St Vincent’s Redfern, August 24, on behalf of the parishioners:

“Fr Gerry, last Sunday during the celebration of the 10am Mass, you left the altar at the Offertory, for your stated reason that you regarded the words of the Offertory Song as ‘political’.

“Your action, of walking out and thereby terminating the celebration of Mass, deprived us of our Sunday Eucharistic celebration and of our bread of life for the week’s journey. This is a violation of the community and of your own priesthood of the Jesus who came to serve. It was a violation of ‘the norms and traditions of the Church’ that you say in your letter ‘must be respected by all’.

“The community remains deeply grieved that as the parish priest charged with the pastoral care of our parish you would act in a way so violative of your duties.”

To be marginalised is one thing; to be different another; but to be refused the Eucharist represents a very serious choice by the Church which is first called to act as Jesus on earth.

John Prior pointed out that the Asian Bishops Conference has been motivated to begin dialogue in response to a similar circumstance that has led to the local communities feeling excluded, their culture itself being denied.

In Australia the Church has also found herself responsible for behaviours, policies and practices that have hurt Indigenous people and one wonders whether Redfern is an instance of this.

I am not Indigenous. I am however female. So, like Indigenous people, I am participating in rituals and ceremony that have been designed by men and, in my view, have not incorporated the ways and culture of women in their deliberations and decisions, let alone ceremony.

At a practical level I am in the 12th year of being banished to a crying room, where they exist, with toddlers; a solution suggested to me by my parish priest. Other options included leaving the children at home, my husband and I attending separately, and if we insisted attending Church as a family, only attending mass when a children’s liturgy was available.

The humiliation of the visit — in 2003 not 1903 — with its subsequent suggestions was enough to send me, if not to the crying room, out the back of the Church. So it is with much seriousness that I wonder how honest and serious we are as a Church when we propose communion with Indigenous people or the people of Asia.

Dialogue, it is true, is the key to any movement together but as we all know no other interaction is so fraught as a conversation.

The truth is that the primary prerequisite for any dialogue is a talker and a listener. The talker is never hard to find; the listener is often elusive.

When I began to consider how the Church prepares herself in order to listen, I began to consider the qualities and prerequisites that facilitate the same skill in me. If I were to list the prerequisites for active listening in myself they would include respect for the other party; to have time; to have a goal for the dialogue (conversation); but most importantly, a quality that I am too slowly developing with age and experience, self assuredness, peace or self confidence which often comes from healing that allows me to listen openly, without needing to defend a notion or position, with a view to knowing more or becoming more.

The question then becomes: How does a Church become self confident, peaceful, and self assured in order to listen to other ideas, ways, thoughts and behaviours?

One answer is through healing, by offering forgiveness and being forgiven.

Another answer may be by modelling inclusive behaviours. For women, changes in language from male-oriented words to neutral expressions have marked a symbolic but crucial change. Another may be by being realistic about what we want and expect from the dialogue knowing what can change and what we can’t and being honest and open about that.

Fundamentally, we must find the common ground, which can be simply stated as a universal belief: love is good.

The fact remains that the Church, which includes you and me, can only enter a dialogue if we are truly open to the possibility of hearing new things, listening and not defending, celebrating difference and doing things differently.

One other feature of dialogue that I have been drawn to again in my experience as a woman is the capacity I have to influence the decisions that are made in response to the conversation. Women are very familiar with discussions that are held and then referred to a group for a final decision that largely excludes their voice; parliament may be a ready example.

The worst outcome of this process results in cynicism, rejection and anger. In the Church Mouse, St Vincent’s Parish, Redfern, we find the words posted:

“As usual, whenever we as a community or as individuals try to engage you or your fellow priests in dialogue, our efforts are met with stony refusals to engage. Rather, you choose to assert your authority as priest as if that should be the end of it.” August 27.

Therefore, if the Church begins a dialogue it needs to consider its own position in order to avoid tokenism, or time wasting.

In the launch of the Social Justice Sunday statement Fr Brian McCoy told us we must look back to look forward.

When I look back over the last 20 years I wonder:

What has changed in local parishes and how will things change in response to the statement now?

Do local parishes acknowledge the Indigenous people as the custodians of the land on which their churches stand?

Is there evidence of Indigenous culture, art, ritual in our local parishes? Is there the opportunity for dialogue?

My mother always said: “Don’t tell me you love me, show me.” I think we should do both. Certainly, words are not enough.

Recent developments in psychology and social work show that while looking back is important, we also need to identify resilience and strengths, acknowledging that victims are strong by the fact they have survived.

We could ask ourselves: What are the positive stories we tell, promote or publicise of Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength and achievements? In Hebrews 11 we are reminded that: “To have faith is to be sure of what we hope for, to be certain of things we cannot see.”

With this in mind I take the risk of hoping and dreaming:

Dreaming of a Church that is confident enough for liturgy to be celebrated in culturally appropriate ways;

Confident enough to invite women and men, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, into decision-making fora that plan for the future of the Church;

And that this Church is loving enough to have disabled access and a ceremony that appeals to children; a Church that seeks to love first in all its activities and to put that above history, tradition and power.

Mary Bryant is the mother of six children aged 3 – 12 years. She is a social worker who is particularly interested in the intersection between spirituality and social work practise. This includes writing and researching ways in which we can weave the values of Catholic social teaching into the work we do and the way we do it including policies and procedures of not-for-profit agencies. She is particularly interested in women’s issues and her experience as a working mother have only heightened her passion for equality and structural change that assist women to combine both vocations.

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