Today in the Church we are fortunate to have a Leader who has the courage to speak out with a prophetic voice in spite of opposition from several of those to whom he should be able to look for support. He is not afraid to speak with the “Boldness, enthusiasm and freedom” that he himself recommends to all of us in his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Rejoice and Be Glad, and to take radical action when necessary. We too are called to be prophetic, and I use the word “prophetic” in the sense that we are called to listen deeply to what God is saying to the Church and the world today and then to “speak the truth in love” in season and out of season.
We would probably all agree that the Church has changed significantly in recent years with declining numbers going to Mass and fewer religious and priests to minister to those people. But has it changed in a positive way? What about its structures, laws, belief systems, culture etc? Could it be that. its declining membership and the reason it is seen as irrelevant by so many people is the fact that it has not been allowed to evolve organically over the centuries and so is out of sync with the people of today?
In 2019 we live in a world that is changing so rapidly that there are some aspects of it that we couldn’t have imagined even at the end of the last century. And that is the world in which we are called to live and be prophetic. However, outdated rules and regulations, dogmatic formulas suited to ages past, unbending laws, patriarchy, hierarchy, authoritarianism, unquestioning obedience and threats of sanctions, judgement and punishment have kept the Church closed and prevented it from evolving. Pope Francis himself has said that there are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The trouble is that a rigid, closed system in an evolving world will eventually decay and die. So how can we transform disintegrating structures and inject new energy into a seemingly immoveable system? Pope Francis has also said more than once that the Church should not be a museum of memories. What can we do to support him as he tries to break out of the closed system that the Church has become and move towards a new ecclesial model? Do we want a static, immutable Church or a humane and compassionate People of God? As prophets, we must be carriers of a new vision of Church.
The Church not only has a deep structural problem, but its dominant theology belongs to the 13th century. Can we dream of what St. Thomas Aquinas’s theology would be like if he had all the knowledge provided by modern science, technology and Scripture Studies at his disposal? Surely that kind of dreaming and imagining is a big part of the work to be done by 21st century prophets. We may not be competent to undertake such work ourselves but we can support those who do and who very often, like Pope Francis, suffer rejection in a Church to which they are trying to be loyal in their efforts to keep it alive, credible and relevant.
Perhaps we grew up with the idea that faith meant giving assent to a series of unchanging beliefs we knew of as “the deposit of faith”. This deposit of faith, we were told, contained the full truth and was possessed only by the Catholic Church. But Pope Francis has said that “The view of the Church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong”. Our faith is something for which we must take personal responsibility. It should be something alive, evolving and deep within us, something of which we are convinced. This calls us to grow from the faith we had in childhood to a mature faith in the light of our experience of life and new information or revelations of God which come to us from various sources. If we take dogma, doctrine and Scripture literally, we have a lot of discerning and unlearning to do before we can have a prophetic voice.
Our faith will remain very superficial if the only reason we believe is “because the Church says so”. It is important to know “what I say”, “what we say”, what the sensus fidelium, says. The sensus fidelium is the sense of the faithful which those responsible for formulating Church teaching are supposed to take into consideration. In theory, Church teaching is not something which trickles down from on high but takes account of the reflections of all the members of the Church. Pope Francis himself tells us that “We should not even think that ‘thinking with the Church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the Church… The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths”. As prophets and as creatively faithful members of the Church, let us go and look for those new paths and then have the courage to walk on them.
Let us tell people openly that something better is possible – that we are all the Church, and that together we can work to bring about a different model built on love and compassion rather than on rules and regulations. Let us have the courage to speak about a new vision of Church. Very often we will find that people are thinking deeply but are hesitant to speak out because they think they are alone, even that they are losing the faith. So, let us encourage one another, listen to the Spirit and discern together.
Perhaps a useful prayer for us, at this critical stage in the evolution of the Church, could be one of Tess Ward’s – author of The Celtic Wheel of the Year – “Create in me a prophetic eye that I might see the new thing that you are doing this day and have vision for tomorrow”.
Áine Hayde HFB