I spent much of last week in Melbourne, at the National Pastoral Leaders and Planners Conference. There were about 200 people there from across Australia and New Zealand. I was blessed to receive the words, inspiration and passion of so many wonderful presenters, and in turn I have wondered what I might share with you in this week’s message.

Given that I am writing this message on Child Protection Sunday, to which I referred in last week’s message, and also given that I hope to be gathered with many of you at Lina’s Project on Friday night, 15 September, I thought I might share with you some of what I heard presented by Geraldine Doogue. She spoke about; “Living through the ‘Holy Saturday’ of our Australian Church Experience: what are the steps towards hope?

I begin with the image I was left with at the end of her presentation because this image seems to fit with our reality of church in our diocese.

I invite you to imagine that you are standing at the Cross or at the tomb. I don’t have to describe for you the image lying before you. As with the death of any beloved, there is a range of raw emotions – grief, loss, disbelief, despair, disgust, disappointment, struggling, sadness, mourning, lamenting, shame, guilt, anxiety, trauma, feeling battered, rage….. In the standing and waiting, there is no solace that can be provided − just the rawness of the reality. There is also a sense of not knowing what will happen next, the space of the unknown, a degree of emptiness.

I wonder if this describes how you or many that you know are feeling about our church at this time. What was once a place of faith and hope has become a space of standing and waiting, a place of not knowing and questioning. This is what we call the Paschal Mystery. God is in this space and we believe that from this death, new life will spring forth. But how long must we wait and feel lost and possibly alone? 

Geraldine spoke of our struggle to discern what to say or to think and acknowledged that it is the confident, institutionalised triumphant church which has died. However, its faith, hope and charity remain alive and active in its people, its parishes, its schools, in the many health and aged care facilities and in its welfare agencies. These organisations/people are aware of the tragic harm caused by those who committed evil acts against children and young people and yet they hold on to the belief that goodness is more powerful than evil. Geraldine used the metaphor of a virus which can infect and take over the whole body, robbing it of joy and a sense of wellbeing.

She spoke powerfully of goodness being sovereign unto itself, not being contaminated by other acts. She implored us to continue to seek out the good in spite of sin. She insisted that it calls us all into a deep place of consideration and discernment as to what gives us meaning. During our acts of atonement and humility we must seek out ways to continue to be kind and compassionate. Our hallmark is that of seeking God, in searching for what it means to be truly human and truly alive. Geraldine insisted that we will need strong symbolic acts of contrition. I was tempted to share with the group the creative enterprise of Lina’s Project. I wonder what will happen for us as we stand in solidarity with each other while pondering our individual and collective trauma, grief and loss.

Geraldine believes that we need a public office which promotes the many good works carried out on behalf of our church. There is no doubt that those who profess Christianity as a way of life contribute greatly to the overall wellbeing and social capital of our society. She also spoke about our need to break open our understanding of the theology of the body. This she believes would make a useful contribution to our world. She finished her talk with some of the words of Oscar Romero:

We cannot do everything; and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.
This enables us to do something and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way.
An opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Interestingly, even though I begin this message on a Sunday, I go back to it on a Monday. And today, when I opened up the Daily Mediations of Richard Rohr, I came across these words in his writing about the Prophets, which I feel compelled to share with you. This passage he named Struggling with Shadow:

The Hebrew prophets are in a category of their own. Within the canonical, sacred scriptures of other world religions we do not find major texts that are largely critical of that very religion. The Hebrew prophets were free to love their tradition and to profoundly criticize it at the same time, which is a very rare art form. In fact, it is their love of its depths that forces them to criticize their own religion.

One of the most common complaints I hear from some Catholics is, “You criticize the Church too much.” But criticizing the Church is just being faithful to the very clear pattern set by the prophets and Jesus (just read Matthew 23). I would not bother criticizing organized Christianity if I did not also love it. There is a negative criticism that is nothing but complaining and projecting. There is a positive criticism that is all about hope and development.

The dualistic mind presumes that if you criticize something, you don’t love it.  Wise people like the prophets would say the opposite. The Hebrew prophets were radical precisely because they were traditionalists. Institutions prefer loyalists and “company men” to prophets. None of us want people who point out our shadow or our dark side. It is no accident that prophets and priests are usually in opposition to one another throughout the Bible (e.g., Amos 5:21-6:7, 7:10-17). Yet Paul says the prophetic gift is the second most important charism for the building up of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11). And note how often the text says it was “the priests, elders, and teachers of the law” who criticized and finally condemned the prophet Jesus. Interestingly, I have never heard of a church called “Jesus the Prophet” in all the world. We do not like prophets too much.

Human consciousness does not emerge at any depth except through struggling with our shadow. It is in facing our conflicts, criticisms, and contradictions that we grow. It is in the struggle with our shadow self, with failure, or with wounding that we break into higher levels of consciousness. People who learn to expose, name, and still thrive inside the contradictions are people I would call prophets.

……. That is what the Jewish prophets told Israel both before and during their painful and long Exile (596-538 BC). Yet Exile was the very time when the Jewish people went deep and discovered their prophetic voices − Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others − speaking truth to power, calling for justice. There is every indication that the U.S., and much of the world, is in a period of exile now. The mystics would call it a collective “dark night.”

The prophetic message is not directly about partisan politics (which is far too dualistic); it is much more pre-political and post-political—which has huge socio-political implications that challenge all of us on every side. Those who allow themselves to be challenged and changed will be the new cultural creative voices of the next period of history after this purifying exile.

I apologise for this long quote but reducing it may have meant a loss of connection to what I was trying to reveal to you from the words of Geraldine Doogue, and what may occur for us as individuals and as a people on Friday night.

I will finish with some words from T.S. Eliot, East Coker, lines 112-14, from Four Quartets:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God…
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be light, and the stillness dancing.

The invitation is to watch and wait, hold your patience and yet be prophetic.

Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

Teresa Brierley is Director Pastoral Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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