Pope Francis has given people permission to have doubts
Have we reached our beach?
After the publication of the Murphy Report, when I finally had to open my eyes and accept that a superficial practice of Catholicism wasn’t enough anymore I went through a real “dark night of the soul”. My conscience wouldn’t allow me to contribute to be part of building church community in my own local area while ignoring the huge “wrongness” that, I felt, existed within the institutional church.
I struggled long and hard with the question of “Is it right that I continue to be a practicing Catholic?” I tried walking away (I actually gave myself forty days in the wilderness!) but some deep inner yearning drew me back and I realised my soul hungered for the nourishment that being part of my Catholic family gave me.
So I had to make a promise to myself that I could only continue to be an active member of my church community and a part of my beloved Family Mass group so long as I continued to try to be part of changing the “wrongness” that my conscience had always been nagging me over. Now I had to DO something rather than just leave it to others to sort out!
But I was under no illusions that I had any way of doing so or that I had a voice that mattered. Friends and family who had taken the decision that Catholicism could not ever be reformed, that it was a corrupt, misogynistic, homophobic monolithic dictatorship etc. etc. felt that I was banging my head against a stone wall. Nothing would ever change.
So I had to find places where I could add my little voice to others who felt that they COULD stay within Catholicism while working towards changing all that was wrong. In my search I encountered many wonderful groups and many wonderful people (take a bow, all of you!) and I continue to walk along the path with you.
But I want to explain the question at the start of this musing. “Have we reached our beach?”
In one of the groups that sustains me is a wonderful woman who spent many years in South Africa. She was there during the apartheid years and took part in the anti-apartheid movement. At one of our early gatherings someone (probably me!) voiced the utter frustration of “What can WE do, sitting around talking about what needs to be changed? We don’t have any power or influence. We’re nobodies in the grand scheme of things!”
She told us of her experience in South Africa. The apartheid system seemed to be indestructible. Small groups of people like ourselves met and shared ideas and got support from each other and networked with other small groups who felt the same. They couldn’t see a clear path ahead but they sustained each other by “sitting around talking”.
Then one such small group decided they were going to walk onto a Whites Only beach as a protest on a particular Sunday . Because all the other little groups had been coming together and “talking”, the word spread like wildfire. The beach was invaded by thousands of anti-apartheid demonstrators. That moment was a turning point in the struggle to end apartheid. Not only did the powers that be see the strength of the opposition to their rule, but, maybe even more importantly, the protestors saw the strength of their cause and took heart to continue to push for change.
It seems to me that we have reached a moment in our church’s life that could turn out to be our “beach”.
I don’t want to elevate Pope Francis to Superhero status – to leave it to him to save us all from destruction. I don’t think that would be in any way fair to the man. I’ve read a lot about him and I don’t know if he’s a conservative in liberal clothing or a liberal in conservative clothing. (I know that’s a very simplistic and inaccurate assessment of the man, and I don’t like the labels anyway, but it’s the shortest way of making a point!) It doesn’t really matter all that much to me as he’s only one person.
What matters to me is that he acknowledges the fact that he is a fallible human being, that he has made mistakes in the past, that he needs to consider all angles before reaching decisions, that he needs to have other people show him things from THEIR perspective, that certainty is the enemy of true faith (at least that’s how I see him).
What matters is that he has acknowledged that the voices of the “little” people have to be heard. Even if, and this is the worst case scenario, he is a very clever manipulator and is making statements in a very ingenious way by which conservatives and liberals alike can interpret them to be “speaking our language”(there’s those awful labels again), I believe that there’s a beach here that we can occupy.
By his words he has given permission to people to speak out. He has given permission to those whose livelihood depends on not rocking the boat, to do just that! He has given us all permission to have doubts. in fact, I think he INSISTS we should have doubts! He has said we HAVE TO be exposed to, and consider, each others’ perspective before we come to any conclusions.
If that is not a call to open the doors to dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, what is? If that’s not a call to be honest and acknowledge the areas of “wrongness” each of us experiences within our church, be they structural or doctrinal, what is it?
I am so happy that the Catholic Church Reform movement took the initiative to write a letter and garner support from the global community in advance of the first meeting of the Pope with the Cardinals next week. It strikes me that they are akin to the group who took the initiative to walk onto the beach that Sunday!
But my fear is that we’ll get complacent now and say “Sure Francis is a grand man and he’ll sort out all our problems – we can go back to being good, quiet Catholics”.
If we do that, we’ll be leaving that one little group who took the initiative to go onto the beach in South Africa on their own.
My dream is that many ex-Catholics, like my family and friends, will now see that change IS possible within this institution, that it CAN be a place in which they find nourishment for that inner hunger that is our search for meaning, joy and fulfilment in the drive to develop all our potentials and sustenance in the times of painful experience that life throws our way.
I dream of a church wherein ALL know that they are welcome and loved and valued equally. Am I off the wall?