SYNOD 11: PERCEPTIONS OF THE CHURCH
Encouragingly, we the laity are speaking up about our faith, our experiences as Catholics and our aspirations for the future of the Church at the invitation of the Pope on our Synodal Journey. What follows here are three very different contributions from parishioners after they attended our recent parish Synodal meetings. Sean Dunne
Parishioner 1: GROWING UP WITH THE FAITH
I remember as a child solemnly telling my Aunty Lily that Protestants were damned. She burst into laughter. “Well, that’s not very nice, Young Man. I’m Protestant, most of your family are Protestants.”
I was thunderstruck. No one had told me this. How could this be? My mother looked embarrassed. “Are you going to tell him, May?” Aunt Lily’s grin grew even wider.
It was true. The Parry’s were Protestant, and my mother to escape eternal damnation had married my father. I tried to make sense of it, then put it to one side as something inexplicable.
By the time I was twelve, curiosity and temptation fought over my soul. Protestantism seemed something savoury and rich. It had a good smell, like steak and kidney pudding or roast beef. I was being tossed upon the sea of Satan’s wiles. I knew it, and yet—in contrast—Catholicism seemed cold and stern; it smelled of soap and myrrh, tobacco, its mysteries hidden in certainty. Despite all the statues and flowers, it was beginning to frighten me.
The book that really shook things up was Westward Ho, by Charles Kingsley, which I read when I was thirteen or so. It took me out of Liverpool and on to the high seas. I was Amyas Leigh, the Protestant hero who sailed with Drake, fought Spaniards on the Spanish Main, and took their treasure. I cringed at the villainous Eustace. Was this what it meant to be Catholic? Eustace. Catholic and slimy.
Amyas was the Sun, the one who got the girl, the beautiful Rose Salterne. Eustace was the moon, treacherous and cold, and Catholic to boot. Such confusion and fears.
The irony was that in adolescence I exchanged one set of certainties for another, and the process began all over again. Certainty’s long gone, other than the fact that life is short.
One thing I have learned, the Church—like everything—is what you make of it. It has the power to smother, burden you with guilt and restriction; restrictions that change according to time and circumstance. When I was a child, I feared hell, and religion was cold and smelled of candles, rattled with rules and celebrated self-deprivation. Now it is about love, but wheels turn.
Many years later, in a parish that shall for the moment be nameless, an eccentric priest introduced a Mao Tse Tung initiative, reminiscent of ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’. It was part of the ‘listening church’ program, or something like that. Parishioners were encouraged to write their thoughts and suggestions on post-it notes and stick them on a corkboard at the back of the church.
It made fascinating reading as the weeks passed. One anonymous note suggested woman priests. The following week it had a reply pinned underneath and written in block capitals: ‘Impossible. The church represents the body of Christ and Christ was a man!’
What can I say? The church is akin to a fire or a pit. Get too close and you’ll burn or fall in. At the same time, take away faith and you limit a culture, close a door, cripple an instinct —and for what? New actors take the stage, new authorities take its place, often less wise or benign. Authority is a flame that attracts moths; the Church is the grit that nourishes pearls. The alternative has a different smell.
Parishioner 2: DEALING WITH DIVORCE
Divorces are typically complex, highly charged and difficult situations to resolve for the couple involved, their children, relatives, new partners and indeed for priest(s) handling contrary expectations of the Church. Mindful that each party will have their own very personal account, here is an extract from one such account, anonymised like all others. Nobody knows how hard the shoe bites except for the one wearing it.
First some background. My wife and I joined the Catholic Church over 30 years ago due to a sense of community that the church inspired. Both our children went to the local Catholic Schools. Before the break up we were part of an induction befriending group, buddying up to new members as they joined the church. I had always felt drawn to being a Eucharistic minister and had started to attend a class held at one of our two Catholic Churches.
Like all families we had our trials and tribulations. After a relationship of 35 years and 30 years of marriage I made the decision, for reasons that I do not need to go into here, to leave my wife and family. The resulting turmoil saw me lose all communication with my children. My sole remaining parent, my mother, died within a couple months and as you can imagine there was a lot of bitterness and heartache on all sides. Being a ‘good’ Catholic when I moved to a new part of the country, I sought out the local church, met with the Parish Priest and in the sacrament of reconciliation told the story. I was informed that I would not be able to receive communion as a result.
Four years went with me feeling more and more alienated. By this time my new partner and I decided to marry and it was important to me to have a Catholic wedding so I took advice on how to arrange this. The official advice I received was that I would need to approach my ex-wife and tell her that the marriage was being annulled on the grounds that I never intended it to work! Something I refused to do. Firstly, because it was untrue and that it would cause terrible hurt and re-open old wounds for both my wife and our children. We did marry and had a blessing from an ex-minister.
Finally, after 4 years and 11 months an agreement was reached on how I could receive communion again and one Advent I received communion again at last. The point I need to get across is that at a time of need the Church takes away the symbol of unity and acceptance, for which, from my reading, has been a rule devised by man rather than ordained by God.
This has tested my faith. I have seen the Church be hypocritical when it wants to be. Boris Johnson marrying in our centre of faith through a technicality, while traditionalist rant about not accepting married priests, the Church has already welcomed married converts from the Church of England because it helps with the manpower crisis. And yet I was made to stand apart, have communion withdrawn from me, with no hope of having it returned because of an interpretation of the rules. I still struggle with my belief in Catholicism, the hurt of being abandoned during the time when I needed help the most will take some time to heal. As Father said “Sometimes bad things happen to good people” or as Pope Francis is often quoted as having said: “Who am I to judge?”
I would ask that the Synod reviews how divorcees are treated and start from a recognition of the need for support rather than punitive withdrawal.
Parishioner 3: THE NEED FOR CHANGE
The Holy Father asked us to identify the challenges facing the Church today.
Whatever we think of the “traditional church” it is evident it is failing and the reasons are basic – It lacks “relevance” and “traction” coupled with an appalling record within its institutions for child abuse, financial misuse and aloof hierarchy and particularly the last Pope.
The Church needs to establish a clear and relevant vision and mission which will need to be local not top down that is relevant to the needs of our society today around Monmouth and Ross on Wye.
We need to be a voice for justice and peace; Christ was a disruptor, highly critical of the established Jewish church which is why they ensured the Romans crucified him. Christian churches should work together, criticise and call out injustice, be bold.
We need to give young people a real role and purpose in worship faith development and music.
We need to leverage our human resources which means:
- Accepting married priests as a vocation through Catholic seminaries – celibacy was an innovation of the 12th century! Not Christ’s doctrine
- Giving current priests the freedom to marry and remain priests after all we accept Anglican priest converts with families
- Creating a more flexible Deaconate
- Giving Women a full role in the church e.g. as deacons and maybe Priests
- Don’t import priests from Africa or Eastern Europe who have cultural expectations of roleand power so different to our world.
We need to stop talking about “lapsed” Catholics and recognise that by and large the church failed them, some move to other Christian churches but many give up – a damning indictment and evidence of failure.
We need to embark on building a personal faith in Catholics as far too many rely on oft misinterpreted rules/dogma because they have not received any faith development since confirmation at 10 or 13 years old.
We need to rethink when we offer Mass, why is it at 6pm, 09.15 and 11.00? How can young people and families attend if their children are sporty as they have matches, training etc. on Sunday?
We need radical solutions and a rebuilding of the enthusiasm I saw from Vatican 2 which energised the Church I knew in the 1970’s.
Food for thought:
- The Priest who married us left a year later to marry, of 32 who went into the seminary to train, when he resigned his vocation only 1 priest still served (this in 1986!).
- My uncle was the UK’s first married Deacon in 1969 and stayed that way for 10 years, at his ordination a German Catholic Bishop said he would have ordained him as a priest!
- None of the problems are new, the challenges Pope Francis raised were identified 20 years ago when the church looked at merging Parishes to share resources. Nothing has been done.