This article was originally published in the May edition of the Melbourne Catholic Magazine.
Recently, I caught up with a parish friend from the past. Over the years we have kept in touch and, despite distance, we catch up when we can. As with so many conversations with fellow Catholics at the moment, our conversation turned to the current state of the Church. ‘Don’t you look back and wonder about all those boys we grew up with?’ my friend commented. ‘And both your brothers were altar servers—were they OK?’
A few days later, another friend, another conversation. And this time a different question from one who was once deeply involved and connected to parish life: ‘Does it affect your faith?’
This is a painful time for Catholics. For some, the events of recent years have signalled an end to their already tenuous relationship with the Church. For others, it’s further endorsement of why they have drifted away. For some, it’s a sign of the need for renewal. There is talk of culture wars and toxic tribalism in the Catholic Church. And framing all of these conversations are the experiences of those who have been abused, and their friends and families.
When I think about those who have been abused, I am overwhelmed; I am unsure about what to do, to say or how to act. I sense that tensions are high among Catholics as the extent of the abuse and its mismanagement continues to unfold. I also see that we are at a watershed moment where confidence in Church leadership is lost, the motivations of those who seek reform in the Church are questioned and there is a sense of disunity. And, I think there is a deep weariness among the people of God.
Parishes have been struggling for a while though. Many of the reasons for lack of engagement with parish life have been well-documented, and as a life-long parish member it has been a little disheartening. Being part of parish life has been for me, in the most part, joyful and life-giving. I’ve made the most wonderful friends—priests, religious and lay. We have gathered together on Sundays and brought to the table of the Lord the work of our hands and the cares of our hearts. We have listened to the Word of God and with the wisdom of our priest we have tried to make sense of the Gospel for our daily lives. We have gone forth to spread the Gospel in the best way we know how: in the contexts in which we live and work.
And we share our lives: we cry together at funerals, celebrate at First Communions, Reconciliations and Confirmations. We visit each other when tragedy comes and when joy surrounds. We polish the pews of the church at working bees, pull weeds from the parish garden, take plates of food to share at parish functions. We negotiate our way through times of discord and we try to accept each other as parts of the body of Christ.
Sometimes the thread connecting my life to the parish has been gossamer thin. Parishes are communities after all and sometimes being part of parish community life is hard. There are always things that bubble to the surface, conflicts that are not managed well, priests with whom we do not always connect or agree. But this is part of community life. This is part of learning how to be part of something bigger than ourselves and learning how to listen, compromise and be respectful of each other.
It is hard to accept that dysfunction and violence found its way into the heart of the Church. We are humbled and humiliated. There will be an ongoing need for apologies and restitution to those who were abused, their families and their friends. It will probably never be enough and it will take a long time for any healing to occur. There is a growing acceptance of the need for renewal and reform—even though there is disagreement about what this might mean for us and look like.
But there is one constant in all of this: the person of Jesus has not changed. Parishes throughout the world are in the midst of the Easter season. We listen to the Gospels and we re-acquaint ourselves with the stories of Jesus appearing to the disciples in the upper room. We listen to the stories of the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus and we are called to remember what it is like to build community. And we remember that generations of people before us have struggled to make sense of their lives in light of the Resurrection. And the message of Jesus remains: to love one another. It is as simple and as difficult as that.
In years to come, many fingers will punch out many words about this time as a ‘change of era’. The people of the future will try to understand how it was that we negotiated our way through this period. They may wonder about whether we lost our way a little and think, perhaps, that we took our eyes away from the Lord. But we know, because we are living it, that our hopes lie where they always have—in the person of Jesus who died on a cross, and rose from the dead breathing a spirit of peace into the hearts of frightened disciples; who ate with the disciples and impelled them to go out into the world to bear witness to the man who is one with God. This is our faith and this is the faith of the Church. So, let’s fix our eyes on the Lord and let’s pray that his gracious presence be with us as we navigate the waters of our times. And let’s truly believe that the Lord is risen. Alleluia!
Cathy Jenkins is the Director of the Archbishop’s Office for Evangelisation.