Forty two people gathered in Chicago for four days last week to take part in this conference. They came from eleven different countries in four continents. Most of the participants were representing a Church reform movement. They was a mixture of lay, clergy, women and men. All the main priests associations were represented, from Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia, Australia, the U.S. and of course myself from Ireland. Other reform groups included We Are Church (a number of countries had representatives there), FutureChurch, Voice of the Faithful, ACTA (England), Call to Action, Dignity, News Ways Ministry, Womens Ordination Worldwide, and others.
The format was participative (no formal presentations), and there were two facilitators, from Austria and Canada.
It was an intense four days. There was a strong overall sense of comradeship, a spirit of warmth and acceptance that made it very easy to be in the group. (Plenty of outbreaks of hugging, during which a certain Irishman tried to appear invisible!) By the end of the four days people you had never met before did feel like old friends. All of us being in one way or another involved in the movement for Church Reform, we had a great deal in common. There would have been a lot of similarity in our vision and hope for the Church.
But not everything was plain sailing. While the vision might have been similar, there were sometimes quite substantial differences in the strategies and policies appropriate for achieving those ends. These crystallised around two areas in particular; the question of the ordination of women, and the celebration of the Eucharist. Everybody there, both women and men, would, I think, have had little or no difficulty saying that they supported the ordination of women to the priesthood at some stage. But some, and not all of them men, believed that pushing for ordination at this stage was not helpful, because it only served to make dialogue with Church authorities impossible. Instead they argued that a better policy was to work for “full equality for women in decision making in the Church”. Others were more passionate about the ordination question, and believed that full equality was not possible without ordination.
The celebration of the Eucharist, as in the previous conference in Limerick, posed complex and emotional questions. Some said there could not be a Eucharist among us without a specific ordained priest presiding. Others, mostly, though not all, women, believed that was yet again highlighting the inequality of the Church, and not acceptable. In the end the Eucharist was celebrated, though not with everyone present.
As one person said at the end of the conference, when we saw how difficult it could be for a small group of largely like-minded people to reach agreement, we had more appreciation of the enormously complex problems that Pope Francis is dealing wth!
A wide range of issues were discussed and worked on. The one I myself was most involved with had to do with the need for some type of Declaration of Rights in the Church. We believe that at all levels in the Church there is a lack of accountability in the exercise of authority, and little or no means of appeal or redress. A group, of which I am a member, was set up to work on this over the next year.
Inevitably, the problems around the decline in priestly numbers and the closure of parishes figured prominently. A group worked on what is called the Lobinger Model, an approach to dealing with this situation outlined by a now retired bishop in South America. It seemed to me to contain a lot of merit as a way of stemming the advancing Eucharistic famine in large parts of the world.
Jeannine Gramick of New Ways Ministry, was, as is her style, gently but persistently pushing the topic of LGBT people in the Church, and a resolution was drawn up calling for the Church to respect the dignity of every person, no matter what their sexual orientation, and in that way setting an example that might help reduce the violence and discrimination which is still prevalent in many parts of the world.
Needless to say, with so many deeply committed women present, some of whom, like Martha Heizer of Austria, have campaigned for up to fifty years, full equality of women in the Church was underlying almost every discussion that took place — ( it saddens me that such a warm, faith filled human being as Martha is has been excommunicated by the Church authorities!!) It became clear to me that it will not be easy to find a resolution to this in the Church while our present clerical system survives.
By the end of the conference, which began on Monday morning at 9.00am, and ended on Thursday at lunchtime, I was really tired. But I was so glad to have been there. Ireland is a small country, and our own Church is in rapid decline and lacking in energy and inspiration. Meeting this group, many of whom I have now known for the past four years, gives me a great lift at a personal level and, more importantly, gives hope for our Church. Despite their age (most of us older), and the enormous problems they are all dealing with, the energy and conviction among the group left me feeling buoyant and affirmed.