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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?

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  1. When someone is down, our first instinct is to help them up, to care for them and to re-assure them. Time enough for the discussion as to the why’s and wherefore’s of their predicament.

    Isn’t this exactly what Francis has done? He has extended his hands to those who are in need of his care, he has raised his voice to those in need of comfort, he has challenged those who can only criticise actions without looking to particular circumstances.

    In short, he has re-engaged the Church with the Bishop of Rome, not in a dominant manner but in a spirit of love and understanding.

    In a world ever anxious for immediate response, the quick fix that solves everything, impatience is a problem. Yet slowly, carefully the milieu is changing. The life style signs that set a tone, the words and actions that celebrate that which is fundamental to our humanity, the quality of our relationships, is being emphasised.

    The outstretched hand, reaching towards another hand and clasping it, is the most simple yet potent sign of caring. A mother walking with her child, her hand at her side, suddenly finds it grasped by her child, seeking her security and love. And the mother responds with a gentle grasp, the larger hand of experience holding the smaller hand of adventure.

    Wasn’t there something of that on the road to Emmaus? Grown men walking with the Lord yet not recognising him for they were still young in faith? Only when he broke bread and shared with them did they realise who he was, the action of breaking and receiving the gift of outstretched hands making them aware of reality.

    For that is what we must experience, the reality of where we are and the very real need to care for each other in our Gospel Journey.

  2. Patricia Howe says:

    Blessed Mother Teresa was once asked what in her opinion was the first thing that would have to change in the Church. Her answer was: you and I.

  3. Seamus Ahearne osa says:

    ‘Off the wall’? I don’t think so. Jo, you write with such clarity, passion, enthusiasm and hope (as you always do). Keep on dreaming! Suenens is sometimes quoted as saying: “Happy are those who dream dreams and are ready to pay the price to make them come true.” You obviously have that energy and commitment to dream the dreams. You inspire us and we need such dollops of inspiration. Pope Francis is surprising us and we are enjoying the surprises. We dare to hope. We almost cannot believe how the Church presently is marketing ‘Good News’ through the words of Francis. Long may it continue. Jo, your descriptive profile of how the Church might be – is one some of us experience. (Your end lines provide us then with a beautiful Mission Statement which all of us could use in every Church community and every Diocese.) Thank you. Seamus Ahearne osa

  4. Each time Jo puts her thoughts on this website, I commit the sin of envy. Why. Because Jo has the God given ability of stating clearly and unambiguously, her struggles with her church, which always correspond with my own, and I am sure many others. I wish to God I had your gifts Joe.
    Will I confess my sin? No. When I meet my God face to face, I know he will smile and throw the Man made rule book out the window. Thank you Jo.

  5. Soline Humbert says:

    Thank you Jo.
    I can see the Risen Christ waiting for us on that beach, with grilled fish, and calling us to have breakfast!

  6. I’d hope that you have permission in having permission to have doubts – that it means you can grow up spiritually and not be forever spiritually dependent on ‘father’.

    Then I’d imagine things could really change and for the long haul. Till then Jo, I’d imagine there might still be a need for all the king’s horses and all the kings men….. somewhere down the line.

    I think Francis, and in truth I’d imagine many other Popes, knows, knew they were only human beings given a heavy responsibility. I’d not want it. Can’t be all things to all men or women. Maybe this ‘primacy of conscience’ speak is about that – permission to grow up, encouraging this. We won’t answer for the pope and he won’t answer for us. I am sure we will all answer for ourselves.

    Did we give due deference to bricks, mortar, bling and frocks or to each other as human beings, day to day as we encounter each other day to day with all the challenges life brings. I think Francis speaks to that some way from what I am ‘hear’ing in what I have read – mostly here.

    I think that is what Christ was about. Not dictating to people how they should or should not live – but offering a different perspective on an individual’s life which might lift her/him from darkness and despair – ‘death’ – to a place of greater light and real life. And to allow the people to show they have at least as much ’emotional and psychological’ development as the clerics themselves – and maybe then some.

    When it comes to shortage of priests and how to deal with that. I think the Holy Spirit is working in this too and giving us the challenge – a greater opportunity to ‘grow up’ spiritually and maybe not fall off the wall.

  7. Linda, Derry says:

    Why would ANY Pope, Priest or Catholic INSIST that anyone have doubts and spend time discussing and wallowing in their doubts amongst themselves? Pope Francis said “Follow ONLY Christ. DO NOT follow anyone else” . Anyone who would give that sort of spiritual direction/ instruction on how to overcome doubts is NOT providing wise counsel. I believe proper counsel would be to encourage the overcoming of doubt by talking to JESUS himself, in prayer. When StThomas doubted, Jesus didn’t encourage or allow his languishing in doubt and confusion but immediately appeared and showed him his wounds to eliminate the doubt. This is the SAME Jesus in the tabernacle who will, I have no doubt, do the same for anyone who takes their doubts, with sincerity, to HIM 🙂

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