Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock, who coined the immortal phrase, "moonbeams from the larger lunacy", lived fifty years too soon. Had he sampled the latest wares of would-be 'renewers' of the Church, who knows how he would have described them. The mind-boggling tangle of verbiage which passes for the 'pastoral' language of today's initiates prompts mixed feelings: is the greater crime against the Faith or against the English language?
The August 1992 issue of Witness Newsletter, the periodical of the Association of Pastoral Associates of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, highlights what continues to be a nationwide and even worldwide 'process' apparently enjoying the support and funds of local Church authorities. The bulk of the Newsletter describes workshops for pastoral associates held last June at "Sunnystones" (Bacchus Marsh, Victoria) entitled "Fresh Insights: God, Church and Community as a Pastoral Perspective".
The guest speakers at "Sunnystones" were two nuns, Sr Miriam Therese Winter (a visiting American), and Sister Ellie Taffe, a Melbourne Loreto nun. The newsletter informs us in characteristic style that Sr Ellie "facilitated the group's reflection on Miriam's input and used it to develop awareness of the ways in which we can hope to extend our influence in the community." What the sentence meant was, presumably, that Sr Ellie discussed what her colleague had previously said.
One pastoral associate workshop participant offered Witness readers an extended "reflection" on "our days at Sunnystones". Sr Miriam "encouraged us to share our faith, talking openly about life, about Church, and especially among ourselves so we may come to name and claim who we are." Sr Ellie, we are told, "comes to us rich in understanding of P.A.'s having worked at CROPP [Catholic Research Office for Pastoral Planning] for many years. She clearly, deeply believes in us and gently opened up the power we have in ministry ... Whatever we suggested Ellie held as precious and responded with great love and encouragement, allowing us to experiment with our roles, recognising our giftedness, always trusting the God within ... I felt cared for ... listened to (love to those who shared so freely the pain, the dreams, the journey), encouraged (by all present), accepted and part of a group who still believe Church happens and is worthwhile." (Church happens"!) Which all, presumably, means something, although it may not have won a pass in the old subject "Clear Thinking".
Another "Sunnystones" participant declared that- "'We are the Church" was a catch-phrase on the day but one which sums up my vision of Church. To have it said and affirmed by illustrations from many parishes is affirming and energising ... As Pastoral Associates we were challenged to know we have power and to use this power. For me, I must remember I have the power to take risks. I am encouraged to do this by the words of one Pastoral Associate, 'It is easier to be forgiven than to seek permission'." (Query - about what?).
Leaving aside the language-abuse, what of doctrinal orthodoxy? If Witness Newsletter is any guide, the pastoral associates agenda-setters obviously dislike a "hierarchical" Church, clear doctrinal teaching and a men-only priesthood.
An account of Sr Miriam Therese Winter's workshop was revealing: "Miriam defined Church for us, that is, 'we are it!' We don't belong to Church because we are it. We looked 'at us' in the context of a Structural Church and, hopefully, a Community Church. She highlighted the patriarchal nature of the Structural Church, encouraging us to trust our response to the tightness we often feel, embracing the feminine. I could feel the energy rising in me ... To remain silent is simply reinforcing a previously accepted pattern of life ... How liberating!"
Jesus - brothers and sisters?
Sr Miriam then dealt with Scripture, "sharing how it evolved in its present form which regretfully doesn't highlight the role women played in the Jesus story. She encouraged us to look more closely at Scripture for a fuller picture of the people in Jesus' life. For example, she shared that there is evidence to suggest that Joseph and Mary had other children, brothers and sisters for Jesus. How wonderful! I find this really exciting...".
Another - one of the few males present - commented: "Feminism - The Feminist Movement - in the church is all embracing ... Various issues rose within the context of Women's Ordination to called Priesthood, dress of women priests, Blessings, Holy Family, Eucharist, Communion Services, marginalised various groups within the Church ... The Church - The People of God - the Institutional Church, Structural hierarchy and parish were taken up [by] Ellie as we developed our role in the light of the inspiration Miriam had given us ... The five different models of Church and Parish gave us food for thought as much of each model is present in our lived-out situation. Miriam affirmed us as to where we stand in relation to Church..."
"On-going revelation" - popularised by new catechetics guru, Br Gabriel Moran, in the 1960s - was revived by Sr Miriam for the eager ears of Melbourne's 1990s pastoral associates. As one participant enthused: "Another understanding I appreciated was when Miriam Therese dealt with REVELATION. She outlined how we once thought revelation was in Scripture only - the Word of God. 'But,' she said, 'we are scriptural rather than biblical' ... Being biblical means including Scripture but expanding beyond what is recorded to the unrecorded; to what is 'between the lines' and what is recorded elsewhere in other literature of that time. If Scripture, a record of God's activity at certain times and places is Revelation, then revelation is found also in what God is doing in the lives of people in our world today. So, for the future I aim to be biblical rather than scriptural!"
Who, one might ask, in the absence of any mention of the Magisterium, would be "empowered" to decide which of these later "revelations" were the real thing and which the figments of over-heated imaginations?
A similar gathering organised by the Association of Pastoral Associates of the Melbourne Archdiocese for 1993 is to be "facilitated" by a "Parish Resource Team" consisting of Sr Madeleine Barlow RNDM, Fr Frank Anderson MSC and Fr Michael Morwood MSC, the latter two being connected with "Adult Faith Development" in Melbourne.
Barring early remedial action by Church authorities, the above endeavours may peter out as the Church revenues available to prop them up decline alongside a continuing fall in numbers of practising Catholics. Or - since most of those involved in these 'renewal' and re-structuring exercises tend to be the middle-aged and elderly - it may all simply disappear through natural attrition. One lives in hope.