Of gaudium et spes …
It would be impossible, in a single issue of Intercom, to do justice to the World Meeting of Families and the recent visit of Pope Francis. The atmosphere of joy that pervaded the three days of the Pastoral Congress in the RDS; the wise and thoughtful reflection at the Congress, on family life today; the exuberance and enthusiasm with which the Holy Father was greeted; the delight in the faces of children and their families at the various events … recent celebrations have tapped into a deep vein of joy, reminding us that even in challenging times, we have a capacity for joy and celebration.
The Pope’s visit was also marked by controversy. The spectre of abuse loomed continuously, and Francis himself lost no opportunity to address the issue. We can be grateful for his humility and his frankness.
It is now a truism among clergy that the issue of abuse will be with us for the rest of our lives. This is not an expression of self-pity. It’s a simple statement of fact. We would be so glad if everything could be brought out into the open, if the swamp could finally be drained and we could be sure the dispiriting drip-drip of revelations had finally come to an end. We want to be agents of healing for those who have suffered, yet each time the sadness and anger are revisited, we can feel like powerless onlookers. We would love to march out, with our people, into a new dawn, yet the night can seem interminable.
‘But this do I call to mind, therefore I have hope: The kindness of the Lord has not ended, his mercies are not spent’ (Lam 3:21-22). It is this hope that sustains us. Biblically, hope for the future is always grounded in the past, in what has already been done. In this spirit, our hope can appeal to what has been done in recent years to make our Church a safe place for the young and the vulnerable.
Whenever there is a renewed focus on the failings of the past, we can be made to feel that no progress has been made, that we are starting from scratch. But this is not so, and we must continue to stress the progress that has been made. To do so is not to be dismissive of the pain that many people have endured; it is, rather, to make it clear that there is a commitment to ensuring that such pain cannot be inflicted again. We would do a disservice to all concerned, if we were to acquiesce in the notion that nothing has changed.
On the other hand, the Church will always be vulnerable to the accusation that nothing has changed. Some things will change; others will not. The Church will not, for instance, change core teachings on human dignity and human sexuality in order to step into line with the aspirations of the secular state.
We should be wise to the nature of calls for change in the Church. If the change being called for is a change in the direction of greater justice, of protection of the vulnerable, then change we must, while being scalded by the fact that such a call had to come from without, rather than being heard directly, as a gospel imperative. But if the call is made for a change in fundamental teachings, that is another matter entirely.
That distinction, however, is apt to be blurred by some who seek change in core teachings. We will do well to be alert to what is happening when it is correctly observed that the Church’s teaching has not changed, and at the same time insidiously implied that the Church’s pastoral practice has not changed either. Some things must change; others must not.
Much remains to be done. We have emerged from a long season of harshness but continue to pay a price for that harshness. And yet we can, in a lovely phrase of Pope Francis, be ‘joyful messengers of challenging proposals’ (Evangelii Gaudium 168), even as we keep learning to proclaim the gospel, and all its blessings and demands, with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.
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