Of Many Things

Hope has come to my family’s home parish. A new pastor arrived a couple of months ago, and he began listening to people at sessions in parishioners’ homes. When I visited over the Labor Day holiday, he already had held 18. His late predecessor failed ever to convoke a parish council meeting. Except for the rotations of lectors and eucharistic ministers, the channels of participation in the parish had dried up.

The poor new pastor will have to listen a lot. Surely he will be asked to meet expectations that even the most accommodating priest would be unable to satisfy, and the listening sessions will arouse hopes the most active parish would be unable to achieve. Even under the best of circumstances, listening can be a painful sort of asceticism.


It takes a very special listener to let us speak from our hearts. Such listening is a charism given for the “cure of souls”—and of the church. But because the charism of listening is so seldom given, or at least experienced, we need more mundane institutions to do our speaking, have ourselves heard and effect a little bit of the change we hope for.

After the Second Vatican Council, a variety of these institutions were established: parish councils, finance councils, diocesan pastoral councils, presbyteral councils, bishops’ conferences and the Synod of Bishops. To the pain of many people who love the church, the promise of those bodies has been quenched. In some places, they were not tried at all; in others, they were begun and then allowed to atrophy. Still others, like bishops’ conferences and the Synod of Bishops, were redefined from above as, at most, consultative bodies.

Bradford E. Hinze writes in the September issue of Theological Studies (“Ecclesial Impasse: What Can We Learn from Our Laments”): “Ecclesial laments have been particularly acute surrounding the implementation of practices of synodality, that is, the dialogical practices of communal discernment and decisionmaking....” A series of conferences taking place in New York and Connecticut put the general experience of Catholics more dramatically. People who love the church and want to serve it better are longing for something “more than a monologue,” but for most Catholics, especially Vatican II Catholics, it is not to be found.

Numbed into acquiescence by the denial of participation, overwhelmed by unilateral decisions, all that the faithful, many priests and many bishops too can do is bring their anguish to prayer. Professor Hinze recommends recourse to laments, the biblical prayers of anguish, grief and accusations of betrayal.

Hinze contends that lament is properly an ecclesial act. “Groaning,” he writes, “expresses for Augustine the voice of the church.” Of all the psalms, the psalms of groaning are especially suitable for the present-day church, a gathering of saints and sinners awaiting its purification at the end of time. “The psalms,” Augustine wrote, “are a mirror to us,” the church. By reflecting on the psalmists’ laments and our own, the church becomes what it is.

Furthermore, Hinze reminds us, “the laments are ours, yet not ours.” They are the voice of the Spirit of God groaning within us. “The groaning of laments can be an expression of the indwelling agency of the Spirit in a suffering church and world.” Often we ourselves may not grasp the meaning of these “sighs too deep for words,” because the fulfillment we long for, the fulfillment the church longs for, is so much greater than we can conceive. Laments force us to understand the eschatological dimension of the church to which we belong.

When in our own living history we intuit the eschatological identity of the church, Hinze reassures us, we receive the gift of “prophetic obedience to the voice of the Spirit.” Ecclesia semper reformanda.

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7 years 3 months ago
What a challenge it is to lift up our hearts in a lament!  We try so hard to be "prayerfully" correct that we are often neither honest with ourselves nor impatient enough with God.  God after all can act and we will be all the more grateful for prayers fully answered.
Lisa Weber
7 years 3 months ago
While lamentation is proper enough, we can do more than we are currently doing, but we have to break unwritten rules to do so.  That the laity should be passive and wait for the church hierarchy to tell them what to do is one unwritten rule.  The laity can do anything that is not expressly forbidden, which leaves a lot of room to take action.

Women particularly are hamstrung by unwritten rules.  We are not to look at the fact that we have no female leadership structure to speak for us.  We are not to bring what we have learned in secular society into the church.  Unlike fifty years ago, women usually manage jobs, (often professional jobs), plus households and families.  Women are expected to leave those capabilities out of the church and passively accept orders, often rudely given by some woman with no qualifications except aggressiveness.  Women are not to invest in their own education for church leadership - we have no women's centers where education about the church is available for those interested in leadership, where we might hold a conversation about what we want in the church, and where we might talk about what we can and do bring to the church.  Women are not to be visible to each other.  We have no national conversation about women's issues.  Women's issues in the church need to be "waist-up."  Women's lives are defined by more than reproductive issues and we need to talk about the "waist-up" issues before we expend any more energy on "pelvic theology".  Most particularly, women are not to be acknowledged for their financial contribution to the church or to have much say in how that money is spent.  The church invests nothing in us, though we invest a lot in the church.  Money is power.  Money talks.  Part of the reason that women are deafened by the silence about women is that women refuse to acknowledge the ability of money to speak.  We are taught that passivity is feminine, when the truth is that passivity is the first requirement for victims and doormats.

A huge part of the problem for women in the church is a refusal to acknowledge and address female aggression within the church.  Gossip and relational aggression are rampant, and are a part of the reason that leaving church can be seen as a sign of mental health.  The taboo against open conflict among women is why covert aggression is so devastating to the church.  Open conflict has rules, covert aggression doesn't.  When it can be logically argued that leaving church is a sign of mental health, the church is in trouble.  And the Catholic church is in trouble partly because of female aggression.

If the Church wants to bring new life to the church, and make new evangelization work, it needs to invite women to have a dialogue about women's issues in the church, and not just reproductive issues.  When a woman can walk into a church and see nothing that speaks to her life in the current world, private prayer is more useful and far less expensive than church membership. 

Lament if you must, but the Lord helps she who helps herself.  Women in the church need to help ourselves and the church hierarchy needs to encourage us to do so.  The church needs to invest some money in developing female leadership.  It needs to develop a curriculum and formation program for female leaders.  It needs to dialogue with women about what is allowed.  It needs to help women have a discussion about female aggression within the church because talking about female aggression is so taboo that women don't know how to talk about it in a constructive way.  And that is just a start.

Lamentation is for things that can't be remedied, like death.  Most of the church's problems can be remedied.  If lamentation is a substitute for seeking solutions, lamentation is more accurately defined as whining.
Catherine McKeen
7 years 3 months ago
I am stunned to see Lisa Weber nail a problem so accurately, so fully, so convincingly.  Even taking the theme of lamentation and unpacking it so intelligently ... well, thank you indeed, first, for the essay and then for the comment.  It helps!
ed gleason
7 years 3 months ago
I keep saying and telling everyone  I feel change/reform in the air. After Lisa spoke/barked.. I will now look/turn more toward where the feminine winds are blowing.
Fr.K is right about listening and the first step is to withstand the first rush of problems and still maintain the listening stance. . That will take extra grace.   
Eileen Sadasiv
7 years 3 months ago
Thank you, Fr. Christiansen.  It brought tears to by eyes to have you put inot words and publish what we all know; that something is horrendously wrong in our beloved Church.  May the Holy Spirit lead us to be 'Ecclesia semper reformanda'.
7 years 3 months ago
Fr. Christiansen: Sorry to say, but after the hopeful buildup in the first column of your piece, I felt terribly let down by the end! The problem with the Church (in this country, at least) is the movement back toward a "them and us" mentality, and they, the Clerics at all levels, aren't listening! Beating our breasts and praying laments isn't going to get the message delivered. There are plenty of prophets out there, frequently in "America," but in this civilized era, they don't get killed, just ignored...or lose their Dioceses! If Fr. General ever gets to speak to the Pope, please ask him to pass the word...he won't get the real story from the Hierarchy, he should listen to the people in the pews. Before they are all gone.
7 years 3 months ago
Congratulations and thank you to Father Drew Christiansen for the courage to "tell it like it is" in the October 3 issue Of Many Things. Prayers of Lament are the daily
prayers of our church today.


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