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Stories that move mountains, "words are worlds" and how to get out of a man-made trap
October 19, 2015
by Deb Rose-Milavec

It is only Monday, the final Monday of this synod, but today, Archbishops Enrico Solmi of Italy, Mark Coleridge of Australia and Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem sat at the press briefing table and admitted they were tired.

Worn down by the intensity of the work and the enormity of the task, they admitted that they and their small groups felt -- well -- small. 

"In the first week, the task was not clear," remarked Archbishop Coleridge, "and there has been widespread unease with the working document."  After reconciling themselves to the "difficult document" during the first two weeks, he wonders how they will possibly be able to finalize a document that must somehow capture the diversity of opinions and solutions suggested in the synod hall.

Stories that move mountains and change hearts 

More than one bishop and observer have noted that the synod lacks something essential - the advice of theologians.  Still, it is clear that stories and experience often provide the shortest pathway to new insights and a change of heart.   

In case you missed it, last Thursday, a bishop told the story of a son who spontaneously shared his First Communion host with his father who was divorced and remarried (and, therefore, not receiving the Eucharist at his First Communion) - a story that fills the eyes with tears. 

When asked today by a reporter if such stories could change the minds of bishops on the question of sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics, Patriarch Twal said that the bishops were moved by such stories and even went on to clarify, or possibly expand the story saying "the child broke it into three - because there was a mother."  

Noting that stories like these elicit new awareness among bishops, Twal acknowledged that, indeed, some Church practices alienate people saying, "there are so many issues that are really painful for us."  

Although Archbishop Coleridge acknowledged that he had somehow missed the story about the boy and was not sure if it would have changed his mind about sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics, he also said that bishops are often guilty of "Church-speak" that doesn't "put down roots in real human experience."

"The most affecting moments have been these moments," said Coleridge.  "We need to be in touch with the reality of families."  

Archbishop Solmi also acknowledged the power of such stories saying, "That child showed us genuine life and enriched us."

"Words are worlds"

The panelists acknowledged the difficult work of wedding mercy to teaching and suggested that the language embedded in some Church teaching had to change.

When asked to clarify the aim of reconciliation if a second civil marriage was not considered a sin in the future, Archbishop Coleridge suggested the language of sin, namely the application of the term "adultery" needed to be reformed.  "A second marriage is not adultery," said Coleridge.  "We are always dealing with sin. That is taken for granted.  I understand the teaching, but at the same time, not every case is the same.  That is why we need a pastoral approach.  To say every second marriage is adulterous is just too sweeping.  Is not the same as some couple going off surreptitiously for a weekend."   

"Words are worlds," said Coleridge.  

When speaking of divorced and remarried Catholics as those living in the sin of adultery he asked, "Does it [the term adultery] deal with the reality of their life?"

Similarly, the old adage "love the sinner but hate the sin," the framework commonly used by Catholics "no longer works,"  according to Coleridge.

"It is false distinction" that does harm and alienates. He suggested that we can no longer say that a person who is homosexual is loved by God, but the way they live out their life, their sexuality, is sinful.  
He also noted that the Church needs to be more forthright in dealing with its own teachings on sin.  "The distinction between public and private no longer works," said Coleridge.  "Pope Francis is modeling this. We need public enactments of mercy - not just in private."    
Another reporter noted that doctrine is hard wired in language and asked the panelists to give examples of problematic language that could change without changing doctrine.

"Indissolubility' is one word that needs to change according to Coleridge.  He wondered what new language could encompass the Church's belief in life-long commitments and "proclaim the truth without lapsing into church speak or canonical speak."
The other descriptor that needs to be banished from the Catholic lexicon is "intrinsically disordered."  Coleridge understands that if you say the acts of a homosexual person are "intrinsically disordered" then you are saying the person is intrinsically disordered.  

Listen and learn or how to get out of a man-made trap

As one listens to the bishops speak about how to reform the Church the usual invocation that "doctrine will not change" or the artificial conundrum of finding "new language to reconcile the concepts of mercy and teaching" begins to feel like a marketing ploy rather than an honest "come to Jesus" moment of a people coming to terms with the limits and failings of their doctrines and teachings. 

The oft-repeated, convenient fictions; the convoluted attempts to get out of our man-made traps where life is ordered according to abstract doctrines and traditions that no longer give life -- is nothing less than a tragic, sometimes comic, affair. Those who are honest just shake their heads at the tragedy of it all.  

Every Catholic knows the cleansing power of truth is hard to come by in this Church. Still Catholics yearn for that kind of light and transparency.  We grow weary of the games that play out. So do the bishops who want reform if you read in between the lines.  We get glimpses of courageous truth-telling once in a while, but much of our time is spent living in a Church that casts long shadows on both priests and people in the name of age-old fantasies about love, sin, and redemption.   

That's why Coleridge's suggestion that private mercy no longer suffices is so important.  We can no longer risk letting mercy rest with just a few enlightened pastors.  We need transparency about the limits and failings of our Church teaching and doctrine. We need to proclaim the Good News.

The panelists agreed that corrective for bishops is listening and learning from Catholics themselves.  Following Francis' lead, they recognize that the People of God are a source of wisdom and God's voice in the world too. 

"The starter is for people like me to listen to their story," acknowledged Coleridge.  "One of the things I will have to do is sit down and listen to couples in second marriages.  But what worries me is they won't come to me and I want them to come.  We need to be a listening church. We need to listen in new ways." 

One of the questions posed to the panelists today was how they would measure success.  If the bishops become seriously engaged in their role as "listeners" and "learners" respectfully acknowledging that God is alive and well in the world and in the hearts, minds and lives of her people, this synod will have gone a long way down the road to success.

Voices of hope

Do not miss Frank DeBernardo's interview with Cardinal Oswald Gracias.  The cardinal is becoming a vocal leader in the Church standing for the rights of LGBT persons and saying what we all know to be true, "we need you."    

Also, Joshua McElwee's interview with Sr. Maureen Kelleher is a "must read."  Sr. Kelleher gets real about the small group process and shows just how difficult it can be to be heard in a group where clerics believe they are superior.  

Finally, if you haven't seen it, listen to Salt and Light's interview with Archbishop Durocher.  It will make your heart feel lighter.

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