The journey out of active participation in the sacramental and communal life of the institutional Church is tortuous — particularly for those who have put in decades of active participation at the parish or diocesan level. Increasingly though the institution is losing many of those who were once the most active participants at the local level. In today's commentary Kerry Gonzales reflects on her own journey and likens it to the grieving process identified many decades ago by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross.
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference".
With the rumours running rife surrounding the resignation of Bishop Chris Toohey from the Wilcannia Forbes Diocese I feel a tremendous sense of loss. I know nothing of the reasons behind his situation other than the sometimes conflicting stories that are circulating in the informed sections of the Church but I applaud his courage, wish him well and hope that the Church has not lost such a good man. For the Catholic Church in Australia can ill afford to lose anyone of the calibre of Bishop Toohey, be they priest or laity. For me, such resignations, make me take stock of my own situation in relation to the Church and look at why I still persist to agitate for change within such a rigid and selectively deaf structure. I ask myself — how do you know when it is the right time to cut your losses and move on? Should it be when you become aware of the first signs of inner struggle with the teachings and public face of the Church? Is it better to wait until you become so angry that your own peace is in jeopardy? Does ultimate poor health and wellbeing indicate a move is in order? Or is the ultimate sign when you no longer care enough about the structure to continue the fight? I guess, in the end, we stay or go according to our own beliefs and hopes and how these impact on the totality of our lives.
Being Catholic is, in large part, central to who I am. My belief structures and how I live my life are based on a lifetime of Catholic influence, both positive and negative. Of course the choices I have made in regard to the Church have for many years put me anywhere from the fringes of the mainstream to the borderline heretical, depending on who you ask. That however does not change my Catholicity, at least not in my own eyes. It simply puts me into that group of Catholics that strive to be a part of a believing community that encompasses both tradition and modernity in meaningful and just ways. Yet striving, of itself, is not enough. There needs to be the occasional sign that there is scope for change. Yet all I see these days within the Catholic Church leadership, is a retreat into the ways of old, back to a time when the people, the "Body of Christ" only functioned when and how they were told to do so.
A sense of loss...
The questions I am asking the Church today are essentially no different to the ones I asked as a teenager, with perhaps the nuancing of age and experience. I still ask the same old questions and the Church loudly signals its answer by its continued attacks on dissenters and lack of vision in regard to many issues that I believe are important. At this point in my life, I feel I have lost the heart to keep asking, for when the questions are basically the same and the response consistently devoid of substance, there seems little scope for any real and significant dialogue. This Catholic journey of mine, and I suspect many other Catholics, is akin, in many ways, to the recognized stages of grief.
I suspect that the loss begins long before it is palpable. Slowly but inexorably however it becomes something all too obvious, such as feeling a little out of step with the other members of the community; feeling like the words being said are not what you truly believe; sensing within yourself a growing level of dissatisfaction with the wider Church. This can be a shocking awareness for someone who has "talked the talk" for many years. This new-found insight can cause great confusion and fear that you are the only one who feels this way, or that others will judge you if you express your feelings. A numbness too can follow where you go through the motions but can't really stay focused on the actions. There are always lots of people to blame — yourself first of all for some perceived failing, society at large and the Church itself. But through all this you generally hang in there and hope that somehow there will be a return to what was or at least some workable compromise.
The anger stage of the grief process is very real and feelings of frustration with the difficulties faced and yourself can readily progress to embarrassment and shame at no longer being totally committed or feeling that you have let down family and community. There's also God in the mix and you may feel that you have been abandoned or worse still that you have abandoned God. When anger clouds your ability to fully be a part of the sacramental celebration, them something must change in order for you to progress.
The sense of helplessness associated with such a difficult situation can be very overwhelming. You may think you have some ideas or even insight into what could be done better within the local community or the broader Church, but no-one wants to listen and you may be shunned for even contemplating messing with the given order. A sense of being overwhelmed by the problem and the lack of avenues for honestly and productively addressing your concerns can produce a lack of energy that may even impact on other areas of your life.
• Reaching out to others...
Reaching out to others can be a very positive experience, especially if you have similar aspirations and expectations. For a while this can be a very comforting and comfortable place to be. Yet in its own ways it can often become a talk fest which feels great but which does not necessarily take you anywhere in terms of change within Church structure or practice. The need to tell our story can also be a very a good way of connecting with others, but when the arguments, as they often are with Church, are circular then even the best listener begins to tire of the story, and your children shake their heads in wonder at why you continue to torture yourself. The struggle to find meaning in what has happened within the Church and ourselves personally is a powerful force, as we live in a world where we have come to expect there to be an answer for everything. But, we are dealing with an organization that does not move in logical or often comprehensible ways, so finding any meaning in our struggles can be very difficult and elusive.
The acceptance phase of the grieving journey is where you finally acknowledge, at the core of your being, that no matter what you do or how you challenge the Church to change, it ain't goin' to happen. No doubt over time some things will be given a nip and tuck around the edges, but for real progress the changes need to be significant and wide ranging. Realising that the time has come to move on and leave behind a Church that excludes too many and has lost sight, in many instances, of Jesus and what he needs us to do for him in this time and place, is not easy. There may still be pain attached to this decision, but it can be a more positive pain that becomes a catalyst for looking at other options for your continued spiritual journey. Solid ground that helps you to grow rather than holding you back, that supports rather then denigrates, that includes instead of condemning. For at this point in the journey you can be freed from the constraints that hamper new plans — plans that may be taking you into unchartered waters, but at least you can be in the driver's seat and have real and meaningful involvement in steering the course this journey will take.
The final stage of this experience is the entering into a feeling of empowerment. Certainly not the exercise of power we are used to within the Catholic Church, but following a new path that allows you to channel the passion, energy and commitment you once used for the good of the Church into other endeavours or organizations that provide a new and positive source of meaning. There are lots of options out there waiting for good people like us, who have moved on from good old Catholic guilt and look forward to a new phase of spiritual development that will provide relationships that are of the very best sort. For we haven't lost our faith, or abandoned God. Rather we have, in good conscience, worked through the situations facing us and made an adult decision to move forward with faith and hope along a path that offers more scope to be the person made "in the image and likeness of God". We need to know that we are valued for who we are and what we can contribute to the whole. This new journey will no doubt bring with it new and possibly difficult challenges, but our past lived experiences have helped us to be ready to meet them with an open heart and mind. So, who knows where we are headed, but we will certainly not be alone on the journey.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2008 Kerry Gonzales