TUESDAYS WITH TERESA: Dancing women! (and a struggling church)

This week I am writing my message early, on Wednesday 8th March, International Women’s Day. I am surprised and pleased by the volume of writing regarding this day and the many events that have been held to mark this occasion. The theme for this year is #BeBoldForChange

In our diocese, the Ecumenical and Interfaith Council held a Sisters of Christianity dinner, at which women from the Catholic, Anglican, Uniting and Baptist Churches were joined by Muslim women. It was a delightful night with our guest speaker, Debbie Carstens, sharing some of her story of working as a woman with those women who form part of the margins of our society. She spoke of the text from Luke’s Gospel (13:10-13) about the bent over woman:

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

Debbie chose to interpret this text with the image of the woman dancing. For those of us there, the image was delightful, as a woman who was bent over was restored to being a dancing woman! And yet, Jesus was criticised for healing someone on the Sabbath.

Those in power wanted to demonise Jesus’ actions of compassion and to keep the woman powerless, all in the name of God.

The women who gathered for this meal had a lovely night and I could feel a real sense of peace and joy as we shared food and water. We were blessed to have had this meal prepared by two Ethiopian women. I sensed that the women ‘danced’ as they left the dinner, such was our joy of being faith-filled women, of all ages, together.

In stark contrast, for three weeks, during the month of February, Case Study #50 of the Royal Commission was held. 52 witnesses gave evidence to bring together the evidence of the previous 16 Catholic case studies to ask why it all happened. The 13 panels focused on ten themes:

  1. structure, governance and culture
  2. church discipline and secrecy
  3. sacrament of reconciliation
  4. international safeguarding
  5. formation
  6. professional support and supervision
  7. community services
  8. Catholic education offices and governance
  9. child safety, complaint handling and risk management
  10. Catholic Professional Standards Limited.

The last three panels focused on bishops, leaders and metropolitan archbishops.  

In February I was sent an article Sexual Abuse Crisis written by Des Cahill, Professor of Intercultural Studies, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University, Melbourne. Given the conversations that I have been hearing during and since this case study, I thought I would share with you some of this article which I found provided me with language to process what we have been hearing. I have provided the formatting below for ease of reading:

The very first witness is Dr David Ranson, a former Cistercian and now vicar-general of the Broken Bay diocese. In 1997 he produced one of the very best explanations of a dysfunctional Church culture which allowed clerical sex abuse to emerge over the centuries. His paper to the Australian Catholic Social Welfare Commission has been publicly available ever since but the only one who seems to have taken any notice of it was Bishop Geoffrey Robinson. The Irish psychotherapist, Dr Marie Keenan, who has written the best book on Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church, is aware of Ranson's model, presumably because of her sabbatical in Sydney about a decade ago.

Ranson suggested in 1997 that clerical sexual abuse arose from the interweaving of three matrices (theological, pastoral and social).

In the theological matrix, the dysfunctional elements are

  1. the patriarchal imagery of God
  2. the Church's ambiguous tradition of sexuality

In the psychological matrix, the dysfunctional elements are

  1. the failure to deconstruct the religious experience/vocational impulse
  2. the denial of eros
  3. the denial of the feminine

The dysfunctional elements in the social matrix are

  1. the poor formation of the celibate or virginal person
  2. a dysfunctional community life
  3. lack of professional accountability.

Interestingly, in the December 2016 Newsletter of the National Office for Clergy Life and Ministry, about Ongoing Formation, Bishop David Walker wrote about Fostering the Faith Journey. In part of this article he wrote:

This can be illustrated by reflecting on a paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “‘Great is the mystery of the faith!' the Church professes this mystery in the Apostles' Creed (Part 1) and celebrates it in the sacramental liturgy (Part Two), so that the life of the faithful may be conformed to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father (Part 3). This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. This relationship is prayer." (CCC par 2558)

In the formation of clergy more time and resources have usually been devoted to Theology, Liturgy and Moral Theology, and less on the serious study of prayer, which is the relationship that gives meaning to the other three. Without it we can become excessively preoccupied with doctrine and orthodoxy; excessively focusing on how the Liturgy has to be done rather than its role in the faith journey; or simply turning our Christian way of life into a morality rather than a shared life with Jesus. It is our relationship with the Lord that transforms these other studies. Certainly we were encouraged to live our faith life, but the challenge to be of assistance to others needs a more serious study of the Church’s tradition in this area. The Christian tradition is recognized as a great source of how to live our faith, and there have been many great saints who have shared their insights into this faith journey with us. The Church has recognized the authenticity of their teaching by making them saints, doctors of the church, and by preserving their writings for the education and formation of the faithful.

Exposure to the traditional teaching of the Church on growing in one’s relationship to the Lord will assist priests to be:

  • more focused in their preaching;
  • have more confidence in guiding parishioners individually and communally in their faith life;
  • enable them to provide more individual help to some members of the community;
  • establish a more focused environment in the parish geared to growth in the life of faith;
  • develop a desire within the community to live more deeply their faith life;
  • develop support systems to which people can go to get more help in their journey;
  • establish networking to provide the best possible opportunities to assist parishioners.

The priest is in a unique position to create an environment of growth in the community of faith. Pope John Paul ll showed the importance of priests exercising this role. “Holiness: a Christian life distinguished above all by the art of prayer… Our Christian communities must become genuine ‘schools of prayer’… Education in prayer should become a key-point in all pastoral planning... Parishes need to work to an all-pervading climate of prayer” (Novo Millennio Ineunte)

I realise that I have used a significant volume of other people’s writings in this message, but I felt the need to share their wisdom with you, in the hope it may give you some further insight into the complexity of the issues around clergy sexual abuse.

When gathering with the women of faith on the eve of International Women’s Day, I sensed their deep relationship with our creator God, lived out through reading the Scriptures or the Koran, through prayer, through their life experiences and through their daily acts of mercy. These are the blessings that our faith traditions bring to society and we need well-formed, accountable leaders who nourish this gift in themselves and others, in a searching world.

I will be away on holidays for the next two weeks. John Donnelly and Helene O’Neill have generously agreed to provide reflections on Tuesdays in my place.

Taking up the theme of International Women’s Day, we all need to be bold for change, to transform the world from our own spheres of influence, no matter where we find ourselves. Please don’t wait for someone else to take up the task. You have been entrusted with the gift of God’s spirit to be and make the change with others and for others.

Until I return, take care,

Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

Teresa Brierley is the Vice Chancellor Pastoral Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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