June 2012

A letter to mother Church from a Gen X-er

Sydney-based religious educator Alice Priest writes a letter to her Church to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

BY Alice Priest

My Dear Church,

I write to you on this the occasion of your fiftieth anniversary – 50 years since you, ancient Mother, set upon your aggiornamento. Congratulations to you, the arrested eternal, throwing open your windows to the particularity of a new time, to modernity, to me.

I too have recently celebrated an anniversary, 38 years since I came into this world and was baptised into you. You are old. I am young. I reach back through you, and you forward through me. Though I was still a twinkle in my father’s eye, I feel sure you had me in mind, dear Church, when you stated those opening words of the Council, “that the human family is on the threshold of a new era”… “at a turning point in the history of the Church”… “a new day is dawning”.*

You were thinking of me when you said that, in the light of your Council, you, and in turn, I would “gain in spiritual riches”… enabled “to face [our]… future without fear”. For that is me; the child of a turning point, a new era, wherein the ability to face the future – the climate changing, war-torn, nuclear, virtualised, pluralised, GFC future – without fear is truly the greatest gift of all. I thank you for knowing something of both my heart and my changed world, and thus, of who you must better become.

I think you looked to the future and knew that two of my running companions early on Sunday mornings would be Shabbat-keeping Jews, texting me images of their Passover-set dining room tables as I celebrated Easter this year, when your Council spoke of a new “unity” of the whole Christian and human family. I think you knew that they could teach me something about how to bring my Eucharist home to my family table. You finally had the courage to say what I live with my marathon companions, that “the source is one”, and our being on the road together as we run (literally and figuratively), is a reality and a truth beyond our differences.

I think you suspected that I might be teaching in a Catholic school today, and that one of my best religious education students would be a wonderful young Jain of Indian heritage. You knew that she, together with my Catholic and Christian and no-affiliation students, would take my teaching only as seriously as the witness of my life to it.

You had little idea that your pews would be so empty, but your schools would be so full, even though your Council saw then that “It musters the Church’s best energies and studies with all earnestness how to have the message of salvation more welcomed by all.”… “For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honoured teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else.” You couldn’t have known the wrenching tension I would feel in the exhausting act of juggling these two things in my work as a religious educator.

I think you knew that I would spend the thirtieth year of my life in Rome, earnestly seeking our God – in silence, in liturgy, in community, in adoration, in mission, in theology, in St Peter’s – and finding God most present on the end of the soup ladle and in the cleaning of the shit-smeared walls of the toilet stalls of the poor and the homeless and the refugees at the community kitchen in Trastevere. You addressed yourself clearly “To the human race oppressed by so many difficulties”, echoing Peter’s words, “…‘Silver and gold I have none; but what I have, that I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk’ (Acts 3:6)”. We don’t do enough, you and I, to really give all that we have. I think we both know it. Sometimes, Dear Church, we are too busy being holy to grasp the handle of the soup ladle.

When you looked to the new era, I think you were beginning to see how impossibly hard fidelity to God and each other would increasingly be. I wonder if you saw that I would fall in love with an ex-religious, broken beyond my reach by the warping of God’s name, or find myself looking for love in a market where the quality choices are strictly limited: ‘love-zero’ (looks like love but has none of the key ingredients); ‘love-lite’ (missing commitment and possibly values); ‘love-regular’ (not a popular seller and hardly ever in stock); or ‘love-even- better-than-the-real-thing’ (anything goes in this). I don’t think you thought, My Dear, even when you saw that in the arena of relationships, “Christ’s Bride prefers the balm of mercy to the arm of severity”, that there would be so many knots that could not be untied, and so much agony in the sincere pursuit of love for which you have no balm.

When you saw the growing plurality of our world’s cultural mix, values and faiths, you had only the first inklings that a good, big Catholic family like mine could become such a typically weird and wonderful mix of values, marriages, partnerships, separations, off-spring, drugs, doctorates and the divine. Your desire, Dear Church, “to show [yourself]… to the world as the loving mother of all…; gentle and patient, and full of tenderness and sympathy for her separated children,” 50 years on, remains so admirable. But it is so very far from how you are felt in most of our lives and relationships. Fifty years on, we still “must work out ways and means of expounding these [our] truths in a manner more consistent with a predominantly pastoral view of… [your] teaching office”.

On that turning point 50 years ago, I think you knew that “full, conscious and active participation”  (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 1963, n.14) was not only the way I wanted to engage in liturgy and in my Church, but is the way I would strive to live all of my life; that in pursuit of such a life I would go to university, work, study some more, and travel the world. I think you underestimated that as much as I would go to the world, it would, through “inventive genius and scientific progress, which have so revolutionised modern living”, come ceaselessly to me, so much so, that I would need to take an ascetic approach to the fabulosity of phones, facebook and flatscreens. You knew me then and now when your Council said, “real progress must not be impeded by a passing infatuation for transient things”. Help me better navigate the difference.

Maybe you didn’t expect that in your aggiornamento of opening your windows to let the world in, you would find God already there, or that I’d so readily find God beyond you, as well as so deeply in you. The world is my cloister; I have discovered the monastery of the heart.

I need you, Dear Church, to be true to your Conciliar word when you declared that “We must recognise here the hand of God, who, as the years roll by, is ever directing human efforts, whether [we]… realise it or not, towards the fulfilment of the inscrutable designs of His providence, wisely arranging everything, even adverse human fortune, for the Church’s good”.

I think you knew that I would thirst for spirituality – to bear in my being “the gifts of divine grace which, … are powerful assistance and support for the living of a more fully human life” – more than religion in the changing, de-traditionalising world. I don’t think you knew how hard it would be for you to slake that thirst.

And did you realise how much I would want to connect life and faith? For Church not just to be an hour of obligation a week, but a way to walk upon the “entirely new avenues for the Catholic apostolate” that are called into opening by your effort “to keep up to date with the changing conditions of this modern world, and of modern living”?

You helpfully put the liturgy in my language, but you still struggle to speak to me on a Sunday about the real grapplings of my heart and mind. You opened the windows, Dear Church, but won’t let me come in except by the front door.

I trusted you, My Dear One, with my life, when I saw that you saw me, and knew me and my world, those 50 years ago. I committed to you and believed your promises. Maybe you didn’t anticipate that what you said you could offer I would want and need in its fullness, and cling to now with faltering grasp. On this occasion of your anniversary, can we look to the future together, you and I, and know each other still?

Yours in the journey of faith, hope, and love…

*All quotations, unless contra indicated, are from Pope John XXIII, from his Opening Speech to the Second Vatican Council in St Peter’s, Vatican, October 11, 1962.

NB Gen X-er = Generation X, or those people born roughly between 1964 and 1977.

This article is the fifth in a series commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

Alice Priest

Alice Priest is a religious educator with more than 20 years’ experience across a range of settings – from the classroom to youth ministry and teacher education. She has lived and worked in Catholic school systems and ministries in Italy, Germany and Australia. Alice is currently working at Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College in Sydney, where she teaches religion and English, and is head of faith formation and liturgy.

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