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.