Sunday, April 8, 2018

Rediscovering Jesus in a Companionship of Empowerment: Is an Empowering Church Possible? By Suzanne C. De Froy ARCWP






Principle source of research: Diarmuid O’Murchu’s ‘Christianity’s Dangerous Memory’ 
            Jesus arrived during a fearful tumultuous time in human history when men in positions of authority used powers of domination to maintain control over the masses, so oppressive suffering was an accepted way of life.  He sowed seeds of hope and brought wisdom to abide in love bringing forth abundance, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:1-11).  For people to even consider the possibility of experiencing true happiness in their day-to-day lives meant dramatic change would be inevitable and the status quo would be rocked to its core.  It was a promise, for Jesus said, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). 

            How strange and promising this must have seemed as a renewed purpose for humanity.  His vision represented radical transformation in power relationships (Matt 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19).  His Disciples were invited, not ordered, to believe in His words, so they too would be empowered to co-create with the celestial energy of God, the Divine Mystery of the universe (Matt 13: 1-23; Mark 4: 1-20; Luke 8:4-15).  Those who were willing to listen became ‘Church’, the embodiment of mutual relationships able to chart their earthly journey guided in the way and teachings of Jesus Christ. 

            However the original vision of an ‘empowering church’ was commandeered for more than 1700 years into a top-down authoritative decision-making model.  Today, O’Murchu proposes that despite this reality, there exists a possibility for a return to foundational wisdom.  A structure that has already been tested in the twentieth century is ‘Basic Christian Communities’.  The original intention was to mirror what Jesus began two thousand years ago, and with modifications the model could potentially improve Church so all Christians can participate fully. 

Features of Empowerment
           
            Embedded in the Christ centered life depicted in the scriptures are images that promote wisdom.  For example, we get to know about their day-to-day interactions while Jesus was with the disciples traveling and living as a community.  Long after His death and resurrection, powerful teachings remain to illuminate our earthly journey in the words of the Beatitudes, parables and miracles.  Descriptors reduce the spirit as they do not fully capture the powers of action brought to life in scripture.  But I have tried to further understand ‘how’ we may be empowered to find our way through the struggles of today so we can fully experience the abundant joy that Jesus intended:

Renewal:
Recognize that the path to empowerment will not be easy, as disciples will inevitably be confronted with covert and overt forms of violence to sustain ‘Powers of Domination’.  Jesus warned not to waste energy trying to tear down established institutions but use wisdom to circumvent the challenges presented.
Matthew 9:16-17                    Mark 2:22                    Luke 5:37

Freedom for Self-determinism:
Appreciate each person’s unique gifts and work diligently to create the conditions for equal, inclusive opportunities.  Nature is filled with diversity, differences increase possibilities. 
            Matthew 5:14-15                    Mark4: 21-26              Luke 8:16-18

Distributive Justice:
Adopt an abundance mentality as it is the way of the Creator.  Be open to receive and be willing to share wealth, knowledge and services.               Luke 12:13-21

Inter-dependent Relationships:
Be caring, kind and non-violent in thought word and deed.  Demonstrate mutual respect and forgiveness in the communitarian tradition.                  Matthew 7:1-5            Luke 6:37-42

Be Peace:
Draw on the wisdom of scripture to grow in trust and deepen loving relationships with God, self and others.  Leave behind crippling fear and the need for control.                     Matthew 6:27-30

            Empowerment represents an ideal, a vision for humanity’s interactions in all dimensions of existence. In the same way that Jesus presented transformational change, O’Murchu proposes an alternative to the hierarchical structures that support powers of domination.  The entrenched hierarchy adopted by the Church may have been inevitable, as its appeal remains embedded in culture to this day.  As an extension of ancient Greek and Roman organizations it was the solution intended to settle territorial claims, centralize power and also to quell conflict, which I would argue is a natural human trait.  St. Paul experienced constant discord trying to settle disagreements as to ‘how’ an alternative reality could exist (1 Cor. 1:10-17).  Unfortunately the underlying ideas of democracy were still in its infancy and alternative systems or models for large group interaction did not exist in western civilization (Kang, 2009).  Today, there is an alternative structure presented as Basic Christian Communities (BCCs) that may be promising to fulfill a vision of empowerment for the twenty-first century. 

Re-emergent ‘Basic Christian Communities’

            The heart of Christianity is found in Matthew 25:40, when Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”.  So how has this ideal been realized?  Bishop Peter Kang of the Cheju Diocese in South Korea presented a paper entitled ‘Small Christian Communities:  The Fundamental Paradigm of the Church at the Exposure Programme for German Bishops, April 14-22, 2009 and provided his impressions of the early beginnings:

Looking back from the beginning of the early Christian Church we saw an undeniable inspiring intervention of the Holy Spirit which created the community of the new People of God … This communitarian structure of the Church flourished in modern times after the Second Vatican Council especially in the small Christian Communities.  It is astounding to see that these small Christian Communities appeared simultaneously but separately in all continents without any artificial leadership of the church Hierarchy.  

Common attributes include:
·      meeting together with the loving and healing power of the Living Word at the center
·      meeting in small groups dedicated to community sustainability, establishing a new sense of belonging based on a common faith
·      growing together in spiritual life, praying regularly in communion with the Universal Church
·      recognizing opportunities to apply the Gospel in daily life
·      challenging unjust realities in modern society

            Bishop Kang did not pinpoint the exact beginnings of BCCs, but there is general consensus that it took root in Latin America when a number of forces coincided in 1964.  Similar to the time of historical Jesus, violation of human rights was a day-to-day reality sparking interplay of political, socio-economic and religious forces.  After a very long history of corruption and oppression in Brazil a fierce military coup overtook the government.  At the time, Paulo Friere was a leader recognized by the deposed federal government who established educational programs in an attempt to end the vast debilitating effects from illiteracy that was endemic among the oppressed masses.  Friere recognized the importance of self-determinism, so that the common people became part of the solution as an integral means for liberation from the forces of poverty.  As with Jesus, he was regarded as a subversive to the regime’s power of domination and was imprisoned.  Also, Christianity was the primary religion of the people and became a target for suppression.  Priests, lay people and religious were assassinated when they stood up for the poor.  These were violent times giving birth to a renewed model for humanity as envisioned by Jesus.

            Despair initiated a call for pastoral change at the highest level.  A search for solutions began during Vatican II (1962-1965) so that marginalized victims of injustice and oppression could be supported.  A movement for social justice gained momentum encouraging Father Perdro Arrupe, Superior General of the Society of Jesus to write an open letter to the Jesuits of Latin America (1968) requesting provisions as ‘options for the poor’ later becoming known as ‘preferential options for the poor’:
            Preferential:    give priority to,
            Option:            make a conscious choice, decision, and commit to place energy toward,
            Poor:                all who are marginalized, considered unimportant in society
           
            This phrase represented a shift in the Vatican’s focus from sacramental ministry to social justice and became a fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching.  Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, explained “preference for the poor,” goes beyond short term words of sympathy or charitable activities (Dias, 2009). Viewed from a sociocultural framework, collaboration is also essential to identify issues, concerns, and dilemmas that can propel movement toward progressive problem solving (De Froy, 2006).  In this way conditions could be created providing opportunities so that the poor would be active agents in liberation from the constraints that bind them.   Basic Christian Communities (BCCs) became recognized as a key variable in the solution to overcome a violent period in humanity’s history. 

            The original vision of BCCs, inspired by liberation theology, represents empowerment.  Power becomes redefined as mutuality with God and one another.  Numerous references from all over the world are available outlining evolving community features.  An early bibliography was published in 1978, Theology Annual, Volume 2 by Sean O Cearbhallain, S. J. citing 95 sources (pp 161-168).  A cursory review highlights numerous contributions by Church clergy to the body of literature.  In a very short period of time the concept became the great hope to sustain the institution of the Church known by the Latin phrase ‘Ecclesial Communautes de Base’. 

            However, history illustrates that the shift in focus advocated in Vatican II was not sustained.  Self-determinism, a component of empowerment, was viewed as a secular threat and the hierarchical decision-making body returned to entrenched dogmas stressing personal salvation could only be derived through the institutional Church.  On December 8, 1975 Pope Paul VI gave his address, ‘Evangelii Nuntiandi – Apostolic Exhortation’, granting permission for BCCs to be legitimate places for evangelization and must operate under the following conditions stated in section 58:

·      that they seek their nourishment in the Word of God and do not allow themselves to be ensnared by political polarization or fashionable ideologies, which are ready to exploit their immense human potential;
·      that they avoid the ever present temptation of systematic protest and a hypercritical attitude, under the pretext of authenticity and a spirit of collaboration;
·      that they remain firmly attached to the local Church in which they are inserted, and to the universal Church, thus avoiding the very real danger of becoming isolated within themselves, then of believing themselves to be the only authentic Church of Christ, and hence of condemning the other ecclesial communities;
·      that they maintain a sincere communion with the pastors whom the Lord gives to His Church, and with the magisterium which the Spirit of Christ has entrusted to these pastors;
·      that they never look on themselves as the sole beneficiaries or sole agents of evangelization- or even the only depositaries of the Gospel- but, being aware that the Church is much more vast and diversified, accept the fact that this Church becomes incarnate in other ways than through themselves;
·      that they constantly grow in missionary consciousness, fervor, commitment and zeal;
·      that they show themselves to be universal in all things and never sectarian.

            Notwithstanding the above regulations being imposed, the model continued to spread across the world, each with their own unique features.  In 1990 Pope John Paul II’s publication ‘The Mission of the Redeemer’ recognized the influence of the BCC movement and again reiterated the primary purpose as a force for evangelization and centralizing power, once again re-directing the original inspiration for Church renewal.  Almost twenty years later, in 2009, Brazilian Jesuit Roberto B. Dias criticized religious leaders saying “They like to talk about ‘conversion’ rather than ‘liberation’ and about ‘healing’ rather than ‘struggling’.”  Even so, Dias expressed hope that relevant change is still active at the grass roots level:
 
The movement for reform promoted by basic Christian communities and liberation theology continue to function within the Church.  At the last assembly of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007, the bishops re-affirmed their option for the poor and the importance of continuing to build basic Christian communities.  These communities make the Word of God better understood, encourage people to fulfill their social responsibilities in the name of the Gospel, create new apostolic tasks for the faithful, and promote education for the faith among adults.

            As previously mentioned, features of empowerment include distributive justice, Church renewal, freedom for self-determinism, inter-dependent relationships and peaceful essence as espoused in the Gospels.   Similarly, Dias believes that Christians today cannot be called Christians unless they have a ‘preference for the socially marginalized’ reflecting the love of Jesus.  He conceptualized the movement by recognizing lay people as the core of the Church.  As a source for renewal, activities are based in Gospel values designed to overcome social inequality and injustice.  Also, each individual’s unique gifts are encouraged to be utilized in their chosen social role.   Finally, reflection, meditation and listening to the Word of God will “breathe faith into the community and testimony becomes action so that the Church is reborn by the breath of the Holy Spirit”. 

            I would argue that Dias has helped deepen understanding as to the potential of BCCs creating a paradigm shift for renewal and empowerment.  So, if BCCs offer hope as a renewed model for Church, what are the impediments for empowerment to thrive?

A Constraint Close to Home

            There are a number of structural variables needing consideration in the question posed for this reflection including gathering places and systemic models for decision making.  I would like to start with parishes and the buildings they occupy for this reflects the endemic problem of spiritual and financial bankruptcy that are being identified around the world.  Statistical data highlights church closures as indicators of decline especially in Europe, Canada and Australia (Brown, 2012).  Evidence of this can be found in my own city as buildings that house Roman Catholic parishes and provide homes for clergy have steadily been sold off in Windsor Ontario, which has a population of 217,000.  In 17 years, 15 churches have been canonically closed.  Increased numbers of people who identify as Catholics but state they are no longer practicing plus priest shortages have pushed the diocese to group additional church parishes beginning in 2018 (Windsor Star, 5 Oct 2017). 


            The church of my youth, Our Lady of the Assumption, is a historical landmark being the oldest parish west of Montreal, Quebec.  Dating back to 1670, two Jesuit priests, Fathers Dollier and Galinée were the first to open the Lake Ontario and Lake Erie route to Sault Ste. Marie.  In 1733 a permanent structure was built to serve the native Indians and those living in the surrounding settlement by providing a church and a house for the priest. 

            In a series of land grants, acres were given to the Order of the Basilian Fathers by the Huron Indians (MacDonald, G. 1951).  As with Paulo Friere, the primary focus for the Basilian order is education, their motto being ‘Teach me goodness, discipline and knowledge’.  Assumption University was built on the land as well as a prestigious boarding school called Assumption College Catholic High School where I taught Religion for twelve years.  The Church was a spiritual center of the community, where my entire family received their sacraments; my father sang in the choir, my mother served as an active member of the Catholic Women’s League and in the end, became the place to celebrate my parents’ funeral service.  The emotional ties run deep with sacred memories deepening my spiritual life.   

            As the historian MacDonald (1951) illustrates, bits and pieces of the original land grant have been sold off over time and proceeds forwarded to the coffers of the London diocese. The building is a financial asset and a decision was made to close the doors.  The series of events have been reported by local media.  For example, Dave Battagello wrote an article in the Windsor Star, ‘Updated:  Historic landmark Assumption Church to be shut down’ and the same day, CBC News (a multi-media platform) reported that there was a Facebook posting made by the Church:

"After seven years and two fundraising campaigns, the leadership of the Diocese of London and the Basilian Fathers have come to the difficult realization and decision that the future of the Assumption parish community requires a different location with a renewed focus on mission and ministry"       (29 Aug 2014)
           
            What was not acknowledged is the controversy that swirled over the funds raised from the fundraising campaigns.  Despite declarations of transparency, parishioners serve in the role of being ‘consultants’ in the decision-making process.  A local lawyer took it upon himself to further investigate the situation, reported by Sharon Hill in her article ‘Lawyer Paul Mullins analyzing options to save landmark church’ (5 Oct 2017). 

            There are countless examples of decisions being made, cloaked in confidentiality throughout the institutional Church.  It is not my intention to provide a list of examples or explain how the process is contrived to create an illusion of meaningful discourse.  The fact is confidence has eroded diminishing day-to-day participation.  The different levels in the hierarchy control the purse strings and financial support is dwindling in part due to loss of trust and the consequences of hidden secrets.  So the broader question for empowerment becomes twofold, ‘Why are baptized  Roman Catholics no longer seeking spiritual support in their existing diocese’ and ‘Can the Church survive without change’? 

Church Renewal:  Heed the Warning

             The answers to the above questions are complex and scholars are saying that the conversation is long overdue and the path to empowerment will not be easy.  Jesus warned not to waste energy trying to change established institutions but draw on wisdom to circumvent the challenges being presented (Matthew 9:16-17).  O’Murchu also warned that those advocating change must be able to engage and speak intelligibly to the challenging influences of our time.  He argues that a focus also needs to be placed on creating a spiritual culture so that people will be supported and inspired to face the disempowering encounters of day-to-day life (pp 188-189).

            Evangelization is a primary mandate of the institutional Church.  In 2010 before announcing the closure of Assumption Church, Bishop Ronald Fabro commissioned a report, ‘Trends impacting pastoral and personnel planning in the Diocese of London’.  Data was collected by various staff and departments within the Diocese Chancery Office and is demographically quantitative.  Displays of the results include availability of parish priests, Sunday mass attendance, and activities gleaned from sacramental, financial and personnel records (https://dol.ca/documents/2016/10/Full_Report.pdf).  The synopsis includes personal anecdotes captured by Bishop Fabro.  Interestingly, in the section Trends in Canadian Society under the sub-title People’s Connection with the Church, it was noted “The sexual abuse of children by priests has also led to a loss of trust in the moral authority of the Church” (15 Sep 2011).  How this particular indicator has affected participation remains unclear but the loss of trust in the moral authority should be considered significant (https://dol.ca/documents/2016/10/PP-Legal-rev.pdf).

            An earlier multi-disciplinary research project prepared for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, used quantitative measures and qualitative interviews to determine why Catholics from seven dioceses stopped attending mass (2007, Feb).  The age of participants ranged from 25 upwards, all identified themselves as regular Mass attenders who stopped going regularly to Mass for reasons other than age or ill-health.   The findings were clustered as:

Church-centered reasons:                                                       Participant-centered reasons:

1.  The irrelevance of Church to life today                 1.  Family or household-related issues
2.  The misuse of power and Church authority          2.  Crisis of faith
3.  Problems with the priest in the parish                 3.  Going to Mass simply not a priority
4.  Lack of intellectual stimulation
5.  Concerns related to the parish as a community
6.  A sense of being excluded by Church rules
7.  Structural factors

            The executive summary indicates that the majority of respondents cited more than one reason why they stopped going to Mass.  It was important for virtually all participants that they nurture the spiritual dimension of their lives.  Many expressed the desire for the Church to make changes to certain practices and beliefs.  For some participants they acknowledged a spiritual dimension in their lives having a strong connection to the Catholic community, while a few participants’ spiritual lives had little or no connection with the Christian faith or any organized form of religion.  Also, the researchers claim there was a high degree of consistency between the reasons given by participants and those reported in existing research (https://www.catholic.org.au/organisation-documents/pastoral-research-office-1/197-disconnected-catholics-report-april-2007-1/file).

            It is well documented in other parts of the world that Catholics have been drifting away from active parish involvement for a number of years.  Callum Brown (2012) conducted a major study that explored the relationships between religion, women and secularization in Canada, Ireland, UK and the USA since the 1960’s.  The results suggest a crisis in faith, marking an extreme shift away from Christianity to atheism.

The 1960s marked a major transition in the life and culture of Western societies. In three regards, the ‘long sixties’ of 1957 to 1975 may have a claim to be the most significant cultural departure in at least half a millennium. The first was the decline of Christianity. The second was the gender revolution. The third was the demographic transition to intensely low fertility accompanied by low marriage rates. For organized Christianity, the sixties constituted the most concentrated period of crisis since the Reformation (pg. 29).

            Mark M. Gray, a senior research associate for the Centre of Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgia, Illinois, has been highlighting the urgent need for Church renewal.  In 2014, he reported the results of an important survey conducted by researchers at Benedictine University.  The purpose was to explore the rational of lapsed and former Catholics in the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois.  Drawing on prior research, respondents were given common reasons for leaving the Church and asked if those reasons influenced their departure. The chart below shows the percentage of respondents who agreed with the causes stated below:

Spiritual needs not met:                     67%                 Lost interest:                           66%
Too many money requests:                56%                 No longer believe:                  48%
Dissatisfaction with atmosphere:      47%                 Too formal:                             36%
Too ritualistic:                                     38%                 Music not enjoyable:              36%

            Qualitative indicators from the study included feelings of marginalization such as being gay or divorced.  Participants acknowledged the importance of having a sense of belonging, a fundamental precept of BCCs.  In the conclusion, Pope Francis was referenced as suggesting two clear distinctions for future action, that there is ‘a pastoral way to approach Church doctrine with Catholics and there is another way that leads to former Catholics’.  However the ‘way’ was not provided in the report but suggestions were offered in his recent book, ‘Walking with Jesus’ (2015) that includes 36 of his presentations made to different gatherings around the world.  The book jacket captures his voice in two phrases, “A way forward for the church” and “Take note: if the Church is alive, she must always surprise”. 

Transformational Leadership

            Pope Francis has become a beacon of hope bringing the legacy of Jesuit ministry to his position by acting as an agent for church renewal as his books have become best sellers.  As I read ‘Walking with Jesus’ I was intrigued by the influence of his Latin American experiences in Basic Christian Communities noticing he advocates features for empowerment.  In a recent article for the New Yorker, James Carroll commented on some of his accomplishments: 

It has been five years since Jorge Mario Bergoglio ascended to the papacy, and the press is full of positive assessments. The Pope’s observers note that he:
·      provides good P.R. for the Catholic Church (selfies with young people);
·      takes on the bureaucracy of the Curia and cleaned up the Vatican Bank;
·      undercuts doctrinal rigidity with pastoral accommodation (Communion for divorced people, acceptance of gay people);
·      shifts the Church’s focus to the global South;
·      advocates powerfully for migrants and the environment; and
·      promotes the exercise of rational faith while affirming traditional devotion
In summary, Pope Francis proclaims, in word and in deed, as the measure that matters—mercy toward migrants, misfits, the young, and the very planet (2009, Mar).
            In the same month as the above article, it was evident that the role of pope is transfixing the imaginations of people around the world who are tuning into the CNN documentary ‘Pope:  The most powerful man in history’.  Immense response to the six part series has been generated.  Historical events are being presented dating from the beginning of Christianity until today, highlighting the power of a hierarchical institution that continues to enable a congregation that is estimated to be 1.2 billion Catholics.     

            Being a documentary there are indicators of topic bias selected to represent ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ that exists in all man made institutions.  The narrator, Liam Neeson was asked what he would pose to Pope Francis if he could meet him and one question was ‘When can we have women priests?’ https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/08/entertainment/liam-neeson-qa-religion-and-the-pope/index.html.  Hyperlinked is the article written by Jack Jenkins (1 Nov 2016) ‘Pope Francis: The ban on women’s ordination will continue forever’ (https://thinkprogress.org/pope-francis-the-ban-on-womens-ordination-will-continue-forever-7e975fc5d83e/). 

            I will argue that the ban against women becoming Roman Catholic priests has always been a form of injustice, not only for women but for all followers of Jesus Christ.  It is not lost to this writer that it has been sustained despite the body of research that is currently raising the alarm to the deteriorating numbers of participating active Catholics.  Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid, a recipient of the HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights, honored the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was assassinated 50 years ago, in his 2013 article, ‘A time to think about, and strive for, equality’:

For me, the cause of civil rights and human rights in general is all about fairness, justice, and both equality and equity in this country and beyond. It is about leveling the playing field so that each individual is provided with the same opportunities to realize his or her dream without being hampered by artificial or unnecessary barriers.

            The pope has recognized the wisdom in the feminine voice available from the other 50% of people who reside on this planet.  During his papacy, Saint Mary Magdalen has recently been acknowledged as an equal to the male apostles.  On June 10, 2016, the Vatican’s representative in the Holy See, Archbishop Roche, issued a press release entitled ‘Mary Magdala, apostle of the apostles’ extending earlier attention by Rabano Mauro and St. Thomas Aquinas.  Her feast day has been declared as July 22nd. 

            However, equal recognition and opportunities for all women within the Roman Catholic Church is one of the many problems Pope Francis must deal with as he confronts the bureaucracy of the Curia and the male dominated clergy (http://bridgetmarys.blogspot.com/2018/03/why-women-can-become-roman-catholic.html).   There are those among the hierarchal structure that silence any discussions from taking place.  This includes a simple parish gathering in our local Windsor community that hosted an invitational lecture intended to explore ‘Why women can never become priests’.  When questions were raised by members of Heart of Compassion Faith Community, they were dismissed and a discussion never took place (http://bridgetmarys.blogspot.com/2017/11/a-reflection-on-insights-of-elizabeth.html). 

            Pope Francis has cited declarations made by other pontiffs as rational, but there are hopeful suggestions of movement in the future.  From his August 2013 address, a Christian might infer, with reservations that it is only a matter of time that this particular injustice will create a door of opportunity for Church renewal:
            THE CHURCH’S MISSIONARY:                        TRANSFORMATION
19. Evangelization takes place in obedience to the missionary mandate of Jesus: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). In these verses we see how the risen Christ sent his followers to preach the Gospel in every time and place, so that faith in him might spread to every corner of the earth. http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations
Systemic Renewal
                       
            In an interview given to John Allen (2013), Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin was questioned about the process of consultation in the Vatican’s decision-making process as a move toward democracy.  His reply made it clear that there is nothing to suggest a change in the hierarchical model:

It has always been said that the church is not a democracy. But it would be good during these times that there could be a more democratic spirit, in the sense of listening carefully, and I believe the pope has made of this one of his pontificate's objectives. A collegial movement of the church, where all the issues can be brought up, and afterward he can make a decision (https://www.ncronline.org/.../new-secretary-state-parolin-celibacy-democracy).

            A keener ear to ‘listen’ may provide future opportunities, but today circumvention may be the only option available.  O’Murchu suggests Basic Christian Communities is the alternative for empowerment and in the final chapters of the book, suggests that scholars and theologians could look to organizational structures found in nature called ‘holarchy’ (pg. 132).  However he does not elaborate as to how a theory of holarchy could be applied to the institutional structure of Church, but I believe his suggestion warrants further investigation.

            Holarchy is a relatively new concept based in systems theory, which has applications in the social constructivist paradigm used by O’Murchu.  Arthur Koestler introduced ‘holon’ and ‘holarchy’ in his book ‘The ghost in the machine’ (1967) and the concept has become popularized in Ken Wilbur’s book ‘A theory of everything: An integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality’ (2000).   Scientific minds such as Stephen Hawking have been inspired by these ideas.  Basically, biological system theory is being applied to other systems influencing developments in sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, social work and the spiritual dimension of human behaviour.  It has been used to explain forms of interaction such as individuals, groups, families, organizations, institutions, communities and eco-systems.  In a system, separate parts exist simultaneously while being connected and influencing the whole.  Although complex, the following simplified image inspired by the work of Koestler, illustrates the nesting effect of being inter-connected:



            In nature, a holarchy consists of nested holons such as particles and atoms.  Several atoms together form a molecule and further groupings become a chain of increased complexity.   Each grouping is discrete yet integrated.  One component does not become another, but through the process of refinement, transcends and includes the previous. Development is envelopment.  Influence is dynamic, improving original ideas so becomes more than two dimensional and beyond the capacity of a hierarchy.  John Hobbs (2010) suggested that the test would be to see if the nested holons in a holarchy can survive without each other: 

To remove the atom means no molecules can exist, but particles still persist. However, remove particles and atoms and molecules are no longer found. Particles and atoms represent the increasing differentiated yet integrated aspect of the holarchy.  In particular, holarchy represents an open dynamic system that promotes growth and transformation by allowing cross-boundary exchange and permeable synergy labeled as morphogenesis.  Self-maintenance is also evident represented by morphostasis.  Together, this activity keeps systems in a process of constant flow and change, a dynamic steady state called homeokinesis (http://www.articlesbase.com/philosophy-articles/holarchy-the-nested-hierarchy-of-holons)

            My brief examination led me to identify a significant constraint in the Church preventing healthy evolution.  I question the perceived value of excluding women, the particles in the holarchy of priesthood, and wonder, given the extent of scholarly research, if the existing hierarchy, that uses consultation as its illusive benchmark for democracy, can be sustained by itself for much longer.

Conclusion

            The quest for spiritual nourishment is still alive even though full Christian participation in the institutional Church is declining.  O’Murchu acknowledged that inquiry and exploration of basic faith tenets are being conducted by a growing body of Christians including lay people.  As the complexity of the contemporary world propels change and faith inevitably evolves, it is antithetical to intentionally reduce interpretative authority of Bible teaching as the sole realm and responsibility of male dominated forums endorsed by the Vatican.  O’Murchu addresses Christian identity by first drawing attention to the glaring repressed sense of Biblical anonymity and the subsequent contributions made throughout history so that women are “often made invisible and without the power of naming”. The ancient cultural norm is a perplexing stranglehold.  Our local Windsor Star newspaper presented a recent editorial that has caught attention across the province on the lack of movement when it comes to gender bullying, high-lighting the tension of marginalization in religious communities:

We have places of worship here and across Canada that physically separates the sexes.  That should be intolerable, but no one dares to criticize.  We have a Roman Catholic faith with a male-dominated hierarchy and yet no one speaks of boycotting its churches and schools (pg. A8, 10 Mar 2018)

            Words may not be spoken but it is very apparent that pews are sitting vacant where before they were full.  Youth may be attending fully-funded Catholic schools but that does not necessarily mean they are active participants in their personal faith development.  Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter dated May 22, 1994 on the topic of women priests was reiterated almost 20 years later in 2013 by Pope Francis, when he stated, “The Church has spoken and said “No … That door is closed”.  The ramifications of being perceived as steadfast to disempowering women reverberate to this day.  As justice is so important to Pope Francis we can only wonder his personal views on this issue.   In 2016 he initiated a second commission to investigate the history of women deacons in the Church.  This directive was in response to decades of requests for women to participate fully in all aspects of pastoral leadership.  But the debate as to possible outcomes that may create movement toward social justice lingers:

To date, Francis has praised the "feminine genius" but has not carried through on vague promises to appoint more women to leadership positions.  "Francis' theological imagination makes it impossible for women to achieve equal decision-making power and sacramental authority in this church," wrote Jamie L. Manson, an editor at National Catholic Reporter. "And it's time we faced it."

            We cannot lose hope against a grim reality.  There also exists the extreme measure of excommunication taken against ordained men whose conscience compelled action (https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/vatican_decrees_excommunication_for_participation_in_ordination_of_women).  The courageous act to support women becoming Roman Catholic priests is in accordance with apostolic succession so others with a similar inclination must remain in catacomb, just as the early revolutionary Christians had to do. 

            In the introduction of this reflection, I mentioned that Church renewal and the path to empowerment will not be easy, as disciples will inevitably be confronted with covert and overt forms of violence to sustain ‘Powers of Domination’.  There are numerous issues, concerns and dilemmas being faced but we must heed the warning given to us by Jesus, not to waste energy trying to tear down established institutions but use wisdom to circumvent the challenges presented (Matthew 9:16-17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37).  This has been the historical calling of grass roots movements. 

            Today, in the tradition of Basic Christian Communities, brave Christians are circumventing the established Church hierarchy and thriving in the gospel traditions.  Women, as part of the collective Christian holarchy, are taking matters into their own hands with the hope that the Holy Spirit will assist their efforts to build a bridge to empowerment.  Today, there is a ‘holon’ that is recognized as the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests.  The constitution identifies justice as a core value for its members.  Women have assumed a leadership role, despite being illegitimatized by the institutional Church.  As a community they are committed to live their lives reflecting features of empowerment, dedicated to chart their earthly journey in the way and teachings of Jesus Christ: 

We strive to live as justice makers in right relation to self, to others, and to the earth. Aware of the interconnectedness of all, we believe that action on behalf of justice is constitutive to the Gospels. Because we understand how unjust structures marginalize people on the basis of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and mental and physical challenges, we collaborate to create alternative structures that are inclusive of all and are deeply based in the traditions of social justice within our church (ARCWP, 2015).

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