Large things are associated with this term: the Voice of the Church. The Papacy has a hierarchy of categories into which the utterances of Popes are put - from loud utterances to modest proposals, from Encyclicals to talks at Angelus time from the Papal window. Church Councils and bishops' synods rate their documents variously - from Dogmatic Decrees and Pastoral Constitutions to reports on procedings. They are not all to be taken with the same seriousness.
Having never been to a Council, a Bishops' Synod or even an Angelus talk, I hear these voices remotely. What I have heard a lot more of over 25 years of ministry is the voice of Catholics after Mass on Sundays and around parishes. These voices are one small part of that other great voice in the Church - the "sensus fidelium" or or the feeling and sense that the body of the Church has about the issues that concern the body of believers.
And I've heard a lot of things - about the shame felt by many about the current crisis of sexual abuse and perceived incompetence of its management by authorities; about the ageing of the clergy and the apparent lack of concern among Church leadership for the need to address what this means for the celebration of the Eucharist in coming generations; about the difficulties parents have in communicating the faith to their children; about boring and irrelevant homilies; about the lack of any pastoral remedy for divorced Catholics seeking remarriage; and on and on.
The voice of the Church also speaks up about people whose kindness, selflessness and persevering faith hold communities together; about unheralded leaders who have changed lives, galvanised communities and have remained effective and lifelong influences on the beliefs and convictions of those they served. The voice of the Church is alive in the genuine listening that occurs in pastoral care and sacramental ministry. The voice of the Church speaks volumes when pain and sorrow, anger and frustration are named and addressed as part of the community life and companionship in faith that is the Church in its best self.
One a particularly enterprising rural diocese in NSW is conducting a series of events so that the whole community of the diocese can be heard as the Voice of the Church, the voice of the People of God in that area. As you would expect, what is said and has been heard varies a great deal in the grasp of the issues involved and in the quality of suggestions on how to address them.
At one extreme, one parishioner in the diocese proposed that the best way to get people back to Mass was to deny them all sacraments unless they came to Mass regularly. I see, punish people for their Catholicism unless they comply with our rules. That's an interesting if not unprecedented view of what the Church is about. And, of course, behind such a view of the Church lies an equally malevolent image of God as the ruthless, inflexible and cane wielding school master.
Michael Kelly is founder of Church Resources and Executive Director of Union of Catholic Asian News.
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