BY ELIZABETH McKENZIE
The late Cardinal Martini was, we are told, particularly influenced by the teaching of Pope Gregory the Great who believed that the word and language of a pastor must take into account the abilities of those they are listening to.
Undoubtedly, one of Martini’s outstanding qualities was his ability to listen to and resonate with the pastoral expectations of the plebs Dei – the people of God
This attitude of attentive listening presumes that several basic pastoral objectives will be met:
- the pastor will actually hear what the people of God are saying;
- his response will be wise and empathetic, and appropriate to the needs presented by his flock;
- the role of the pastor is one of collaboration with his flock rather than that of master/servant relationship;
- people and pastor can raise individual and communal expectations to be discussed and addressed in a fair and equitable way.
In the parish scenario, there is a presumption that the plebs Dei share similar abilities, that all parishioners are on the same page, singing from the same songbook, dancing to the same tune.
The word and language of the pastor, in this scenario, only has to take into account and respond to what is perceived as a homogenous level of spiritual need. All that is required of the hierarchy and clergy (and parish councils) is to decide on an acceptable and appropriate presentation of Church teaching, preaching, liturgical events, rallying support for orthodox causes, etc and pitch it at that level.
This might mean:
- keeping sermons short and non-challenging;
- relying on the authority of canon law as a way of dealing with the messiness of domestic/sexual conundrums;
- baptising infants and children destined for the local parish school;
- enthusing over First Communicants, their teachers and parents;
- dispensing soothing and suitable bon mots at weddings and funerals.
Of course there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach. It is the backbone of the institutional church. Until fairly recently its comforting essence was encapsulated by the alternative title of ‘Mother Church’. Its sonorous predictability has nurtured both community and individuals throughout the history of the Church.
The problem with this parish oriented, homogenous faith approach is that as an incentive to spiritual development and growth, it has its limitations.
There are many different levels of faith. There is no such thing as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ spirituality.
It amazes me that the institutional/hierarchial church is the specific model of church consistently presented as the only way to be a member of ‘The Church’. This ‘model’ dominates all discussion of ‘church’ in spite of the groundbreaking scholarship of Fr Avery Dulles SJ, who promulgated the theory of several (six in all) Models of the Church in 1974.
The whole church is encapsulated in each model but each model (community/sacramental/ herald/etc) has its own authenticity, its own part to play in the overall health and growth of the Body of Christ.
This (relatively) new vision of what ‘Church’ is, is complemented by another ground breaking study, published in 1981 by James Fowler in his ‘Stages of Faith’.
Fowler based his thesis – that faith development is never static – on the findings of Lawrence Kohlberg (and other moral developmental psychologists such as Eric Ericsson and Alfred Adler). He makes the point that the need to belong to a community of faith to be secure in one’s identity is one stage (but one which dominates Catholic orthodoxy) in a six-stage process of faith development.
With the availability of Church documents and insightful theological studies, it is surely time those members of the plebs Dei, who have started to grow up, and who are hungry for a more mature experience of ‘Church’ than the one currently on offer, should be listened to and heard. A vigorous and more sophisticated dialogue about what it means to be church, the importance of understanding faith development and nurturing spirituality, between the people of God and their pastors is long overdue.
Elizabeth McKenzie is a Melbourne writer.
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