Advent is frequently a time for bishops to release pastoral letters and other documents to offer their reflections. This year, two such documents reflect the style and substance of Pope Francis in his efforts for a more merciful and inclusive church.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, released a pastoral letter entitled The Flesh and the Facts. In its first words, the letter cites both the Year of Mercy and Pope Francis, saying “we don’t now set mercy aside” simply because the Jubilee year has concluded. Coleridge wrote:
“In Genesis we’re told that God saw what he had made and found it very good (1:31). Christmas says that God saw what he had made and, seeing its goodness disfigured, decided to become part of his own creation to restore it to the glory he intended from the beginning. The God who takes flesh deals not in abstractions but in facts. Likewise the Church that worships the mystery of the Word-made-flesh needs to deal with facts. That’s where mercy starts.
“At times what we believe and teach can seem too abstract. That’s the sense I had listening to certain voices at last year’s Synod on marriage and the family in Rome. What I heard at times was logical, perhaps even beautiful in a way, but it didn’t put down roots in the soil of human experience, and it would have been incomprehensible to most people outside the Synod Hall.”
Coleridge, a participant in the Synod on the Family from where he made several LGBT-positive remarks, noted in his letter the challenges of communicating faith in today’s culture. He called Advent a “special time for listening” in which new ways of engagement could be found. Describing the church as a teacher, the archbishop said church leaders must “find new words or images, a new language” to help people understand their teachings. He continued:
“Part of this new engagement will be a reconsideration of Church structures and strategies, which can be based upon the facts of other times. They may have been brilliantly successful once upon a time when things were different. But they are not what’s required now in a situation where the facts have changed.”
Addressing marriage and family specifically, Coleridge said there was a divide between the hierarchy’s and society’s understandings of these concepts. But this is not grounds for the church to write off the world, an approach which is “not the Catholic way” because:
“We are a Church who, because we take the Incarnation seriously, take culture seriously and seek to engage it as creatively as we can. This means we have to be in touch with reality rather than inhabiting some abstract world which can produce what the Holy Father has called ‘dry and lifeless doctrine’ (Amoris Laetitia, 59) and ‘a cold, bureaucratic morality'(Amoris Laetitia, 312).
Being pastoral means getting “in touch with the facts of human experience,” Coleridge explained. According to the archbishop, this does not mean changing church teaching, but it also should not be a one-way mode of engagement by church leaders. Instead, he advocated a more holistic approach:
“It means that we, like God, abandon the world of abstraction to engage the real lives of real people . . .This will mean a new kind of listening to the truth of people’s experience. From a new listening will come a new language that people can understand because it’s in touch with their lives. That’s what it means to be a truly pastoral Church.”
On the other side of the world, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, Belgium, whose call two years for the church to bless same-gender relationships was positively received by many Catholics, released a brief Advent letter, reflecting on the words, “I have been waiting for you!” In one section, he wrote:
“We do not say [“I have been waiting for you!”] to each other when there is no friendship or love involved. It makes us recognise friends and loved ones: they wait for each other, they consider the other’s presence, they become impatient or distrustful when the other does not show up, the absence of the other at an appointment hurts. When friendship or love cools, waiting for each other disappears. Appointments become more business-like. Waiting becomes less personal and less emotional. Do you want to know who your friends are or who loves you? This question is the test. Who would say to me now, ‘I have been waiting for you!’?”
What do I read in these letters which make them worthwhile for LGBT Catholics, their families, and advocates?
First, Archbishop Coleridge’s call for Advent as a “special time of listening” which can lead to shifts in Catholic leader’s language and church structures, is the favored mode of Pope Francis. This method is the dialogue for which Vatican II yearned, and it is the primary way forward on LGBT equality in the church. Listening in authentic encounters opens people to one another’s realities, and it can overcome the hardness of church leaders who speak abstractly, and therefore harshly at times, about sexual and gender diverse people. While Archbishop Coleridge has, for instance, condemned marriage equality in the past, what is more important is his firm understanding that the church must exhibit mercy and practice reconciliation.
Second, Bishop Bonny’s reflection on waiting–both how we wait for one another as human beings and how God waits for us–is applicable to issues of gender and sexuality in the church. Waiting signifies love and concern, the love that LGBT Catholics and their families have exhibited by waiting for church leaders to catch up on contemporary knowledge and be more faithful to the Gospel by being more inclusive. But waiting is not forever, and impatience and distrust can develop when someone does not show up or when their failure to be present causes hurt. How long can Catholic leaders expect their siblings in Christ to wait around for dialogue and for inclusion, especially when harm is actively done?
I close with words from Claretian Fr. John Molyneux, the editor-in-chief of U.S. Catholic, who in his own Advent reflection:
“What a way to begin Advent: announcing the truth that Jesus has come for all people. James Joyce famously described the church as ‘Here Comes Everybody.’ And yet recent events have brought to light divisions within our country, our church, our families, and across the world. Words like ‘nationalism’ and ‘tribalism’ are being bandied about.
“Perhaps this Advent we can reflect on what each of us is called to as a member of this catholic (small c) church. Am I a Catholic who longs to be more catholic? When I sing, ‘All Are Welcome!’ do I mean it?”
If you would like to read more spiritual reflections, I would point out Bondings 2.0’s reflection series on the Sunday Mass readings each week, which this year comes from LGBT theologians and pastoral workers studying at Boston College. You can find the reflections here.
–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 3, 2016