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A Church with the Courage to Listen…and Change

By: Cristina Lledo Gomez

Have I the courage to change? Have I the courage to change? Have I the courage to change today?” sings Pink in her Hurts 2B Human album from 2019. Pink goes onto sing about the demands of change: a painful uphill climb, a vulnerability to disappointment, an openness to new possibilities, the personal responsibility in change, an acceptance of limitations, and yet the need to try to change anyway—today, not tomorrow. Pink was one of Gerard Mannion’s favorite musicians because she could incisively articulate human frailty and struggle, complex human relationships, and hope against hope in the midst of incredible human failures.

We as church would do well to attend to Pink’s questions. In the era of Pope Francis, reform is at the forefront of his agenda—and listening, dialogue, and synodality are the keywords of the day. They are keywords taken on board by churches as they themselves undergo the processes of reform, like Vatican II, seeking an aggiornamento via a ressourcement.

But do churches really apprehend what authentic listening and dialogue entails? What real walking with the other, syn-hodos, requires? It means at the outset, listening to the other on their own terms rather than our own. It means being prepared to hear something that does not agree with our own worldview, experience, and background, and taking what we hear seriously. It’s also being prepared to hear that we have completely misunderstood the other, unfairly judged them, made assumptions about them, or wronged them in some way. Ultimately, it is being prepared to value the teaching of the imago Dei, that each person is made in the image of God and therefore has an inviolable dignity equal to our own and demanding our respect.

Two groups of people come to mind when I think about the failure of church leaders to make space for dialogue with the marginalized: indigenous peoples and women. I am particularly speaking from my own experience within the Catholic Church. First on the indigenous, I have worked in spaces where the indigenous are given a platform to speak—not in a way suited to their customs but rather according to the structure and timetable of the people who claim to seek dialogue with them. While indigenous peoples take a long time to deliberate over issues because relationship building is their priority before all else, Christian institutions can become impatient and judgmental, because in their minds the ways of the First Peoples can often be inefficient, disorganized, and unstructured. And yet for the First Peoples, these ways are natural means of relating and respecting each other, prioritizing the spirit and connections of the group over a quick resolution.

I have also heard from Australia’s First Peoples how being asked to do the acknowledgement of country (a traditional act of recognizing the original inhabitants of the land at the start of public gatherings) can become an act of tokenism. Aborigines say it is tokenism when they are called to make such acknowledgements but are never invited to voice any of their concerns which may unsettle the audience. They say when the “white” leader of an institution makes the acknowledgement of country at the start of their gatherings, it becomes prophetic because it is the white person acknowledging the black person. As some of the Aborigines I have spoken to have shared: “Why should a black person acknowledge another black person? Black people already see each other.” In theological terms, black people are not necessarily seen as the imago Dei, as those often in power, white people, see themselves. When this perception is communicated to “white” leaders, I have seen some of them react bitterly and with judgement, calling the Aborigines ungrateful since the Christian institution is providing them a space to “appear.” Black people are not allowed to appear on their own terms, but only on the terms of the institution. If the Church is actually committed to change, to reform, it must be prepared to hear Aboriginal Peoples on their own terms and without filter.

In a similar way, women can only appear in the Catholic Church according to the terms set by the patriarchal Church. They may be allowed on pastoral councils; on the altar as special eucharistic ministers; as readers and senior servers; as pastoral associates in parishes, schools and universities; and even as principals, chancellors, and chairs of councils. But they can never become deacons, priests, bishops, and cardinals and only in a very limited way can participate in official governance (through public juridic persons). They may not attend synods and ecumenical councils with a deliberative vote. The hierarchy does not admit the absurdity of holding a synod on families (the synod that led to the publication of Amoris Laetitia) when not a single woman or married person had voting rights. It is as ridiculous as presenting a panel on women without a single woman on the panel.

Women are ignored when they state that using male-exclusive language in the liturgy and official church documents are detrimental for themselves and the church. If the liturgy as ritual is formative, then what is communicated to participants, over time, is that the male is norm, that God is male, and even that the male is God. Internationally, one of the most concerning issues is domestic violence. It is fueled by misogyny and by the church’s own inadvertent way of communicating that women are the second sex. Women are saying: we exist, please acknowledge us by inserting “sorelle” into a Church document (Fratelli Tutti, for example, due to be published on October 4, 2020) rather than insisting that “fratelli” is inclusive of both men and women.

Why does the pope ignore this plea? The only reason I can think of is that those in power are only prepared to change according to their own terms and not the terms of those who have been silenced, crushed, molded, and dictated to for centuries. And that is not change at all. As a woman whose roots go back to formidable indigenous women of the Philippines, whose lives were forever changed by white Christian colonizers who simply dismissed them as witches, I say to the leaders of the church: “Please don’t pretend to be synodal if you are unprepared to actually listen. Have the courage to change today. Many women and indigenous people are prepared to listen to you. Are you willing to listen to us?”

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