Last Saturday I opened the first diocesan meeting held by A Call to Action (ACTA) in the Archdiocese of Southwark.
I began by talking of Vatican II and its wonderful documents. These documents are our most authoritative teachings. They are beautifully written, every line carefully crafted often to say something new, or to shine a light in a new way. Yes, sometimes you will find contradictions in the texts, but that is ok.
What I hadn’t registered was that this week it had been a year since Benedict XVI’s resignation. And whether we like it or not things have changed. There is a new focus which invites us to live out our baptismal mission in a renewed way.
It might be easy to assume that the documents of Vatican 2 came out of nowhere. Whilst that is true of the invocation of the Council, the shift in thinking that produced the main documents had been taking shape for many years before that. Take for example, Dei Verbum. DV invited us to place Scripture at the heart of our Mass and our lives. It was of equal importance to the Eucharist. Furthermore Scripture was to be read and studied by the laity. This last reform echoed the encyclical of Pope Pius XII in 1943. Many other reforms can trace can be found to begin many many years before John XXIII asked for the windows to be opened.
The tectonic plates had begun to shift and eventually surface cracked. The renewal and reforms of Vatican II were just waiting to happen.
The same is true of ACTA. This meeting is the result of years of courageous conversations, years of people yearning to live-out the ecclesiology of Vatican II, years of believing there has to be a better way, years of loving the church and brave enough to make a mark in the sand.
There is a story told of the early Christian communities. Christians; a hunted and persecuted people could trust only those known to them. On encountering a stranger they would idly draw an arc in the sand whilst passing the time of day. If the stranger recognised this they too would draw an arc in the ground with their stick beginning at the end of the first line and intersecting it near the end:
That is what the priests in Ireland did when they began to talk about their disillusionment. It is what the Priests did in Austria too. And it is what the group of priests here in England and Wales did before they wrote to the Tablet in June 2012. The tectonic plates were shifting. They left their mark in the sand.
Before the letter in the Tablet, I had followed the other groups with interest and just after Easter I said to my boss at the time, when will it be our turn? When will we be able to stand up and say there are things that are not right and more importantly be HEARD? Two months later ACTA was born.
There followed a meeting at Heythrop where so many people turned up the meeting had to be moved across the road. And from that meeting ACTA had its second annual meeting last September with the third already booked. Every diocese in England and Wales has an active group meeting and having those courageous conversations.
The groups of priests in Ireland and Austria and ACTA have many things in common but for me the most important one is that we all love the Church. We love it deeply. If we didn’t we would just walk away – as if that is even possible, (that’s the content for a whole other blog). And when we act we do so out of this great love.
There is another group who also act out of a place of love. There are those who believe, that to seek to change any part of the Church, to draw a line in the sand, is to be disobedient to the hierarchy, that those of us here are dissenters, that we are seeking to harm the church, a church that they love too.
No wonder they find it difficult to countenance what we are about.
In the 1970’a Cardinal Bernardin spoke out about the polarisation he was witnessing and invited all parties to dialogue with him and one another. He noted that there was a certain ‘mean spiritedness’ which to him was incongruent with Gospel values.
We must remember that we are all the People of God.
One of ACTA’s main aims is to provide a safe space where courageous conversations, dialogue, can take place. In fact under we carried the strap-line ACTA: a time for dialogue. On the website it says ACTA: promoting dialogue in the Church.
In Paul Valelly’s book ‘Untying the knots’ Pope Francis says:
“Dialogue is born from a respectful attitude toward the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say.
It supposes that we can make room in our heart for their point of view, their opinion and their proposals.
Dialogue entails a warm reception and not a pre-emptive condemnation.
To dialogue, one must know how to lower the defences, to open the doors of one’s home and to offer warmth.”
Since April 2013, a new wind had swept through the church. True, Pope Francis has not made any sweeping doctrinal changes. I am not sure it was realistic for us to even think he might. But for me this new wind has changed things, it allows the questions to be asked, it allows for the courageous conversations to be spoken. It invites dialogue.
And this can now happen in the open, bubbling up from deep within, at the surface (and service) of the Church.