Over the past few months, I have been pondering the nature of recent monastic renewal movements, and how they re-appropriate various elements of the long Tradition in ways that make some uncomfortable. Conversations in my own community have made it clear that “being part of the Church” can mean something very different, depending on when and how a sister was formed in Church life.
Curious, I recently put the question directly to some sisters with whom I live: “What does it mean to you to be part of the Church?” Their responses varied significantly. Several who were children in the 1940s and 50s had horror stories of how they were formed. Clerical culture meant that priests and maybe nuns were “way up there,” dictating rules that sometimes seemed arbitrary and not entirely realistic. Was it really a mortal sin to go into a non-Catholic church? Was it really so terrible to chew the host, rather than to let it melt away on the roof of one’s mouth? The “world” was dangerous, and possibilities for guilt-inducing sin were legion. Memorizing the Baltimore Catechism was an exercise in learning the right answers. Yet for all the Catholic culture in which they were immersed, they didn’t really feel a part of the Church! Clericalism meant the priests “were the Church,” and no one else really mattered. When the years of Vatican II ushered in a more positive view of the world, those who grew up in this environment found the changes freeing. They discovered that they were the Church, too, and they took great delight in being community, intentionally, with a sense of pride in ownership.
One sister lived through the pre-Vatican II experience, and then in the 1960s was sent as a missionary to Guatemala. There she became part of the movement of inculturation of the Gospel into the local indigenous language. Priests were few and far between, so the people organized themselves into base communities and took responsibility for studying the faith and catechizing. While a challenging time politically, this was a beautiful experience of being Church. People who had been oppressed for centuries were realizing their dignity as children of God, and were beginning to stand up for themselves.
A sister who came of age in the 1970s spoke of growing up in a family that was part of an intentional community, including religious, single people, and families. These were the years of experimentation, and communion at a table in the backyard was not uncommon. A joyful spirit of investment in the faith community permeated. Yet the Church and the world moved on to a different space.
I shared my experience of growing up in the 1980s and 90s, a time when we were told that God loves us, but were not given much in the way of solid catechesis to support us in an increasingly secularizing world. While my mother became a secular Carmelite and imbued our home with plenty of meaningful religious conversation, CCD classes were something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Generally speaking, in parish life, we were not fed on the deep riches of the Tradition which I knew from my mother existed. Community life was perhaps more a social obligation than any truly grounded experience of finding God in each other.
Because people of my generation and those after me long for beauty and truth, we rejoice when we find it in the great Tradition of Catholicism. It feeds us and forms us in ways that help us to be connected to a greater community. It gives us an orderly system of thought that recognizes the innate dignity of being sons and daughters of God. Visual signs and symbols speak of belonging to a spiritual world that goes beyond the debased version of reality we see in the everyday. Many of us long to feed on great liturgical music with the power to speak of God from generation to generation, rather than stopgap music meant to serve a handful of decades.
These very things that bring meaning and beauty to the lives of people like me, however, are triggers of trauma for those who connect such signs and symbols with clericalism that debases the rest of the community. Where one generation experiences freedom, another experiences constriction. Where one generation connects with a greater community, another feels more and more isolated. How are we to overcome these differences in ecclesiology?
I do not have the answers, but I think it begins with telling our stories, and allowing wounds to heal. In so many ways, the Church and the world have moved on to new places, and if we are to continue to tap into our call to be Christians today, it is imperative that we find a way to walk together. Community is built on a shared experience. How is it that we can be Church in the world today, together?