CathBlog - A mighty fortress was our institution


The rapid decline of  the numbers of religious in Australia is so evident in the Catholic Religious Australia survey that was launched yesterday. It invites us to embrace a biblical spirituality of lamentation for a new pastoral ministry. 

For so long we were like a mighty, self-contained fortress, resting on unassailable heights of power, self-confidence, secure in the never-ending supply of recruits to religious life and expanding ministries.

Yet we have now been cast down  from our seemingly unassailable heights of  congregational prestige and power – all in the space of a few short years. 

The psalmist’s cry is ours: “You have plunged me to the bottom of the grave, in the darkness, in the depths…” (Ps 88: 6). Inevitably this sudden loss evokes symptoms of personal and community grief.

Yet, paradoxically this grief can be an enormous blessing, the catalyst for spiritual and pastoral newness beyond imagination.  We religious, no matter what our age, can be prophetic catalysts for this newness. 

The Old Testament prophets teach us that  grief must be articulated, otherwise it saps our energy. If it is named individually and as communities and let go, it can be the catalyst of profound newness in faith and action.

As Walter Brueggemann writes, “prophetic ministry consists of offering an alternative perception of reality.” Grieving, he says, “is a pre-condition…Only that kind of anguished disengagement permits fruitful yearning and only the public embrace of deathliness permits newness to come.” 

One of the  fundamental obligations of a religious today, therefore, is to learn the art of leading not just their own communities, but any faith community, through grief into newness, an openness to the Spirit.

Religious. in taking up this prophetic role, may ponder with profit the example of Moses as a ritual leader of grieving. He acts in four ways to turn the grief of his people into a positive experience that allows the newness to emerge from their darkness of despondency. 

First, he shrewdly understands the importance of permitting the people to experience and name the signs of grief: denial, anger, depression, scapegoating.  The new cannot develop without pain. 

Secondly, he is thoroughly conscious of his own limitations as a person and a leader, so he constantly pleads from deep within his own inner chaos with God for help. He cannot authentically lead if he is not himself struggling to let go his own attachments to the past. 

Thirdly, he understands the need to keep ties with the collective roots of his people back in Egypt. Fourthly, at certain points in the journey through the wilderness of uncertainty and chaos, Moses appreciates the need for rituals that encourage people to continue to let go of the past and to express hope in the vision of the future. 

An entire industry has developed to remove the reality of loss and death from our Western experience – a form of planned obsolescence. All public expression of loss is discouraged. Yet this is the denial of one of our most basic needs: the imperative to acknowledge diminishment and death through appropriate rituals and spirituality, to grieve over the loss of the familiar, and to struggle to relate anew to a world without that which has been lost.  

As Brueggemann says: “The public sharing of pain is one way to let the reality sink in and let death go.” In brief, people  are everywhere yearning, in the midst of an ever-changing world, for a spirituality of  lamentation or letting go and appropriate rituals to express this spirituality.

In re-discovering this truth, and being willing to lead people in the art of grieving in hope, we religious, no matter our age, are already uncovering the newness promised us by the Spirit.

Pictured: Daughters of Charity Diamond jubilarians Sister Val Cullen and Sister Rosalie Griffin (image courtesy Catholic Religious Australia).

Gerald ArbuckleFather Gerald Arbuckle SM is co-director of the Refounding and Pastoral Development Unit at Hunters Hill in Sydney, and author of eleven books on leadership and culture. The latest – Culture, Inculturation, And Theologians: A Postmodern Critique – was published recently.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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