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  • Fr. John Jennings

Our Sacred Stories ~ Our Formation to a Listening and Inclusive Church

Every once in a while, I think of how fortunate I have been for the opportunity to have more than 40 years of university teaching and research. It has been a wonderful, fulfilling career. I had marvelous colleagues, met many great students and continue to hold all of them close as friends and acquaintances. All those years, have been filled with new experiences, discovery and continual learning.

For all its positive impact however, I do have one significant lament. For the first few years of teaching, for which I had little training or preparation. I am a little sorry for those students with whom I was working. Graduate school was great for immersion into the field of Medieval European history, but there was little to prepare us for the classroom in those first years. Experience and shared insights with others, was needed to help develop this aspect of the career. This has been a life-long experience.

In some ways, it is like a pilgrimage – an experience of continual discovery, learning and development. Such a journey can easily be directed to the life of any one of us. We are, like all humanity, on a life journey marked by constant change and growth. We are never perfectly formed and never will be. Ongoing formation and development is a constant of life. And what we can say about our life, we can also say about the faith that we hold.

The Gospel writer, Matthew highlights this need for constant growth as he presents Jesus speaking to the crowds around him, and his disciples (Matt 23:1-12). He points out that their own experts in the Law, the scribes and the Pharisees need to be heard by them, but even they are imperfect. Their imperfection expressed itself in the fact that they, did not live what they taught.

If we are honest about it, we all face that challenge. Our Christian faith demands much more than we can ever live up to fully and perfectly. Jesus provides us with a model and mentor. As individuals, and as a Christian faith community or church, we never perfectly live up to our model. Often we find ourselves as a church that is ready to express rules and requirements for inclusion, but we overlook or remain silent when it comes to compassion and care, peace and hospitality. We are a community called to conversion, not once, but a life-long process of repenting and conversion.

Last week, our Catholic church completed the first session of the Synod on Synodality. In the first of two sessions, for the first time since the early centuries of our church, clergy and laity, women and men sat down to examine the experience that we have with church in our global community. The second session will take place in October 2024.

This first session was crafted to be a time of listening, especially to our church experience. At the direction of Pope Francis, this listening time was done in isolation from press and media, beyond a bare minimum. The negative side of this approach meant that there was an air secrecy about the meetings. The reason for adopting this mode was to allow people in the session to openly and freely tell their own stories of church, positive and negative. Rather than a discussion of theology or canon law or doctrinal issues, this was an opportunity to experience the global church and its life, as well as its pain.

Between this time and the second session, hopefully our whole global church and many local dioceses and parish communities will have the opportunity to see the report that comes out from session #1. This will lead us to further conversations for broad and open listening and conversation on the changes we must make in response to our pains and failings as a Christian community. We are not a perfect church any more than we are perfect persons, but we are capable of continual conversion.

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