Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Church: Talking Among Friends Should Be Easy

Political and ideological methods are suffocating the Church. I think Pope Benedict probably thought the same thing, but was perhaps too tired to challenge the status quo.  Pope Francis, on the other hand, seems to have his sites set on this sickness in the life of the Church.  What I like--so far--about his way of solving the issue is that he is not inserting his own politics into the fray.  In other words, I don't feel like Francis is just out-politicking the others.  He is going around the politics.

There is a real weirdness in the Church where people avoid straight talk and people speak through winks and nods.  It is not only something that ecclesiastics practice, but it is also evident among influential laity and academics.  We speak in carefully parsed sentences that imply that we do not trust one another.  Our communications often appear as though they were the third draft from a committee and had been cleared by the PR department.  Our communication lacks sincerity and lacks the marks of fraternity.  This type of communication breaks down trust in the life of the Church.  When communication sounds like it was cleared by lawyers, it makes people wonder if they need to get a lawyer!  It happens in communications among clergy.  It also happens in academics.  All the time I meet students in theological programs who tell me that they have to write things that they don't believe in order to appease the professor and pass the course.  How is this theological?  It's like everyone is playing a game.

I think this is partly why people like Pope Francis.  He sometimes says stuff in his "off the cuff" type of way that make you think, "They'll probably have to clarify that tomorrow."  But, it's refreshing and it builds up trust.  It makes you feel like Francis isn't hiding anything.  It makes you feel like there's no secret agenda.  Certainly on doctrinal matters a Pope should be cautious and exact, but that doesn't mean that every word a pope utters ought to sound like a script that was approved by a committee.

I think that one of the great obstacles to evangelization in our present ecclesial situation is a reliance on an overly cautious and opaque language.  I think the lawsuits that have overwhelmed dioceses throughout the United States have caused chanceries to become overly reliant upon public relations persons and lawyers.  This is not meant to disparage either.  But, we've sometimes abandoned the language of the Church for a more "professional" type of language.  It is a language that belongs to somebody else, but not to the Church.

In recent months, I've had a few wonderful conversations with a member of a religious order.  Quite frankly, there is a considerable amount of distrust that has been built up over the past few years between his order and many priests in my Archdiocese.  Nobody, as far as I can tell, ever tries to discuss this in a way that might actually help.  The battles are fought, but they are fought in a thousand indirect ways.  Sometimes when this friend and I are talking, I probably say something with less delicacy than I would have wanted.  Because we are friends, however, there is a freedom to say things imperfectly.  I trust the friendship enough that we can discuss complicated matters without resorting to sentences with fourteen subordinate clauses.

Plain speech certainly has its risks.  We might get quoted in a way that we didn't want to be quoted.  We might be misunderstood.  We might not say everything perfectly, but what family does?  Plain speech says, "I trust you."  In a way, when Pope Francis says something that sounds like it came out a little wrong, he's communicating to us, "I trust you and am not going to worry that you're going to jump all over every word that I utter."  

Evangelization is about sharing the good news.  This good news needs to be communicated with clarity and with joy.  But, it also involves a certain plainspokeness.  It has to be communicated by individuals who speak plainly among themselves and not in a legalese that sounds like none of us trust each other.

This morning, for an example, I joined the BU Catholic Center's Men's Group for their weekly meeting.  There was a sharing among them that was honest and clear.  Young people (and most people in our parishes) like straight talk.  One of the young men said today, "We all have our struggles and sometimes we need a friend to kick us in the ass to help us."  That's straight talk.  Certainly straight talk is different for various occasions, but the point is that everyone in the room knew he was right and they appreciated his candor.

Pope Francis said that the reason he did not move into the papal apartments was because he wanted to be around people.  I suspect that he meant that he wanted to be around plainspoken people.  He didn't want to live a life of censored information.  He wants to hear things plainly from the people whom he encounters in his day to day life.  

None of this is to suggest that we ought to give up on being prudent in our speech or that we ought to look for opportunities to be offensive!  It is, however, to suggest that way too much time is spent "uncommunicating."  We spend too much time figuring out how not to say things.  And this is detrimental to creating a culture of evangelization.  It breeds cynicism.  We spend way too much time protecting our ideologies, positions, and power and way too little time building up the communion of the Church through a communication that has the marks of true friendship.  

This convoluted way of communicating and acting is not helpful for evangelization because it is contrary to the Christian method.  Jesus' words were clear.  Sometimes they were misunderstood.  Sometimes they caused offense.  Sometimes they were rejected.  "Come, follow me."  "Take up your Cross."  "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you."  "Go and make disciples."  "Repent."  This is the language of evangelization.  But, evangelization perhaps ought not to be a language that is specifically reserved for one type of communication.  This simple, direct, and forthright language ought to be the language of the Church's business.  We might be misunderstood, misquoted, or rejected.  But, we'd be in good company.

When I read Pope Francis' recent exhortation, I thought, "I'm guessing this is the first time 'sourpuss' has been used in a papal document!"  As part of our commitment to the New Evangelization, we ought all to extricate ourselves from resorting to languages that belong to bureaucracies--a language that alienates and obscures--and return to the language that rightfully belongs to the Church, a language that draws people together.

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