Perhaps this is what church is meant to be: people drawn together, not by the obligations of Sunday attendance but by the call of the Gospels to build a better world. That is what it felt like as we listened to Fr. Tony Flannery in the vibrant art and aspiration-filled space of Viva Bookstore in San Antonio , Texas, the evening of Wednesday Nov 12, 2014.
So we embarked on a family excursion, flying from Honolulu, HI to Austin, TX to first join our daughter, a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas, and then make the trip to San Antonio together. We were well-primed, having read about Fr. Flannery, “one of the best-known and most-valued priests in Ireland, a man regarded with respect and affection by so many Catholics.” We had also heard from another family member who spoke enthusiastically about attending the talk by this populist priest in Washington D.C.
We were richly rewarded for our trek. We found ourselves in a room full of people who all seemed to want to help Pope Francis shake the cobwebs out of the rafters. This is a church in which bats probably feel more welcome than LGBT Catholics or women or divorced and remarried couples.
Fr. Flannery’s talk drew together those who remain Catholic by their lights, resisting the church’s obduracy on several social issues including celibacy, women’s reproductive autonomy, women’s ordination and full acceptance of LGBT Catholics.
“Love is our sacrament, action is our prayer”
One sign of a church in renewal was the presence in the audience of a man who described himself as an atheist but is part of a community that welcomes those who do not find acceptance in the establishment church.
“Love is our sacrament, action is our prayer,” he declared. It is a measure of his impact as a genuine pastor that Fr. Flannery’s talk would attract someone with this kind of professed unbelief but a genuine desire to love his neighbor in the way Jesus taught us to love: without throwing stones.
When the imposition of doctrine flies in the face of the example Jesus set for us in story after story in the Gospels, it’s time for those who wield power in the Church to question their very man-made doctrines: from the quaint notion of infallibility to the refusal to accord women and LGBT Catholics full equality.
The repeated calls by Pope Francis for more open speech and more careful listening; the survey—no matter how flawed and rushed— of the thinking of lay Catholics in advance of the Synod: this, said Fr. Flannery, is the spirit of Vatican 2 that had been all but stifled in the last few decades.
“Ultimately, what I want to see is the systems and the structures changing. And if that happens, I will trust the Holy Spirit after that. That is my prayer and my hope.”
The kind of talk Fr. Flannery gave and the discussion that ensued should be taking place on every Catholic university campus, in every church. And yet speakers like Fr. Flannery who bring this message of renewal and relevance find welcome not in these obvious venues, but in Protestant churches and welcoming community spaces like Viva Bookstore. As Fr. Flannery pointed out, the more Pope Francis encourages freedom of debate and discussion, the less tenable bans, visitations, secret tribunals and the threat of excommunication become. One reader, Darlene Peitz-Hillenbrand observes in a letter to the National Catholic Reporter, that the uncomfortable question that groups like LCWR –and speakers like Fr. Flannery– raise is whether the church is “a juridical, hierachical institution or a community gathered around Jesus Christ for worship and service?”
Intentional Eucharistic Communities—and the groups that gather to hear Fr. Flannery surely can be described as such—feel like signs of new life. If this is church, there’s life in the old girl yet.
Fr. Flannery will be at St Mark’s United Methodist Church in Sacramento, 11/16/2014 at 2p.m.
at Central Lutheran Church in Portland, 11/18/2014 at 7p.m. and
at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle on 11/19/2014 at 7p.m.
He has written about his unsought struggle with the Vatican in A Question of Conscience.
Available from http://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/book-shop/ and from Amazon.