On Being Seriously Free, Not Stubbornly Liberal by Fran Salone-Pelletier

Sometimes, if we pay attention, we discover a gift whose wrappings obscure the wonder of the content. This happened to me when I participated in the synodal listening session organized by Today’s American Catholic. The wrappings of technology nearly kept me from opening the package!

At first, I thought I’d lost the entry information. Then, I couldn’t figure out whether I was still muted or not. Finally, I discovered I was “in,” not “out,” and able to listen, learn, and join the group of seriously free men and women whose love of the church was both clear and constant.

Some might have termed us stubbornly liberal, folks who refused to bend to the concretized rules and regulations that others declare essential to tribal unity and conformity. Yet, as I listened and learned, this description was not and could not be accurate.

Far too much sadness was expressed. The heartache was palpable. One question prevailed. It was as powerful as it was plaguing. The words emerged from depths that could not be denied. They came in bursts of pain and spurts of laughter.

Each of us, in our own way, continued to ask, “Where is the community which best expresses itself as the Body of Christ? What happened to the blast of fresh air we had all experienced and enjoyed when windows of grace were opened with the arrival of Vatican II?”

Gene Ciarlo’s recent article for Today’s American Catholic, documented with his personal experience as a priest, offered an explanation:

In spite of the reality that whispered and occasionally shouted to us that such a prosperous period in the church’s history was dying, ecclesiastical life by those in positions of authority continued on and even today stays the course in a state of denial, as if to say, “It’s okay. So what if the esprit in the church at large appears to have wilted into passive indifference? So what that multitudes have forsaken their religious inheritance? So what that there is no longer an enthusiasm, an ‘Adelante!’ ever forward, on the part of the faithful? So what that those who are leading the ecclesial barque of Peter are still thinking and acting as if nothing has changed? So what that the people who are hanging on to the remnants no longer feel that they can mesh their real lives with what the church is presently offering? So what that the whole process seems to be leading nowhere instead of to the reign of God through Jesus on earth? So what?”

Ours was the lament of the laity. It bespoke the anguish of individuals and groups whose voices bore truth that their call for change remains unheard, if not silenced.

I use the word anguish to describe the situation more than anger, because that was what I sensed. Likely, anger had been explored, endured, and absorbed into the potency of anguish—an ongoing dark night of the soul.

This, in my view, evokes incredible strength. It empowers serious freedom and truly radical action. I felt the presence of men and women rooted in the reality of today’s American (for that is where we abide) Catholicity.

They opt to remain connected to the core of the church. Their choice vibrates with the ebb and flow of time and place. It maintains as a stalwart presence—despite Ciarlo’s perception that “the church, through its beliefs and practices, still is not responding to the need to grow and adjust with the times. It is apparently content with membership, belonging, fidelity to doctrines and dogmas, yet deaf to the voices of the faithful shouting in a vacuum, ‘I want to believe; help my unbelief!’ (Mark 9:24).”

Radical Spirits, a monthly book club I facilitate, met the day after the Zoom synodal session. We are a group of 12 feisty women from various denominations, differing in age, nationalities, and educational backgrounds. At the moment, our book study—always done chapter by chapter—is based on Matthew Fox’s book on Julian of Norwich.

For some, entry into creation spirituality was a venture into the unknown. To consider replacing a long-held belief in original sin with one that embraced original blessing was both empowering and frightening. Yet, together, we were examining exactly what the ongoing synod was also questioning. Stories were shared with all the tears and laughter that underscore truth.

We began to live . . . to find life . . . in the stretching exercises discovered when we entered the land of both/and rather than the slackness of either/or. For some, it evoked silent contemplation. Others were moved to voice their thoughts. All of us were discovering the unique vitality awaiting discovery when one chooses to abide in the reign of God. One woman expressed it delightfully and quite determinedly. She opined that it was, and is, a “kin-dom” without a door.

Her sorrow and angst lay in the reality that the magisterial dimension of church demanded both portal and payment. The key to entry was tightly held—and not by laypeople. There were entrance tests. Failure was not easily forgiven.

As she spoke, the portrait of open entry became ever more vivid. It portrayed a church replete with saved sinners living in a common union—a communion of saints whose deepest desire was to be together on this journey of life.

Another member chimed in. With her hand waving over the group in a gesture of inclusion, she announced that it was here, in this room, at this time, that we were one. We were a community of attentive listeners and active responders. We were empowered by each other’s presence. God was in this place. Church was in this place. Eucharist was shared in this place as we gave thanks for the gifts each brought to the table of life.

Twelve women gather in the serious freedom of being who we are, as we are, discovering our unity in community. We are not cloned in a peculiar exactness. We are clothed in a particularity which invites examination and evokes delight. We try to live with a certain spiritual intentionality. All of us trust in a common understanding. We believe, though the listening pathway we travel may be narrow, that its entry is not barred. All are welcome in this place as we journey together.

Moreover, we smilingly declare: “There is no need for a door-minder when there is no door nor gatekeeper, when there is no gate, no lock, no key.” What a prophetic message emerging from a prophetic spirit!

Thus, hope springs eternal. The yearning abides as expressed by Carlo Carretto in The Desert in the City: “Anyone who looks at the reality of today without a prophetic spirit finds their optimism is dead. But surely you all know that when human optimism dies Christian hope is born?”

We are not stubbornly liberal. We are seriously free. ♦

Fran Salone-Pelletier holds a master’s degree in theology. She is the author of a trilogy of scriptural meditations, Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives, as well as a religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer, and grandmother of four. She can be reached at hope5@atmc.net.

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