Joan Chittister: ‘The church is the people of God — not a gathering of hierarchs’

Joan Chittister, OSB
Thank you to Barbara Tamialis who sent me Benedictine sister Joan Chittister’s address to the American Catholic Council in Detroit in June. Below is a section on taking hope in Vatican II and living more fully into the new world it opens for Catholics and others around the world.

After speaking recently with two younger Catholic women who questioned whether they were “really” Catholic because they had a lot of questions about Vatican pronouncements and didn’t always trust the institution, I confirmed for them, “Yep. You definitely are *really* Catholics — and American Catholics at that!” This exchange made me realize again how important it is for voices like Joan Chittister’s to be heard and internalized by Catholics everywhere.

Below is an excerpt from Chittister’s address:

How we see a situation depends on what we’re looking for. The fact is that you and I live in a good event, bad event time, when one age is dying and a new one is coming to life. We are, this in-between generation, the seeds that will not see the flower. The only question is whether or not in our time we will see reality as reason to despair or as the very foundation for hope. Whether we will see the seeds we, too, are planting as simply the beginnings of a new future, planted in hard ground, yes, and slow growing, yes, but to be tended and believed in so that their harvest time can surely come. …

The question is: How do we know the good from the bad? How do we know what is really meant to be done now and here by those of us who love the church and desire its new blooming so that now, as in the past, slaveries may end and prejudices may be palliated and the people may be saved and the church may finally become church and the model of Jesus may become more important than the model of a medieval system now abandoned by humanity everywhere, except by us?

The fact is that we have already been given the blueprint for good over bad. They call it Vatican II. We have already seen it bring new life to old wineskins. And at the same time we can now see it silently, surely, surreptitiously being eroded in many places, in many ways. If you’re any kind of church-watcher at all you know that, for Catholics, life’s been good/not good now for a long time.

The decision to take the church out of the 16th century — out of the character and quality of Trent — into the vision and character of Vatican II was good. At the council of Trent in the 16th century, the church’s response to calls for reform was to lay new laws and new regimentation on the backs of the people rather than bring reform to the policies at the center of the system itself.

The brave decision of the bishops of the world in our time to bring the church into the 20th century in Vatican II — 400 years after the fact and more necessary than ever — was good. But the response this time, too, is being delayed by a few.

It is being denied by those in the system who fear loss of privilege and power for themselves more than they value spiritual gain for the many. In the name of reforming the reforms there is a move abroad now to define who are the ins — the clerical, the hierarchical, the male — and who are the outs again — the laity, the women, the gays.

Yet the fact is that great good has happened in our time. In our time we learned that the church is the people of God — not simply a gathering of hierarchs around an even higher hierarch. Instead, we learned from a church alive with Vatican II that the church is indeed the people of God and we are it!

If I were a Roman Catholic bishop I would not be disturbed that Catholic women were throwing themselves on the steps of the cathedral wanting to minister in the church, begging to minister in the church. I would be disturbed that they had to go to Protestant seminaries for the theological and pastoral preparation to do it.

Vatican II gives us all the right to give God’s gifts to God’s work, and to God’s church. Among the great religious orders and congregations of the church, after all, the ideas for Benedictines, Benedict; Franciscans, Francis; Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola; Sisters of Mercy, Mother Catherine McAuley; Sisters of Charity, Mother Elizabeth Seton; Sisters of Loreto, Mary Ward; the ideas for teaching ministry, education of girls, nursing the sick, not to mention peace and nonviolence through Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin — all came from laity. …

Read the whole speech here.

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