Conference, December 10, 2005
"See, I Am Doing Something New!"
Prophetic Ministry for a Church
(and a Monastery) in Transition
This past Monday I met with the Saint Cloud Deanery
for its monthly meeting.
I had asked Ms. Jane Marrin to join us
because she is charged with working with personnel planning
for the Saint Cloud Diocese.
In the past year the diocese has been involved in intensive planning
for the Saint Cloud metro area,
which includes two parishes staffed by Benedictines,
Saint Joseph and Saint Augustine.
At this point we ourselves need to do planning
that will encompass all of our parishes
and the plan needs to be carefully coordinated with the diocese.
Of course, the problem is simple in its origin:
there aren't enough priests to cover all the bases
and so it becomes a matter of stretching, stretching….
So you start out with fifteen priests for fifteen parishes.
Then you figure out how to cover fifteen parishes with eight priests.
But we all know how rapidly things change
and five years later you are figuring out how
to cover fifteen parishes with four guys.
And if you take this experiment to its logical conclusion
fifteen or twenty years out,
you are covering these fifteen parishes with one or two priests.
As Church and as monastery,
we have been doing this long enough that we realize
that this approach, for all of the energy that goes into it, is stopgap.
We are stuck.
Our Church needs more ordained ministers
and our Church does not seem to have the mechanism
to entertain possible solutions.
Our confreres at this meeting expressed anger, frustration, and sadness
with this inability to change.
To move in the direction of greater clustering of parishes under one priest,
while it could empower more lay leadership and ministry,
will make the Church less sacramentally based
and will steadily turn the priest into little more than a dispenser of sacraments
without the relational basis that is so crucial to sacramental encounter.
I left the meeting resonating strongly with the message of our confreres,
yet knowing that somehow we have to plan for that future
where we have to minister to people in the meantime.
In what follows I have taken a cue from Father Bryan Massingale,
a priest from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,
and shaped this conference for our situation.
A prophetic vocation in the Church in a time of transition
What does it mean to exercise
a prophetic vocation in the Church in a time of transition?
What follows is one perspective,
one attempt at listening to the voice of this community and the Church,
and one effort at articulating what the Spirit might be saying to and among us today.
In his book Prophetic Imagination Walter Brueggemann argues
that the prophet's role is to propose alternative visions and possibilities
to those that are officially endorsed.
He argues that the biblical prophets have a twofold task:
first, to express the people's deepest hopes in light of God's word,
and then to lead them to embrace God's promise of new life.
We hear the words of Isaiah that express this dual vocation:
"See, I am doing something NEW" (Isaiah 43.18-19).
The prophetic vocation is first,
to help a faith community to embrace a loss it does not want to admit,
and then to proclaim a hope that they cannot dare to image or imagine.
Part One: "I have heard the groans of my people. . ."(Exodus 3:7).
The prophetic vocation begins with listening to the groans of the community
and giving them a voice.
A "groan" is different from a mere complaint or murmuring.
A groan is an inarticulate sound. (Can you make one right now?)
It is a cry of deep distress or pain
that does not always reveal its source or cause.
The prophetic consciousness is peculiarly sensitive to "groans" --
the inarticulate cries of a people's distress --
because such groans are the initial and indisputable signs that announce:
"All is not well! Something is terribly wrong!
This is not how God wants things to be!"
As I listened to the groans of this gathering of confreres,
I remembered the meeting in June of 1974
when the community was discussing the fate of Saint Anselm's
and Saint Benedict's in the Bronx.
We have been on this path a long time
and the events of the spring and summer of 2002
have only hastened our arrival at this point.
I recall these events because of their emotional impact.
We have been faithful and we are still faithful.
We are still here.
The Church is still here.
But there is pain and distress among us.
There are groans that indicate, "All is not well!"
There are groans among the clergy and among the monks of our community,
groans among the bishops,
and groans among the laity.
First, as I noted above,
there are the groans of monks in our monastery
and priests in the larger Church.
We are older, grayer and fewer.
We are being stretched ever more thinly,
to the point of breaking.
We seriously wonder how much more we can do
and how much more can be expected of us.
We worry that the priesthood in the Church
is on the brink of a demographic collapse.
Not only are our monks older,
grayer and fewer,
we also seem to be sicker.
I am concerned about the number of monks
who are on anti-depressants in order to cope with the challenges of this time.
Many of us are doing all we can --
and more than we should --
to manage a monk and priest shortage that we didn't create
(and for the latter many believe doesn't have to be).
Many are in therapy and counseling
in an attempt to cope with the difficulties of this time.
Commitment and dedication should not result in sickness.
Hence, another groan that says, "Something is terribly wrong!"
There is among us a pervasive sense of frustration
with the Church's leadership in general
and with its bishops in particular (and perhaps the abbot as well).
This frustration has many causes:
a feeling of having been betrayed in Dallas;
a fear of unjust accusations and an anxiety about due process;
anger because of an official unwillingness
to even discuss alternative ways of dealing with the priest shortage;
dismay at having to implement changing liturgical practices
that conflict with pastoral expertise and considered reflection;
and underneath it all, a groan -- a desire --
for a more mature understanding that obedience is not passive docility
but respectful collaboration with Church leadership
that stems from our common love of and concern for the Church.
Deeper still, from some there are groans that convey a sense of betrayal,
as the Church increasingly seems to be in retreat from the vision of Vatican II.
How often have we have heard, or said, or felt:
"This is not what I gave my life to."
"This is not what I fought for."
"I feel like they're telling me that everything I learned,
everything I did, and even the way I prayed ... was wrong."
Perhaps this is another unarticulated groan,
a desire for an honest discussion of our human sexuality.
By honest I mean a discussion
that moves beyond the mere repetition of the phrase, "chaste celibacy,"
but allows for the recognition of the complex
and sometimes messy realities of human sexuality
and the way that we integrate our sexuality
into our everyday life of prayer and work.
Secondly, there are groans among bishops.
I know that for some it has become a favorite pastime
to beat up the bishops.
But bishops are also members of the presbyterate.
I hear groans as I listen to some bishops.
Many of these cries are similar to those I have already articulated.
For example, many bishops fear that they are becoming little more
than "liturgical police" enforcing laws that they did not write,
were not consulted about, and really do not agree with.
These groans announce, "All is not well."
But the bishops' groans are exacerbated by the fact
that they have to juggle and mediate
what Chester Gilles calls four "cultures,"
i.e., worldviews that are not only different,
but divergent, contradictory and, to some extent, irreconcilable.
1. The clerical culture
that is based on the separation of priests from the laity,
from whom deference and respect are expected.
2. The episcopal culture
which a bishop shares in relationship with other bishops
who seldom have the opportunity
for the development of trust and understanding
and as a result become quite territorial.
3. The Vatican culture,
a culture for which the bishops profess deep loyalty,
yet one that on a congregational level
does not always treat them with affirmation and respect.
4. An American culture that prizes democracy,
open debate and rational argumentation
in a Church that is monarchical,
that places a premium on discretion,
and demands that things be taken on faith.
the tension of mediating these various cultures
becomes evident as one witnesses the bishops wrestling
with the dilemmas of being pastorally responsive to both the victims
and perpetrators of clerical sexual abuse
in the context of an American adversarial legal system.
Gracefully juggling the competing and conflicting demands of these cultures
requires more skill and wisdom than most human beings can be expected to possess.
The bishops, too, groan inarticulately that "Something is not right."
The laity also groan.
There are groans
for homilies that speak to the unexpressed yearnings of their spirit,
especially to their young;
for a real voice within the Church
and genuinely collaborative relationships with priests and bishops,
and with us as monks here at Saint John's;
for voices that speak courageously about the real "axis of evil" in the world
(not Iraq, Iran and North Korea, but the unholy trinity of racism, poverty and war);
for an honest account of the relevance of faith in a world of consumerism
(e.g., what does it mean to be a person of faith
while living on an island of affluence surrounded by an ocean of misery?).
The deep groans of the laity also announce that "All is not well in the Church.
I have my own set of groans at times.
The increasing number of community members
who are withdrawing from all or parts of the common life.
The high expectations that we can have for other members of the community
but not for ourselves.
We live better than 99% of the people on this planet
and yet there is lots of complaining about our material life.
We have a rich and steady life of prayer and sacramental life
and yet these are a source of dissatisfaction.
I think that all of us have heard these groans
and have given voice to some of them ourselves,
these inarticulate cries of distress.
And we may have arrived at an obvious yet too often avoided conclusion:
Things are coming to an end.
For the prophet this conclusion soon becomes a judgment:
These things must end!
The prophet, in fact, dares to proclaim
that God is bringing these things to an end,
for our collective groans are indisputable evidence
that the current state of the Church is not the will of God.
Perhaps the prophet is saying that some things about our monastery
are not the will of God and must come to an end.
The collapse of what was deemed sacred, the prophet declares,
is a demise brought about by none other than God.
Things are ending.
That statement expresses the stark reality
which is often masked by the word "transition."
To put it bluntly, a particular way of being "Church" is dying.
The decline of the all-male, mostly celibate priesthood
is but the most obvious symptom of this dying.
The transition in which we find ourselves is irreversible;
our groans point to a larger picture of seismic shifts
and epochal changes occurring in the Church and in Western society.
Richard Schoenherr lists them:
"1. A shift from dogmatism to pluralism in worldview;
2. The change from a transcendentalist to a personalist construction of human sexuality;
3. A shift from a Eurocentric to a truly global Church;
4. The shift from male superiority to female equality;
5. A decline in clerical control and increase in lay participation; and
6. The decline of a sacramentally focused worship
and rise in Bible-based worship, even in the Catholic Church."
Each of these shifts taken singly is a major development.
But occurring simultaneously and taken together,
they become momentous.
They are unleashing an unstoppable wave of significant changes
that will take priesthood and the Church (in other words, us) to places unknown
and for that reason, scary and terrifying.
Things are ending.
And the prophet dares to proclaim
that this demise is aided and abetted by God's own self.
Part Two: "I am doing something NEW...."
Recall, however, that the prophets not only announce to the people
an end that the community cannot admit;
they also proclaim a hope that the people can hardly believe.
There are two dangers or temptations that arise in times of transition.
The first is nostalgia, which is essentially a state of denial.
The strategy of nostalgia denies
that the loss has happened or is happening:
with increasing desperation it attempts
to cling to a way of life and of faith that are no more.
The second danger or temptation is that of despair,
a stance that says that faith is no longer possible in this new situation,
that all is lost (alles ist verloren),
that no future possibilities are to be found here.
Despair inevitably leads to resignation,
cynicism, apathy, and spiritual death.
Both the strategy of nostalgia
and the stance of despair are present in our monastery and in the Church today.
Against desperate denial and fatalistic despair,
we hear Isaiah the prophet announce:
"Look! Pay attention! God is doing something NEW!"
Against both denial and despair,
the prophet announces hope,
that is, the advent of a new future
that is neither a simple rearranging of the old furniture
nor a continuation of former ways in different configurations.
As Jeremiah proclaims,
God will make a new covenant,
but it will not be like that of old.
Hope is the belief that things can and will be
radically other than how they are now.
Hope is the expectation of a new beginning
that is as yet but dimly perceived.
As Isaiah declares,
"Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?" (Isaiah 43.19)
The images of hospice and midwife
Brueggemann maintains that among the ways
that the prophets pierced the veil of the community's numbing despair
and energized it with new hope
was that of offering symbols and images that nourished an alternative vision.
In that spirit, I want to offer an image
that speaks to me of hopeful endings and new beginnings:
the image of hospice.
I want to suggest that prophetic ministry and service today
requires a "hospice" mind set and approach to priestly ministry.
I believe that monasteries today
are called to be hospice ministers for the Church (and for ourselves).
Hospices prepare people to face endings
that are unthinkable yet inevitable . . .
and also prepare people for new beginnings
that are unwanted yet full of life.
Hospices do not deny diminishment, death or loss.
But they facilitate the choice to live while dying,
and they focus on preparing for the new by letting go of the old.
So when one enters into a hospice,
one becomes committed to the task of living fully while dying.
Such a decision is an act of faith in the resurrection,
which believes that one's end is but the gateway to a more glorious beginning.
I know that some will resist the image of a hospice for the Church today.
I suspect that my resonance with hospice imagery
stems from a conversation with a good friend, Todd.
His mother was dying
and she was a champion resister.
She was dying long before she would admit it.
She was a master of denial and bargaining,
always looking for a second and third and fourth opinion,
a new drug regimen, a better oxygen system.
She claimed she listened to her doctors,
but she heard only what she wanted.
She actively and ingeniously skirted any discussion of entering a hospice.
When my friend finally pushed the issue
and pressed her as to why she would not go into a home hospice program,
she confessed, "If I do that, I feel that I'm just giving up
and saying that God can't work a miracle."
From some deep place within,
Todd spoke words he did not know he had,
and he answered, "Mom, I still believe that God will work a miracle,
though it probably will be one that neither of us expects."
God will work a miracle,
but one that none of us can expect.
That is the kind of prophetic hope for the Church and this monastery
that I am trying to express through the image of "hospice."
As Todd described it,
the hospice workers lovingly stood with his mother and family.
With gentle firmness,
they helped them to move beyond the futility
of clinging to life as they knew it,
encouraged them to accept the inevitability of loss,
and enabled them to re-frame the dying process
as an experience of living fully in the present
while not holding it too tightly.
Once his mother entered into hospice,
she began to live more calmly and freely.
She spent her remaining energies engaging family and friends
rather than denying and fighting her death.
She even got her nails and hair done!
The hospice nurses, aides, ministers and social workers
helped Todd's family to tell his mom goodbye gracefully and lovingly.
They enabled them to move into a new phase of life,
one without his mother.
It was indeed a miracle,
though not the one they had been praying for.
God will work a miracle,
but not the one that we expect.
I'm not entirely sure what this means concretely for the Church or for our monastery.
I don't have a "hospice theology" completely or fully developed.
I take comfort in the fact that listening to the words of Isaiah and other prophets
is more of a mindset and consciousness
than a specific set of practices.
But I suspect that as hospice workers
we as monks are to stand with the dying,
that is, with the Church and each other in hope, solidarity and love,
in order to help the Church and one another
to live fully while dying.
For example, Todd remembers how a hospice nurse told them that
his mother would have some good days during her final weeks,
and that they should enjoy them to the full.
Similarly, we as monks can and should celebrate the "good days,"
that is, ordinations, professions
and up-ticks in vocational recruitment
and do so without denying the inevitable end of some things.
With a hospice mindset,
we also can accompany the Church in bad days,
standing with it in radical, creative and critical fidelity,
without succumbing to powerless despair.
At the least, a hospice approach to our Church and monastery means that
we must help facilitate honest conversations
of sadness, hurt, anger and even rage,
for these are some of the inevitable
and essential reactions to any transition or loss.
A hospice consciousness requires
that we recognize that not everyone in the Church or in our monastery
will be on the same page in dealing with the stress of transition.
All of the stages of dying and grieving --
denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance
(and the spiral back and forth among these states) --
are to be expected both in our people and ourselves.
A hospice understanding of prophetic priesthood or monastic life
requires the virtues of patience and compassion,
an ability to provide boundaries and resources for communities,
and a sense of laughter and humor in the face of the unknown.
Ministering to a Church in hospice also requires deep prayer,
that is, a contemplative stance of surrender
to what we do not fully understand and yet intuitively sense is worthy of trust.
Few things nourish this contemplative stance more effectively
than a community gathered to worship and to listen together to the scriptures.
"Hospice" as a mindset or consciousness frees us from the pressure
of frantically trying to preserve the status quo at all costs,
for hospice accepts the reality of death.
And yet a hospice stance is full of hope.
The denial of death is the denial of hope.
Those who cannot accept the mortality of a particular understanding of Church
or of this monastery
also cannot embrace the promise of a new beginning.
I believe that a new Church is coming.
It will be browner and poorer,
more sensuous and feminine,
less clerical and more collegial,
less concerned about works of charity,
and more conscious of works toward justice,
more multilingual and polycentric than the one we know now.
That Church will better reflect the diversity of God's Trinitarian life.
It will be a new Church,
yet it can come only with the passing of this one.
I suggest that it is our task as a monastery
to facilitate the present Church's passing
in order to assist in the birthing of the new.
Paradoxically, hospice workers are also the midwives of new life.
The vision statement that Father Simeon and his team have articulated
focuses on the re-energizing of our commitment to common life.
This surely means cultivating a different set of habits
and letting go of all the ways we rationalize non-participation in community life.
It may also mean changing those things
that discourage participation at common prayer and life.
As a smaller community we may need to retrieve practices and work
that strengthen relationships and common purpose.
"See, I am doing something NEW."
This passage gives us a key for discerning the prophetic voice.
The prophet stands against both nostalgia and despair.
Any voices that say: "All we have to do is go back to,"
or "If only we were more faithful, loyal, prayerful and obedient,
then nothing would change,"
or, "There isn't a priest shortage, just a temporary maldistribution,"
or "Let's just put all the events of the past three years behind us and move on,"
are not prophetic voices
but discourses of nostalgia and denial.
But in the same way, those voices that say,
"It's all over;
the priesthood is dead;
the Church is finished;
the monastery is finished;
get out while you still can;"
are not prophetic voices either.
They are voices of despair.
Contrary to both denial and despair,
the prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord:
"See; I am doing something NEW."
Prophetic voices express that hope which we articulate in the liturgy:
"Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended."
Priestly ministry, monastic life, ministerial service, and the Church's life:
these are not over,
but they are not, will not, and cannot remain the same.
The image of hospice helps us to live peacefully
in the graced promise of the new,
even as we grieve the demise of the old.
Our prophetic vocation is to help the Church (and ourselves)
to accept a loss they (we) cannot admit
and to embrace a hope they (we) cannot dare to believe.
Prophets do this by attending to the present groans of the people
and positing an alternative future vision.
This, I believe, is the essence
of being a spiritual leader in the Church
during this time of transition.
Abbot John Klassen, OSB
December 10, 2005