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Posted May 14, 2009

Tending the Grief

Submitted by John Chuchman
National Catholic Reporter on Apr. 27, 2009

Tending the Grief

What’s going on in the Church and what are the life-giving truths that need to be spoken?

Prophecy is not so much an action program, as much as it is a mind-set, a consciousness, a way of imagining a scene of the world. The prophet’s role is to propose alternative visions and possibilities not those that are officially endorsed.

The biblical prophet had a two-fold task: First, in light of God’s word, to articulate the people’s groans, their grief’s, their losses, or their lamentations, their wails, their woes. And then in light of God’s word, to express the peoples’ deepest hopes and to lead them to embrace God’s promise of new life. So prophetic vocation is first to help the faith community to embrace a loss that it does not want to admit and then, secondly, to proclaim to the people a hope that they cannot dare to imagine.

The Loss

The first groan, probably the most obvious, is the demographic collapse of the priesthood, both in terms of numbers, age and health. Forget the phrase, priest shortage. It’s a euphemism that avoids reality. We are in the demographic collapse of the priesthood. We are in the midst of the third decade of a sharp, steep and irreversible decline in the number of ordained priestly ministers, sharp, steep and irreversible. And this is going to usher in changes in the Church, whether we like them or not, whether we are ready or not, or whether we want to admit it or not.

Less than 20% of the clergy are under the age of 55. In ten years, anywhere between 70 to 75 percent of the priests will be retired. The Jesuits have done a study showing that half of the Jesuits are over the age of 70, and that’s not going to change for the next fifteen years. There will be half the number of Jesuits serving the Church in the United States, with half of those over the age of 70.

This decline is not a shortage anymore, because it’s irreversible. To put it bluntly, priests are older, grayer and fewer than they have been in any time in the living memory of the United States Church.

This shortage has already had major effects upon our life. It has deeply realigned parish life throughout the country through parish closures. We don’t close parishes anymore; we merge them, especially in our urban centers, with shared pastorates, reduced number of masses, and compromised access to sacramental services.

A lack of ordained ministers is also causing deep transformations in structures of lay ecclesiastical leadership. A lack of ordained ministers has lead to an explosion in the development of lay ecclesiastical ministry. Yet, we need to question the ecclesial commitment of the Church to these lay ministers.

Among the questions that need to be raised are the nature of their connection and affiliation with the Church and its leadership, and the willingness of the Church to respect and utilize their competence. Anecdotes abound throughout the Church about how the collar still trumps academic intellectual competence and academic preparation and high clericalism negates the willingness of lay ministers to use their gifts in the service of the Church as a vocation, and not simply as a career.

All of these are pressing questions that need to be raised, but they will never be faced by a Church that still acts as if lay ecclesial ministry is an emergency stop-gap measure to meet a temporary mal-distribution of the clergy.

Related to the demographic collapse of the priesthood, not only are priests older, grayer and fewer, they are also sick and sicker, as in Michael Moore’s movie, “Sicko”. At a recent priest council meeting, a Vicar for Clergy gave a report and said, “Brothers, I need to tell you, the wheels are coming off the bus. I spend most of my time dealing with the health concerns of those under the age of 50.” The next priest, who gave a report, began by saying he’s a younger priest – under 55– and he was taking a sabbatical leave in order to try to center himself, and salvage what was left of his priesthood. That was followed by another of the vicars, who gave his report beginning by apologizing for the fact he wasn’t at our last meeting because he was clinically depressed, and couldn’t get himself out of bed to attend the meeting.

When are we going to pay attention? The wheels are coming off the bus, and we are debating whether the seats on the bus should be cloth or leather.

Around the country, and you can hear stories of priests who are dearly loved and respected, who are on anti-depressants, who are going through counseling and therapy, often on their own dime, in an attempt to cope with the difficulties of this time in the Church. One priest said, “Commitment and dedication should not result in sickness.”

This is a groan. All is not well. This is not the way God intended things to be.

Another groan. There is among priests, and among the people of God as well, a pervasive sense of frustration and a smoldering lack of trust in the Church’s leadership in general, and with its bishops in particular. At best, we might like our bishop as a person, but we don’t trust him as a bishop. As one priest candidly confessed to his new bishop, “We need to know if you are in the boat rowing with us, or in another boat trying to sink ours.”

Underneath is a deeper groan that conveys a sense of betrayal. The Church increasingly seems to be in retreat from the vision of Vatican II.

How often I hear priests say, “This is not what I gave my life to.” “This is not what I fought for.” Or, among the people of God, “I feel like they’re telling me everything I learned, everything I did, and even the way I pray, is wrong.”

You also hear lay ministers say, “You know, I can’t stand my pastor; but I can’t leave, because I don’t have another job to go to.” But you listen underneath the words, and you hear the sense of betrayal. Betrayal – there’s a word that we use, but let’s get clear about what that reality is. Dictionaries define betrayal in terms of “violated trust.” One dictionary says to betray is “to violate by fraud or unfaithfulness”. Perhaps the most comprehensive description comes from psychologists who study betrayal and treat its effects.

These healers speak of what they call “betrayal trauma,” which they state, occurs when the people or institutions we depend upon for survival violate us in some way.

Betrayal is a kind of abusive behavior. What is common to all acts of betrayal is that a trusted party violates our trust to deliver what we see as necessary for our physical, emotional, financial or religious well being. Now, regardless of where this betrayal happens, in what settings it occurs, or the age of betrayal, it unleashes primal intense emotions.

Among these are hurt, bitterness, resentment, helplessness, anger, fear because it compromises what we need for our survival. Whenever we are betrayed, it sends shock waves through our very core. The psychic pain is profound. The emotional wounds are deep. Those who study betrayal say that the intense emotions it engenders, as difficult as they are, serve a useful purpose. Put bluntly, they motivate us to get the hell out of Dodge.

Or to put it another way, more formally, they are a motivator for changing social alliances. In other words, the pain of betrayal moves us to leave the abusive situation. We flee our betrayer, we sever our ties with the abusive institution, we discontinue our association with the offending parties, we find safer people, places and settings from which to meet our needs.

But what happens in a situation where we are not free to flee or to leave? More complex reactions happen. Therapists in these situations speak of a coping strategy of disassociation. People stay in the abusive situation. We maintain a relationship with the betrayer, but in ways that are more or less disengaged. People in that situation pull back from institutional involvement. They attempt to create a buffer or zone of safety that limits their contact with the betraying or abusive party. We narrow our focus. We look for our own little piece of the kingdom. We tend our own little garden. We focus on OUR parish, or OUR ministry, and we avoid the diocese as much as possible.

Our affiliation with the betrayer, though necessary for various reasons, becomes loose or distant. The damage, done at their core, makes us appear dispirited.

Sometimes people in this situation strike us as lifeless. Such individuals or groups sometimes are characterized as suffering from low morale. In an extreme case, the one betrayed disassociates by denying that the betrayal ever occurred. And from that, the event is depressed, the psychic pain is buried, the deep wound is covered thickly, but remains unhealed.

One of the major signs of the times in our Church is that as the Catholic community, both as individuals and as a corporate body, we bear the deep scars of betrayal trauma.

Many congregations continue to struggle feeling betrayed by the Church’s leadership, especially through its complicity in the scandal of childhood sexual abuse.

Many examples could be given, but betrayal names a deep wound and a deep groan. It’s real and it says: This is not right. This is not the will of God.

Perhaps the deepest groan, and the most unarticulated groan, especially among clergy is the groan expressing a desire for more honest discussions of human sexuality, a discussion moving beyond the mere repetitions of stock phrases, such as celibate chastity, and chaste celibacy, and faithful marriage between man and woman, as if these mantras can resolve the serious issues that face us.

This is not a vote against the fundamental values of our tradition. The fundamental values of our tradition such as honesty, fidelity, responsibility, care, and deep affection are solid. But too often, our teaching as a Church becomes reduced to pious clichés which simply evade, hide or avoid the complex, and sometimes messy reality of human sexual relationships. Human sexual relationships are complex, and messy, but spiritual piety is no substitute for sexual honesty and maturity.

One of the sorrows we need to name in our Church is this: the growing irrelevance of the Church, when it comes to matters of human sexuality. Now this is a point that makes people’s hair stand on end, but no honest account of the contemporary ecclesial context could have met what is an obvious “elephant in the room.” It is no secret there is a widening chasm between official Church teachings on human sexuality and the actual behavior of the vast majority of the Catholic population.

This gap is not due to the sinfulness of the Church’s members.

Ninety-nine point nine percent of the Catholic population lies on occasion and the point one percent who don’t admit to lying are lying to themselves. All of us lie. But none of us want the commandment against lying to be repealed. We lie; we admit that We are not doing right; we admit that we are sinners.

The difference with human sexuality is we don’t follow the Church’s teaching because we don’t believe, deep down, that the Church’s teaching is correct.

We don’t believe we are sinning when we are not living up to that teaching. It’s an expression of our non-acceptance of the teaching itself.

It’s also no secret that the Magisterium has heavily invested its authority in maintaining these traditional teachings, evident in the disciplining of theologians and pastoral agents who propose modest modifications or revisions of such teachings such as John Kern, John McNeal, Jeanine Grammick, Robert Nugent and others.

This controversy is not new to us, but the new insight is this: whereas in the past, issues of sexual morality polarized and politicized the Church, that polarization is less significant to the present life and future of the Church. The deeper reality that marks our ecclesiastical life now is that we sense the irrelevance of its teachings.

The Church is increasingly not so much polarized over these issues; rather, large segments of the community have come to the conclusion that the Church is simply irrelevant in terms of having anything credible or useful to offer when it comes to human sexuality.

There is a new blown moment occurring among the faithful. The previous generation of Catholics struggled with and engaged the Church’s leadership over these matters, the younger generation has simply decided to move on.

And a number of older Catholics, their parents and their grandparents, have made their peace with their sons or daughters living with each other before marriage, not liking it, not especially happy about it, but not splitting the family up over it.

The gay clergy in our midst are calling for an honest discussion of human sexuality, because many now are discerning whether they should leave the Church. Why should I minister in a Church, which not only won’t validate my experience, but which actively invalidates my person?

Many in the priesthood are not going to be priests a year from now. Something is terribly wrong. A groan.

Finally, there are groans related to the continuing impact of the clerical sexual abuse scandal. There’s a tendency in some parts of the Church to insist, “We’ve turned the corner; we’ve put all that behind us now.” And yet, the repercussions of these events still hang over us. In many ways Catholic identity for us at this moment is marked by the sobering realization: we belong to an institution that failed to protect its youngest and most vulnerable members. Now this has so many ramifications.

There’s been an erosion of moral authority in the Church in general, and especially its bishops.

Our moral witness is compromised and our voices are muted on significant justice issues. We are seen as lacking in our credibility to speak.

There has been a severe financial cost, as well, estimated at over a billion dollars. The number of dioceses declaring bankruptcy is ever growing.

This significantly impacts our public witness and presence, as economic pressures compel dioceses to downsize and to reduce their staff for all but essential services. Among the first offices to be cut around the country are offices for peace and justice, social ministries, and outreach for racial and ethnic communities; those deemed non-essential.

A final ramification of this scandal is that the Church has decided to turn inward. There has been a noticeable lack of presence in a social sphere.

The bishops are less active and present in our nation’s public policy debates, with the exception of issues concerning abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research and same-sex marriage.

Commenting on this situation J. Bryan Hare, noted Catholic scholar and author, attributes this to three realities: the bishops’ loss of confidence in their moral authority, the pressures of finances and vocations, and cuts to their own national conference staffing due to these financial constraints.

All of these groans

The prophet listens to these groans and comes to an obvious conclusion: Things are coming to an end! For the prophet, this conclusion becomes a judgment. These things must end.

In fact, the prophet dares to proclaim God is bringing an end to things; Our collective groans are indisputable evidence that the current state of the Church is not the will of God. The collapse of what was seen as sacred, the prophet declares, is a demise brought about by none other than God’s own self. God himself, God herself is bringing an end to the Church or to put it bluntly: A particular way of being Church is dying.

There’s an unstoppable wave of seismic changes at work in the Church which will take the priesthood, the Church and us to places unknown, and for that reason, scary and terrifying.

The church is dying and the prophet proclaims this demise is aided and abetted by God’s own self. That’s the uncomfortable, unpopular, yet life-giving and essential proof the prophet must proclaim today.

The Hope: “See I Am Doing Something New”

But the prophet also must do a second thing; otherwise, you are not just a prophet, you are a groaner. The prophet not only announces to the people an end the community cannot admit, we must also proclaim to the people a hope they can hardly believe; because, you see, at any time of transition, there are two dangers that need to be avoided.

The first danger, or strategy, is that of nostalgia, which essentially is a strategy of denial. The strategy of nostalgia denies that the loss has happened, or is happening, and with increasing desperation, nostalgic people attempt to cling to a faith and way of life that are no more, such as the Tridentine Liturgy.

The second temptation or danger is one of despair. It’s a stance which says that faith is no longer possible in this new situation, that all is lost, that there are no future possibilities to be found here. It says, get out while you still can; take the next job offer you get.

Both nostalgia and despair are present in the priesthood and in the Church. But despite both desperate denial and fatalistic despair, a prophetic voice speaks in a different key. The prophet says, “Look! Pay attention! God is doing something new.”

Against both nostalgia and despair, the prophet proclaims hope – the advent of a new future, not a simple re-arranging of the old furniture, nor a continuation of the former ways in different configurations. As Jeremiah says, “God will make a new covenant, but it will be a covenant very different from the old.” Hope is the belief that things can and will be radically different than they are now. As Isaiah declares, “Now, it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” A prophet pierces the veil of numbing despair and energizes the new hope by offering symbols and images which nourish an alternative vision.

The Church is dying; a new Church is being born; and that means, if we are to be prophets, we need to be hospice ministers for a dying Church.


Hospices prepare people to face endings that are unthinkable and yet inevitable. And thus, they help people to face new beginnings that are unwanted, yet full of life.

Hospices do not deny diminishment, death or loss, but they facilitate the choice to live fully while dying, and focus on preparing for the new by letting go of the old. So, when you enter into a hospice, whether in a hospital or at home, you become committed to the task of living fully, even while You are dying. Entering into hospice is an act of faith in the Resurrection, which declares one’s death is but the gateway to a more glorious beginning.

All theology is autobiographical. I suspect, the reason I resonate with hospice so much is because of my own bereavement counseling experience and living through my son’s dying. That experience makes me sympathetic for those who resist talk of death and hospice. My son was dying long before he would admit it. He was a master of denying and bargaining, always hearing only what he wanted.

God will work a miracle, but not the one we expect.

That’s the kind of prophetic hope for Church and priesthood which ties in with the image of hospice and the hospice workers who lovingly stand with us. With gentle firmness, they help us move beyond the futility of clinging to life as we knew it. They encourage us to accept the inevitability of loss; they help us to reframe the dying process as an experience of living fully in the present, while not holding to it too tightly. When the dying enter into hospice, they become new persons. They begin to live more calmly and freely. They spend their remaining energies engaging family and friends, rather than denying and fighting death. The hospice aids and the social workers help us say goodbye, gracefully and lovingly. They help us to move into a new phase of life. It IS a miracle, but not the one we’d been praying for, not the one we expected.

I don’t have a hospice theology of ministry and priesthood all worked out; but I suspect it means, as hospice workers, we need to stand with the Church and with each other in helping the Church to live fully while it’s dying.

At the very least, a hospice approach to ministry and priesthood means we must help facilitate honest conversations of sadness, hurt, anger and even rage, for these are the inevitable reactions to death and dying, or any loss.

A hospice consciousness requires that we recognize not everyone in the Church will be on the same page, or at the same point of transition, in dealing with the loss. All the stages of dying, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and the spiral back and forth among them, will be present and should be expected in ourselves, and in our Church, and in our leaders.

A hospice understanding of a prophetic vocation requires the virtues of patience and compassion, the ability to provide boundaries and guidance for grieving communities, and a sense of laughter and humor in the face of the unknown. Being a hospice minister will also demand of us deep prayer – contemplative prayer – surrendering to that which is beyond us, which we sense intuitively is worthy of trust.

Being a hospice minister to the Church also requires our own personal sense of agency, leadership and power. No institution is going to empower us to speak unwelcome truths to it. If We are waiting for permission to speak unwelcome truths, We are going to be waiting in vain. A hospice minister also does not act in collusion, aiding and abetting a family’s denial. Families may be in denial, and a hospice minister, at times, has to speak the hard and unwelcome truth to a family who refuses to face the impending reality of loss.

What that means for us as priests and lay ministers is this: we need to get beyond waiting for bishops to get their acts together. We need to own the fact that maybe it is up to us to help them, lovingly and firmly, to face realities they fear to own. Another way of saying this is, bishops are not the only leaders in the Church. We need to stop waiting for the bishops to do what we could and should be doing for ourselves.

Being a hospice minister requires courage to speak the truth that sets us free, even if it, sometimes, makes some people miserable.

Well, this is a hopeful vision of hospice, this new Church is coming into being. But where is the hope? How can you stay hopeful to the question, because hope is inherently a fragile reality? Hope requires an ambiguous situation. If success is guaranteed, you don’t have to hope.

On the other hand, if failure is guaranteed, there’s no need for hope either.

Hope requires the willingness to work for a non-guaranteed future, even in the face of formidable obstacles. That’s hope!

I hope for a new Church. I hope for a new Church first, because of my faith. I believe God has not abandoned God’s people. God is still with us. My hope for the future is founded in the second thing: the non-necessity of the present.

The Church of today doesn’t have to be the same as the Church was in the past. This is not the way we were in the twelfth century; it’s not the way we were in the twentieth century; and with God’s grace, we can change.

My hope for the future is based on the non-sustainability of the current Church. If nothing else, the irreversible decline of the priesthood means that the Church will change, whether it wants to admit it or not.

My hope is grounded in a witness of past and current struggles, and engagement. We talk about St. Francis of Assisi being a prophet, who answered the call to rebuild the church.

We also speak of St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, women who were bold witnesses, who spoke truth to power, to bishops, and even the pope, criticizing institutional wrongs of the Church of their day.

And finally, my hope is grounded in the witness of other groups, who are discovering their leadership. There are many other leadership groups in the Church who speak, who are speaking. This gives me hope for the future Church.

We are about doing something new. The prophet stands against both nostalgia and despair voices that say, All we have to do is go back to, or if only we were more faithful, more loyal or prayerful and obedient, then nothing would have to change.”

These are not prophetic voices, but discourses of denial. But the same way those voices say, “It’s all over; priesthood is dead; the Church is finished; get out while you can.” These are not prophetic voices. Those are the voices of despair. Contrary to both denial and despair, the prophet proclaims the name of the Lord, “See, I am doing something new.”

Prophetic voices proclaim the hope we articulate in our funeral liturgy, “Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended.” Priestly ministry, ministerial service, the Church’s life, these are not over but they cannot, will not, and must not, be the same. The image of hospice can help us to live peacefully in the graced promise of the new, even as we breathe the demise of the old. The prophetic vocation is to help the community to accept a loss they cannot admit, and to embrace a hope they cannot dare believe.

Prophets do this by listening to the groans of the people, and positing an alternative future vision. This is the essence of being a spiritual leader in the Church in a time of transition.

This is the essence of a prophetic ministry in the Church today.

Let’s Hospice Our Church