This year, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, many of us are going back and rereading the documents of the council. A while back I agreed to give a public presentation on Gaudium et Spes, and so lately I have been researching all I can find about this document, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.
The often-quoted opening sentence keeps demanding my attention: "The joys and hopes, the grief and anxieties of the men (and women) of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the grief and anxieties of the followers of Christ."
These words speak of living lives of ongoing dialogue and solidarity. There is a special concern of being in relationship and listening to those women and men who are "poor or in any way afflicted." This text points to what theologians and Church leaders in later years will describe as a "preferential option for the poor."
Gaudium et Spes, a few paragraphs later, speaks of the Church always having "the duty of discerning the signs of the times, and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel" (n. 4).
What does it mean for us when we read these passages today in Alberta in 2012? Certainly this means being present to those who are closest to us in our families, neighbourhoods and parishes, especially those who are who are poor or afflicted.
In my work in the Church, I can think specifically of the members of St. Vincent de Paul Society, pastoral care visitors, the Welcome Home volunteers journeying with those who have experienced homelessness, and members of our parish refugee sponsorship committees who accompanying refugees during their first year in Canada.
I think also of the members of Development and Peace who regularly listen to the voices of members of their overseas partner organizations, women and men seeking to overcome poverty and challenge injustice.
Bishop Brian Dunn from Antigonish provides a powerful example of what it means to listen to the joys and hopes, grief and anxieties of those who are poor or afflicted in today's Church in his presentation at the recently concluded Synod of Bishops in Rome found at www.antigonishdiocese.com.
His presentation at the synod was titled What the Spirit is Saying to the Church through the Sexual Abuse Crisis. His diocese has been scarred by the clergy sex abuse scandal.
He starts by asking a key question: "How do we evangelize those who have been deeply hurt by clergy who represent the Church?" He looks to the example of Jesus who starts by listening to the stories of the disheartened disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Dunn says the first step today must be listening and discernment. He mentions explicitly the need "to welcome and listen attentively to victims and survivors of sexual abuse and become instruments of justice, faith and reconciliation."
Dunn modeled this call for authentic listening and discernment as he prepared for his synod presentation by inviting all members of his diocese to participate directly in a six-week online consultation process.
The second step is to analyze why this harm has occurred, and to be proactive and put in place effective strategies to make sure this harm is not repeated in the future.
The bishop then calls for ongoing consultation to become part of the life of local parishes, Church councils and committees as a way of "acknowledging God's Spirit working in the members of the community."
He concludes by calling for changes in attitudes and certain structures of the Church to support ways for clergy and laity to work more closely together, such as lay-clergy pastoral teams, official recognition of lay ecclesial ministers and a "deliberate and systematic involvement and leadership of women at all levels of Church life."
The opening words of Gaudiem et Spas speak to the importance of listening to the joys and hopes, grief and anxieties of those in our midst. This is an important part of listening to the voice of the Spirit as we today discern the "signs of the times."
Bishop Dunn faces the challenging task of becoming an agent of the New Evangelization in difficult times so that "the Gospel will be heard anew, . . . and our witness will become more authentic in our contemporary world."
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)