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Was Detroit a Prophetic Dream?

Opening plenary address at all three 2001 CTA national conferences in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago.

by Nancy Sylvester, IHMCTA1

I am very pleased to be with you here this evening to share my reflections on these past 25 years since the Call To Action event. My reflection is from the perspective of a practitioner. I have been a social justice activist for decades including working with NETWORK in Washington, D.C., for 15 years and as an elected leader within my own religious congregation and with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). My presentation will have three parts: 1) where we have been these past 25 years, 2) where I believe we are now, and 3) where I sense the next 25 years is beckoning.

1. Where we have been
I want to begin with a journey back in time. Whether you were alive and aware in the years of the Vatican Council and its aftermath, or just being born, or only in the mind of God, it doesn’t matter. We have learned from Carl Jung that we participate in what he called the collective unconscious. Quantum physics and the new cosmology are teaching us that we exchange molecules constantly, that we and all species come from the same stardust, that we are part of an evolving whole which has shaped us and which we shape in turn. Our history is part of all of us and we all will shape the future. So this short journey back in time is all of our experience in some way. I invite you to close your eyes and enter into this memory and imagine yourself there once again or for the first time and try to feel and experience the energy and the Spirit.

It is the early ’60’s. John F. Kennedy is the first Catholic elected president. Pope John XXIII convokes the Second Vatican Council, opening the windows and unlocking the gates of a ghettoized Catholic community. Gaudium et Spes, a key document of the Council, boldly declares that the joys and hopes, griefs and anguish of this world are the joys and hopes, griefs and anguish of the followers of Christ. The church is no longer to stand apart from the world but is to immerse itself in it. And things begin to change.

Remember. Imagine. We are involved in the civil rights struggle. We teach in inner city schools and begin community organizations. We conduct and participate in “undoing racism” workshops.

Vietnam is happening. We are choosing whether or not to go to Vietnam. We march, protest, demonstrate, serve as draft counselors, go to prison. We exercise loyal dissent in the country that we love. After the end of the war, we teach and lobby for an end to nuclear weapons and for the passage of disarmament treaties.

We participate in the first Earth Day. We experience the rebellions in Watts, Newark, Detroit, and we recommit ourselves to the city, to the disenfranchised. We participate in the feminist movement calling for equality in our society and participation in decision-making. We begin to acknowledge that our brothers and sisters are gay and lesbian.

We begin organizations that address systemic change: NETWORK within the legislative arena, Center of Concern in the non-governmental U.N. arena, Campaign for Human Development on the local economic scene, and various regional peace and justice centers. We join the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility and take part in shareholder activity.

Liturgical renewal flourishes. We participate in small groups at home liturgies. We speak the words of consecration. We share homilies. We study the newest developments in theology.

We attend Medellín, the Latin American Bishops’ conference, and know the “option for the poor” has a claim on us. We read Humanae Vitae. We dissent. We discern whether or not to leave the priesthood. We discern whether or not to use birth control.

We believe and commit ourselves to live the 1971 Synod of Bishops’ statement that “action on behalf of justice and the transformation of the world are constitutive elements of the preaching of the Gospel.”

And now it is 1976 and the Call to Action event is taking place in Detroit. We are the delegates trying to integrate the experiences and the lessons of these movements into the life of the Church. We believe our culture has something to offer our faith. We offer proposals on disarmament, equality of women, pastoral care of the homosexual, local church, and more participation in decision-making. We believe that the official church leaders will engage us as adults and listen to our experience of the local U.S. church. And we do it in a way that engages all of us in a more democratic process of discussion and decision-making. We are full of hope.

We become skeptical, for within weeks of the event the office of implementation closes due to insufficient funding. The formal procedures and list of resolutions passed fail to include the supported endorsements of the women’s Equal Rights Amendment. We begin the Call To Action organization to keep alive the vision and the power of this experience.

Now come back to the present, to this space for a moment. It was a fast trip back in time but I hope you could feel the incredible life that was surging in us and in the culture at that time. Let me say here that I am emphasizing the positive insights of the movements. I know there are aspects of our culture that need to be challenged and critiqued but that is for another talk. I want to offer that the 1976 Call to Action was one of the first public moments when we danced the intricate dance of culture and faith, the dance set to music by Gaudium et Spes. We took seriously the challenges of the Vatican Council. We left the insular world of ocallur childhood Catholicism and engaged the political, social and cultural movements of our day. We chose to integrate our learnings into the life of our church, believing it would contribute to the building up of the church universal. I believe we continue to do that today, and it significantly affects our current journey in church and society.

The journey inward
But before we look at where we are now, I need us to take part in another remembering. For as we were engaging in the more public, political movements of our day, there was another journey many embarked upon. That is the journey inward, sharing in the more personal, psychological, spiritual, theological movements of our time. I want to specifically thank the Call To Action organization and all the men and women who have addressed these conferences through the years. For many, this was the place where we could hear and learn from the theologians and practitioners, men and women, who had taken seriously their own inner work as well as their academic discipline. For I believe it is in the integration of the insights and learnings of these movements and the call for structural systemic change with our faith that causes distress among some of the Vatican officials.

The feminist journey
This trip back in time will be gender specific. Let me first acknowledge all the men among us who have searched for the feminine within themselves. For you this journey will be easier. But I invite all men here to sit within a woman’s skin and listen from that perspective. I believe that the feminist journey is critical to understanding our situation today and that it is illustrative of the other insights being gained by both women and men during this time.

Again, remember. Imagine. We read feminist scholars and discover the connections among class, race, and gender. Patriarchy reveals a worldview, a paradigm rooted in domination-submission patterns of relating. Male is superior to female. In history, men owned and controlled their wives, children, animals, property, slaves, etc. Men’s ways became normative and in the 20th century the norm is white, Anglo-Saxon, Western European male. We come to realize that this reality is manmade and needs to be transformed. We begin to see how skewed a worldview is when it reflects only half of the human species. We discover that the values women are socialized into are values that our society needs as well as our male children. These are the values of compassion, mutuality, cooperation, creativity, diversity and inclusivity. We begin to trust our own experience. We love our bodies for the first time. We discover that sexuality is pleasurable and positive and not only for procreation. We begin to see the power of emotions and the importance of right relationships.

Feminist theologians apply this analysis to the church and to our faith. We see the patriarchy in our church and how it influences the interpretation of our tradition. We engage in a quest for God and begin to understand the power of language and symbol. We reject the notion that God was made in the image and likeness of man alone, and discover a God far greater than we ever knew was possible. We remember a time when cultures worshipped the Goddess and knew nature and earth reflected the divine. We realize how closely connected the female is to the earth and to other creatures and we begin to see our connections to the wider universe. We begin to wonder whether humans are the center of it all. We engage in rituals reflecting our experience, our struggles and joys. We claim our role in history and our role as moral agents capable of ethical decision-making. We deepen our spirituality and know ourselves in our full personhood, capable of exercising every role in the church. We unmask the blindness of patriarchy and continue to name ourselves church. We want to integrate these revelations and contribute to the building up of the church universal.

Return again to the present. What I think is significant is that as women engaged their own psychological and spiritual development from a feminist perspective, we began to see with new eyes. We experienced the immanence of God in new ways. We saw ourselves as mature adults. We saw that the issues of greatest controversy in the church were linked to women and sexuality. We saw how patriarchy permeates the articulation and interpretation of dogma and tradition as well as influencing the political and economic structures and systems. We called for a radical transformation, a going back to our roots, as our path of fidelity. And gratefully, men were calling for that and joining us as well.

Our dance became more complex. Our faith not only integrated the social, political and economic movements of our time, but also engaged the spiritual, psychological and feminist movements. All became part of the dance of integration.

For a while, we felt as if everyone was dancing to the same music and enjoying themselves. The bishops of this country spoke out on the critical justice issues of peace and the economy.

Theologians – male, female, feminist, womanist, eco-feminist, Asian, North and South American, African, European and Aboriginal – explore the emerging insights of these movements and engage our tradition breaking new ground and returning us to our roots. We “meet Jesus for the first time” and explore scripture and the dogmas of our church from these new and diverse perspectives. And we who are members of Call To Action continue to engage with the best of them and with each other forming church.

Now I want to talk about where we are now. Look around for a moment and see the faces of the women and men travelling with you and with whom you will shape the future.

2. Where we are now
Where are we now in our shared journey? Sometime within the last ten or 15 years something began to shift. We started hearing different music and our dance no longer flowed. What we had experienced and the dance we had learned – free form and creative-became a threat to some Vatican officials.

We are all aware of the various actions, statements, condemnations, threats, rules and regulations that have been initiated and implemented by those who adhere to the current Vatican perspective. It is as if the music, the dance of culture and faith, has become too dangerous.

I have personally experienced this during these past three years when I have served in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Attending the U.S. Bishops’ meetings and making annual visits to the congregations in Rome have put me up close and personal with the hierarchy. I have met the human face of the institution. There are U.S. bishops who don’t feel listened to by Rome. They, too, are under surveillance and are trying to discern their path of fidelity. In Rome, I have come to realize that all of us – on both sides of the Atlantic – have a desire to be faithful to our tradition and to our experience.

But what I have come to realize is that some Vatican officials lack the capacity to see that the experience of the progressive U.S. Church can be a gift to the universal church. Failing that, they only see what is happening here as destructive and unfaithful to church teaching.

I believe this is so because over these past decades our experience has transformed the worldview we inherited as Catholics and as citizens of a society and culture formed by modernity and the Enlightenment.

Because of the movements which I mentioned in our journey back in time, we now operate out of a worldview that replaces monarchy with a more democratic form of governance and patriarchy with a non-hierarchical set of relationships fostering mutuality, cooperation, creativity, inter-independence, inclusivity – many of the values that reflect the feminist vision.

In addition, the paradigm that has shaped the political, economic, and cultural structures of our Western world since the Enlightenment is being challenged and critiqued by the paradigm offered in quantum physics providing a scientific basis for many of these insights. We no longer view the universe as isolated parts unrelated to each other; rather we view the physical universe as a web of relationships. Everything affects something else. It is no longer a mechanistic, clockwork world but rather a universe alive in interaction, in creativity, thriving amidst diversity and inclusivity. All change does not occur by cause and effect but rather change occurs spontaneously and out of chaos. In this new paradigm all species are valued and are necessary for the health and sustainability of the planet.

This worldview is exciting and it challenges how we see ourselves in relationship to self, to each other, to nature, to the Transcendent, to the cosmos. It is not surprising that such a paradigm/worldview would be seen as destructive and threatening to a perspective framed in a monarchial, hierarchical, patriarchal and anthropocentric worldview.

3. Impasse: Where to go now?
Last year in my presidential address to the LCWR assembly I addressed the very difficult situation I found in trying to “dialogue” with Vatican officials. I named this situation as one of impasse. I use that word in a very profound way influenced by the thinking and writing of Constance FitzGerald, a cloistered Carmelite in Baltimore. She links the psychological descriptions with the spiritual concept of the dark night of the soul. In an impasse all of one’s traditional supports disappear. All of one’s ways of thinking, persuading, and acting don’t work. One feels in a no way out situation.

I believe that is where we are now. We approach the official church with the gift of our lives. We have been faithful to Vatican IIand have taken seriously the integration of our faith with our political, social and cultural experiences. We expect some questioning, some challenge. We are prepared to share our insights and beliefs. Our greatest hope is for genuine dialogue. What we too often encounter is misunderstanding, rejection and in some cases condemnation. None of our usual ways of communicating work.

When one allows oneself to accept such a situation, one finds herself/himself without any of the tried and true methods of getting out of it, getting around it, getting through it. We are invited to go deeper, to engage in truly transforming action. For those of us entering into it from a faith perspective, we are invited to trust in the power of God dwelling within. We are invited to hold open the space for our God-given creativity to emerge in new ways. We are invited, I believe, to engage in contemplative prayer.

For the situation of impasse exists not only within the church but within society as well. As FitzGerald writes, “We can find no escape from the world we have built, where the poor and oppressed cry out, where the earth and the environment cry out, and where the specter of nuclear waste already haunts future generations.” As we begin to see with the eyes of the new paradigm, we must face the reality that the values we have held, the framework within which we have developed as a Western dominated world, have brought incredible prosperity and advancement to some, but if continued as the dominant and exclusive way will destroy us and the planet.

Many scientists believe that we have about 25 to 30 years to turn the situation around before we destroy the planet.

Barbara Marx Hubbard, a futurist, speaks of our generation as the choice generation. She says it is up to us to choose whether we will continue the course we have been on and destroy the planet or engage in its transformation.

And so I believe it is time to take seriously our work of transformation. To face the impasse. To begin to see with new eyes, to enter a new consciousness. To begin to define who we are by what we share in common rather than by what makes us different; to value ourselves and others for who we are, not for all the attributes we can muster.

The hopeful thing is that we are not doing it alone. An excellent book which documents this is entitled “The Cultural Creatives,” by Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson. It is the result of a research study that has been going on for over 14 years and shows the convergence of the various movements of justice and spirituality which are now creating a new culture desirous of a just, compassionate, and sustainable planet. We are not alone in realizing that we cannot go on as we have been.

There is a new cosmology emerging that the work of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme so beautifully articulates. The universe is seen as a living organism evolving in intelligence. All of the universe comes from the same stardust. The human species is a partner with all species in preserving the health and sustainability of the planet. Science and faith are reconnected and mystery and awe are once more experienced. A new cosmology demands a new creation story as Berry so beautifully says. The universe cannot revolve around the human any more. Such an awakening invites a reinterpretation of theological and dogmatic teachings.

Emerging as well is the recognition that matter is not all there is. Rejecting the spirit-matter split of the Enlightenment, more and more evidence is emerging that confirms the realm of consciousness, spirit, a divine intelligence. Many are working toward what they call a wisdom culture, drawing on the best of the religious traditions to touch deeply the divine consciousness so as to transform one’s own sense of self.

I believe we are part of this larger global movement of transformation, and we have something to contribute as we make this journey with Catholic shoes. For I believe that as we read the Jesus story with new eyes and reinterpret dogma from within the new paradigm, we will have something to offer the evolving work of transformation.

Time for contemplation
I believe we must renew our belief in the power of prayer. I believe we must trust God who invites us, all of us, to become attentive to the Divine within. To bring all that we are and have experienced and to surrender it. To ask for the Spirit needed for this time. To be willing to be surprised in the Spirit. We are being called to be radical, to go to the roots of our faith. We need to hold the space open for our God-given creativity to emerge. To free the spirit to push us in the direction of intuition, imagination, contemplative reflection and ongoing discernment so that we can, in the words of Connie FitzGerald, “be freed for nonviolent, selfless, liberating action.” I believe we are called to engage in contemplation.

I recently attended a conference where I heard something that has stayed with me and which I feel is appropriate here. We need to be hospice workers for the old paradigm, and midwives to that which is being born. I believe that is a good image to bring to contemplation. Hospice workers are some of the most gentle and loving women and men I have met. They attend to the persons dying. They grieve with them, they share their anger and their joy. They help them forgive and they help the person let go. The worldview of the past is dying. Yet it is the worldview that has shaped us, providing us the beliefs, traditions, political/economic/religious systems that we have been part of and have benefited from. We found meaning within the old paradigm. We live among structures and systems framed by it. We need to be gentle as we discern those aspects that must die. And we must help all of us to let go.

And then we must create the space to give birth. To be there to assist the new. To stand in service because probably we are not the new mothers; we are those who stand and keep watch, creating a safe space and place for birthing. If we have 25 to 30 years left to change the destructive direction of our planet, then we must figure out how to use the organizations, the institutions we still have, to be of service to the new paradigm.

It is a terrible and tremendous moment to live in this church, in this society. I believe we have a gift to offer the church: the integration of our experience in this culture with our faith. And we have a gift to offer to society: our insights on the journey of transformation with our Catholic shoes. But we are in a very difficult place. It is a place of impasse and dark night which calls us to engage in contemplation. To trust in God enough that we believe our God-given creativity will lead us to new ways of being and acting. To trust in God to reveal to us how to be hospice workers for the old paradigm and midwives of the new.

To enter into contemplation is to lose one’s ego, to enter into another stage of consciousness. It is to be open to different ways of coming to know. It is to be open to dreams. Perhaps now is the time when we need to dream the dreams like our forefathers and mothers. To come to know new ways of being, so that we can individually – but perhaps more importantly, together – walk prophetically into the future.

Reprint permission upon request iccdinstitute@aol.com.