Gerry J Hughes SJ

I have been asked to do three things, very briefly: to say what it was at the time of the Council with really caught my attention and inspired me: to explain that I think we are not doing all we can, today, to live up to those expectations; and to make some practical suggestions. All in ten minutes! Briefly, then:


What really caught my imagination was the teaching that the Church was not in the first instance an institution but a group of people each responding to his or her call from God, each trying their best to respond to the particular charisms which the Spirit gives them. Everyone has something special and personal to contribute. This tied in with the respected tradition of Catholic Social teaching, the ideal of subsidiarity. Decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level at which they can be implemented. As a Church we grow from the bottom up, as it were. And the first thing which people –parishoners, priests, bishops and the Pope – all need to do is to try to find out and share in what the Spirit is saying to the people. As John Henry Newman said, to consult the faithful is an essential preliminary to formulating what is the teaching of the Church.

I think this whole drive on the part of the Council has stuttered, and, in a strange way, I think the explanation has to do with fear. At every level of the Church, communication is stifled by fear. Ordinary Catholics are hesitant, to say the least, or find themselves totally unable to tell priests what they really think about this or that issue, what they really need to help them live and work and pray as committed Christians. Priests are often afraid to tell others – their parishoners, or their Bishops – what they really believe, for fear of incurring rebuke or disapproval, or even of being denounced to, sometimes sacked by, higher authorities. It is especially hard for Bishops to share their own personal views, or to listen eagerly to the insights of their priests and people. They are locked into a structure which is authoritarian – even bishops have been removed from office simply for inquiring what the people in their dioceses think about this or that. This climate of fear would be damaging to any institution; it is even more damaging to the People of God. And, as is always the case, the first casualty in an authoritarian system is Truth, because the very mechanisms for us humans to seek for truth, to try to discern where God’s Spirit might be leading us, depend upon a respect for scholarship, theological and secular, and on a climate of respectful and free interchange of ideas.

In my own experience, ideas are not freely exchanged except in a situation in which honesty, confidentiality where necessary, mutual respect and a willingness to listen and learn, set the entire climate. I can recall one meeting I was at, many years ago, when the Bishops of England and Wales asked to meet with a group of moral theologians to talk through some pastoral issues. Everyone listened to people who at first shot would hold a different opinion from their own: there was a total equality in the contributions sought from Bishops and theologians. Cardinal Hume had the great quality of enabling and encouraging that quality of sharing without fear, and a willingness to go where it led. I also remember a discussion on various aspects of sexual ethics with a group of ‘ordinary’ Catholics, who had never ever heard themselves tell one another what they really did think about various issues. They did not all agree with one another, but they listened, learnt, and enjoyed the experience. The only priest present other than myself said to me afterwards, ‘I shall never speak of the ‘simple’ faithful again.’ It takes a little work and a lot of encouragement to create an atmosphere which makes that possible.

On a day like today, it is no doubt wonderful to share the highest ideals we have. But they cannot be even seriously discussed, modified, enhanced and realised, in a climate of fear. In practice, then, I think we need to start comparatively locally say in a parish, or a deanery, or a diocese, and try to recover the art of listening to, encouraging and learning from one another, ‘giving permission’ to each other to speak from our hearts without fear. We need to realise how hard it is for Bishops, priests and everyone to feel able to say what they most personally believe, and to try to make that easier for one another.

I was asked to suggest two questions which we might discuss in groups. Here are mine:
1) Do you agree with me that the root cause of much of our malaise is a deep-seated fear of being disapproved of, denounced, or even dismissed from our jobs?
2) Do you agree that we need local meetings, small enough to encourage trust and openness, between people and priests, people and Bishops, priests and Bishops: and that it might be easier to start with topics which are not matters of doctrine: for instance, how to train people to run liturgies where there is a shortage of priests; our response to the new translation of the Mass; penance services; how to get the best out of parish councils?

Humble beginnings, indeed: but if the sower never even dares to go outside, the prospects of a great harvest are nil.

icon Vatican II, then and now (17.37 kB)

icon Vatican II, then and now (5.2 kB)

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