Confrontation at Church
CHURCH IS IN FACT a good place for a confrontation. History and geography have made it a meeting point of the Germanic and Latin cultures. It is of course very much the Swjiss-German tourist town with plenty of good SwissGerman money in the bank-one had hoped to surprise a gnome or two taking time off from Zurich-but Italian-speaking Ticino is near, and Italy itself is not alone near but very much present, in the faces and speech of the hotel staffs who come for the season to earn a year's pay. As well as all this, Chur is the ancient Cl/ria Rhaetorum, and remains the centre of communication for the scattered Romanesch-speaking communities. So there's a good ethnic mix, and Germanic efficiency is appreciably softened by a touch of the warm South. There's also a good architectural mix: the medieval and the contemporary seem to be able to live together-although at times one felt one was in the middle of a large film set, for, perhaps. White Horse Inn, and half expected to be greeted by Joe Locke.
Not that the events of July 7-11 were exactly brimful of Gemiitlicheit. That the prevailing mood was crisp, not to say sharp, was mainly due, I suppose, to the irritations caused by two groups of serious-minded committed people rubbing each other the wrong way. But they were two different kinds of irritation: the priests' assembly were cross because the bishops wouldn't receive them, but the bishops were even crosser because they hadn't been left alone to do the work they had come to do.
Peace and sympathy
Even the most hard-new hungry journalist had to feel some sympathy for the bishops. They had, after all, planned their "Symposium" (only the second of its kind) two years back, they had set certain studies in motion, they had invited some of their members to prepare papers, they had gone to some considerable trouble and inconvenience to travel to Chur from all over Europe--East as well as Westand !'hey wanted to make the best possible use of their brief four-day meeting. Above all they wanted time to talk together in peace and quiet, to listen and learn, and, maybe, plan a bit. It was not an official meeting nor was it ever intended to be. There is no European bishops' conference corres
ponding to CELAM in South America: the bishops who came to Chur were almost by definition those who most strongly wanted to come, those who felt the need to document their collegiality, their mutual concern, with facts and figures as well as opinions and judgments. It was to have been a quiet affair, private or almost so.
In fact most of the sessions of the Symposium-whether plenary sessions or "workshops"-were held in private. Only the opening and closing meetings were public. There were also press conferences each day, and summaries were provided of the private lectures and of other documents. This arrangement while making life more tolerable for the press, did however change from the start, the character of the whole symposium. The idea of a "quiet" Sean Mac Reamoinn reported RTE on the European Symposium of Bishops held at Chur, Switzerland, last month. During the Symposium an assembly of European priests was also held in Chur. Sean Mac Reamoinn discusses the confrontation. consultation went out the window, once the shutters were even partially opened. Even so much of the original design would have been preserved had it not been for the' "turbulent priests".
A radical tone
The priests' assembly was even structurally of a very different order from that of the bishops. First of all it was an assembly of grOl/ps: unofficial organisations of younger junior clergy which have sprung up in several European countries since Vatican II. Their tone is radical, their life-style almost obsessively anti-clerical, they all have in common a desire to find for the priest a totally new kind of place in the church and in the world. There is a fairly wide variety of opinion among them not alone as to how change should be brought about but also as to the very direction of change; the united front presented at Chur conceals some very real and perhaps irreconcilable differences-irreconcilable, that is, on the long term-theological as well as political. One sensed as between, say, the Dutch and the French representatives quite different attitudes to the structures of the Church. But for four days in Chur they did succeed in hammering out a common policy on some of the issues which they would regard as of most urgent importance.
The fourth state
But most urgently and immediately they wanted to meet the bishops. Their decision to assemble at Chur during the episcopal symposium was of course a clear statement of intent, and was seen to be so by a large number of the journalists who formed a third world between the two assemblies; to put it mildly, far more turned up than would have come to report on a "quiet" meeting of bishops. And confrontation apart, the priests' meetings provided admirable copy, especially as all their discussions and voting sessions were open to the public-apart from committee meetings. Celibacy, social and political involvement, full-time jobs for priests-these are the sort of thing that make a story, unhampered by theological subtlety. It was suggested in one or two high places that the priests had "used" the press; this I think is less than fair to all concerned. A good reporter goes where he believes the action is: this is not a matter of either sensationalism or bait-swallowing; the reporters I met at Chur, Catholics and others, were neither gullible apprentices or crude headline-seekers. But undoubtedly what brought most of them there was the wind of the word of a confrontation.
It can of course be plausibly argued that, in the event, there was no real confrontation at all: the priests knocked at the bishops' door and they were not admitted.
But that would be too simple and too bleak a version of what happened It's true that most of the bishops and priests never met, many of them never even saw each other, and in that sense battle was never really joined-or to put it more gently, the dialogue never began. There were however some informal partial meetings, notably one on the second last evening when a small number of bishops agreed to meet some of the priests on "neutral ground". Also, at the two public sessions of the bishops' symposium the priests made their presence felt, and they were not without advocates at the official press conferences.
In the long run, though, it was the very fact of the two assemblies, the twin polarities of their presence-the bishops in the diocesan seminary building on a high hill overlooking the town, the priests down in the valley, in, of all places, a temperance hotel-it was surely this in itself that provided the confrontation in the eyes of the Church and the world.
"A city divided against itself cannot stand", and it would be tempting to imagine a gleeful rubbing of hands across the globe from Portadown to Peking at this new hopeful evidence of a real crack in the infamous monolith. At the other end of the spectrum one could deplore the scandal caused to the simple faithful by such disedifying goings-on.
A matter of concern
Very few of the faithful are that simple nowadays-and even fewer of the faithless, if they've any sense-so perhaps one can write off these extreme reactions But "edifying" and "disedifying" remain valid and useful words, in their real sense, that is. It is a matter of concern to Christians whether an event goes to the building up of the Church-or to tearing it down. There is of course a great deal of necessary dismantling and even demolition work going on at present, much of it with planning permission from Vatican II. And indeed a good deal of what might appear to be demolition is only an overdue removal of scaffolding, a stripping of tasteless plasterwork to reveal the living stone. But it is sometimes difficult to distinguish this positive activity from the negatively destructive action of the philistine and the doctrinaire.
Representative or not?
It would be a pity if the Chur confrontation were read in sharp terms of either preservationist bishops verSl/S vandal-priests or else reactionary landlords standing in the way of the building of the New City. In point of fact what underlay the irritation of men of concern on both sides is that both sides had basically the same concern. The problem of the priest to-day was selected by the bishops as the theme of their symposium long before the priest-groups decided to come to Chur-surely, they felt, priests should be the very last to sabotage a discussion on this question. . . But on their side the priests took the line that their problems could not be usefully considered by bishops alone-that only a real dialogue between the two orders could produce a meaningful discussion, let alone attempt to arrive at solutions. To which the bishops' reply was that even if this were true the priests at Chur were in no way representative of the thinking and the attitudes of the European priesthood as a whole. "But your symposium isn't representative either" retorted the priests. . .
That there is a crisis in the priesthood in many countries was common ground to both assemblies. Vocation statistics, including student drop-out, as well as laicisation figures are undoubtedly patient of more sophisticated analysis than they have so far usually received but the broad lines of the story are all too clear Neither can any one doubt the existence of a widespread malaise or uncertainty of functionidentity-"What am I for?" is the question which on varying levels of subtlety appears to be agitating the younger clergy.
A minefield of faith and morals
It has been well said that the wor1d sets the agenda for the church and it would be too much to hope (even if it were a question of "hope") that the technological and sociological upheavals of our time should leave the Church untouched. And the priest who in any reading of his functions must be always at the crisis-points of these upheavals is unlikely to come through unscathedif he does it speaks ill for his sensitivity not to mention his pastoral awareness. The problems exist and the call for at least provisional solutions is urgent.
Furthermore only a fool wouldsuggest that any honest examination of the priests' crisis could be conducted in a vacuum. To move in this area at all is to pick one's way through a minefield of faith and morals: the wonder is that the explosions are not more frequent and the casualties not heavier even than they are.
This also has to be said. Over and over again at Chur, in conversations with both bishops and priests one had a curious sense of "I have been here before". What it boiled down to, I think, is this: one of the great problems of contemporary communication among men of good will and intelligence is a crystallisation, a hardening not so much of attitudes as of language representing two kinds of vision of social change. It would be wrong I think to simplify it in terms of reform versus revolution, it would be equally misleading to invoke the "generation-gap". Gap there is, but I can't see it as just between agegroups-although age is undoubtedly a factor: the revolutionaries of Paris '68 were split down the middle, but not just on a basis of age-groups.
Language and understanding
To speak of a difference of langl/age may appear superficial, but I use the word advisedly as including a whole range of relevant factors from community reference to style. The difficulty is not one which has manifested itself only in our time: many such moments of mutual incomprehension, among men basically dedicated to the same aims, have occurred in history. But the tempo of change to-day has sharpened this prob1em as it has so many others.
During the Vatican Council it was a common cliche among the trattoria theologians that there were stormy days ahead and that things would get worse
before they got better. Nobody really worried, because the prospect of change, even radical change, carries with it a euphoria that takes little account of the untidiness, the antipathies, the frustrations, the broken bones that are inevitably going to be part of the price of renewal. It is easy to speak of the Pilgrim Church-the phrase is a fine one and suggests a noble vision. But pilgrimages are never comfortable and the over-night stops are often subject to confusion, bad temper and noisy people in the next room.
If Chur was a bit like that nobody should be really surprised. Maybe the next stop will be more satisfactory in some ways: a little language study might help But there are bound to be further problems.