The Origins and Ethos of Spirituality in the Pub

1. An Experience of Church

In July 1994 a small group of Catholics gathered in Sydney to discuss their role in the Church and the world. A variety of factors brought us together. One seemed to be of particular significance – a strong desire to be part of a Church that is good news for our world.

It seemed to us that many were feeling frustrated in their attempts to participate effectively in the life of the Church. Many simply stopped trying to participate. None of us within the group particularly wanted to leave the Church, since we regarded the Catholic Church as our spiritual home, tragic flaws and all. We shared a deep appreciation of the rich tradition out of which the Church had emerged and which is kept alive in and through the Church in every age.

2. Catalyst for Renewal

Before the end of 1994 we decided to do whatever we could to promote renewal within the Catholic Church through conversation. We called ourselves Catalyst for Renewal and this is our mission statement:

We are believers who are attempting to establish a forum for conversation within the Catholic Church of Australia . Our aim is to prompt open exchanges among the community of believers, mindful of the diversity of expression of faith in contemporary Australia . This springs explicitly from the spirit of Pope John XXIII and Vatican II.. “Let there be unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is unsettled, and charity in any case” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 92).

Catalyst for Renewal is incorporated as an association in New South Wales.

As can be seen from the mission statement we have a simple intention. We will do what we can to promote an atmosphere in the Church in which vigorous, loving and honest conversation is the norm. In this way we can help develop a culture of conversation. It is our conviction that good conversation is an essential constituent of renewal. No matter what the circumstances, if we are willing and able to engage in good conversation, there is reason to hope.

3. A Shared Faith

We share both a faith in the Incarnation and God’s promise to dwell with us, and a concern that Church should play the life giving role in society which is its privilege and responsibility. The Church’s effectiveness as a sign of God’s liberating love and goodness seems to be diminishing – a development we cannot simply blame on a ‘materialistic world’. With the Second Vatican Council we acknowledge that “believers themselves bear some responsibility (for this situation)”(Gaudium et Spes, n. 19).

We also share Pope Paul Vl’s perception that “we live in the Church at a privileged moment of the Spirit” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 75). We therefore want to listen intelligently to the signs of the times and respond generously to the call of the Spirit, to participate in the life and mission of the Church as Christian faithful, accepting both the rights and responsibilities that come with our baptism. We want the spirit and vision of the Second Vatican Council to flourish in our day so that the Church can be a sign of hope in a world that cries out for such a sign.

Furthermore, as a people who are confident that the truth liberates (cf John 8:32) – no matter who speaks it, no matter from what quarter it comes – we are profoundly concerned with any and all manifestations of denial and refusal to face what must be faced. We believe that, just as the refusal to engage in good conversation suggests a lack of faith, so the willingness to engage in good conversation is a sign of faith.

4. Being a Pilgrim People

The times in which we find ourselves present us with questions and issues that demand the most serious attention. No responsible adult can stand by and leave the necessary conversations and decisions to others. We believe that we all must, to the best of our abilities and opportunities, join with the Church in her struggle to find new expressions of the Gospel at this time.

We are mindful of the temptations of perfectionism, of expecting more of the Church and her human representatives and structures than is realistic. We cherish the compassionate and realistic vision embodied in the thought of the Second Vatican Council:

Just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and persecution, so the Church is called to follow the same route that it might communicate the fruits of salvation to all. Christ Jesus, “though he was by nature God…emptied himself, taking the nature of a slave” (Phil 2:6), and “being rich, became poor” (2 Cor 8:9) for our sakes. Thus, the Church, although it needs human resources to carry out its mission, is not set up to seek earthly glory, but to proclaim, even by its own example, humility and self-sacrifice.

Christ was sent by the Father “to bring good news to the poor, to heal the contrite of heart” (Lk 4:18 ), “to seek and to save what was lost” (Lk 19:10 ). Similarly, the Church encompasses with love all who are afflicted with human suffering and in the poor and afflicted sees the image of its poor and suffering Founder. It does all it can to relieve their need and in them it strives to serve Christ. While Christ, holy, innocent and undefiled (Heb 7:26) knew nothing of sin (2 Cor 5:21), but came to expiate only the sins of the people (cf. Heb 2:17), the Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, always follows the way of penance and renewal.

The Church, “like a stranger in a foreign land, presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God”(cf St Augustine ), announcing the cross and death of the Lord until he comes (cf. 1 Cor 11:26 ). By the power of the risen Lord it is given strength that it might, in patience and in love, overcome its sorrows and its challenges, both within itself and from without, and that it might reveal to the world, faithfully though darkly, the mystery of its Lord until, in the end, it will be manifested in full light (Lumen Gentium, n. 8).

5. Working in Communion with our Bishops

Our desire is to work with and in this historical, institutional Church, freely, honestly and compassionately. We desire to be part of the ongoing conversion and renewal, part of that growing energy within the Church that is inspired by and subject to the Spirit of Christ. That Spirit, apart from being revealed in and through Sacred Scripture, is also revealed in and through the actual historical institution and the social-cultural circumstances of the tradition and the issues and questions of the day.

In practical terms this is manifest in a practical desire to, at all times, make every effort to build and maintain good relationships with our bishops. We recognise the critical and difficult role of our bishops and intend to support them in their service of the people.

6. The Paschal Mystery as Central

The central dynamic and defining reality for any such endeavour has to be the Paschal Mystery. The Church – the community of the baptised – lives the death and resurrection every day in every age. The baptised must submit willingly to the dying that alone can bring life. If we evade the dying we will not know the rising. In Him, with Him, and through Him, we pass over from death to life, continually. Apart from Him we are nothing (cf Jn. 15.5). In us, with us and through us He finds access to the world.

7. Launch into the Deep

At the close of the Great Jubilee of the year 2000, Pope John Paul II sent his Apostolic Letter, Novo millennio ineunte, to the faithful throughout the world. In that Letter, promulgated on January 6, 2001 , the Pope recalls the words of the Lord and finds in them an energy that both challenges and inspires:

Duc in altum! (“Launch into the deep!” – Luke 5:4) These words ring out for us today, and they invite us to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with confidence: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb 13:8).

Genuine conversation is always a “launching out into the deep”. Furthermore, it is our experience that good conversation among the faithful helps us “to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with confidence”. It ought not be a surprise to discover that, when good conversation is engaged, it is at once an act of faith and a process of conversion.

8. Conversation as Conversion

The very word “conversation” is evocative, a word rich in meaning and implications. It shares its etymology with the word “conversion”. The Latin roots of that word literally mean “turning together with”. Conversion, according to its Latin roots, thus implies at least three things:

  1. Firstly, when conversion is experienced, life changes direction, for it is a “turning” – no matter how significant or insignificant the “turning” might be. This will necessarily include, in some measure, seeing and perceiving differently and deepening, developing or even changing one’s sense of what is valuable;
  2. Secondly, that new direction involves a movement into new or improved relationship. It is “together with”. It is not a solitary or merely private event, but, of its very nature, a communal and social event, though it may also be a deeply personal one. The “new or improved relationship” will affect, no matter how minutely, relationship with God – however God is named – with self, with other people and with the world at large;
  3. Thirdly, this process of “conversion” – indiscernible as it may be most of the time – implies a submission to the “something more” than any of us. It is a being drawn out of self, a shift in the centre of gravity from ego to “the more than”, from mastery towards mystery. Conversion is a coming home to oneself, a movement towards what is true in a journey that is always subject to missing the point.

The connection in the English language between “conversation” and “conversion,” surely is no accident. We believe that the connection actually points us back to the heart of good conversation. We also believe that the connection has much to do with renewal in the Church. Pope John Paul II, in his extraordinary encyclical calling for a deepening of the ecumenical dialogue, implies the close connection between conversation and conversion:

The capacity for “dialogue” is rooted in the nature of the person and human dignity. As seen by philosophy, this approach is linked to the Christian truth concerning the human person as expressed by the Council: the human person is in fact “the only creature on earth which God willed for itself”; thus human beings cannot “fully find themselves except through a sincere gift of themselves” (Gaudium et spes, 24). Dialogue is an indispensable step along the path toward human self-realization, the self-realization both of each individual and of every human community. Although the concept of “dialogue” might appear to give priority to the cognitive dimension (dia-logos), all dialogue implies a global, existential dimension. It involves the human subject in his or her entirety; dialogue between communities involves in a particular way the subjectivity of each. This truth about dialogue, so profoundly expressed by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, was also taken up by the Council in its teaching and ecumenical activity. Dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way it is always an “exchange of gifts”(Lumen gentium, 13).[1]

The most fundamental pre-requisite for good and genuine conversation – conversation that renews – is at least the openness to “conversion”, preferably the desire for conversion through an encounter with others. Good conversation always transforms; it expands our horizons and builds relationships; it enlightens and enlivens. Good conversation reconciles and heals; it encourages reflection and allows the participants to be drawn more deeply into the truth. Good conversation is also a reminder of the simple things that make life work, things like listening and respect, patience and generosity, gratitude, care and simple courtesy.
Conversation, in the sense in which it is promoted by Catalyst for Renewal, is not to be confused with other forms of legitimate encounter – eg “small talk”, “debate” or “discussion”. And it is certainly not to be confused with “confrontational” or “win-lose arguments”.

Good conversation may, at times, raise content that is difficult and even confronting. The manner in which that content is dealt with will make all the difference – there is a conversational manner and there is a confrontational manner. It is the former that we desire to promote.

In good conversation, process serves content. We may, for example, have good conversation about truths of the faith or teachings of the Church that are “non-negotiable”. In such instances the conversation, observing all that has been said above, facilitates a deeper appreciation and understanding of that truth or teaching, at the same time as it facilitates a deeper appreciation, by the participants, of each other. Both parties must, of course, be willing to enter the encounter with the desire for some measure of conversion.

If the truth be told, the ideal of good conversation, as envisaged here, remains an ideal approached only more or less well in any given forum. Sometime the participants may in fact fall far short of good conversation. How well the participants actually achieve the goal of good conversation in any particular forum, however, is secondary to the fact that the goal is pursued intelligently, generously and persistently. The ideal should not be abandoned simply because it cannot yet be achieved to our satisfaction or the satisfaction of others or because the participants have failed on this or that occasion.

The renewal of the Church, demanded by the Second Vatican Council, requires assiduous work to develop a rich culture of conversation. There will, quite simply, be no renewal without a serious commitment to good conversation. Where such a culture does flourish, even when so much in our circumstances seems to suggest doom and gloom, we have every reason to be hopeful.

9. Conversation and the Spirituality of Communion

At the centre of Pope John Paul’s Apostolic Letter, Novo millennio ineunte, is an inspired reflection on “the spirituality of communion”. It is worth quoting at some length as it is not only a powerful text in its own right, it is a powerful and clear statement of the context for the conversation we want to see thrive in the Church:

To make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings. But what does this mean in practice? Here too, our thoughts could run immediately to the action to be undertaken, but that would not be the right impulse to follow. Before making practical plans, we need to promote a spirituality of communion, making it the guiding principle of education wherever individuals and Christians are formed, wherever ministers of the altar, consecrated persons, and pastoral workers are trained, wherever families and communities are being built up.

A spirituality of communion indicates above all the heart’s contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling in us, and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the face of the brothers and sisters around us.

A spirituality of communion also means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as “those who are a part of me“. This makes us able to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship.

A spirituality of communion implies also the ability to see what is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it directly, but also as a “gift for me”.

A spirituality of communion means, finally, to know how to “make room” for our brothers and sisters, bearing “each other’s burdens” (Gal 6:2) and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy. Let us have no illusions: unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, “masks” of communion rather than its means of expression and growth.[2]

In the next paragraph the Letter goes on to speak of the serious challenge that lies before us in this regard:

Consequently, the new century will have to see us more than ever intent on valuing and developing the forums and structures which, in accordance with the Second Vatican Council’s major directives, serve to ensure and safeguard communion.[3]

The Apostolic Letter then names some of the practical developments that must be fostered if our talk about communion is to have any weight:

Communion must be cultivated and extended day by day and at every level in the structures of each Church’s life. There, relations between Bishops, priests and deacons, between Pastors and the entire People of God, between clergy and Religious, between associations and ecclesial movements must all be clearly characterized by communion. To this end, the structures of participation envisaged by Canon Law, such as the Council of Priests and the Pastoral Council, must be ever more highly valued. These of course are not governed by the rules of parliamentary democracy, because they are consultative rather than deliberative; yet this does not mean that they are less meaningful and relevant.

The theology and spirituality of communion encourage a fruitful dialogue between Pastors and faithful: on the one hand uniting them a priori in all that is essential, and on the other leading them to pondered agreement in matters open to discussion. To this end, we need to make our own the ancient pastoral wisdom which, without prejudice to their authority, encouraged Pastors to listen more widely to the entire People of God. Significant is Saint Benedict’s reminder to the Abbot of a monastery, inviting him to consult even the youngest members of the community: “By the Lord’s inspiration, it is often a younger person who knows what is best”.

And Saint Paulinus of Nola urges: “Let us listen to what all the faithful say, because in every one of them the Spirit of God breathes”. While the wisdom of the law, by providing precise rules for participation, attests to the hierarchical structure of the Church and averts any temptation to arbitrariness or unjustified claims, the spirituality of communion, by prompting a trust and openness wholly in accord with the dignity and responsibility of every member of the People of God, supplies institutional reality with a soul.[4]

10. Catalyst Forums for Conversation

In the various forums set up to facilitate this, we will encourage adults who share our concerns and intentions to listen respectfully and intelligently to each other, to learn from that experience and thus participate more effectively in the renewal of both Church and society.

Learn more about Catalyst for Renewal forums for conversation from our Programs page.

[1] John Paul II, Ut unum sint, (May 1995), 28. The Latin word translated here as “dialogue” is “colloquium”. In Latin this word is more often translated as “conversation”.
[2] John Paul II, Novo millennio ineunte, 44.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Op cit, 45.