Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Where will the next Rosemary Read come from?

Where are the next generation of Rosemary Reads and Elizabeth Rendalls going to come from?Rosemary Read’s funeral brought hundreds of people to St Joseph’s Church in Derby.It was a time of sadness but also rejoicing of a life given to the glory of God. There were the many local people drawn, who have known Rosemary over the years, and those from further afield brought in by her work in national and international Church networks concerned with working for justice and peace. Rosemary’s was a truly remarkable life of witness for justice and peace.The last time that I spoke to Rosemary was at the February meeting of the National Council for Lay Associations. It was her first as president of that organisation and she was working out a new strategy.The conversation that stuck was about how in the 1970s Rosemary’s husband had left, leaving her with four young children to bring up. The life of the single parent has never been easy but in those days it was even harder.Among Rosemary’s many achievements for justice over her life, bringing up her four children in such circumstances may well be the greatest. She was a grandmother, who a couple of years ago was proudly accompanied by two generations of her children and grandchildren on the Wave protest about climate change.Among those drawn to Rosemary’s funeral from the wider social justice world were Columban Vocations for Justice editor Ellen Teague, Progressio director Christine Allen, Pax Christi general secretary Pat Gaffney, Cafod director Chris Bain, former Cafod director Julian Filochowski, Columban Fathers Frank Nally and Aodh O'Halpin. The former head of education at Cafod Brian Davies sang On Eagle’s Wings as he did four months earlier at the funeral of former J&P activist Elizabeth Rendall.Both Rosemary and Elizabeth gave fantastic witness to the Church’s work for social justice. The funerals were celebrations of lives of service, however other questions arose, not the least of which was where will the new Rosemary and Elizabeth’s come from? As anyone who attends the annual National Justice and Peace Network (NJPN) conference at Swanwick in July will realise the justice and peace community is ageing. The hardcore of those involved could be described as the children of Vatican II. It was that revolution in the Church that inspired so many to get involved in work for social justice. This legacy though is not infinite.There seem to be forces at work in the Church today set on going backwards to pre-Vatican II days. Clericalism is reviving. There are those who seem set on closing those Church windows that Pope John XXIII so gloriously opened. The move is to an inward looking body, consolidating what remains, rather than looking out to engage with the new challenges.The impetus for adult formation that was so dear to the hearts of Rosemary and Elizabeth is not there at the moment. Yet adult formation is desperately needed, not least amongst the clergy. Too many churches are not reaching out to change the world but sheltering behind the bricks and mortar as the world goes by outside.This lack of stimulus for formation of adult Catholics means that the Rosemary and Elizabeth s of today are probably not looking to the Church as the place to fulfil lives of social action. Catholics though are still looking to serve. There are many Catholics involved in trade unions, the caring professions, the health service and teaching – all giving service form a basic belief in doing the right thing and serving the common good. The line that young people are not interested is just wrong. They are not interested in the dour, clerical pie in the sky stuff that comes out of so many pulpits across the land. They are interested in the devastation being caused to the planet, wars being undertaken in their collective names, injustice in the workplace and economic disempowerment. There have been millions of youngsters (under 25) on marches for these causes. I would hazard a guess that a disproportionate number have been Catholics, but they do not look anymore to the Church to live out the social justice aspect of their faith.They are not impressed with the hesitant words, if words are uttered at all, about war or climate change from the hierarchy of the Church. They want action and they look to organisations outside of the Church for realisation of this goal.The challenge for the Church going forward is how it recaptures that spirit of Vatican II. How can those young people and others who work in all sorts of ways for social justice find a home once again in the Church – how can they become the next Rosemary Read or Elizabeth Rendall? It won’t happen if the hierarchy continue to shy away from the social justice challenges and sup with an ever longer spoon with those who bravely battle on through organisations like the NJPN and others. It is time for the Church to recapture the spirit of social justice, get back its confident voice and push forward with the work of creating the Kingdom on earth.

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