At the Call to Action conference back in November, the Next Gen crowd had the opportunity to hear Bishop Remi de Roo speak a few times. While he gave us many wise words, one particular sentence has struck me as off. He said something to the effect of “Vatican II brought the Catholic parish from the structure of a pyramid to a circle.” Now, I am about to lay out why exactly I take issue with this sentence. I know you are probably thinking, “Who is this 24 year-old to dispute a man who wears a ring given to him by Pope John XXIII?” Please understand that I mean no disrespect to Bishop de Roo and I was inspired by many of his words, but this phrase just didn’t sit well.
I hope that was enough of a disclaimer. Here goes.
Perhaps the intention of Vatican II (for some) was to transform the hierarchal structure at the parish level from a top-down approach to a circular model. However, in the end, I believe we ended up with more of a cone. Sure, some parishes have parish councils and involved parishioners who take great stake in the decisions of the parish. Ultimately, though, the priest, the bishops, and the pope have the final say in the inner workings of the parish.
Take, for instance, my hometown parish in Indiana. Our priest – quite progressive for our area – is very eager to listen to the needs and desires of the parishioners. However, if one day the parish council decided that women should be able to say Mass – even if Father Joe agreed – surely our bishop would put the kibosh on any such decision.
Outside of the parish, I have witnessed and been a part of several groups attempting to use a circular model. And I must say that this model has been difficult and even impossible to pull off for even the most progressive and well-intentioned groups. Either the group struggles because, in seeing leadership as equal to hierarchy, no one will step up to take a leadership role or a hierarchy emerges and one person or group of persons takes control of the decision-making processes of the group or some combination of both.
Is a circular model impossible? Are we so socialized to live with hierarchy that we don’t know what to do when there is no hierarchy? Will we always end up with a cone?
Structuring a group, a parish, a community, an organization as a circle is difficult but not impossible. In my opinion, one crucial step for groups working towards a circular model is to know and recognize the talents and strengths of each individual member. By doing so, leadership can emerge based on the individual’s gifts, not power dynamics. As for the other steps, I am still figuring those out. I assume they have to do with putting community above individuality, selflessness, and other such virtues.
To pull a circular model off in a parish of 100 or 5000 is beyond me but I hope that it is possible. It is much easier to envision freedom from hierarchy in small groups. That is why small faithsharing communities offer a great opportunity to work towards a circular model. Our community is certainly working towards this model – not without our struggles, I admit. However, in getting to know each other at such a personal and spiritual level, it helps us to let go of the individualism of our daily lives and come one step closer to a discipleship of equals.
In the end, I must thank Bishop de Roo for his challenging words, and I hope that we will all continue to work towards that circle.