A time for everything under heaven

The beauty of our multi-faceted faith is the symbiosis and interconnectedness of these three pillars of faith, as well as the layers of social justice, doctrine and dogma.

Nov 11, 2022

                               Word In Progress Karen Michaela Tan 

My teen sidled up to me after Communion and whispered, “Did the kid behind us kick you?” To my affirmative, the progeny said, “He kicked me too! But I found a way to make him stop.” At my raised eyebrow, she said gleefully, “I kicked back. Hard.”

Moments like these are where I find myself in a catechetical quandary. As my child’s first and forever faith formator, I should talk about tolerance, and turning the other cheek. I should use the opportunity to shine a greater spotlight on how Jesus hung uncomplaining on the cross, scorning not, neither berating, His tormentors.

And yet, sometimes bad behaviour and bullies are made in church because of the wrong call to turn the other cheek. How many times have we sat in parish or ministry meetings which have been dominated by a pushy member who insists that his way is the best, and most church-correct? How many times have we had the Catechism of the Catholic Church by-rules rubbed into our faces by people who read that big green book not to understand the faith, but to use its legalese against us, while most of us just keep it around because it is big and cockroach-threatening?

So many of us know at least one person who has sat in a community position for so long that they can recite the tenure of every single chairperson (and recall each one’s missteps). A person who, by virtue of making themselves indispensable by knowing all the standard operational procedures that go into booking church halls for events, forms to fill to request the loan of gas stoves for fund-raisers etc, also gives himself/herself the misplaced belief that he/she knows best, always?

These people whom we acquiesce to, in order to keep the peace because we are ‘good’ Catholics, are Human Resource nightmares in the corporate world, and bullies in the unconventional sense.

Because the command ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ and Luke 6:29 “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them” is used so arbitrarily and bandied about with no real-life context, the ‘good’ Catholic suffers and seethes while muttering through clenched teeth, “We must pray for him.”

Leadership in the Church is by and large a thankless job. Long-serving (and long-suffering) BEC coordinators don’t get pay increments (or pay!). Nor is there a gold watch at the end of their service.
These selfless men and women do what they do because they believe in charisms, and they live the Gospel admonishment of Matthew 28:19-20, to go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all things that God commanded them to.

While I do not suggest that service to church, community and God be tainted by overly secular ways of reward and recognition, I do think that all church ministries need organisational checks and balances, as that gives members a mandate to bring up issues of the human resource kind.

This needs to be understood and sanctioned by all parish administrators and priests, whether or not they are specifically gifted in the art of organisational management. While the Church is led by the Word of God (Sacred Scripture), it is, unlike other Christian denominations, also guided by Sacred tradition and the Magisterium (the Church’s authority to give authentic interpretation to the Word of God and Tradition).

The beauty of our multi-faceted faith is the symbiosis and interconnectedness of these three pillars of faith, as well as the layers of social justice, doctrine and dogma. People who quote Scripture need to also know the relevance of the passages in the context of humanity and human dignity, and the protection thereof. Take for instance the aforementioned verse of offering the other cheek to an assailant. When we become the victim of robbery or armed violence, do you think the first thing we do is subjugate ourselves to the assailant? On the contrary, the instinct of self-preservation makes even the mildest of people cry out, flail, and strike back.

In church ministry, this self-preservation instinct is demonstrated by people leaving service. Because there is no way to rail against some real human injustice, no Human Resources department to lodge a complaint of workplace bullying, or non-ethical behaviour, good people choose to leave. This concretises the saying that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Conflict is nothing new in the Catholic Church. From Jesus’ early warning “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20), Christ cautioned His disciples to anticipate negativity from the world. The early Church saw two centuries of harassment from the Roman imperial government, the English monarchy’s assault on the Church, and continued criticism of the stand of the Church in certain societal issues today.

Still, service in the Church today should not need its participants to be armed for mortal combat. People who serve in the Church need to be protected from other well-intentioned though overly zealous crusaders who see only their personal interpretation of situations.

Laypeople who lead ministries need to be able to spot the signs of narcissist, and deal with them, and know without a doubt that their parish priest is supporting them in their efforts. A good resource to the handling of such personalities for both ministry leaders and parish administrators can be found on https://www.vancopayments.com/egiving/blog/controlling-church-members.

There are many resources online that can help lay leaders understand the psyche of bullying or controlling ministry members, but in the end, there has to be a clear policy that spells out that controlling, dominating or any kind of passive aggressive strong-arming is counterintuitive to the body of Christ and the Church that most of us are trying to build.

Turning the other cheek to bullies is not always the solution. Because even Ecclesiastes said there is a time for everything under heaven, including a time to tear down, and a time to build, a time to be silent, and a time to speak.

If we want to keep participation in ministry strong, and wholesome; if the Church seeks to retain the talented, the gifted, the ones best able to give in loving service, we need to know when to stand up and call out bullies who undermine the principle call of the Church, which is to love, save and protect.

(Karen-Michaela Tan is a poet, writer and editor who seeks out God’s presence in the human condition and looks for ways to put the Word of God into real action. You can connect with her at: karenmichaelatan@gmail.com)

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