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‘Silence is the key to everything. First, silence teaches us to go inside ourselves to find real life rather than to reach for it always and forever outside ourselves. Second, silence provides us with the harrowing ground of the soul. It breaks up the clods of our lives, it roots out the weeds, it levels the rocky ground in which we’ve grown. Most of all, it is in silence that we hear our own cries of fear and pain and resistance, which only in silence can really be addressed. In silence, we come to know ourselves.’1
These words by the American Benedictine Joan Chittister reflect how the monastic tradition values silence; they can also be applied to the Church as an institution. At times we are called to be silent as a community, perhaps particularly during or after a time of crisis (such as the Covid pandemic) and certainly when we are trying to be penitent as a community because of sinfulness (for example, because of the abuse scandals). Such silence and time for reflection is valuable; it needs to happen at different levels within the community. The synodal pathway which Pope Francis initiated about a year ago involves a certain amount of silence within the process of dialogue: we can only listen to others if we keep quiet! Being open to the Holy Spirit and reflecting on sins and mistakes both demand space and time: many pressures within the Church and society make this difficult. Jeremiah and other Old Testament prophets in their selfreflection, often showing a difficult relationship with God, point to the need for silence.
However, the need to be silent and to show humility should not be an excuse for not saying anything at all. The temptation is strong – the extent to which the abuse scandal has weakened the teaching authority of the Church at all levels cannot be exaggerated. If we want to say something in society about sexual exploitation and the abuse of power – which are serious and ongoing moral issues – we will feel vulnerable if we think we will be accused of being hypocrites. Awareness of serious mistakes and humility certainly demand that we show care in the language which we use, and this might lead us simply not to bother; also, at a time when the influence of the churches in society has declined anyway, we might want to keep our heads down, however bad things might be. We might even
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