FAITH MATTERS: Don’t be afraid to tell the truth
Gloria Peacock of St. Joseph’s Parish, Kilaben Bay, Toronto, was inspired by the words “Don’t be afraid to speak the truth” by Sr. Joan Chittister and talks about how this value and an ecumenical perspective came to life in his own journey of faith.
I am the eldest of five children from a traditional Catholic family in Goa. Although much of our life was spent in the UK, my parents had Eastern values, with the eldest daughter helping to cook and clean. My brothers were exempted from these chores “because they were boys”. I was docile most of the time, except for arguing with my father on one memorable occasion when he forbade me from attending my Protestant friend’s confirmation service. I questioned his reasoning, he couldn’t answer but I didn’t go.
Fast forward to my college days, I was studying psychology and Chris, my future husband, was doing a masters in engineering. I remember the strident argument we had on our first date. Despite this fiery start, we found enough common ground to decide to spend our lives together. We have three children: Benjamin, Joseph and Sophie.
We were both Catholics and shared a commitment to social justice issues: from being members of Amnesty International during our university studies and writing letters to those in power, including in the Church, who never received a response; more recently, the defense of asylum seekers.
Shortly after the Tampa crisis of 2001, Chris joined a small group of courageous nuns holding signs in Newcastle’s central business district. More recently, I supported a small but dedicated group from the local Uniting Church, holding signs at a busy Toronto intersection, as friends of “Grandmothers Against the Detention of Refugee Children”.
Looking back, I think I found my voice in college watching other students question lecturers (authority figures) and realizing that was OK! By the second year, I was questioning accepted assumptions, with the best of my peers!
Over the years, I have grown in confidence to be upfront and honest, especially when I perceive insensitivity or discrimination in the communities and organizations in which I am involved. However, I still often doubt myself: Am I being too intrusive in drawing attention to what I think is wrong or could be done better? Do people want to hear my opinions? What if they don’t like what I have to say or worse, and they end up not liking me?
In the early years of our marriage, I focused on raising the children, while Chris worked hard to establish his career. It was the model at the time. We left the UK and lived abroad, following Chris’ engineering work: Iraq, Indonesia and then Australia. We had been in Indonesia for seven years, and I taught in international schools, attended by expatriate children, including ours.
The main religion in Indonesia is Islam. Catholics are one of the largest Christian denominations, with Mass being said in Bahasa, the national language. As a result, we became involved in services in English, led by ministers (married men, as well as women) from the Anglican, Baptist and Pentecostal churches.
By attending these services, we have been exposed to direct readings from Scripture, both from the Old and New Testaments. We began to discover books from the Old Testament, and passages from the New Testament, which were outside the regular readings at Mass, and with which we were unfamiliar. We also attended regular Bible studies.
A treat for me was to attend women’s retreats, where gifted women preached, participants sang with their arms raised and prayed with enthusiasm and joy.
It was the first time I had seen Handel’s Alleluia Chorus sung as a form of praise! This faith was alive and I felt so blessed to be there, as did other Indonesian Catholic attendees, who went to their local priest and asked if they could have similar services and prayer meetings.
They were reprimanded for attending such services and told that such services were wrong and could lead them away from their faith.
When Chris and I reflected on what we had learned along the way, we realized that we had gone to Indonesia for work, but God had a different agenda for us: we were involved with ecumenical worshipers living their faith Christian, with many beliefs and prayers, similar to our Catholic tradition. Instead of a “threat” to our faith, as many Catholics feared, they were PLU = People Like Us!
Back in Australia in the mid 80s, our family moved around NSW, still following Chris’ work plans. For 30 years we have lived in many beautiful places including Cooma, Goulburn, Bathurst, Nambucca Heads, Newcastle and Maitland/Rutherford. Finally, we retired to Fassifern in Lake Macquarie. Due to our itinerant lifestyle, we experienced different Catholic parishes and noticed that many parishes seemed to lack a sense of community with most people leaving right after Mass.
Our experience in Cooma was an exception, thanks to the kindness of a couple. They noticed a new family, welcomed us after mass and invited us for a cup of tea. This experience encouraged us to become aware of the new people at our church in Kilaben Bay, which we have been attending since 2013.
We have been very happy to be involved with the parish as they have taken active steps to increase the sense of community. We are welcomed as soon as we arrive, we are encouraged to wear name badges and to change our preferred seating position on the benches regularly, to get to know different people; and we are reminded to greet people before and after services. There is a friendly buzz in the church before mass!
COVID-willing, we will soon be able to offer a cup of tea again.
Often in my life, I have felt the need to speak out about things that I felt were unfair or that could be done better, especially in our Church. In Goulburn we had a visiting priest who started family groups in the parish. He encouraged parishioners to focus on their own Catholic faith and not be “influenced” by involvement in other traditions.
After his presentation, I shared my spiritual journey in Indonesia, and the fact that my experience of worship and community with non-Catholic Christians had helped me to be more committed to my faith: “It is thanks to them that I am here today. “He didn’t apologize, but I didn’t hear him repeat those ideas that weekend.
However, his comments got me thinking about my loyalty: with the Catholic Church or with Christ? I concluded that my commitment to Christ came first.
On a more recent occasion, I shared my frustrations with my parish about the prayers of the congregants. To my ears, while the intentions were undoubtedly laudable, the phrasing of regular prayers seemed so predictable and unrelated to “real” everyday concerns. I was worried that many would just log off. How could we have a general prayer for world peace, without mentioning the crisis in Ukraine, which is on our daily television screens and could impact all of our lives if the conflict breaks out?
Like all of us, I had my trials of faith: the big step for me was when our daughter announced to us that she was converting to the Islamic faith. Chris and I were appalled, but I was devastated and struggled a lot. I did not understand why she had ‘rejected’ the way of Jesus. Where did we go wrong as Catholic Christian parents? I felt helpless, guilty and drained: where was God?
One day I was sharing my grief with a friend from the Uniting Church. He asked if I had considered spiritual direction and said there were excellent spiritual directors at Lochinvar Convent, just up the road from Rutherford, where we lived at the time.
Thus began my journey in spiritual direction for several months, with a sensitive, gifted and deeply spiritual woman, Sr. Lynette Pearce. Through his guidance, I began to find inner peace and recognized a loving God of all times, both joyful and tragic, and a God of many faith traditions. God was there the whole time, just in a different shade, and I was color blind, with dismay and fear!
My daughter continues to be a devout Muslim and I have accepted that her chosen path of worshiping God is different from mine. These days we regularly share intercessory prayer, in our different ways.
In early 2016, Chris lost his battle with cancer, and it took me a while to “bounce back” without the company of my life partner of 44 years. Our children, our close friends, the local church community, weekly mass and regular activities have all helped me, over time, achieve a sense of normalcy.
Some of my other struggles are more difficult to resolve: I often despair at how we Catholics are stuck in our ways and change seems so difficult. My greatest wish is that we can become a more inclusive, loving and vibrant church, truly open to the many varied and individual gifts of all of God’s people.
As a lay person, I feel so frustrated when we pray for vocations, and I see the wisdom and spiritual gifts of so many in the Church, especially women, ignored. I want to shout: they are there! Please can we open our eyes!
Despite my frustrations, I continue to worship in the Catholic Church, because there are many things that I love about our faith traditions and especially the many people in my worship community, whom I care about and who care about. of me. But I will continue to strive for us Catholics to be more tolerant and responsive to the needs of the community in the 2020s, both inside and outside the Church, as well as to the needs of the world at large of which we are a part.
Pope Francis is one of my heroes! It upholds the Catholic faith while embracing those of many denominations who love God and those on the margins: the poor, the abused, the refugees, our struggling environment – all of Creation.
It seems to me that his ideas are not always welcomed by some in the more traditional and established corners of the Catholic Church, but he speaks the truth as he sees it.
I believe we all have a role to play in bringing to light things in our Church that could be done differently, and perhaps even for the better. We all share a part of the Truth, we need to speak our own and listen carefully to that of the other.
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