Theological formation in a post-conciliar church

“For just such a time as this” Esther 4:14.

When a group in the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy began to develop the idea of a ‘Centre’, this Scripture passage emerged as a key phrase, or image – if words can open imaginative spaces – of what the Xavier Centre for Theological Formation is meant to be.

“For just such a time as this” is found in the book of Esther, when Queen Esther finds herself in the unwelcome predicament of being a nearly forgotten wife of the king of Ahasuerus, whose head of military is scheming to annihilate the people of Israel. She does not have access to the king without risking her life, and is fearful. The prophet reminds her, with quintessential prophetic faith, that perhaps she finds herself where she is, an enslaved and then wedded wife of a foreign king, “for just such a time as this”. So, she dresses up to the nines and musters all her powers of intuiting and scheming, and writes the next chapter of the people of God. For just such a time as this. It’s the “just” that gets me. The precision of God’s timing or of the prophet’s faith-filled capacity of seeing and reading it:  

Just when you think things are not right, precisely when you thought you had enough on your plate; now, when God’s eternal present is harder for people to access than ever(post Royal commission, ­in the midst of a quasi-universal call to ecclesial conversion and towards a future we cannot fully imagine and may well not be ready for yet), we are called to muster all our creativity and resources – which are not legion, even while national – and respond to the expressed need from a multitude of forums for a theological formation that equips us for a future we don’t know.

Theological formation in and for a post Vatican II Church

The Australian Church, and our university, is gifted with world-class experts on what Vatican II meant and means for the universal Church. We know that:

  • baptism is foundational to every subsequent ministry in and for the people of God
  • the call to Synodality we find amplified in Pope Francis is nothing more or less than the Holy Spirit’s breath in and through Vatican II to allow the light that is Christ shine into the world and in the Church (though not always in that order!)
  • that the heart and living pulse of those 16 Vatican documents is the unbelievably free Dei Verbum who opens Godself and inserts us into that self, choosing us as friends
  • the ever ancient ever new, ‘listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches’ is not easy because dialogue ‘with those we agree with and those we do not’ is a hard-fought, not cheap grace to receive. We are only beginning to find structural pathways towards its implementation
  • the Second Vatican Council was an event in the continuing growth of our understanding of God’s revelation that marked a change in style of teaching, and that style is not superficial.

We are committed to theological formation in and for a post Vatican II Church. Let’s focus on the two more problematic words of that title and what they imply: ‘post’ and ‘formation’.

Post Vatican II

In one sense, it is obvious and unnecessary to state we are and always will be ‘after’ a past event. But if we take a theological perspective on time – Chronos and Kairos, time passing and the place of God’s happening/interruption – then we need to accept that our awareness of time and truth have changed for good. Some describe Vatican II as marking the entry of historical consciousness in theological thought. Theology, not Christianity: the truth that is Christ has always been human divine, the Universal Particular, the culturally situated, universally normative expression of Godself. But our awareness of what that means is changing. There have been times more accepting of the passing and limited nature of our knowledge, but our ‘post’ is a convergence of factors that make the face and shape of the Church we inhabit and are called to lead, harder to imagine and to translate. Which brings us to the second word: formation.  


In truth, the faculty were not convinced about the word formation. It is not an innocent concept: “who forms whom, and for what purpose?”. However, we came back to the notion for the want of a better term to describe what we are being asked for: theological spaces that enable, shape, form, found and ground the future of this Church that is historically situated in this precise time, not another. The Latin origins of the word reference formo, formamentum, formatione, formator/formatrix, meaning forming, shaping, fashioning, configuring, beautifying, and perhaps more interestingly the root term of founding/foundress, foundations. This resonates with the intent of this centre: laying the foundations for the Church of the future, one that is challenging. 

In the words of Ghislain Lafont:

“I am not sure that a theologian can today risk saying a valid word for all humanity, or even only for one’s own Church, if he or she have not first accepted seeing their own universe shake; and the same thing can be said for every person responsible in the hierarchy. It is true that the Church has words of eternal life, but not every form of Church… Only if today we don’t cover our faces to the fact that the tide that is carrying away western civilisation is taking the Church with it, will we be able to imagine other forms which in their turn can allow the Church to survive and to contribute to the birth of another world.”

Lafont captures what is at stake, so clearly illustrated by Australian poet Lisa Jacobson.

There are stones that sing

“The churches are almost empty or sold,

As if they’ve reached their tipping point,

And from the pulpits, god slid out…

And all that fanciful gold leaf on heaven’s floor was incinerated by our telescopes...

And bits of tattered god fell down.”

We are seeking to provide spaces of theological thinking for a future we do not know. And cannot know. None of us here… And perhaps that is a good thing, if we read in faith how we are made and how God has chosen to work. It is above our pay-grade to control the future. But it is ours to envision. And to lay the foundations for a solid pathway, to find a ‘how’.

The framework within which some of us in this centre work, takes on board Bernard Lonergan’s understanding of theology’s role to mediate between church and culture, from past into present and future. Our current cultural context is moving between stages of meaning, and most of the core beliefs of Catholic faith, formulated and expressed in propositional and theoretical terms, need to be mediated, translated, communicated into another realm of meaning, another way of making sense of things. The key, this framework proposes, once again, are the foundations we lay.

Lonergan names that foundation as the theologian in (ongoing) conversion. As science depends on the community of scientists, in a careful and thorough dynamic of critical trust and reception of past findings and present questions, so theology, and the bridging between faith and culture that is our primary task depends upon the expertise and ongoing multiform conversion of those of us called to this vocation. In the words of Newman, “to live is to change, to be perfect, to have changed often”. Lonergan names these conversions as religious, moral, intellectual and psychic, and without attempting to explain them here, I started imagining what this community of theologians and philosophers, educators and carers, ministers and pastors in ongoing conversion would look like.

A religiously converted community is one into which the Spirit, in Paul’s words, has been poured out (Rm 55): that “In-between God” who blows where She will and is the air we breathe and the source of our freedom. The beauty of Lonergan’s understanding of this conversion is that he explicitly recognises that the way the Spirit is present can happen “in a way only to God known” of Gaudium et spes 22. We imagine God’s interaction with humanity in logical order: from Father to Son to Spirit, from top to bottom, from centre to the edge, but in fact, the process is usually the other way around: the Spirit filters into hearts that are open, showing up in unexpected places. And it is our task to listen out and for that voice, that blows where it will… and trace the path from Spirit to through the Christ to the fullness of the God in whose image and likeness we are made. In the words of Pope Francis to the International Theological Commission on Dec 6, 2013:

“it is the task of theologians “to hear, distinguish, and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them. In this way, revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood, and set forth to greater advantage” (Gaudium et Spes, 44). Theologians, then, are ‘pioneers’ in the Church’s dialogue with cultures. But being pioneers is important also because sometimes we think they stay back, stay in the barracks... No, they are on the periphery.”

We are all concerned with what Catholic looks like: mission, identity, ministry. This might be our most secure starting point, aligned with the Church’s best practice of centuries – working with all human beings for the good of all humanity.

A morally converted community of theologians is one that owns the shaping our own authenticity (or lack thereof) and that of the Tradition we belong to. Lonergan calls personal authenticity “minor” and the faithfulness of a Tradition to its own authenticity, “major”. Theologians are one of gatekeepers of both. Archbishop Mark Coleridge said in his talk that “this centre will have to teach in profoundly countercultural ways what it means to be powerful and authoritative”. This is not easy work! Because freedom is tremendous, even or especially when it is the freedom of the Spirit. But perhaps the challenge is to love what we do. A community of theologians that cares and loves and stands for what it cares for and loves…with all the consequences; a eucharistic community.

“Speak honestly. … It is necessary to say with parrhesia all that, in the Lord, one feels the need to say. Without polite deference, without hesitation…. And listen with humility and welcome, with an open heart”.                                   

  • Francis, opening address Synod of Bishops, 2014

An intellectually converted community knows that seeking truth is a prismed jewel, with shared subjectivity our only hope of accessing the whole. And the Spirit does not circumvent the human consultative process.

The guarantee of the Spirit’s guidance in truth of “that we shall not err” (Lumen Gentium 12), as we move forward is made to a Church that listens in this way. The guarantee of God’s presence and our access to truth, “that we shall not err” is conditional to our inclusiveness.

To find a way to what I believe we are called, summoned by the Spirit for just such a time as this, surely implies pushing back at the business of our hectic lives. Could an intellectual community defend slow-cooked thought, pooling resources and working together to efficiently and effectively beam it into the corners of a world starved of nuanced thinking?

Finally, (the unhappily named psychic conversion): a community aware of the affective undertow of all our knowing and feeling. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). We are beginning to realise “that there are wounds that never disappear”. This too, is age old: the risen Christ through whose wounds we receive the Spirit. 

And there is much need for healing. Some are more visceral, others more ordinary, but for the aims of this centre, central all the same. In the process of consultation, some of the most honest and challenging feedback came from the pastoral associates, women and men who have given many years of their lives to serve the faith and Church they love, to find themselves sidelined, or struggling to continue and be heard. In the words of Richard Gaillardetz, “Lay ministry is not a substitute or competitor for the ministry of ordained priests, but rather a gift of the Holy Spirit and an integral (and essential) part of the Church’s mission today.”

“The centre is everywhere”, Archbishop Mark reminded us, quoting Frank Kermode, and for us this means we will go where the need is. This centre commits itself to supporting pathways for sustaining a theologically literate People of God all around Australia, with the Holy Spirit at their centre, in communion. Archbishop Mark’s biblical reflection on the nature of power and authority also reminds us that while this is daunting, for the need is great, the logic of the gospel reminds us that it is in our weakness that we are strong”, and only then can Christ fully reveal the power of his grace. 

The foundation of this process is the trust of God implicit in this calling. As I prayed this week, a constant insight emerged: our trust in God is certitude in God’s love and providence which does not require certainty about every aspect of the journey. We trust the God who has trusted us first.

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