From conformity to conscience

Gemma Simmonds CJ

Taking the work of Jean Vanier as an example, this article looks at the challenge of moving from conformity to conscience. Gemma Simmonds CJ is a senior lecturer in pastoral theology at Heythrop College, University of London, and is president of the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain.

In his book Signs of the Times: Seven Paths of Hope for a Troubled World, Jean Vanier reflects from a lifetime of ministry among people with intellectual disabilities on what he calls the ‘tyranny of normality’ and on the shifts society would need to make to build a more merciful, compassionate and functional world.1 The shifts would be:

From humiliation to humility
From conformity to conscience
From exclusion to encounter
From power to authority
From isolation to community
From strength to vulnerability
From secret to mystery

Since I first read this deceptively simple book, I have been struck by the thought of how powerfully these paradigm shifts would benefit the Church in its leadership and ministry, and how effectively, in fact, they have been enacted by Pope Francis. This is the heart of his ‘revolution of tenderness’, a tenderness that has nothing to do with weakness and everything to do with the strength shown by Christ on the cross as he overcame the world.

There is not space in a brief article to engage with each of these shifts at length, but a rapid overview can still offer some helpful reflections on the way in which ministry can (and I believe should) be carried out in a Church which has always betrayed its origin when it has modelled itself on the power structures and dynamics of this world.

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