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Holy conversation

Divisions among laity, and between laity and clergy, have seemingly become indelible characteristics of the post-Vatican II era. Perhaps this is understandable as people accept change differently, with varied speeds and emotional reactions. This is especially the case when it comes to matters as personal as spirit, faith and church.

We've reported many times in recent years the layers of suspicion and acrimony with which lay initiatives have been received by local bishops. The resultant conflicts have for all too long been dispiriting. Our collective aim as church is to build spirit by imaging the spirit, and to come together to better place ourselves at the service of a hurting humanity.

While we are all too aware of our failings, it is especially uplifting to witness the works of a small but energetic group of Catholics who are witnessing the gospel as they endeavor to nurture it in their parishes.

Sure, the final fruits of the recent San Francisco lay convocation won't be measurable for some time. That said, the gathering has already borne fruit because of the spirit in which the organizers planned and carried out their activities. From the start, they were unflinchingly respectful of people's different views and inclusive in their conduct.

These lay organizers somehow understood that while they could never be assured of the outcome of their efforts, they could control the means by which they carried them out.

They didn't approach the task as a group of angry people wanting to "get the other side." Instead they tried to model the nonviolence of Jesus as taught by Pace e Bene and the Marshall Rosenberg's Center for Nonviolent Communication. Lead organizer Lisa Striebing said it well: "We sought respectful conversation with people. Holy conversation, if you will."

The San Francisco lay synod story, then, is as much a celebration of means as it is of ends. Both Pace e Bene and the Center for Nonviolent Communication teach personal and social transformation through active nonviolent practices.

Pace e Bene was formed in 1989 by a small group of Franciscans, among others, with a mission to teach practical nonviolence. Transformational communication, Pace e Bene maintains, takes place through a four-step process: centering oneself, articulating one's piece of truth, receiving another's piece of the truth and agreeing on a new way. The Center for Nonviolent Communication holds that when it comes to transformational communication, "first and foremost, compassionate connection, rather than being tied to a specific outcome" is to be the goal. In both instances, we see human dignity and human respect where they belong: as the centerpieces of Christian dialogue.

Speaking about the practices of nonviolent communication, Striebing explains: "In this kind of conversation, one doesn't back down from stating his or her own feelings and needs, but one also listens carefully - and with an open heart - to the feelings and needs of the other party."

The San Francisco lay organizers, echoing Striebing, made inclusiveness and compassionate listening hallmarks of their work. And it appeared to be contagious.

They contacted all sorts of Catholics, inviting conservatives and progressives alike. They reached out to clergy at all levels, making especially certain that their local bishop knew and understood their intentions. They asked for episcopal blessings, not permissions. Those permissions, were they needed, were already in their baptismal rights.

After bringing San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer well into the loop, he surprised them a bit by offering them the use of the San Francisco cathedral. Archbishop Niederauer later joined in their discussions and wrote a column about the convocation in the archdiocesan newspaper.

In this time of social and religious division, we are reminded in deeds as well as in words that Jesus' teachings of nonviolence and compassionate living are core to the Christian faith. The San Francisco synod organizers deserve credit and our support. Perhaps the best way we can honor them is to make them examples as we move forward taking on greater leadership roles, as lay leaders, in our church.

Finally, let's hope, at least in this instance, that Professor Potter was right.

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