Pier Francesco Mola, “Saint John Preaching in the Wilderness,” c. 1650 (Wikimedia Commons)

A few years ago I sat with a group of young Catholics to reimagine the parish’s young-adult ministry. I invited each person to talk about their own needs and experiences in the Church. A college student spoke frankly about how she’d been made to feel that she didn’t belong in young Catholic communities because of her feminist values. She explained that young Church leaders tended to equate traditional gender roles with holiness, and she couldn’t imagine herself continuing to participate in young-adult meetings that, among other things, focused heavily on the expected roles of men and women in marriage. She wanted a young-adult ministry that would help her grow spiritually and that would focus on community, charity, and social justice. She felt isolated from her friends who didn’t understand how she could be a part of a misogynist, patriarchal institution, but also isolated from the young Catholics in her parish whose culture had become so rigid and clique-y that there was no room for different experiences and ideas.

It was evident that this young woman was speaking from a place of woundedness, and that this was the first time she had exposed those wounds publicly. The sharing of her experience was a grace that invited the group to think critically about how past ministerial practices marginalized young adults in their community and that offered an opportunity to find new ways of being. This woman was the voice crying out in the desert, inviting the group to prepare a new way, to make straight their paths so that all flesh may see the salvation of God (Luke 3:4, 6).

The second Sunday of Advent’s readings remind us of the power of the prophetic word. By now, communities around the nation have started to, or are preparing to, participate in the Synod on Synodality. The success of the synodal conversations will depend on the Church’s ability to listen to the word of God found in the deserts of our communities. Local communities are likely to face many challenges in the process, but I’d like to highlight two in particular.

If all flesh is to see the salvation of God, it starts with Christians being authentically merciful outside the walls of the parish.

The first will be our ability to prepare spaces where people feel safe enough to speak honestly. To speak from our personal deserts is an act of vulnerability, and the perceived danger of speaking honestly is dependent on how one perceives the receptivity of the people in power. Luke’s listing of the names of Romans in political power, and of the religious authorities of the time as the context in which John the Baptist begins his ministry, highlights the dangers and the oppression that the people were desperate to escape. Luke reminds those in power of their role in perpetuating the hardships, sorrows, and inequalities of the day. Although we can expect an eloquent final document from the Holy See at the conclusion of the Synod on Synodality, what’s likely to make a greater impact on our communities is whether prophetic conversations in the desert were heard and heeded by those who have the local power and authority to make changes in the Church.

The second challenge will be going out to the deserts where the institutional Church has failed to listen. The day’s Gospel concludes with the exclamation that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Ministerial practices have become increasingly centered on those who regularly walk through parish doors and seem designed exclusively to catechize, with no concern for individual spiritual development. If all flesh is to see the salvation of God, it starts with Christians being authentically merciful outside the walls of the parish. Listening is the first step.

It’s important to consider that on the same day the Advent wreath candle representing peace is lit that we hear a call to transformation. Peace demands an authentic transformation of the individual and of society. The voice in the desert cries out because it knows the wounds that need healing and the actions that perpetuate the pain. The voice in the desert points out what needs to be transformed, with the belief that the transformation will lead to peace. As a Church, we cannot expect our divisions to be healed if we miss the opportunities to authentically listen and to allow the listening to lead us to a new way of being.

The celebration of the birth of Jesus makes sense under these conditions. The word comes to John in the desert. It comes to him in vulnerability. The word becomes flesh in vulnerability. Advent prepares us to co-create a world in which peace abounds—not by avoiding difficult conversations, but by being grateful for them.

This is the second in a series of 2021 Advent reflections. A new reflection will be posted every Sunday in Advent. You can read the first one here, the third one here, and the fourth one here.

Claudia Avila Cosnahan is the Mission & Partnerships Director for Commonweal and an instructor and consultant for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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