Tell me about it: To understand the church, listen to its people

Storytelling is an important part of passing on the faith.
Religion

You can’t talk about the church without stories, says Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a theologian and professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. In other words, to understand Catholicism, you have to first understand Catholics. And you can’t do that without understanding where each individual comes from—their culture, family background, and social location.

And yet, Imperatori-Lee noticed, many church scholars take the opposite approach. They start with the church as “an institution among institutions” and then try to understand individual Catholics based on their understanding of the Catholic Church as a whole.

Imperatori-Lee believes that to do good theology means starting with reality before trying to construct theory out of the lived experience of Catholics. She looks at ecclesiology, or the study of the church, as “a kind of storytelling enterprise,” she says. Her new book, Cuéntame: Narrative in the Ecclesial Present, tells the story of the church from Imperatori-Lee’s own social location: as a Cuban American woman, a lover of literature, and practicing Catholic.

“I love the title of my book,” Imperatori-Lee says. “Cuéntame means ‘tell me’ or ‘tell me all about it,’ and it’s just part of the way Cubans converse. It’s an invitation to tell the story of your day. It’s an invitational word; it means a kind of openness to someone else’s reality. And that’s the spirit I wanted to capture in the book.”

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What exactly is ecclesiology?

Ecclesiology is the branch of theology that deals with the nature and mission of the church. In other words: What is the church? What is the church for? What is its mission?

In a lot of theology, there has been this turn away from starting with the ideal and then applying that to what’s happening in real life. Instead, many theologians are starting with reality and then trying to construct theology out of that. But ecclesiology hasn’t really caught up to that approach.

Within ecclesiology there’s a temptation to study the church as a sociological reality, an institution among institutions. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s definitely not a theological approach. When we study ecclesiology, we’re doing theology: We’re studying God at work in the church.

How can stories help us do ecclesiology better?

I was a big overhearer when I was little: I used to sit in the corner and listen to my mom when she was on the phone. It’s funny: I get mad at my kids now for doing exactly the same thing. I think a lot of us have that experience of wanting to know our families’ stories, even the ones that are not necessarily super appropriate for us to know. That kind of curiosity that makes us sit within earshot of our parents. Those stories we overhear are sort of the building blocks of our identity.

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It’s the same when we hear stories about the church or about other Catholics.

Can you talk about the church without telling stories?

I don’t think we can, because I don’t know that we can talk about anything without using stories. All of our knowledge is story-based. We understand things through the dynamism of plot, excitement, denouement, and characterization. So much of our way of understanding the world is through stories.

The Second Vatican Council taught us that the church is the people of God. And the best way to get to know people is by listening to their stories or by allowing them to tell their stories. If we really believe that the church is first and foremost a mystery that encompasses the whole people of God, which is what Vatican II says, then I think that storytelling is probably the only accurate way to do ecclesiology. Ecclesiology tells the story of God at work in history, and the way God is at work in history is 9 times out of 10 through people in their everyday lives.

How did you choose what kinds of stories to focus on in your book?

The title of my book, Cuéntame, has a double meaning. It means “tell me,” but it also means “count me.” I thought it brought a good political edge to the book, since it implies the ways in which the experience of Latinx Catholics gets discounted or wrongly accounted for.

There are stereotypes about how the experience is purely immigrant or purely impoverished or uneducated. With the word cuéntame, I wanted to bring together the idea of invitation with the idea of accurate representation. I wanted to make space for the Hispanic stories, especially, that don’t normally get told.

There’s this narrative that Latinx Catholics are uneducated or poor, but that is as damaging a monolithic understanding as saying that all Irish Catholics, for example, are exactly the same. Think about the buzz surrounding Shakira and Jennifer Lopez at the Super Bowl halftime show this past February. People were semi-scandalized about the kind of Latinx identity that was put on stage. Shakira, especially, is informed by different kinds of Latina identity—her musicality includes Colombian and Arab Lebanese influences. But how that is expressed does not compute for a large portion of the American public. They are used to conceiving of Latinx culture as this monolithic thing that is sometimes synonymous with Central or Latin American or South American culture. But in reality Latin American culture is about half the globe—there is no single way of being Latinx.

I also used literature a lot in my book to tell the story of ecclesiology. I love reading. I come from a family who loves to read, and my children love to read. When I was younger, reading was my way of escaping, of dealing with my emotions in safer ways, especially when I was going through difficult times. I think that reading good literature—the way it makes us enter into the world of another, the way it allows us to build bridges of compassion for people in very different situations, and the way in which it builds community—is very closely tied to the church’s mission.

Literature and ecclesiology are good teammates: The church and literature have similar goals. Why does a writer write? To share their experience and to reach across the divide of isolation to create community. And the church does that too: The church wants to create community. It wants us to move outside ourselves and our myopic, sort of egotistical visions and have a more compassionate outlook on the world and on the communities that surround us. Just like good literature breaks down the walls between people, so does good church.

Do you think the institutional church does a good enough job of honoring everyone’s individual stories?

I think the institutional church in the United States could do a better job of listening to non-dominant voices: the voices of people who are marginalized in our country and in our church.

I don’t think that we do a good enough job of listening to unsettling narratives: That’s one of the reasons why the sex abuse and cover-up scandal hit the church so hard. We need to create a space as a church where our empathy and compassion allow people the space to tell their stories without judgment. I think we can do better not only with survivors of trauma and abuse but also with, for example, LGBTQ Catholics, recently arrived immigrants, or people who don’t have adequate immigration paperwork.

As a church, we need to make space for those voices within our walls. But we also need to make space for those voices in the country at large. That’s the mission part of ecclesiology.

What do we miss out on when these stories aren’t told?

We miss out on the richness of grace and the complex ways in which God is at work in the world. As Catholics, we place a high value on the way in which grace builds on nature. Because of the incarnation, everything has the potential to be holy. If that’s true, then when we ignore or don’t make space for other people’s stories, we’re missing aspects of God’s work in the world. We’re shutting our eyes to the surprising ways in which God works. Instead, our goal should be to see God in as much of the world as possible.

What do individual stories add to our understanding of the church?

When we do listen to people’s stories we learn to be a listening church. You cannot be a teaching church without being a learning church. I also think it helps unravel this myth that there’s some sort of pure, acultural Christianity we’re all aiming toward.

When we try to speak about the church in general terms, it always falls flat. But when we speak very specifically about our own experience, that’s what ends up resonating with people. So, for example, I tried to make my book very Cuban—because I’m Cuban. If I tried to base my book in Spanish or Irish Catholicism, it wouldn’t be as compelling.

Hearing the many ways of being Catholic in the world also allows us to move away from pointing fingers about the purity narrative of who are the “real” Catholics. Because the flipside of that narrative is that there are some people who aren’t “real” Catholics. And that’s where you get anti-immigrant or racist understandings of what Catholicism is. It’s a real danger.

Is it possible to talk about the Catholic Church as a whole without individual cultural perspectives?

No. And we wouldn’t want to. There has never been an acultural church. This was one of the earliest insights of Latinx Catholicism: Virgilio Elizondo wrote a book called Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise (Orbis Books) about the cultural background of Jesus.

It matters that Jesus was born in Galilee and not anywhere else in the world. The Galilean aspect of Jesus’ ministry and self-understanding tells us that all of our cultural particularities are important. There is no throwaway characteristic of our lives: Each is important to God and to the church.

How can people start listening to one another’s stories?

It’s important that we work from and for community. So we’re working from our particular identity, but we’re also in touch with the communities we’re trying to represent. That’s another reason I wrote so much about Miami and Cuba in my book: That’s the community out of which I came and the one that I’m closest to. It’s a kind of collaboration: to be responsible to and for communities.

The church can learn from this approach. I think too often the institutional church relies more on pronouncements than it does on listening. A big chunk of collaboration is the willingness to be silent and let someone else speak. Mujerista theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz talks a lot about allowing women to speak or making space for women to speak, which is another thing to be aware of.

How does this approach empower communities that are often disenfranchised—women, for example?

A big insight of Latinx theology that I try to draw on in this book is the importance and grace of the everyday. And women are one of the groups that have labored in the obscurity of the day-to-day; it’s because of their work that the church has survived in many cultures. Telling their stories allows us to see that God is at work not only in magisterial pronouncements but also in the day-to-day traditions, beliefs, and practices that happen at home and in religious education classrooms all over the world.

The way in which we learn about our religious identities and theology is often taught outside of classrooms. We often learn about who God is from the women in our lives. It’s grandmas: Grandmas teach people how and when to pray and what God is like. And so when we talk about who is responsible for handing on the faith or who are the real guardians of the faith, it is women who are doing this work in families.

Women are doing the work of the church. The argument could be made that we’ve always done the work of the church. And raising that up, telling those stories, is crucially important.You paint this picture of a new model of church—one where we listen to one another and where lay leadership is raised up.

What is the role of the institutional church in this picture?

I think the role of the institutional church is very nicely encapsulated by Pope Francis when he talks about accompaniment. The church should accompany people who are suffering, people who are marginalized, people who are raising their voices against injustice. That’s the kind of church I want to be a part of.

The role of the institutional church is to bring its global presence to bear on people who are suffering in the present and to accompany them, to shed light on their plight, to pray with them, to celebrate the liturgy where they are. I think of when the bishops went to the border to say Mass: That’s a great witness for the church. Go where people are suffering, pray with them, sanctify that moment with your attention.

What kinds of stories should people start being aware of within the global church?

First, American Catholicism is not monolithic. It’s not one thing. Second, theology gets taught in ways that have nothing to do with classrooms. And third, people’s stories are there for a reason. All the cultures that make up the global Catholic community have their own exodus, their own crucifixions, their own resurrection. These stories deserve to be told so that we can see God’s grace at work throughout the world.

How do we model theological storytelling in our own families and communities?

The people who are teaching theology are the people who are modeling what it means to be a good Catholic to their family members. The people who are standing up and having uncomfortable conversations about immigration with family, the people who are willing to stake a claim for vulnerable populations in our country—that’s theology.

The grandmas who teach their grandchildren to pray are teaching a lot more theology than I do during a 15-week semester in a classroom. They’re teaching kids to see themselves in relation to one another and to God. Taking children on walks and marveling at the beauty of nature is another kind of theology. Whenever my kids visit my mother, she goes outside and waters the plants, lets them play with the hose and chase lizards and things. That’s a kind of vision of God: God enjoying you at play, God enjoying childhood innocence and freedom.

And it’s not just grandmas: It’s grandpas and uncles and aunts and family friends. All of these people are creating what I call the mental furniture of a child’s life. The way in which they understand the world as grace. That is really important theological work that all of us take part in.

This article also appears in the May 2020 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 5, pages 16-19). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Haley Rivera on Unsplash