"What would you do if you had no fear?"
I can still picture the way the restaurant looked and the Sister of Providence who was sitting across the table from me. I was pondering my path and grappling with my next steps— a 25-year-old seriously discerning religious life but torn between two religious communities I loved.
I don't remember all the details of the conversation. I do remember that she did not tell me which way to turn, although I'm sure she had ideas. What the sister sitting across from me did was much more powerful: She asked a question. What would you do if you had no fear? As soon as she asked, I knew with great clarity, though still some trepidation, the truth that was alive within me. This is the power of questions.
Since I was young, I've been a person who asks questions like it's my job. My parents still lament that I would debate with them about curfews and chores, that I always wanted to know why they made the rules they did and always had good follow-up questions and rebuttals.
As Providence would have it, for the past three years, asking questions has been my job, at least a big part of it. Learning community leaders' stories has meant asking strategic questions to unlock their truth, to get at what is most deeply meaningful for them and what drives them to join with others to make change.
Questions like "How did that make you feel?" "What was that like?" What do you think it would take to change that?" or "What is the future you imagine for your family?" seemed to unlock an imagination impossible in structures where truth is doled out as if stagnant, as if answers are held by privileged gatekeepers who know what is best for the rest of humanity and who often make lots of money from it. My ministry is to ask the unaskable questions.
As I've learned over the past few years, so too was Jesus' ministry. According to the summary of Martin B. Copenhaver's book Jesus Is the Question:
"Contrary to some common assumptions, Jesus is not the ultimate Answer Man, but more like the Great Questioner. In the Gospels Jesus asks many more questions than he answers. To be precise, Jesus asks 307 questions. He is asked 183 of which he only answers 3."
I remember how dumbfounded I was when I learned this early on in my community organizer training. How is it we draw so much wisdom from a figure who spent so much of his time asking questions and who refused to answer most of the questions asked of him? I know them well:
Do you love me?
What are you looking for?
Who do you say that I am?
What do you want me to do for you?
Of course, Jesus also had a way of telling stories that answered questions or elicited answers from those who followed him. Yet I cannot help but wonder if this spirit of curiosity and drawing from the collective wisdom of the faithful is lost on Catholics today.
In school, asking questions for which my teachers did not have the answers felt rebellious or was seen as a distraction to be discouraged. Today, even exploring topics like LGBTQ inclusion, women's ordination or the damage done by hierarchical clericalism can feel dangerous, as if seeking understanding were a threat to the life of the church. Perhaps it is dangerous — to the status quo, to those who believe divine inspiration is exclusive to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
The Gospels teach us in no uncertain terms that questioning the status quo is both dangerous and necessary. Jesus' 307 questions got people's attention. They got people thinking and drew them into reflection on their lives, the current reality, the systems that oppressed them, and how they were called to unite and respond. The response to such questioning in the early church was often state-sanctioned torture and death.
The consequence of generations of Catholics trained not to question is clear: Those who are not comfortable with either/or thinking, who see shades of nuance, often feel unwelcome or feel that their way of thinking is even forbidden. If I'm honest, I know I've had conversations seeking truth with others when I worried that my wonderings might be recorded, that there would be some punishment for asking the seemingly unaskable questions. Just typing this truth makes my hands sweaty. What would Jesus think of a church like that?
I do desire more space in Catholic culture to ask questions. I wonder if there is room in our faith to ask such questions. What would we learn if we sat with mothers in poverty who have faced difficult decisions in the wake of an unexpected pregnancy? If we huddled under bridges with families at the border who would prefer to be there together — alive — than under threat of death or starvation in their countries of origin? If we made more time to share a cup of coffee across the table from someone raising a family in the reality of a different race, class or orientation?
What questions might Jesus ask of them? What would they teach us? And would we have the courage to hear them and respond?
I do not pretend to know the answers to these questions. But I do fear that we have lost the Gospel practice of holding space in our faith communities to ask them and sit in sacred, uncomfortable wondering together.
At Mass this week, I sat behind a young couple whose child, maybe just under 1 year old, was teething. When he cried, you could hear the two murmuring to each other, trying to decide what to do. They didn't have a teething ring. They didn't have any more food for him. So they tried adding water to his formula to stretch it a bit more. The mother lovingly soothed him, and as she wiped his face, she wiped tears from her own eyes, as well. The pain and love in her were both so palpable. I tried to imagine what it would be like not to have food to give to a child who was my own flesh. Just imagining it brought tears to my eyes.
We chatted after, and she shared that they were desperate to find food. They had been praying to God they would find help when they heard the church bells ring. That's when they saw others going in the church for Mass.
After we met some of their basic needs and parted ways, I wondered how many struggling mothers would see the church as a place to turn for refuge. Would the bells draw them in, too, or would they feel shamed and judged, perhaps unwelcome, just gazing at some opulent church buildings with their tall gates and manicured lawns? What would it take for Catholic churches to become places where struggling mothers could know they would always be heard and supported? Could we sit and hold difficult questions with them? Is that a role we as church would be willing to play?
As I transition into a new ministry in a new place over the coming months, I am grateful to have been schooled in the art of strategic questioning and to have befriended "Jesus the Great Questioner." May this part of our Christian legacy come alive in ways that will draw us into greater solidarity and deeper relationship.
[Tracey Horan is a member of the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. Her first deep conversation with this community occurred in a melon patch during her time as an intern at the Sisters' White Violet Center for Eco-Justice. She is a community organizer with Faith in Indiana (formerly IndyCAN).]