A Liminal Church At The Margins – OpEd


By Father Myron J. Pereira

(UCA News) — You’ve often heard it said that “change is the only constant” when people speak of contemporary civilization. This means that, unlike earlier times, noted for their stability and rootedness, modern times are defined by change — abrupt and hectic change, in almost every area of life.

The study of change and society, therefore, introduces us to the idea of “liminality” (from the Latin word limen meaning threshold, and so by extension, ‘a boundary,’ ‘on the edge,’ ‘on the margins’) a quality of ambiguity, which occurs in a transition from one state to another.

Every human being undergoes liminal changes. The simplest example of this is adolescence, the transition between childhood and adulthood, a rite of passage commonly experienced.

Adolescence embraces physical, psychological and social changes. It is usually a time of turbulence and disorientation, not just for the individuals undergoing these changes, but for their social groups as well.

For a short time, adolescents become “liminal people” — on the threshold, on the margins — until they transit to a more stable, settled way of being, as adults.

But even older adults have “liminal spaces” in their lives, spaces of waiting for what might happen, spaces of expectation and fear.

Divorce is one such space. It ruptures the durable relationship of marriage and creates conflicting feelings. Something similar takes place when children leave home.

Sometimes we are thrown “to the edge” all of a sudden — through a traumatic injury, or the discovery of a lethal disease. The death of a close friend or relative is yet another. Our world suddenly seems much poorer.

All these are rites of passage, thresholds in normal life.

More recently, usage of the term has broadened to describe political and cultural changes as well.

During liminal periods, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt.

The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.

Are we going through a period of liminality in the Church today? Very likely.

Liminal space is an in-between space. It is the space when you are ‘on the verge’ of something new, in between ‘what was’ and ‘what will be.’ 

A Church in transition is also a Church in transformation.  It has the potential of becoming something new, something different from what it was. But there is also strong resistance to change.

Just a quick look at the Church today reveals various characteristics of liminality, both in positive and negative forms.

One major change which took place some 60 years ago was related to the liturgy. Catholics moved from stuffy Latin rubrics to a wonderful efflorescence in the local language, which completely transformed the way in which people prayed and worshipped.

And yet, sadly, the hankering for the old system persists.

Look at what is happening today to the government of the Church. For millennia, the hierarchy and the clergy bossed the laity and milked it with a sense of entitlement. No longer. 

The laity, especially women, demand their rightful place in church government…

However, even clerics band together to sabotage the new ways, playing up their fears over celibacy and their suspicion of women.

At the same time, there has been a virtual explosion of voluntary groups dedicated to service of the poor and homeless, experiments with new forms of prayer, ecumenical and inter-faith collaboration, all of which bypass the old forms of religious life.

The well-known Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr puts it well: “Liminality is a form of holding the tension between one space and another. It is in these transitional moments of our lives that authentic transformation can happen.”

It is a space full of contradictory emotions. Liminal space is full of possibility, potential and renewal as we await what is to come.

Perhaps the metaphor of the “pilgrimage” may illustrate what liminality is more clearly.

No matter the religion, pilgrimages are popular. Their appeal cuts across all kinds, all classes.

When one goes on pilgrimage, one usually doesn’t know what one is in for. One usually joins a larger group, and shares in the fun and tension that traveling together always implies. (Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are a good example of this.)

At the same time, pilgrims intensely seek a spiritual good of some kind — one prays for something specific, one thanks the saint for favors received, one makes vows and promises, one engages in extravagant acts of piety — think of young Inigo in vigil before the Virgin at Monserrat, surrendering all his knightly clothes and weapons, as he begins a new life.

“It’s at these transitional moments of our lives that authentic transformation can happen,” Rohr says.

And so it is in the Church today. Pope Francis has already set the Church on an unusual path, a “synodal” path. The “man from a far country” whose appeal is to the Church “at the margins” has already placed the Church “at the threshold” of something new and different. 

Whatever happens during the next few years, we already sense there can be no going back.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

*Jesuit Father Myron J. Pereira, based in Mumbai, has spent more than five decades as an academic, journalist, editor and writer of fiction. He contributes regularly to UCA News on religious and socio-cultural topics.

UCA News

The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News, UCAN) is the leading independent Catholic news source in Asia. A network of journalists and editors that spans East, South and Southeast Asia, UCA News has for four decades aimed to provide the most accurate and up-to-date news, feature, commentary and analysis, and multimedia content on social, political and religious developments that relate or are of interest to the Catholic Church in Asia.

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