24 May 2024
24 May 2024

The Yeast Metaphor: A Perspective from Psychology and Sociology

The concept of "transformation" helps to understand the processes of change in psychology and sociology. The biblical metaphor of yeast is perhaps most appropriate to describe the changes needed in the congregation.

by  Diego Diaz, SCJ

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In psychology and sociology, the concept of ‘transformation’ has been extensively studied and debated as a profound change process in individuals and societies. However, when applied to the context of a religious congregation, especially within the Catholic tradition, questions arise as to whether this term adequately captures the spiritual renewal and the call to transformation found in Christian faith teaching and practice. In this article, we delve into the metaphor of yeast in the dough, a concept deeply rooted in the biblical and evangelical tradition, which we propose provides a richer and more meaningful perspective for understanding the process of spiritual renewal in a congregation with the support of the teachings of Fr. John Leo Dehon.

Transformation from Psychology and Sociology:

From a psychological standpoint, transformation is a multifaceted process encompassing changes in cognition, emotion, and behavior over time. Various factors, such as traumatic experiences, therapeutic interventions, or conscious personal development, can initiate this process. However, a General Chapter is more than just a psychological event. It is a time and space of listening and discernment, following the dynamics of the ‘spiritual conversation’ that Pope Francis has proposed to the entire Church through the Synod. This is a call for profound conversion, a transformation that is urgent and important for our spiritual growth and the renewal of our congregation.

On the sociological front, transformation is examined at the social and cultural structures level, exploring how changes in norms, values, and institutions impact communities and society. Much has been written on this, and we have witnessed and adapted to numerous social changes as humanity and as a congregation. Consider, for instance, the transformation we are currently undergoing with the advent of Mass Media and Artificial Intelligence, reshaping how we practice our faith.

Therefore, it is crucial to note that both disciplines recognize the importance of transformation as a fundamental phenomenon in human life and the evolution of societies. However, when applying this concept to a religious congregation, the question arises as to whether ‘transformation’ is the most appropriate term to describe the process of spiritual and pastoral renewal sought. While widely used and understood, this term may not fully capture the depth and complexity of the spiritual journey within a congregation.

Systemic and narrative psychology, two distinct but complementary disciplines, provide unique insights into how metaphors influence our perception and understanding of experiences. In this article, we draw from both perspectives, exploring the concept of metaphors and their role in shaping our understanding of the world and our interactions with others.

In systemic psychology, metaphors are considered linguistic and cognitive tools that help people construct meaning and organize their experiences with their social and family environment. According to Gregory Bateson, a pioneer in systems theory, metaphors are part of a broader process of symbolic communication that shapes the reality perceived by individuals and social systems. This vision and this new way of addressing our discussions could enrich spiritual conversation and communal discernment. It is necessary to reach agreements and short-, medium–, and long-term goals and understand and agree on the same meaning for decisions.

Using the metaphor of “the family as a system” in family therapy, authors such as Salvador Minuchin and Jay Haley have explored how this metaphor influences how therapists and families understand and address relational problems. The metaphor of “the family as a system” suggests that family members are interconnected and that individual issues can be better understood within broader family dynamics. Perhaps we must consider what we know from a Dehonian family and what place laypeople, women, and others have in our congregational dynamics.

Narrative psychology examines metaphors in people’s stories about themselves and their experiences. Authors in this field, such as Michael White and David Epston, argue that metaphors reflect how people interpret their lives and influence the direction and meaning of those lives.

For example, people who see themselves as “a castaway struggling in a stormy sea” may experience their life as a series of constant challenges and adversities. In contrast, another person who sees themselves as “a skilled navigator in an ocean of possibilities” may feel more empowered to face challenges and seize opportunities. Listening to and hearing the narratives of SCJ brothers who are on the existential frontiers of formation and apostolate can lead us to intuit and perceive where the Ruah of God is driving us at this time, as Carlos Valle SVD says, “only if one lives centered on God, can one go on mission to the peripheries.”

The connection between the principles outlined in the book “Spiritual Conversation, discernment, and Synodality” appeals to advancing towards discernment and synodality as if they were two movements that highlight the need to empty ourselves of ourselves to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us more effectively; this concept relates to our oblation spirituality.

As the authors argue, the process of discernment and synodal practice requires that we be free from material, ideological, and affective attachments so that we can be receptive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This implies cultivating humility, hospitality, and acceptance while eliminating self-sufficiency and self-referentiality. Only when we empty ourselves of our interests and open ourselves to the impulse of the Spirit will our communion be strengthened and our mission more effective.

Starting from this premise and my limitations in biblical studies, I allow myself to contribute using a metaphor known to all.

The Parable (metaphor) of the Yeast in the Dough: A Biblical Perspective

In contrast to the term “transformation,” the metaphor of yeast in the dough offers a richer and more evocative image for understanding the process of spiritual renewal in a congregation. This metaphor, present in the Scriptures and used by Jesus on several occasions, evokes the idea of a gradual and profound change that occurs from within, permeating the entire being and community.

Yeast, though small compared to the dough, has the power to make the dough grow and be completely transformed. Similarly, spiritual renewal in a congregation is not achieved through superficial or external changes but through the powerful and transformative action of the Holy Spirit that penetrates deep into the heart and community. This transformative power offers a beacon of hope and optimism, reminding us of our potential to be agents of change in the world.

Father John Leo Dehon, founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, offered a profound reflection on spiritual renewal in the life of the Church and its members. For Father Dehon, spiritual renewal is not simply an external change in the structures or practices of the Church but a process of continuous conversion in which individuals and the community are transformed into the image of Christ. Fr. Bourgeois points out that the repair is carried out not only as a union in love but as an exchange of love, a repairing and consoling exchange, and emphasizes that all this prevents the objection that could be made to the new text: having modified the traditional perspective of the SCJ reparation, that is, reparation to the Heart of Jesus, rather than reparation with the Heart of Jesus, a reparation (the traditional one to the Heart of Jesus) in which comfort is accentuated, that is, that our action is WITH Christ and IN Christ, thus opening up a new pastoral perspective.

In his writings, Father Dehon emphasized the importance of cultivating a spirituality centered on God’s love and mercy, which impels believers to live in communion and solidarity with others. This vision of spiritual renewal closely aligns with the metaphor of yeast in the dough, highlighting the need for an inner change reflected in the Church’s life and mission.

But what happens if the yeast loses its capabilities and becomes stale? Pope Francis has expressed many times about this clericalism that seems to be spreading in our structures, occupying places that sometimes limit our religious life. The Continental Preparation Document for the Synod states: “Clericalism is considered a form of spiritual impoverishment, a deprivation of the actual goods of the ordained ministry, and a culture that isolates the clergy and harms the laity. This culture separates from the living experience of God. It damages fraternal relationships, producing rigidity, attachment to power in a legalistic sense, and an exercise of authority that is power and not service… They express a deep and energetic desire for forms in the exercise of leadership —episcopal, priestly, religious, and lay— that are relational and collaborative and for forms of authority capable of generating solidarity and co-responsibility. (Working Document for the Continental Stage, No. 58,59)

It becomes vital for the experience of our General Chapter to be a relational, collaborative experience, from union with and in the Heart of Jesus.


In conclusion, while the term “transformation” helps understand change processes in psychology and sociology, it may be limited in expressing the depth and scope of spiritual-pastoral renewal in a religious congregation. The metaphor of yeast in the dough, rooted in the biblical and evangelical tradition, offers a more appropriate and richer perspective for understanding this process, especially in the context of the spirituality and tradition of the Catholic Church. By reflecting on the teachings of Father León Dehon, we can deepen our understanding of spiritual and pastoral renewal as a call to be transformed by God’s love, which compels us to be agents of change and hope in the world.

Pope Francis calls us to a time of listening and profound conversion. It is time to leave our plans and working documents and sit at tables to listen to what the people of God have to say to us. Listening to each other as brothers and sisters will be the challenge for this time, the Today of God, which we call the General Chapter.


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White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. W.W. Norton & Company.

Wroceński, J. (2018). The legal aspect of the religious superior’s ministry and his responsibility in running the community. https://doi.org/10.4467/25443283SYM.18.030.9711

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