New (old) ways

‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’, is a cynical aphorism, done best with a French shrug. Much more interesting is its converse, ‘The more things are the same, the more they have changed’.

A recent Melbourne exhibition of Catholic life, part of a program encouraging religious vocations, for example, revisited an identical event held in 1955. Much was the same: the visibility of dog collars and the variety of cloaks and dress dating from the beginning of clerical congregations, the stalls manned by priests and religious, the multitude of devotions and artefacts commended, and the flocks of schoolchildren grazing at the events.

But what seemed the same was in fact very different. Fifty years ago, in the exhibition a proud church celebrated its growth and strength. The crowds reflected a well-organised church in which religious practice was high. Dress and stalls commending congregations, devotions and distinctive forms of Catholic activities expressed a cohesive church whose patterns of life were apparently unchanging and given. The only hint of future divisions lay in the entrails exposed by the nascent split in the Labor party. This was a church on the rise.

In 2003, the religious groups that sponsored the stalls were for the most part much diminished from 1955, and represented often sharply divergent versions of faithful Catholic life. Indeed, one of the great merits of the exhibition was that it brought divergent groups together. The garb, as well as the evangelical energy and devotions commended in the workshops, no longer expressed an inherited tradition, but individual choice. They were not about a given identity, but about the counter-cultural construction of a new identity.

The insight that sameness marks the deepest difference might also illuminate the spirit of the many young people who took part enthusiastically in the workshops. They are evangelical in the sense that they respond to a call to be Catholic and want to find ways to live out their commitment proudly, publicly and radically. This is a profoundly counter-cultural choice that finds little support in society. Their need to shape a distinctively Catholic way of life helps explain the popularity of Marian and Eucharistic devotions, the pride taken in John Paul II and his adamantine integrity, the popularity of World Youth days where a minority come together as friends and for a moment find themselves part of a mass movement. The exhibition and workshops were also important in this respect.

It would be a mistake to describe this adoption of older practices as conservative. The devotions may be the same as those of 50 years ago, but the movement is radically different. It is about new beginnings. The challenge is to nurture these beginnings, precariously grounded in a mixture of devotions and practices. The grounding is precarious because devotions, practices and pilgrimages depend on the support of a religious culture—a culture not given in Australia—or on a deep personal faith. The nurturing of personal faith calls for an older and deeper tradition of listening to the ways in which God draws the heart, of imagining and striving to build the just world that God wants, of following the compassionate way of Jesus. This is the sameness that can make a difference. 

Andrew Hamilton sj teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.



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