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Becoming a church for mission 2030

Frank Brennan |  16 May 2017

 

Cloing keynote address at the Catholic Mission conference Mission: one heart many voices 2017, Sydney, 17 May 2017. Listen on Soundcloud

We are to be a church of the baptised, not just a church of the ordained. When we stood as one and applauded Bishop Vincent Long yesterday at breakfast, it was because he spoke as one of us, and he spoke as a bishop enlivened and excited by the vision of Pope Francis, including all of us at the table of the banquet rather than placing us at the base of some clericalist pyramid or excluding us from the table of deliberation. As church, we are called to be wounded healers of each other and of our land. Evelyn Parkin's tears on the first morning made sense of Francis's words in Laudato Si: 'The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.'

Gathered at St Paul's Outside the Walls commemorating Francis Xavier ConaciLooking to the Church of 2030, might I start by looking back to the Church of 1843 when the Passionist missionaries established the first Catholic mission to Aborigines amongst the ancestors of Evelyn Parkin at Stradbroke Island, off the coast of Brisbane.

Back then, Archbishop Bede Polding the English Benedictine had just returned from Rome where he convinced the Pope to establish the Australian hierarchy. He became the first Archbishop of Sydney. In Rome, he had also convinced the Passionist Order to provide four men who could establish the Church's first mission to Aborigines. He had his eye on the talented well connected Fr Raimondo Vaccari who was 40 years of age and was said to be one who 'enjoyed great fame as a preacher, and had many influential friends among the laity, the upper ranks of the clergy, and the cardinals at the Vatican'.

The Superior General was most unwilling to let this man go to the other end of the earth. But in the end, he surrendered to all those persons of influence. Vaccari was joined by Luigi Pesciaroli (aged 36), Maurizio Lencioni (28), and the French born Joseph Snell (40). They could speak no English but that did not matter; neither did the Aborigines.

When the missionaries arrived on Stradbroke Island, Archbishop Polding was adamant that he had to keep control of the mission. Not surprisingly, the Italians thought it would make sense for them to buy supplies in Brisbane Town which had been established on the river found by John Oxley in 1823, Cook having missed it in 1770, thinking that Stradbroke and Moreton Islands were part of the mainland.

But Polding insisted that the missionaries order their supplies from Sydney every three weeks with him acting as their agent. Under canon law, Vaccari had been appointed prefect apostolic which meant he had the power to run the Aboriginal mission independent of Polding. Polding would not hear of it. Just before their first Christmas on Stradbroke Island, Vaccari wrote to Polding saying that his men were 'free from anxiety and full of hope for the conversion of these my aboriginals'. We can all be forgiven for thinking that the language sounds more than a little patronising these days.

The local people had obviously not lost their natural hospitality as displayed to Matthew Flinders 40 years before when he had been sailing past. Flinders and his sailors were short of water. The Aboriginal traditional owners not only invited them ashore. They joyfully showed them where to find fresh water and farewelled them on their way. 40 years on, Vaccari reported to the Archbishop: 'The Aborigines hold us in veneration and show us great affection, this being quite the reverse of their treatment of other Europeans, for, these, they say, do not act kindly towards them but betray them and deceive them, so that they have lost all confidence in them.'

What's always important is our meeting respectfully and on the lookout for signs of grace — meeting at the table of the Lord, and meeting each other — with gracious expectation as did Mary and Elizabeth at the Visitation in Luke's gospel; with amity, as did Flinders and the Stradbroke Aborigines in 1803; with openness to difference, as did Vaccari, the missionaries and the 200 Aboriginal traditional owners of Stradbroke Island in 1843. Neither Mary nor Elizabeth could quite work out how God was acting in their lives. And neither can we as we contemplate being a Church for mission in 2030.

Seven years ago, the Roman Catholic Church canonised its first Australian saint, Mary MacKillop, the founder of the Josephite sisters who have provided education and welfare services to the poor, especially in remote and rural parts of the vast Australian continent. Her brother Donald, a Jesuit who ministered amongst the Aborigines of Daly River in the Northern Territory at the end of the 19th century, wrote one of the great letters to the editor when he sent his 1892 Christmas epistle to the Sydney Herald: 'Australia, as such, does not recognise the right of the blackman to live. She marches onward, truly, but not perhaps the fair maiden we paint her. The blackfellow sees blood on that noble forehead, callous cruelty in her heart; her heel is of iron and his helpless countrymen beneath her feet.'

Indigenous Australians played a key role in the celebrations for the canonisation of Mary MacKillop in Rome. I was sitting with an Aboriginal group at the Mass of Thanksgiving at St Pauls Outside the Walls. Aboriginal dancers participated in the Offertory procession. Aboriginal deacon Boniface Perdjert assisted the Cardinal at the altar. The Aborigines around me were chuffed by the Aboriginal participation in the liturgy. It was their participation which rendered the celebration most Australian, even for those of us who were not indigenous.

At the conclusion of the liturgy at St Pauls Outside the Walls, some of the Aborigines invited those gathered around them to join them outside the entrance to the church. They had visited the church the previous day, concluding their researches and ascertaining the burial place of Francis Xavier Conaci. They led us in the most moving prayer for Francis, the Aboriginal boy who left Western Australia on 9 January 1849 for training as a Benedictine monk. Francis died on 17 September 1853 aged about thirteen and he lies buried outside the front of the basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls. Gathered around his burial place, we were moved to tears. The didgeridoo was played; a traditional dance was performed. Elsie Heiss, who welcomed us here on to Gadigal land on the first morning of our conference, led the prayer. We sang 'The Old Wooden Cross' (the hymn which is sung at most Aboriginal funerals) and the Aboriginal Our Father which we sang here at our conference Eucharist.

Little is known about Conaci other than what is found in the memoirs of Bishop Salvado who departed for Europe with two Aboriginal boys in 1849. When they were in Paris, they witnessed civil disruption on the streets following the workers' revolt of the previous year. Soldiers were pursuing some rioters through the streets on 13 June 1849. Here is Salvado's description:

One of my boys, agitated by this extraordinary display, asked me what it was all about. I told him that some of those who had just rushed by shouting were bad men, and that the soldiers were going to fire on them if they failed to keep the peace.
'But I see', said the boy, 'that the others have rifles too. Who will win?'
'There are only a few of the bad men,' I replied, 'and so the soldiers will win.'
He was silent for a few minutes, and then he went on: 'Why don't you go between the soldiers and the bad men, take all their weapons away, and lock them up in this house and stop them from fighting — and the two of us will help you?'
'Because this is not my country, and I don't know anyone here', I replied.
'That doesn't matter. You don't belong to my country either, and you didn't know the natives, but when they were getting ready to fight or had already started, you went in among them, took their gidjis, shut them up in the Mission house and it was all over. Why don't you do the same here?' This argument, which was so much to the point and so unexpected from a boy who eight months before was wandering naked in the bush and was as uncivilized as only a native can be, left me bereft of a satisfactory reply. I did not want to tell him that in a case like this, it was easier to get good results from natives than from those who boasted they had reached the acme of civilisation.

From Paris, Salvado and the boys travelled to Rome before Salvado then delivered the boys to the Benedictine Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Cava, Italy. Francis fell ill at La Cava, so he was taken to St Paul's Outside the Walls to take the fresher air. There he died on 17 September 1853; and there he was buried.

Many of us who had arrived at St Paul's Outside the Walls knew nothing of this story. The simple Aboriginal ritual over the burial site of Conaci was in stark contrast to the pomp and hierarchical ceremony in St Peter's Square the previous day. Here were indigenous people not only finding voice but leading those of us who are the descendants of their colonisers, teaching us the history, sharing the story, and enabling us to embrace the mystery of it all in prayer. Our role was to follow, to join in prayer and to express thanks for the gracious sharing and leadership of the indigenous people. What a wonderful image of how we in Australia might become a Church of all the baptised missioned to the world in 2030.

For the first time since 1937, the Australian bishops have announced that a synod is to be held in three years' time. All proposals for breaking down the culture of clericalism need to be on the table. Our church will be credible for your children and grandchildren only if church authority is seen to be exercised transparently, accountably and inclusively. Notions of tradition, authority, and routine ritual have become rather desiccated in our post-modern world. When announcing the 2020 plenary council of our Church, Archbishop Coleridge said last August, 'I think we have to accept the fact that Christendom is over — by which I mean mass, civic Christianity. It's over.'

I was pleased to hear the new bishop of Townsville Tim Harris at his episcopal ordination earlier this month when speaking about Pope Francis say:

Under him, the teachings of the Church don't change. But how we teach and apply them does. As a bishop, I can only teach what the Church teaches and I believe in that teaching. But if any of you fail, my friends, to live up to that teaching, I won't abandon you, I will do what I can to accompany you, something that I would hope every single priest of this diocese is already doing in his ministry. Our church needs to be known not for its predetermined sanctions and judgments, but how it walks gently and compassionately with the sinner in order to heal the sin.

And as we know, we are all sinners, including the bishops and priests who walk with us, and the bishops and priests who judge us and abandon us.

We Catholics need to understand that over time the changes we make to how we teach and the changes we observe as the outcomes of teachings can even result in changes to what we actually teach. Those changes cannot come from individual bishops but they can be authorised by the pope, either with or without a council of bishops. I call to mind the pioneering work of the American jurist John T. Noonan who died last month. He wrote a book called The Church That Can and Cannot Change. In that book, he researched the fundamental change in church teaching over the years on matters such as usury, slavery and marriage. In his obituary of Noonan, the great moral theologian Charles Curran wrote:

Noonan, in looking back on these changes and developments, notes that the process of change requires a complex constellation of forces. There is no readily available grid for determining how change occurs. Noonan agrees with Vatican II that change comes from the contemplation of believers, the experience of spiritual realities, and the preaching of the church. He wants to avoid the extremes of maintaining that no change can and should occur in what the church has consistently taught in the past on moral issues and the modernist approach that doctrine is only the projection of human needs. The great commandments of love of God and of neighbour, the great principles of justice and charity, continue to govern all development.'

As the Church of 2030, we need to be more attentive to the contemplation of believers and our experience of spiritual realities, as well as the preaching of the church. At the royal commission, Bishop Vincent Long, himself a migrant, refugee and victim of sexual abuse in the Church told the commission: 'It's no secret that we have been operating, at least under the two previous pontificates, from what I'd describe as a perfect society model where there is a neat, almost divinely inspired, pecking order, and that pecking order is heavily tilted towards the ordained ... I think we really need to examine seriously that kind of model of Church where it promotes the superiority of the ordained and it facilitates that power imbalance between the ordained and the non-ordained, which in turn facilitates that attitude of clericalism.' We have been blessed to have Bishop Vincent address us at this conference.

Pope Francis has no time whatever for the notion of the Church as a perfect society. But, there is no way that Francis wants to abandon the ideals and the commitment to truth and justice so well exemplified by his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict. He embodies Paul's statement to the Colossians: 'And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.'(Col:3:14) He commissions us to risk and envision our church life by planning and acting with love and goodness, espousing ideals, affirming truth and a commitment to justice, and seeking grace and mercy in the mess and complexity of our world, in the reality of the market place, and in the lives of ordinary people.

Let there be no mistake about the depth and width of the chasm between our present pope and some of those bishops who waged the culture wars in times past as Pope John Paul's most loyal storm troopers. This is now playing out in Rome and will be an ongoing tension in our Church up until 2030. In November 2016, four elderly Cardinals who were in the peak of their powers during the previous two papacies took the unprecedented step of publishing their concerns about Pope Francis's teachings quite rightly pointing out that some of the things being said by Francis are irreconcilable or at least inconsistent with previous clear statements by Pope John Paul II.

These cardinals think Francis is seriously in error when he teaches about mercy and justice, right and wrong, and the place of conscience. But these cardinals would do well to revisit some of John Paul's own teaching on mercy and justice. Looking to the Old Testament, John Paul II in his 1980 encyclical letter Dives in Misericordia insisted that 'love is greater than justice'; 'love conditions justice'; and 'justice serves love'. Reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan, John Paul said, 'Love is transformed into mercy when it is necessary to go beyond the precise norm of justice — precise and often too narrow.' Asking 'Is justice enough?', John Paul said, 'The experience of the past and of our own time demonstrates that justice alone is not enough, that it can even lead to the negation and destruction of itself, if that deeper power, which is love, is not allowed to shape human life in its various dimensions.' He lamented 'the attempt to free interpersonal and social relationships from mercy and to base them solely on justice.' John Paul thought that Christian mercy was the most perfect incarnation of equality between people. Comparing both the equality produced by justice and by mercy, he said, 'The equality brought by justice is limited to the realm of objective and extrinsic goods, while love and mercy bring it about that people meet one another in that value which is man himself, with the dignity that is proper to him.' For John Paul, 'Mercy has the power to confer on justice a new content, which is expressed most simply and fully in forgiveness.'

Let's consider the useful checklist which Francis elaborates when reflecting on the ever-familiar Mt 25:31-45 where the king separates out those who have done the smallest thing for the least person, answering their query, 'In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it to me':

We will be asked if we have helped others to escape the doubt that causes them to fall into despair and which is often a source of loneliness; if we have helped to overcome the ignorance in which millions of people live, especially children deprived of the necessary means to free them from the bonds of poverty; if we have been close to the lonely and afflicted; if we have forgiven those who have offended us and have rejected all forms of anger and hate that lead to violence; if we have had the kind of patience God shows, who is so patient with us; and if we have commended our brothers and sisters to the Lord in prayer.

In the church of 2030 it won't be who's in or who's out that will matter; it won't be right or left that counts; it won't be possible always to give definitive answers of what's right and what's wrong; it won't be truth declared by authority that will be trumps; it won't be justice without mercy that will provide the best answers to relationships and social questions. None of us by 2030 will see the Church as the perfect society providing the clear answer to every pastoral problem and every social or political challenge.

Under the leadership and example of Francis, we are on the path where accompaniment, discernment, conscience and mercy are given their due place alongside distinctive Catholic identity, moral certainty, definitive teaching, and notions of commutative, distributive and social justice.

Thank God, Francis insists that 'individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church's praxis' and that 'conscience can do more than recognise that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognise with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one's limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.' It's not simply a matter of applying universal rules to a particular situation nor of arguing casuistically to render one's situation as compliance with the rules. Rather it is a matter of 'practical discernment' practised by friends in the Lord who accompany each other, engaging in spiritual conversation. Gone are the days when Cardinal Pell could win the day by declaring:

In the past I have been in trouble for stating that the so-called doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be quietly dropped. I would like to reconsider my position here and now state that I believe that this misleading doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be publicly rejected.

A generation ago, it was fashionable in Catholic circles to parody some of us as cafeteria Catholics — those choosing only those teachings or practices which resonated with their desires or preferences. Those proffering the adverse judgments were usually satisfied of their orthodoxy and orthopraxis because they followed the liturgical rubrics attentively and affirmed papal teaching on the 'neuralgic issues': contraception, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, and the indissolubility of marriage. They also affirmed the papal decrees stating that ordination must forever be reserved to men, even claiming that such utterances were infallible. Francis has made it clear that most, if not all, of us can now be parodied as cafeteria Catholics, and that's because we are all sinners in need of God's mercy. Individually, we get only part of the picture; together we can complete the picture of God's grace in the world.

We in the west are all citizens of wealthy nation states which consume more than our fair share and maintain secure borders aimed at excluding those in need from obtaining the necessities of life. We are members of a Church which in our lifetime has failed to protect its most vulnerable members, children. We are the beneficiaries of an international economic order which cheats billions of the opportunities to achieve their human flourishing in community. We are all in need of forgiveness. There is none of us who can be excluded from God's mercy. Francis says, 'There are two ways of thinking which recur throughout the Church's history: casting off and reinstating.' He is not one to cast off anyone too readily, and he is prepared to go to great lengths in trying to reinstate any individual who has fallen short of the ideal but who is seeking God's grace and mercy. He is adamant: 'No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!'

He says that a person can be living in God's grace while 'in an objective situation of sin', and that the sacraments, including the Eucharist might help, because the Eucharist 'is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak'. It's the sick and supplicant who need the doctor, not the well and the righteous. Speaking to the Bishops of the United States some of whom have been great warriors in the culture wars fearlessly declaring Catholic doctrine in the public square, Francis told them that 'we are promoters of the culture of encounter' and 'living sacraments of the embrace between God's riches and our poverty'. He heralded an altogether different approach: 'Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart. Although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing'.

I must confess that Pope Francis is not the embodiment of everything I think the Church needs to be by 2030 if we are to return to being the people of God envisaged by Jesus and enlivened by the Spirit. When asked about women's ordination in June 2013, Pope Francis replied, 'The Church has spoken and says no ... That door is closed.' The one consolation is that he used the image of a door and not a wall. At least a door can be opened if you have the key or if you are able to prise it with force over time.

Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, 'The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general.' It is even more divisive if those who reserve to themselves sacramental power determine that they alone can determine who has access to that power and legislate that the matter is not open for discussion. Given that the power to determine both the teaching of the magisterium and the provisions of canon law is not a sacramental power, is there not a need to include women in the decision that the question is not open to discussion and in the contemporary quest for an answer to the question? Francis's position on this may be politic for the moment within the Vatican which has had a long-time preoccupation with shutting down the discussion, but the position is incoherent.

No one doubts the pastoral sensitivity of Pope Francis. But the Church will continue to suffer for as long as it does not engage in open, ongoing discussion and education about this issue. The official position is no longer comprehensible to most people of good will, and not even those at the very top of the hierarchy have a willingness or capacity to explain it.

The claim that the matter 'is not a question open to discussion' cannot be maintained unless sacramental power also includes the power to determine theology and the power to determine canon law. Ultimately the Pope's claim must be that only those possessed of sacramental power can determine the magisterium and canon law. Conceding for the moment the historic exclusion of women from the sacramental power of presidency at Eucharist, we need to determine if 'the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church's life' could include the power to contribute to theological discussion and the shaping of the magisterium and to canonical discussion about sanctions for participating in theological discussion on set topics such as the ordination of women. As Francis says, 'Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded.'

When I was a schoolboy, it was unimaginable that a woman be prime minister, governor-general or chief justice of Australia. These offices are now not only open to women. They have been occupied by women. As Church in 2030, we will have to provide a place at the table for all the baptised. We will have to extend our care and attention to all those in need, particularly the poor and our Mother Earth. We will have to be open to change — the change the comes by including the marginalised at the centre. Let's recall (Acts 6:1-7) that 'as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, "It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose' seven men all with Greek names. The disciples then laid hands on them. One of the them was Stephen who a short time later was stoned to death, and not for the way he was distributing the food. The early Christian community was more than able to adapt their structures, their ministries, and their roles to give everyone a place at the table, including the marginalised Hellenists who had been left out by the dominating Hebrews. The Church of 2030 will need to be equally adaptable providing a place at the table for the indigenous, for the refugee, for the victim of abuse, for the woman who sees the face of Christ in the hospitality of women and who feels the hands of Christ in the ministrations of women. Tradition, authority, and routine ritual need to be enfleshed and animated by the power of the Spirit which filled our hearts as we stood as one and applauded Bishop Long yesterday morning, as we sat spell-bound while Ginn Fourie opened our hearts to mercy and forgiveness, and as we witnessed Evelyn Parkin weep for Poor Fellow Our Country. Let's go forth on our mission of justice and mercy being the church for mission 2030. Thank you.

 


Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

Main image: Gathered at St Paul's Outside the Walls commemorating Francis Xavier Conaci

 



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