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The unfashionable virtues of time and patience


One of the wisest figures in Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace is the Russian General Mikhail Kutuzov. His successful strategy, defended against impatient peers, was summed up in the phrase ‘Time and Patience’. It proved successful against Napoleon, and its influence, without Kutuzov’s respect for soldiers’ lives, can be seen in the Russian resistance to Hitler’s army and perhaps ominously in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Stripped of its military associations the phrase might link and illuminate two apparently disparate events in coming days: the Catholic Plenary Council and NAIDOC Week. The weeks are moments in the life of communities that are in for the long haul. The larger challenges that they face will endure long after the week is over.

NAIDOC Week began in protest. Before the 1920s Indigenous Australians claimed that it was inappropriate to celebrate Australia Day on the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, an event which marked the beginning of their dispossession. They began to organise in order to demand recognition by other Australians of their right to participate in society as equal members. They faced opposition both in their initial and their larger goals. Institutional racism, exclusion of Indigenous communities from the decisions that shape their lives and the challenge of passing on a rich culture to younger generations do not disappear in a day. To hang in has required time and patience.

The Plenary Council has been four years in the making. The Catholic Church in Australia also faces long term challenges. It is declining in numbers, both its culture and its self-confidence have been assailed by sexual abuse of children and its continuing effects, its structures of governance have been weakened by restrictions in the part that lay Catholics and especially women can play, and it also experiences difficulty in passing on its culture to younger generations. These are long term challenges that the Council must address but will endure long after it.

If NAIDOC and of the Australian Catholic Church are to achieve their goals time and patience will be required. Yet both weeks show signs of justifiable impatience. This year the theme of NAIDOC Week is Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up! Its tone is urgent, expressing frustration at the resistance to change but also the recognition that new possibilities have opened. Last year the theme was Heal Country, which echoed both a broader demand in Australia for respect for the natural environment and specific outrage at the destruction of the Juukan Caves. Impatience is understandable.


'A sense of marginalisation leads easily to discouragement and dissipation of energy. That must be met by preserving and nourishing culture. Both Indigenous and Catholic communities face this challenge.'


The Plenary Council has aroused many responses. Enthusiasm in its early stages that invited local participation, annoyance at the restrictions placed on membership of the Council and the topics that it will discuss, and frustration of articulate lay groups that proposed a strong agenda for the Council. Many Catholics have hovered between hope that the Council will build a platform for new vitality and fear that nothing will come of it.

NAIDOC and the Council meeting are also similar in that they represent communities grappling with a sense of marginalisation. For NAIDOC that marginalisation is a continuing reality. It has been historically enforced by laws that were discriminatory and racially based. It is perpetuated by bias in administration that leads Indigenous children and adults to be disproportionately represented in prison, and Indigenous communities not to be consulted in the decisions that concern them.

Although the Catholic Church is not really marginalised in the way that Indigenous Australians are, many Catholics feel it to be edged out. The sense is based in a history that includes memories of persecution abroad and of discrimination against a small immigrant community. The contemporary sense of marginalisation reflects the more recent change from a situation in which Catholics were relatively cohesive and had a strong political influence, to the present reality of a smaller group with many different national and cultural origins, of damage to its public reputation by crimes of sexual abuse of children, and of dissonance between many of its ethical positions and those of the wider society. These changes leave it with no cohesive and persuasive public voice. 

A sense of marginalisation leads easily to discouragement and dissipation of energy. That must be met by preserving and nourishing culture. Both Indigenous and Catholic communities face this challenge.

Among Indigenous Australians the forces eroding culture come out of dispossession, discrimination and the weakening of communities. Government policies have not helped because they do not strengthen communities but often shame and weaken individuals, and hinder the growth of young people into proud young people who will inherit the opportunity to build their lives and to contribute to society. Connection with land, with family and with meaningful work are eroded. Culture is intangible, but it rests on the transmission of a tradition that binds relationships to people and to the world. That transmission comes through strong families and communities. These are long in the building.

In the Catholic Church culture is also threatened by the same emphasis in Australian society on individual choice and interests. It is reflected particularly in the failure to nurture faith and attachment to the Catholic community in young people. Although the Catholic education system has been effective in promoting a loose sense of Catholic identity and in promoting such Gospel values as care for the disadvantaged and a passion for social justice, these values are a single part part of a wider set of practices and relationships that constitute the Catholic culture. They need to be nurtured in active Catholic communities. 

The building of the relationships involved in tradition and the culture built around it is a long-term project of the kind to which NAIDOC and the Catholic Church have long been committed. Dedicated weeks and Councils are important in gathering support for and furthering that project. But their effectiveness will lie in the energy they generate within people to hang in for the long haul.   





Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: A general view during the 2017 NAIDOC March on July 7, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. The march was organised to call for a day of mourning and to bring to light the disadvantages and inequality faced by indigenous people. (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, NAIDOC, Catholic Church, Time, Culture, Plenary



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Existing comments

With the greatest respect Andrew the marginalisation of Aboriginal communities and the similarities to the Catholic Plenary Council really don't belong on the same page.

Jan Wright | 30 June 2022  
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‘the marginalisation of Aboriginal communities and the similarities to the Catholic Plenary Council really don't belong on the same page’

All ‘long marches’ are examples of time and patience and those involved in one can draw even grudging inspiration from the other.

Scripture, of course, kicks it off with the mustard seed-to-oak example. It was about 300 years from Pentecost to the Cross in the sky before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. African-Americans have their Civil Rights Movement, homosexuals the period since the Stonewall Inn and even before, and the cultural Marxists’ long march through the institutions, hollowing them from within like weevils, is still going on, as seen in the claim that Catholic schools must be prevented from transmitting Catholic culture by being forced to host cultural cuckoos in the form of teachers and pupils who are hostile to Catholic culture.

All long marches belong on the same page because of the cross-analysis: marginalisation of Aborigines yesterday, marginalisation of Christ's Church tomorrow, and reinvigoration to follow after observation and learning.

roy chen yee | 01 July 2022  

The argument for Catholic schools being able to discriminate in employment would be much stronger if they were not accepting state aid. It would be irrelevant if Catholic schools were staffed solely by religious orders. But would their students be any less open to unorthodox influence?

Ginger Meggs | 09 July 2022  

'The argument for Catholic schools being able to discriminate in employment would be much stronger if they were not accepting state aid.'

If we can have public funding of election campaigns, we can have public funding of religious schools.

roy chen yee | 11 July 2022  

Andrew makes an eloquent case for patience among those committed to the long haul of enabling the Catholic Church Community to be faithful to its mission in the antipodes. Part of that patience surely takes note of critical source material and relevant contemporary data.
The Hebrew Scriptures and The New Testament both speak of an attentiveness to right action at the right time (kairos). They also warn of the costs of undue hesitation and timidity.
My study sits within a three kilometre radius encompassing three parishes. In 1962 these centres hosted fourteen Sunday Eucharist celebrations – today, there are Two. And the majority of those attending these two masses were in church in 1962!

Bill Burke | 02 July 2022  

27th June last week marked the fifth anniversary of the death of Peter Steele, SJ, priest, friend and mentor to many, who once described history as "the time of God's patience."

John RD | 03 July 2022  

A warm and kindly reminder on both counts that the real slog is to stick at it rather than to engage in an act of public hat-throwing within the ring of discouragement and defeat.

Where the two issues might differ is that one senses Indigenous claims to have at last gained a public hearing. Roll on the special place that our very own First People deserve in the Constitution!

I am more sanguine and, I think, realistic about the chances of anything other than a merely cosmetic tinkering at the edges of synodality that a majority of bishops and their underlings have long fixed beforehand in terms of rigging the votes that exclude rather than lead.

That said, and if Synodalism turns out to be the damp squib its reported to be, I have faith in the prophets who will continue to challenge such a result rather than leave the rest of us disheartened.

Should that grim reality eventuate, the Holy Spirit can surely be trusted not to abandon us and accept the matter as settled. She has, after all, been known throughout history to roam the land urging righteous insurrection on prior occasion. Let's be attentive to Her Call!

Michael Furtado | 06 July 2022  
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From where in Scripture might we reasonably infer that the HS is a 'her'? He might not turn up if you persist in calling him 'her', given (straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak):

'If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.

'And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Advocate to be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot receive Him, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. But you do know Him, for He abides with you and will be in you.…'

If there is anything the trans social phenomenon shows us, it's that pronouns mean something --- both to those who wish to use them properly and to those who don't.

roy chen yee | 07 July 2022  

If I understand correctly the press reports on the outcome of the motion concerning women and the diaconate, a very reactionary minority of generally conservative bishops have vetoed the very mild recommendation of a largely conservative group of laity, priests and religious hand-selected by those generally conservative bishops. It seems to me that Catholics looking to make their faith and Church more relevant to the real world are going to need truckloads of 'time and patience'. Alternatively, they might follow the adage ' Try, try , again; then give up, there's no need to be stubborn'. Love and truth and goodness are not contingent upon the survival of the institutional church.

Ginger Meggs | 08 July 2022  
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Jan Wright | 11 July 2022  

'Love and truth and goodness are not contingent upon the survival of the institutional church.'

People get their values from institutions. All you're saying is that you want values to come from some institutions only. (Without saying which and why.)

roy chen yee | 20 July 2022  

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