Catholics learning to love themselves (humbly)

Church Alive: Pilgrimages in Faith 1956-2006, by Greg Dening. Published by UNSW Press, Sydney, 2006. ISBN 0868408433. RRP $44.95. website

Catholics learning to love themselves (humbly) This book is a history of the Catholic and Jesuit Parish of St Mary's North Sydney, published to mark its sesquicentenary year. Despite the title and subject matter, it's no ordinary parish history. The book is written by one of Australia's most creative and eminent historians, as an "ethnographic history of the prophetic imagination among ordinary believers in times of great religious change".

One-time Jesuit Greg Dening is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Melbourne. Many of his previous works, which include Islands and Beaches and Mr Bligh's Bad Language, deal with culture conflict in the Pacific. When published, they broke new ground in the field of ethnographic history. As he did many years ago with his school history, Xavier: A Centenary Portrait, Dening has used ethnographic techniques in an area mainly charted by conventional and amateur historians.

One such amateur historian was Fr Henry A. Johnston SJ, who wrote the first history of North Sydney Parish, on the occasion of its centenary in 1956. Dening uses the fact that Johnston covered the first 100 years as a licence to focus on the last 50 years. This allows him to dwell on an era marked by unprecedented change, in both the Church itself and the Jesuits.

Dening writes that the change was inspired by two '60s prophets: John XXIII and Pedro Arrupe SJ—the pilgrim Pope who called Vatican II, and the prayerful and fearless Superior General who shook the Jesuits. He characterises the turnaround in Catholics of the period as a shift from a disposition in which it is "easier than one thinks to hate oneself", to one of "learning to love oneself humbly". He argues that the trauma of Humanae Vitae—Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical banning contraception—was not the beginning of an exodus from the Church, as is generally assumed.

Catholics learning to love themselves (humbly) The exodus was from a Catholicism defined by Sunday mass attendance, obedience to formalistic Church rules, and an acceptance of papal infallibility where it did not reach. Humanae Vitae freed Catholics to love themselves humbly by delivering their most personal decisions to their own conscience.

He contends that Humanae Vitae occasioned a boom in the number of Catholics going to communion, and a desertion of the confessional. To back up his argument, he borrows from the practice of conventional historians, and points out that the number of communions at St Mary's, which numbered 102,000 in 1968, rose to 150,000 in 1971.

These were heady days in the life of the Church. But the book's emphasis is on the ordinariness that lies in the midst of the big events. Indeed there is a lot that is ordinary about parish life, and Dening recognises this as a strength. Ordinary becomes extraordinary when imbued with cognisance of the culture it belongs to. Dening intently describes actions the parishioners and priests perform and witness every Sunday.

As Father Smith raises the bread and then the cup, these young, slight children at his side raise their arms and stand on the tips of their toes.

He then describes what he observes once he puts on his culturally-aware glasses.

This is the catharsis, the moment of enlightenment when we proclaim the presence of the Lord in the breaking of the bread.

Catholics learning to love themselves (humbly) If there is a standout characteristic in this book, it is Dening's powers of observation, and the practice of what the ethnographic historians call "thick description". This is relating bare bones actions with an overlay derived from an understanding of the prevailing culture, which is, in this case, the congregation's particular way of thinking, feeling and believing.

It follows that Dening's focus on the ordinary makes his book accessible to the ordinary reader. There are yarns, including an account of "after-the-fact democrat" but much-loved parish priest Peter Quin, who was forced to rethink his idea of reorienting the pews in the Lavender Bay church from east-west to north-south. Cynics among the parishioners believed the semi-circular result would deprive brides of an aisle to walk down, and the parish of funds that weddings bring.

Dening's parishioners jump out of their stereotypical skins. The women are not easily defined, but instead "postmodern, though it is not a word they would use". They can say "I feel free now" without feeling frustrated that women will never be ordained in their lifetime. Their Church is not the bishops, nor even the parish priest, but their "journeying selves". A "just-do-it" approach to daily life goes hand in hand with loving themselves humbly.



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