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Church and ordained ministry in the 21st century


It's a great privilege for me as a Jesuit resident in Canberra to be invited to address you, the priests and deacons of the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn. Reflecting on ordained ministry for the future in the Roman Catholic Church, I take it as my starting point one of the increasingly familiar and folksy remarks of our new Pope Francis: 'Each one of us longs for love, for truth, for life — and Jesus is all of these things in abundance.' As priests and deacons, we seek love, truth and life not just for ourselves, but for our parishioners, and indeed for the whole of humanity.

On the election of Pope Francis, The Australian asked me to write an opinion piece on the significance of the Church's first Jesuit pope. The editors entitle the article: 'Jesuits welcomed back to the fold'. So it's good to be back with you all. I didn't know that we'd left. I commenced the article: 'The public fascination with this week's papal conclave in Rome highlights that religious tradition, authority and ritual are alive and well, even in Australia, despite declining church attendances and disillusionment with mainstream religion. The election of the first Jesuit pope seems to have put a spring in the step of many people of goodwill, not just church-goers.' Two months on, the spring is still in our step, and hopefully it will last for some time to come. It will remain for as long as we, being ministers of the word and the sacrament, maintain a connection between tradition, authority and ritual on the one hand, and the lived experience and critical reflection of ordinary people on the other.

Father Timothy Radcliffe OP last year visited Australia and addressed the National Council of Priests' conference. He put three challenges to us priests and deacons. We must refuse self-marginalisation. We must engage profoundly with those who are different, with whom we disagree. We must free ourselves from fear and the impulse to control everything.

Radcliffe also quoted Cardinal Newman who taught that there were three offices in the church: the authority of government, the authority of truth, and the authority of the experience of God in worship. Each of these authorities can go wrong. And each of these authorities can be mutually correcting of the others.

As priests in the 21st century, we hold in tension the insights gained from being in touch with our people, being grounded in our tradition, and being open to God in prayer and in worship. We are so often the mediators of the tradition, authority and ritual. Sometimes we find ourselves in conflict but more often confronting the torpor, relativism and deadening materialism of the age. Let me set the context in which we live and operate by reciting Bruce Dawe's recent poem, Committee report for the new universal Church of good intentions:

We began our committee-work with a small concession:
_______Theories of Creation, after all,
Are open to a wide range of opinions,

_______As is the ancient legend of the Fall.

But that oppressive notion of Salvation
_______Put too much pressure, surely, on the Soul
(If, by 'Soul', you mean that One Indwelling
_______Spirit which unites us to the Whole ... ).

We had, of course, little sympathy with that other
_______Mediaeval relict known as Sin;
Being ourselves so thoroughly non-judgemental,
_______We chucked that nasty concept in the bin!

The Virgin Mary? Well, in these enlightened
_______Times that figure's past its use by date
— A handy subject in Renaissance painting,
_______Now liberated from that gender-fate.

The divinity of Christ we thought as prone to
much the same uncertainty as the rest
— Better to keep an open mind (like Arian)
_______Than put that daunting concept to the test.

By that stage, then, our committee had no problem
_______In dealing with such once contentious terms
As Transubstantiation, which we happily
_______Made finally a diet for the worms ...

Pope and Priesthood? Once we got our bearings
_______As post-conciliar Democrats, we saw
That both would have to go, their places taken
_______By self appointed lay-folk at the door.

And (with all due respect) we believe our version
_______Of the new Church will suit these times quite well
— A do it yourself kit with detachable pieces
_______To keep you entertained on the road to ... Well,

It's not in keeping with contemporary ethics
_______To dogmatise on the goals for which we strive
— We may conclude then, that like so many journeys
_______There'll be more fun in journeying than to arrive.

As pastors, we are called to accompany a pilgrim people on their journey and to help provide pointers to the destination. A moral compass can help mightily in setting the destination and the route to travel. Especially we Catholics believe there is much fruit in looking to the past in helping to set that course for the future.

Yesterday morning, I was privileged to celebrate mass in the Chapel of St Mary MacKillop at North Sydney. Like most Australian Catholics, I now feel a connection with Mary, our first canonised saint. Like most Australian Catholics, I have come across the Josephites established by Mary MacKillop in some of the unlikeliest and toughest places in Australia, as well as East Timor. A further connection for me is her brother Donald, a Jesuit who ministered amongst Aboriginal Australians in the Northern Territory at the end of the 19th century. He made public statements in defence of the rights of Aborigines far more robust than anything I have ever said. For example he wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1892 saying:

Australia, as such, does not recognise the right of the black man to live. She marches onward truly, but not perhaps the fair maiden we paint her. The black fellow sees blood on that noble forehead, callous cruelty in her heart, her heel is of iron and his helpless countrymen beneath her feet. But we are strong and the blacks are weak; we have rifles, they but spears; we love British fair play, and having got hold of this Continent we have every square foot. The little Tasmania is our model, and, I fear, will be, until the great papers of Australia will chronicle, 'with regret', the death of the last black fellow.

Another connection for me is the enigmatic father Julian Tenison Woods, the one rightly credited by Mary as a co-founder of the Josephites. She once told Archbishop Kelly that 'nearly all was due to him ... He may never be overlooked in the history of what God has done by our sisters.' Scientist and priest, Woods ministered increasingly in the north of Australia once he fell out of favour with bishops in the south of Australia. On my reckoning he visited the parish of Maryborough in Queensland at least 10 times when making scientific expeditions. There he forged a connection with my family. In two weeks time I will celebrate the parish mass at Maryborough marking the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the David McIver.

Julian and Mary did much to educate and liberate the poor Irish Catholics who migrated to Australia, though neither of them was Irish. My own Irish forebears owe much to Julian who eventually fell out with Mary, thinking in part that the Jesuits had infected her mind permitting her to loosen up too much on their original shared vision of poverty and obedience for the sisters. Woods on one of his scientific expeditions turned up in Maryborough where my widowed great great grandmother Annie Brennan had arrived in 1863 on the David McIver with her five children — a courageous move by any reckoning. Family legend has it that Woods got my great grandfather Martin off the grog and back to church. So his next son, my grandfather, was named Frank Tenison Brennan, as am I. One of the good things about a canonisation is that ordinary events and ordinary connections in life take on a graced dimension. Our history becomes holy, while our present remains messy. As pastors, we can point our people towards the signs of holiness in the messiness of their lives and of our world, even in the midst of the messiness of our Church.

Yesterday afternoon, I attended at the bedside of Father Emmett P Costello SJ celebrating his 89th and last birthday. He had just received a phone call from one of his old students, Tony Abbott for whom he has been a great mentor. I told him that I was to give this address today on the future of ordained ministry. He laughed. Then he exclaimed: 'It's over'. I have no doubt that much of the context and practice of the priesthood from Emmet's day is over.

I caused alarm with some of my fellow Jesuits a while ago when I gave an interview to The Good Weekend magazine in the Sydney Morning Herald saying: 'I wouldn't be a priest if I was 21 today. I am one of the last generations of Irish Catholics whose families made it professionally and were comfortable with the church. I love being a Jesuit but I can't honestly say I would join now. My religious faith has remained rock solid, but there are times when I feel really cheesed off with the institutional church, which sometimes treats its lay members and non-members in a too-patronising fashion.'

When I joined the Jesuits, approximately 25 per cent of clerical religious were 60 or over, with very few aged 75 or over. More than one-third (36.6 per cent) were under the age of 40, with 9.8 per cent under 25 years. By 2009, only 10 per cent of clerical religious were under 40, with just 0.7 per cent aged under 25. That's an enormous challenge for a 21 year old.

As I have said to my superiors, we need to see how a young man might discern that action of the Spirit in calling him to a group which is aged and diminished, though armed with a fine founding charism and recent documents which make for splendid reading in terms of mission and life. For example, if I were contemplating priesthood, the diaconate or religious life aged 21 today and was attracted to the Australian Jesuits, I would need to consider some additional factors which were not relevant in 1975: I will be responsible in fraternal charity for a disproportionate number of my brothers who are retired and moving towards death; I will not be accompanied by a significant number of like-minded contemporaries; I will be expected to oversee corporate enterprises boasting the Ignatian charism with a reduced expectation that I will have a long working life largely dedicated just to learning, teaching or direct pastoral involvement — I will be expected to serve on various boards safeguarding the charism of the organization being run by competent lay people many of whom go home to their spouse and children at night. And I will be part of an apostolic group dedicated to the universal mission of the Church but with few inspiring demands or expressions of trust from the local hierarchy. For example I was adviser to the Australian Catholic Bishops on the contested issue of Aboriginal rights at the age of 30. It would be unimaginable nowadays that the Bishops Conference would commission a 30-year-old priest or religious to perform such a task in the public square. The Spirit may still be calling me but not in the same exciting and challenging way that the Spirit would have been calling the same young man had he turned 21 in 1975 rather than 2013.

After my Good Weekend interview, one very fine Jesuit wrote to me saying, 'A vocation to the priesthood is basically a particular relationship with Jesus, to which we are called. Are you saying — 'If I were 21 today, Jesus would not be calling me to the priesthood'? I really don't think we can speak for Jesus like that! Or are you saying- 'If I were 21 today, I wouldn't say 'Yes' to Jesus calling me to the priesthood (i.e. I would only relate with Jesus on my terms)'? It is very risky, even hypothetically, to think like that. It gives the Bad Spirit a way into the present moment, where he can appear as an angel of light.'

This is how I replied:

The matter of the call presumably is always to be seen in the context from which we can incarnate the presence of Jesus and discern the call of the Spirit. Presumably, we are ad idem in stating: If I were born into a Muslim family, I don't think I would be a priest today. If I were born a girl, I don't think I would be called to priesthood. Where we seem to part is in considering: If I were born into a social context where there were not the supports and encouragements to consider priesthood, and where the likely consequences of priesthood would be membership of an ageing and diminishing group serving a Church that was seen to be more dysfunctional and with a hierarchy more removed from the realities of ordinary people's lives, I don't think I would be so likely to discern a call to priesthood in 2012 as I would have in 1975.

If your approach is right then of course, there are just as many young men in 2012 being called by the Spirit but they are ignoring the call. You would judge them as dealing with Jesus on their terms. If my approach is right, the Spirit is not calling as many young men to priesthood precisely because it is a very different call from what it was 40 or 60 years ago. But you don't think we can speak for Jesus like that! I appreciate your caution about playing around with Jesus and making room for the Bad Spirit. But I am wary about any approach which passes adverse judgment on all those who have not answered 'the unchanging call' in the same numbers as they did in the past. Existentially, it is now a very different call, in my view. And it is no surprise that so few are taking it up in our part of the world.

Either we have to judge adversely those who have not joined in the same numbers in the past or we have to re-assess the work of the Spirit in calling a reduced number to our ranks.

Given the shortage of priests and religious in the contemporary Australian church as compared with the situation 50 years ago, we need to provide more resources and opportunities to the laity wanting to perform the mission in Christ's name — lay organisations, public juridic persons, volunteering, better structured opportunities for part time commitment to the apostolate, and provision by religious orders for young people wanting to make a commitment for a few years before marriage and life and work in civic service. The greatest challenge is providing a place in the Church for young women wanting to contribute to the mission. As priests and deacons of the future, we need to be far more collaborative and inclusive with the laity.

Wondering about my own notion of priesthood for the future, I looked back at a reflection I wrote 8 years ago at the request of the legendary emeritus Professor Greg Dening who had been a Jesuit but later became an anthropologist and sociologist of culture. In 2006 he published a refreshing ethnographic history of the Jesuit parishes on the North Shore of Sydney Harbour entitled Church Alive. He asked me to write a one-page reflection on priesthood. On re-reading it I decided I would need to change only the dates. This is what I wrote.

I have been a Jesuit for 30 years (now 38 years). I was ordained 20 years ago (now 28 years ago). Just before my ordination, a four-year-old niece reminded me that it was her birthday. The conversation went something like this: 'You won't give me a present, will you?' 'No'. (Given that I have 21 nieces and nephews, I thought this this the best policy for a Jesuit with a vow of poverty.) 'And that's because you're a priest, isn't it?' 'Yes'. 'When you're a man again, will you give me a present?'

There is a real mystery to priesthood. That mystery can speak of grace but it doesn't always. Sometimes it is just strange and different.

In the most routine parish daily Mass, there is a deep silence as you utter the words, 'This is a cup of my blood ... It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.' (That was, you might remember what we used to say.) From the sanctuary, you behold a scattered faithful who are at that moment full of faith. And you know some of the stories behind the reverential postures before you. The abiding faith of these people sustains you in your own struggle for faith in a God who is with us and who cares enough to respond to our prayers, in blood.

Then we pray for peace. The silence before the prayer formula is wide enough to hold all the battles of our world and the struggles, which each worshipper brings to the altar that day. As priest you see this, day in and day out, often having privileged access to those struggles.

Then come the special moments of baptisms, weddings and funerals when the churched ones are like leaven in the loaf, carrying the structure of the liturgy, while the unchurched, through their awkwardness and unfamiliarity with the forms and words, look to you to carry it through. And you look back to them to know what and whom we celebrate on this occasion. It is special to be the vested embodiment of the connection between the citizens of an unchurched world that wonders if there is anything more than ritual to mark the passage of life, love and death, and the parishioners of a church which dares to offer the sacrament of Jesus to all comers, in season and out of season.

In the Sunday homily, you are the community's chosen minister to reflect on the week that we have all lived searching for faith and truth. In every third or fifth pew, there is someone who is connecting and providing you with the bridge to the next thought. You hope not to disturb those, in other pews, who are waiting on God while not being helped much by you this week. There is always next week, or another priest, or some other channel of grace at the most unexpected moment.

As priest, you are the human face of the Church for many people, in church, on the street and through the airwaves. All types of people meet you. At wedding receptions you invariably get to talk at length to the happiest and saddest people in the room. You get home and face the aloneness of knowing that there is not a lifelong companion to lovingly pull you into line or urge you to do better. But you have your Lord and memories of the day where your presence provided the briefest opportunity for the delighted or the sorrowful to open themselves beyond their own controlled world. You know grace as a daily reality, because you are with graced people every day.

Sometimes people have no use for you. They think you should just get back to your presbytery and say your prayers. But before you do, you look for something practical you could do or say. As priest, you are invited to become fully a human being while on public display as the possession of the faith community. You can't respond to the invitation without intimacy of prayer, friends and family who believe in you as priest, even though you have the same foibles as they.

I did travel interstate to that niece's 21st birthday. I still haven't given her a present, but she understands that's because I am a priest.

I should add that I was delighted to perform her marriage. She is now the proud mother of two. We will all gather in Sydney this weekend for Mass at St Canices to celebrate the 60th wedding anniversary of my parents, her grandparents, the great grandparents of her two children.

Familiar and schooled in the Church tradition, authority and ritual, we as ordained ministers can assist people as they ask themselves: 'Where do I find life and where do I find God?' We Christians who believe in an Incarnate God and the Trinitarian God whose Spirit is in our hearts and in our community know that we find God where we find life, and we find life where we find God. In our readings for Pentecost last Sunday, Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans that 'the spirit of God has made his home in you'. In John's Gospel we were reminded of Jesus words: 'If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him'. Our task more than ever is to help people be at home with God, sure that this will help them find life and this will help them set a moral compass for a life-filled journey and an eternal destination..

So what are we to do, how are we to do it, and why do we do it? Each of us will answer these questions for ourselves. They do demand answers. What do I do? I am a priest in the public square committed to justice for all and seeking to portray our faith intelligently in an often hostile, uncomprehending world. How do I do it? By responding to calls for assistance in research and speaking out, being a bridge between the Church and the world, because I am a member both of the Church and the world. I am so grateful that I do not live in a theocratic state and that here in Australia there is a strict separation between church and state. Though it be slightly heretical, I am also grateful that the Roman Church is not the only manifestation of Christianity in our world. With good ecumenical relations, we can discern the action of the Spirit in our world more felicitously than were such manifestations always governed by Rome where, as we know, all is not well. And it never will be. The Church is and always will be a Church of sinners, no matter what level of hierarchy you scrutinise. Why do I do it? I believe the Spirit of God is at home in me, in the Church and in the World — waiting to be liberated, discovered and embraced. I believe this, and only this, can make the world a better place. I believe God is with us on the journey and at the destination.

In 1962, I moved from the Brigidine Convent at Indooroopilly in Brisbane to St Joseph's College, Nudgee Junior, under the care of the Christian Brothers. I was an impressionable eight-year-old and was in grade 3. I well recall one of the brothers taking the class up to the top floor of the school. We gathered outside the chapel in front of the large portrait of our Lady of Perpetual Succour. Brother told us that there were very significant events occurring in Rome. Pope John had convened a Vatican Council. We were instructed to pray for all the bishops because this council would affect the future of the church. I have no real recollection of the prayers we offered, and thus am not in a position to say whether or not they were answered. But like you, I know that things have changed very significantly in the Church and in the world since that group of eight-year-old boys offered prayer and supplication.

51 years on, we gather to celebrate as priests and deacons of the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, confident that the gifts of the Spirit will assist us in proclaiming the Good News to each other, to our fellow believers, and to our fellow citizens no matter what their religious beliefs or none. Let's recall that it was the week of Christian Unity in 1959 when John XXIII gathered with a small selection of his cardinals in the Benedictine chapterhouse beside the Basilica of Saint Paul-Outside-the-Walls when he said, 'I am prompted to open my mind and heart to you, because of this feast of the Conversion of St Paul. I want to tell you frankly about several points of planned pastoral activity which have emerged in my thoughts because of my brief three months here within these church circles in Rome. In doing so, I am thinking of the care of the souls of the faithful in these modern times.'

The great historian of Vatican II from the 'Bologna School', Giuseppe Alberigo, recalls that Roncalli upon election as Pope and on choosing the name John emphasised his commitment to being a good pastor consistent with Jesus' discourse in John 10 on the Good Shepherd. Roncalli said, 'The other human qualities — knowledge, shrewdness, diplomatic tact, organisational abilities — can help the Pope to carry out his office, but they can in no way substitute for his task as a pastor'. There at St Pauls Outside the Walls, the new Pope said:

I am saddened when people forget the place of God in their lives and pursue earthly goods, as though they were an end in themselves. I think, in fact, that this blind pursuit of the things of this world emerges from the power of darkness, not from the light of the Gospels, and it is enabled by modern technology. All of this weakens the energy of the spirit and generally leads to divisions, spiritual decline, and moral failure. As a priest, and now as the shepherd of the Church, I am troubled and aroused by this tendency in modern life and this makes me determined to recall certain ancient practices of the church in order to stem the tide of this decline. Throughout the history of the Church, such renewal has always yielded wonderful results. It produces greater clarity of thought, solidarity of religious unity, and abundant spiritual riches in people's lives.

At my regular parish mass at Curtin on the Sunday after the election of Pope Francis, I greeted the congregation with these words, 'Good evening. My name is Frank and I am a Jesuit. I've had a good week. I hope you have too.' I have been overwhelmed by the positive response by all sorts of people to the election of the first Jesuit pope. I have happily received the congratulations without quite knowing what to do with them, nor what I did to deserve them! Even at the masses at the Canberra prison the following week, prisoners were expressing their delight at what they saw of this new pope on the television. Perhaps this new pope's manner and mode of communication hold a key for us wanting to provide transformation and empowerment in the public square, and in the hearts and minds of all people of good will.

Remember how Pope Francis ended his address to the journalists in Rome with a blessing with a difference. He said:

I told you I was cordially imparting my blessing. Since many of you are not members of the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I cordially give this blessing silently, to each of you, respecting the conscience of each, but in the knowledge that each of you is a child of God. May God bless you!

Respect for the conscience of every person, regardless of their religious beliefs; silence in the face of difference; affirmation of the dignity and blessedness of every person; offering, not coercing; suggesting, not dictating; leaving room for gracious acceptance. These are all good pointers for those of us exercising priestly ministry in the 21st century holding the treasure of tradition, authority and ritual in trust for the people of God as they discern how best to make a home for God in their lives and in their world, assured that the Spirit of God has made her home with them.

On hearing this blessing from our new pope, I recalled the declaration of resignation of our previous pope. Benedict announced that 'having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry'. He noted the strengths and gifts needed to discharge the office 'in today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith'. Having recognized his 'incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted' to him, he renounced it 'with full freedom'. Freedom, conscience, change, and demands exceeding capacities — these all played a role in a man of profound faith deciding that he could no longer discharge an office to which he had committed himself for life. He had the humility to admit the need for change.

Change is upon us as a Church. There is a spring in our step, but also a heaviness in our hearts as we confront the reality of child sexual abuse in our ranks. We are being called to a new simplicity and humility. Just recall the scene when the new pope emerged on the Vatican balcony the night of his election. He appeared with none of the papal trimmings of office on his plain white robe. He commenced with silence, followed by a simple 'Good evening', and then, God help us, a joke about his brother Cardinals having gone to the other end of the earth to find a Bishop of Rome. He asked everyone to pray for his predecessor Benedict. But not once did he refer to the papacy, the Petrine Office, or the pope. He deliberately referred to Benedict as 'our Bishop Emeritus'. He spoke of 'the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches'. He spoke of the 'journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us'.

He offered the simple prayers known to all Catholics: the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory Be. The accompanying Monsignor was keen that he don the papal stole before offering any prayer. The stole remained in the good Monsignor's hands. Then the Pope asked the people a favour: 'I ask you to pray to the Lord that he will bless me: the prayer of the people asking the blessing for their Bishop. Let us make, in silence, this prayer: your prayer over me.' You could hear a pin drop in that crowd of 100,000 by candlelight. This was a Copernican revolution for the hierarchical Roman Church. Only after receiving the people's blessing did the Pope don the stole and proclaim the formal papal blessing. Immediately, he then removed the stole. The surrounding Cardinals thought the paraliturgy now complete. But no, the pope called again for the microphone. There was an embarrassed flurry of activity as they retrieved the microphone and turned on the sound system again. He returned to the familiar way of conversation with which he started the proceedings: 'Brothers and sisters, I leave you now. Thank you for your welcome. Pray for me and until we meet again. We will see each other soon. Tomorrow I wish to go and pray to Our Lady, that she may watch over all of Rome. Good night and sleep well!'

It was the Jesuit educated Dominican bishop Anthony Fisher who reminded us that the pope's white cassock is a derivative of the Dominican habit worn by Pius V in the sixteenth century thereby transforming papal dress for five centuries. Who would have thought that a twenty first century Jesuit wearing a derivative of a Dominican habit while eschewing other pieces of ecclesiastical paraphernalia could send such a clear message of transformation of the institutional church and empowerment for the poor?

Could not something of this new papal style help us to engage more creatively with our fellow believers and with our fellow citizens as we seek to bring good news to the poor, transforming our mode of engagement between Church and civil society, and empowering the poor and the marginalised? We come not only with authoritative teaching but with an attentive eye and ear to the experience of the people and their reflection on that experience.

In his homily for the Inauguration Mass, the feast of St Joseph, Pope Francis said:

Being protectors, then, also means keeping watch over our emotions, over our hearts, because they are the seat of good and evil intentions: intentions that build up and tear down! We must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness!

Here I would add one more thing: caring, protecting, demands goodness, it calls for a certain tenderness. In the Gospels, Saint Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!

'We must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness!' As pastors, we have the confidence that goodness and tenderness are prime tools for our ministry. Francis has made it very clear that we are to be priests of a Church of the poor and for the poor. Listening to many of his recent remarks, I have been reminded of the letter the late Fr Ted Kennedy sent to Cardinal Freeman in 1974, almost 4 decades ago:

Poverty of spirit is the prerequisite of all Christian life. Yet there is no poverty of spirit without a sharing of the spirit of poor people. It involves feeling and touching the pulse of their lives, and sharing the weight of their anguish, and putting our shoulder alongside theirs, and fighting with them for their rights. If only our Bishops would do this in some realistic sense, the gulf would close in. I know that the circles in which bishops often move are not their own self chosen ones, but inherited, and shaped by varied expectations. But until they become mouthpieces for the hot breath of the poor to blow long and hard into the life of the church, even if this means sending the rich empty away, the Aboriginal people will continue to despair of obtaining support from the source from which they can make lawful claim.

Perhaps Ted was a priest just a few decades ahead of his time. One thing is certain. Our bishops will not be 'mouthpieces for the hot breath of the poor to blow long and hard into the life of the church' if the priests and deacons regard this as mere politics or the concern only of a fringe group of clergy. Pope Francis has called us to be the Church of the poor and to be a poor Church. We may need to fasten our seat belts for the ride. It could get a bit rough.

On 31 August last year, another Jesuit who had attended the previous conclave with Jorge Bergoglio died. That was Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini who had been Archbishop of Milan. On that day, we received word of a speech delivered by Cardinal Raymond Burke to bishops in Kenya about the issue of sexual abuse in the church. Cardinal Burke is now the Church's most senior canon lawyer. He told his fellow bishops:

The 'hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,' which has tried to highjack the renewal mandated by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, is marked by a pervasively antinomian culture, epitomized by the Paris student riots of 1968, and has had a particularly devastating effect on the Church's discipline. It is profoundly sad to note, for instance, how the failure of knowledge and application of the canon law, which was indeed still in force, contributed significantly to the scandal of the sexual abuse of minors by the clergy in our some parts of the world.

Indeed, in the United States of America, my homeland, in which the scandal has been great, it is often asserted that it was caused by the absence of a proper discipline in the Church to deal justly with such abhorrent situations. In the typical approach of the hermeneutic of discontinuity, it is assumed that the Church lacked the proper canonical discipline with which to investigate such crimes and sanction them. The truth of the matter is that the Church had dealt with such crimes in the past, which should come as a surprise to no one, and that she had in place a carefully articulated process by which to investigate accusations, with full respect for the rights of all parties involved, including the protection of potential victims during the time of the investigation; to reach a just decision regarding their truth, and to apply the appropriate sanction. The discipline in place was not followed because it was not known and, in fact, was presumed not to exist.

Then came word of Cardinal Martini's final interview in which he described the church as being 200 years out of date. An urbane, educated Jesuit, a long time scripture scholar, Martini aged 85 said, 'The Church is tired, in prosperous Europe and in America. Our culture is out of date; our Churches are big; our religious houses are empty, and the Church's bureaucratic apparatus is growing, and our rites and our vestments are pompous.' Some of you will have seen Cardinal Burke in his prosperous, pompous and excessive ecclesiastical attire on the internet.

The good news is that these two cardinals represent the book ends of the spectrum which is the modern church. The mistake of some is to think that Cardinal Burke is the embodiment of the true Church and that somehow Cardinal Martini was simply a minister to the disaffected and the marginalised. The election of Pope Francis shows otherwise. Since Vatican II, we have all been called to live along the length of this spectrum. Martini gave three antidotes to the contemporary church weariness: conversion in the face of the contemporary abuse crisis, rediscovering the power of Scripture, and reliving the energy of the sacraments. In contradistinction to Burke, Martini said, 'The Church has to recognize its own errors and has to travel a radical journey of change'.

When contemplating this spectrum between Martini and Burke, I have been tantalised by Charles Taylor's recent essay 'A Catholic Modernity?' in which he suggests:

In modern, secularist culture there are mingled together both the authentic developments of the Gospel, of an incarnational mode of life, and also a closing off to God that negates the Gospel. The notion is that modern culture, in breaking with the structures and beliefs of Christendom, also carried certain facets of Christian life further than they were ever taken or could have been taken within Christendom. In relation to the earlier forms of Christian culture, we have to face the humbling realisation that the breakout was a necessary condition of the development.

Sometimes it is the state or civil society which provides a corrective or a further spur to the Church to be true to its finest ideals. Last year the Victorian Parliament set up an inquiry into child sexual abuse. In September 2012, the Victorian bishops, joined by two women religious, issued a statement entitled Facing the Truth. They acknowledged that in the past 16 years about 620 cases of criminal child abuse have been upheld by the Church in Victoria. Most of these claims relate to incidents from 30 and up to 80 years ago. Our church leaders are hopeful that the new procedures which have been put in place over the last 20 years will assist with greater transparency and care for the victims of sexual abuse. They take heart from the fact that very few complaints of abuse relate to incidents after 1990. The bishops tell us that their submission to the parliamentary enquiry is 'an expression of the church's commitment to facing the truth with humility and unflinching honesty.' Their new website Facing the Truth commences with a quote from Cardinal Newman: 'Let us take things as we find them: let us not attempt to distort them into what they are not ... We cannot make facts. All our wishing cannot change them. We must use them.' Let's make no mistake. The church processes and canonical procedures for dealing with child sexual abuse have in the past been highly deficient. It was not theological reflection by the likes of Cardinal Burke that led to change. Rather that pressure came from the faithful and other persons affronted by church actions which failed to meet the contemporary secular standards of our culture. We now insist on due process and transparency. We do not concede exclusivity to the hierarchy in dealing with serious complaints of child sexual abuse. To use the language of Pope Francis, we are not a closed self-referential Church. We are a Church in the world, and accountable to the world for our actions which transgress the rights and dignity of others, especially children.

This week, Archbishop Denis Hart, Archbishop of Melbourne, appeared before that parliamentary inquiry agreeing that his predecessor Archbishop Sir Frank Little had covered up abuse by priests, having moved two paedophile priests on to 'innocent parishes and innocent children'. Archbishop Hart acknowledged that his predecessor kept no records and kept any relevant information in his head. In those days, that was thought to be good enough in the Roman Church. Accepting responsibility, Archbishop Hart told the inquiry:

I apologise unreservedly for one of the darkest periods in our Church's history. We failed to recognise that abuse was occurring. We failed to recognise that we had paedophiles in our midst. We failed to really listen to people when they came forward to complain. We failed to do what is right.

This is devastating news for those of us priests and deacons who thought Frank Little to be a kind, compassionate, considerate, prayerful leader of his flock. And he was. I well recall his coming to Newman College in February 1977 to greet me just after I had taken my vows as a Jesuit. His blessings and best wishes meant so much to me and my family. But he was part of an institution infected with clericalism to the extent that he was unable to see how inappropriate it was to place children at risk with known or strongly suspected paedophiles who happened to be priests. And the hierarchical structure was such that the cry of the children and their families was not heard, believed or heeded.

Animated by the best values of our society, praying the Scriptures, and celebrating the sacraments, each of us is able to contribute our part to the Church in this time of crisis. Think only of the Pharisees asking Jesus, 'Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?' Jesus points out that it is not the well who need the doctor. We come to the Scriptures and we come to the table so that we might be cured, so that we might hear the cry of the poor, so that we might believe the truth, and so that we might heed the prophetic.

A while ago, I joined in conversation on the ABC Encounter program with Fr Tomas Halik, about his book Patience with God. Halik is urbane, well educated, and very well connected, often being in the right place at the right time. For example he recalled being with Pope John Paul II the day before the Berlin Wall fell. The Pope came from the TV and said, 'This is the end of communism, and you must be prepared, it will come very soon.' Halik was on sufficiently good terms with the Polish pontiff to joke, 'Holy Father, excuse me, I don't believe that the papal infallibility works in the political affairs. I think there will be some five years of perestroika in our country.' John Paul II thought differently: 'No, no, you must be prepared, it will come very soon.' It came in ten days.

Halik was a close friend of Vaclav Havel and helped to orchestrate the official invitation for John Paul to visit their home country 'regarded, on the basis of census returns, as the most atheistic country not only of the European Union but possibly of the entire planet'. He then spent a month with the Pope as he prepared for his first visit to the post-Communist world. Halik, a psychotherapist, knows more than his prayers. His latest book Nights of the Confessor is a collection of essays from his annual retreat which he makes at a remote hermitage with time for reflection, contemplation and amusement. He confesses, 'Self-mockery is something I practice all the time, and I have often cast an ironic gaze on this 'playing the hermit' that I do every summer'. As a globe trotting lecturer and very active Czech citizen he says, 'It is necessary for us Christians to learn contemplation once more: the art of inner silence, in which God will be able to speak to us through our own lives and His unique events.' He delights in the thought that he comes from the most secular country in Europe embracing freedom and seeking its new identity in the post Cold War era. There is in this something of crisis. He is not one for religious optimism and pious answers. He finds his hope in the crises of religion which provide 'enormous windows of opportunity opened to us by God'. He does not write for those certain in their faith or for those certain in their antipathy or indifference to faith. His intended audience are neither the Cardinal Pell cheer squad nor the Professor Dawkins cheer squad. He reaches out to those who find kernels of truth and seeds of doubt in both. He imagines the reader who is 'prepared to suspend for the time being the moment of agreement or disagreement'. He delights in appealing both to believers and non-believers perplexed and tantalized by the mystery and paradox of life, recalling Oskar Pfister's response to Freud wondering if a Christian could be tolerant of atheism: 'When I reflect that you are much better and deeper than your disbelief, and that I am much worse and more superficial than my faith, I conclude that the abyss between us cannot yawn so grimly.'

Though he was a close friend of John Paul II, Halik does not have much time for the world views of most of his fellow priests and bishops. He can't stand attending clergy conferences, seeing them as a form of penance, largely because his fellow attendees are old, tired and stale. He sees plenty wrong with the institutional church but he is no iconoclast. He sees the Church as 'a community of the shaken' rather than a collection of people 'sharing en masse an unproblematised tradition that is accepted as a matter of course.' Acknowledging the polarized nature of the Church he cannot identify with either pole. He says: 'Although I am in favour of calm and sober discussion of the issues raised by groups of liberal Catholics and I believe that on certain matters they are right, I radically oppose the view that democratization and liberalization of the structures, discipline, and certain areas of moral teaching of the Church will usher in a new springtime of Christianity and avert the crisis of the Church.' Following such a course, he believes the Church would lose its distinctiveness and 'gradually dissolve in the limitless pap of postmodern society and would have nothing to offer'. But neither does he want the Church to 'turn into a stale sect of backward looking fuddy-duddies and oddballs'. In what might be a slightly patronising tone he admits to great sympathy 'with those believers who treat the institutional aspects of the Church — the powers that be — in the way that mature adults treat their aging parents; such a relationship brings more freedom but entails more responsibility.' Some of us watching events like the Vatican's treatment of Bishop William Morris in Australia and now the nuns in the United States can see room for more due process, natural justice and transparency, if not democratization, in a Church committed to the dignity of all.

Having been the general secretary to the Czech Conference of Bishops, Halik knows what he is talking about when he considers the state of the institutional church: 'Viewed overall, the state of the Church is not too encouraging. In the space of a single generation, the deepening dearth of priests will lead to the collapse of the entire structure of parish administration, and I cannot see sufficient courage or creativity among those who have assumed responsibility for running the Church as an institution to find some real alternatives or at least to systematically prepare the community of believers for a situation in which they will soon have to live their faith without support of many things that the Church has regarded for centuries as essential and matter of course.' He warns: 'We must not allow ourselves to be drawn into the murky waters of cynicism, passivity, and bitterness. However, nor must we don the rosy spectacles of illusory optimism.'

One of his intellectual peers and soul mates is Professor Nicholas Lash at Cambridge. They love to catch up over a whisky. One of his essays follows the contours of Lash's recent book Holiness, Speech and Silence in which he speaks of the rabbit on the violin: 'If you come across a rabbit playing Mozart on the violin, you can bet your bottom dollar that the rabbit is acting supernaturally. Rabbits have not got it in them to play the violin. Moreover, things being the way they are with human sinfulness, if you come across human beings acting with consistent kindness, selflessness, and generosity, the same assumption is in order.'

At home with paradox, Halik does not seek only to carve out a private domain for religious communities outside the free and secular public square. He thinks religious citizens have a real contribution to the common good of society. He claims: 'The oft repeated assertion that Christianity benefits from persecution is true only to a certain extent; when the Church is squeezed out of public life for too long, there tend to be negative consequences for society as a whole.' He even thinks religion can be good for atheists, asserting that atheism suffered in Czechoslovakia 'due to the lack of free and objective discussion about religion. It lack(ed) the requisite self-reflection that can come only from a dialogue of partnership.'

He sees the Church as the community and the institution which helps to instill a person's original, untested, unreflective faith. It is also the privileged space for the person whose original faith is shaken by life to come to a 'second wind faith' which is at home with paradox, engaged with the world, and accepting of inevitable Church shortcomings. The crisis and severance of faith can have various causes: 'It can be some traumatic disillusionment with those who imparted to us our original faith, or it can be a private drama, in which our original trust and certainties are eclipsed, or just simply a change of circumstances and 'mental climate'.' Teilhard de Chardin thought Christianity was in its infancy. Many contemporary thinkers assert that it is obsolete and its time has expired. Halik thinks both may be mistaken. 'Maybe our Christianity is actually going through its midlife crisis — a time of lethargy and drowsiness.'

He quotes Joseph Ratzinger's conversation with the journalist Peter Seewald published under the title 'God and the World'. For Benedict, faith is not like some mathematical formula that can be rationally demonstrated apart from the experiment of life: 'The truth of Jesus' word cannot be tested in terms of theory. The truth of what God says here involves the whole person, the experiment of life. It can only become clear for me if I truly give myself up to the will of God. This will of the creator is not something foreign to me, something external, but is the basis of my own being.' Halik posits God himself placing the 'metaphysical disquiet' of the need to seek meaning within the human heart. God responds to this questioning with His Revelation. We then respond in faith with an act of trust and self-surrender 'to that divine sharing, the Word, wherein God gives Himself.'

He is not one for the certainties of the Catechism or the latest Vatican declaration. The certainty of doctrine and submissiveness to religious authority are no substitute for facing the hard reality of true religious experience. This well-connected cleric in good Vatican standing proclaims, 'The religion that is now disappearing has tried to eliminate paradoxes from our experience of reality; the faith we are maturing toward, a paschal faith, teaches us to live with paradoxes.' As priests and deacons engaged with our people, grounded in our tradition, intelligently and prayerfully trying to discern how God might be more at home with us and us with God, we need to be better at sharing the delights and uncertainties of living with paradoxes. Unless we do more of this in the 21st century, we will be the custodians of cultic tradition in a remnant Church which has given up on the Spirit in the people and in the world.

We need to be more confident in engaging with our world — even though the spirit of the Age, the media, and the intellectual atheists think that we are hypocrites because we dare to espouse ideals from which we all fall short. As Christians, we dare to proclaim ideals and we are humble enough to embrace the reality that we are sinners constantly falling short of those ideals. A. C. Grayling is the latest in the line of robust atheists in the Richard Dawkins tradition. In his recent book The God Argument, Grayling says: 'When people submit to systems, they are handing over to them (to those who devised them) the right to do their thinking and choosing for them. Given that almost all the major systems are religions, which moreover originated in a remote past to which most of their teaching apply, they can only be adapted to contemporary conditions by much reinterpretation and temporising, and alas — as noted more than once — by straightforward hypocrisy. An ethical outlook should be such that it is something people can live by honestly, authentically, without having to perform contortions to make it relevant or livable.' Alas, we Christians will continue to see a place for tradition, ideals, and forgiveness. And we will continue to be seen as hypocrites because we hold together in our beings a commitment to ideals and a propensity for sin and falling short, consoled only by the prospect of forgiveness by the One who models all that is good, true and beautiful.

Something crystallised for me at a recent appearance at the Opera House with A C Grayling and Sean Faircloth, a US director of one of the Dawkins Institutes passionately committed to atheism. We were there to discuss their certainty about the absurdity of religious faith. Mr Faircloth raised what has already become a hoary old chestnut, the failure of Pope Francis when provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina during the Dirty Wars to adequately defend his fellow Jesuits who were detained and tortured by unscrupulous soldiers. Being a Jesuit, I thought I was peculiarly well situated to respond. I confess to having got a little carried away. I exclaimed: Yes, how much better it would have been if there had been just one secular, humanist, atheist philosopher who had stood up in the city square in Buenos Aires and shouted, 'Stop it!' The military junta would have collectively come to their senses, stopped it, and Argentinians would have lived happily ever after. The luxury for such philosophers is that they never have to get their hands dirty and they think that religious people who do are hypocrites unless of course they take the course of martyrdom.

The group-think of our liberal Age is that as long as we don't discriminate, as long as we respect the autonomy of others, we don't need to lift a finger to help others, and if we do we are likely to be judged adversely as hypocrites or interfering do-gooders who manufacture arguments about the common good or public interest simply so as to minimise human freedom. As priests and deacons, we are called more than ever to serve, especially the poor, the marginalized, and those who fall off the edges when laws and social policies focus only on maximizing the choices for self-determining individuals regardless of the threats to the vulnerable. We are to lead and to serve in word and sacrament reminding everyone, most especially ourselves, about the three temptations Jesus faced when he came in from the desert — the three temptations we face each day as we live in the Church and in the World. Bruce Dawe describes 'The Three Temptations' thus:

First, limestone into loaves? No, even though
It might have been impressive for a while:
A world made hungerless ... But, even so,
the welfare hand-out thing was not my style.
Likewise, the Temple trick: to take a leap
from the very top of Sion: a bungee jump
to beat the record! But to keep
bettering that act for ever or risk a slump
in the ratings? No, that would be absurd,
given the crazed addiction people find
In spectacles, as such ...

_______But then, that third
temptation, which the demonic mind
thinks irresistible: the power
to rule the universe and all that's in it ...
Who else could have resisted, in that desert hour
of ultimate seduction, where each minute
offered me what every tyrant craves
but cannot have, although he bathe in blood
and bid all men be slaves?
Do you suppose (being also man) no premature bud
of interest at the prospect came to me?
Well, think again ... This was no parlour game;
temptation, to be real, must really be
exactly that, and that is why I came:
to make my life an endless learning curve
for everyone, to embrace the human flame
and, in doing so, teach others Whom to serve.

The secular humanists in our midst (and within our very selves) will often be respectful of us when we serve others and teach others how to serve their neighbours, especially the poor and vulnerable. But they will look on uncomprehending, and some despising, when we are teaching others Whom to serve with a capital 'W' — the God who calls us into relationship offering life and forgiveness through tradition, authority and ritual, in the midst of paradox. Our numbers may be less, but our services will always be required by those wanting to break open the word and to share the sacrament as food for the journey and as a foretaste of the banquet which is to come — those who long for love, for truth, for life, confident that Jesus is all of these things in abundance. Where there is life we will find God, and where God, life. 

Frank Brennan headshotThe above text is from Fr Frank Brennan's keynote address at the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn Clergy Assembly, St Clement's, Gaylong, on 22 May 2013.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, ordination, clergy, Goulburn, St Clement's, Gaylong



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Existing comments

Always good to hear your thoughts, Frank! I note the call for the inclusion of 'young' women (older too are still waiting ??) but I think Anne Summers' put it well on LNL recently; we must have inclusion, equity and respect. We have a long way to go. Need someone really championing the cause. Loudly!!!

Carmel Byrne | 26 May 2013  

To bring this intellectual commentary to those good men and women who have given their lives to serve is inspirational. In these time of turmoil, the Jesuits are beingcalled, once again, to the front line. Their man is in Rome, this man is in the clergy and their men will soon be in secular Government. We must be optimistic.

Tony Bland | 28 June 2013  

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