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Finding meaning in a chaotic/changing world

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John Wallis Memorial Lecture, Toowoomba, 7 May 2017

The last time I delivered a formal lecture here in Toowoomba was the 2010 Concannon Oration. I took the opportunity to reflect on the Vatican visitation by US Archbishop Chaput from Denver following upon Bishop William Morris's courageous and very pastoral Advent letter of 2006. I saluted Bishop Morris and the presbyterate and faithful of this diocese who had stood by him so resolutely in those difficult times. This is part of what I said at the time:

In that pastoral letter, your bishop pointed out that you would have just 19 active priests by 2014. Most would be old men, and they would be spending much of their time on the road. He outlined a list of pastoral responses to this decline in priests including: the third rite of reconciliation; the ordination of women and married men; welcoming former priests, married or single, back to active ministry; and recognising Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church orders. He indicated his willingness to pursue any option which Rome would allow. I was very troubled last year to read the account by Fr Jeff Scully in the Spring issue of The Swag, the national priests' newsletter, in which he noted: 'How can a respected leader of a local church be investigated without ever finding the content of the report based on these investigations? Is this not unthinkable in this age of transparency and accountability?'

I then asked my own questions: 'Is it not time for the open conversation to commence? Is it not time for all of us learn new pastoral ways of being Church before new generations in country areas of Australia are completely denied access to the sacraments?'

I was pleased to return to the diocese on the occasion of the installation of your new bishop and to stand and pray in solidarity with you all as you contemplated the injustice done to William Morris, as exposed by the expert and professional reports done by retired Supreme Court judge William Carter and the canon lawyer Fr Ian Waters. Two years ago, I published a little book entitled The People's Quest for Leadership in Church and State. Having noted how the royal commission found no fault in the processes of Bishop Morris in dealing with abuse issues, I wrote: 'The Australian Church needs pastoral down to earth bishops like Morris who have been proved to 'get it' when it comes to dealing pastorally and professionally with child sexual abuse. His reinstatement would send a clear heartening message to all those committed to child protection.' How good it would be were Pope Francis to apologise to William Morris for his shoddy treatment by Vatican curial officials.

I had the great honour of delivering the John Wallis Memorial Lectures in Hobart and Launceston in October 2013 just after the election of Pope Francis. On that occasion just seven months into the new papacy, I spoke on Pope Francis and Australia's Social Justice Agenda. The John Wallis Foundation continues the mission of the Missionary Sisters of Service, 'seeking to make a difference to people by creating opportunities for personal and spiritual formation, building community, developing leadership, working for social and eco-justice, co-operating with people of goodwill from various faiths and cultures for building up vital harmonious communities'. John Wallis would be well pleased. When a young theology student in Melbourne I got to know John's priest brother Brian. I had the privilege of occasionally meeting John who struck me as a very humble, spiritual priest grounded in the daily concerns of faith and survival of ordinary Australians. He had an infectious smile and a very gentle face. I think he would be well pleased that we are now gathered in Toowoomba to honour his memory and to recall the wonderful contribution made by the Missionary Sisters of Service here in this far flung diocese. I presume that many of you resonate with Martin Flanagan's observation in the 2012 Wallis Lecture:

I never 'got' the Roman Catholic church — I never got its costumes and rituals. In particular, I never got how the Vatican, a centrepiece of medieval European pomp and privilege, saw itself as the mouthpiece of the itinerant Jewish rebel I read about in the gospels. Having said that, I need to add that as an adult I keep meeting Catholics who excite me and, as someone who gets asked to speak in lots of schools, I have often noted a special energy in Catholic schools, one that seems to derive from their emphasis on social justice. It's as if there is a Catholic spirit in the world that exists independently of the leadership of the Catholic church — that spirit to me is like an old welcoming ghost I run into now and then.

Francis is pointing the way to many more people 'getting' the Roman Catholic Church — even people who thought it was well beyond their interest or concern. He is helping us to find meaning in a chaotic/changing world, even amidst the mess of our Church in the wake of the royal commission.

Francis is theologically orthodox, politically conservative, comfortable in his own skin, infectiously pastoral, and truly committed to the poor. Of late, most thinking Catholics engaged in the world have wondered how you could possibly be theologically orthodox and infectiously pastoral at the one time, how you could be politically conservative and still have a commitment to the poor, how you could be comfortable in your own skin — at ease in Church and in the public square, equally comfortable and uncomfortable in conversation with fawning devotees and hostile critics. Think only of Francis's remark during the press conference on the plane on the way back from World Youth Day in 2013: 'If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge him?' Gone are the days of rainbow sashes outside Cathedrals and threats of communion bans.

As Francis says in the lengthy interview he did for the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica early in his papacy: 'We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are 'socially wounded' because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them.' In that interview he recalled:

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: 'Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?' We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

Here is a pope who is not just about creating wiggle room or watering down the teachings of the Church. No, he wants to admit honestly to the world that we hold in tension definitive teachings and pastoral yearnings — held together coherently only by mercy and forgiveness. I was pleased to hear the new bishop of Townsville Tim Harris at his episcopal ordination last week 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 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. I was privileged to meet Noonan over dinner a couple of times in the US in recent years. He was one of the great Catholic thinkers in the US. Prior to the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, he wrote a definitive book on contraception. In recent years he wrote a book called The Church That Can and Cannot Change. The great moral theologian Charles Curran wrote an obituary on Noonan in the National Catholic Reporter. Fr Curran has incurred the wrath of the Vatican big time for his own writings. After the Christian Ethics conference in Miami one year, I gave Curran a lift to the airport and asked him how he maintained his joy and inner freedom. He replied, 'Once they've dropped the atomic bomb on you, there's nothing more they can do to you.' Here is part of what Curran wrote reflecting on the life of Noonan:

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 neighbor, the great principles of justice and charity, continue to govern all development.'

At the royal commission, one of Australia's newest bishops, 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. So, you have the pope, the cardinals, the bishops, religious, consecrated men and women, and the laity right at the bottom of the pyramid. I think we need to dismantle that model of Church. If I could use the biblical image of wineskins, it's old wineskins that are no longer relevant, no longer able to contain the new wine, if you like. 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.

Pope Francis has no time whatever for the notion of the Church as a perfect society. Soon after his election, he gave a lengthy interview in which he spoke about his vision of the Church as a field hospital. He said:

The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds ... And you have to start from the ground up.

In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis writes: 'Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.' More recently in Amoris Laetitia, he repeats the image of the field hospital and complements it with other images: 'The Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children, who show signs of a wounded and troubled love, by restoring in them hope and confidence, like the beacon of a lighthouse in a port or a torch carried among the people to enlighten those who have lost their way or who are in the midst of a storm'. He then goes on to insist that mercy must be the hallmark of all we say and do: 'Mercy is the very foundation of the Church's life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness which she shows to believers; nothing in her preaching and her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy.'

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 Catholic services 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 for at least another generation or two. Speaking last September to the Bishops of the United States, some of whom went to the barricades in times past declaring that they would refuse to give communion to a Catholic presidential candidate who dared contemplate the appointment of a Supreme Court justice not opposed to overruling the Supreme Court's earlier pro-abortion decisions, Francis said:

I know that you face many challenges and that the field in which you sow is unyielding, and that there is always the temptation to give in to fear, to lick one's wounds, to think back on bygone times and to devise harsh responses to fierce opposition. And yet we are promoters of the culture of encounter. We are living sacraments of the embrace between God's riches and our poverty. We are witnesses of the abasement and the condescension of God who anticipates in love our every response. For this, 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.

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.

Cardinals Brandmuller (who previously chaired the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences), Burke (who previously headed the Church's most supreme court), Caffarra, erstwhile archbishop of Bologna, and Meisner, erstwhile archbishop of Cologne think Francis is seriously in error when he teaches about mercy and justice, right and wrong, and the place of conscience.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now say that back in 1993, Pope John Paul II went too far in stipulating one and only one way of moral reasoning in the Catholic tradition. This way had strong appeal for the present dissentients. Pope Francis does not even refer to John Paul's detailed 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Invoking Veritatis Splendor, the four cardinals insist that there are absolute moral norms which prohibit intrinsically evil acts which are binding without exception. Circumstances and intention cannot transform these acts. There are objective situations of grave habitual sin. They are insistent that Veritatis Splendor both excludes a creative interpretation of the role of conscience and emphasises that conscience can never be authorised to legitimate exceptions to moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts.

Just to give one comparison of the divergent thinking between John Paul II and Francis. In Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II writes:

Conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil. Rather there is profoundly imprinted upon it a principle of obedience vis-à-vis the objective norm which establishes and conditions the correspondence of its decisions with the commands and prohibitions which are at the basis of human behaviour.

You will appreciate that it's this sort of thinking which underlies the Church's ban on Catholic health providers assisting even married couples with IVF. It's this sort of reasoning which was invoked to stop the Sisters of Charity in Sydney from setting up a supervised injecting room aimed at harm minimisation for long time drug users.

Francis has an altogether different approach in Amoris Laetitia:

Individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church's praxis ….. Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one's pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God's grace. Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize 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 only the legalists who will be able to resolve this conflict to their satisfaction by saying that John Paul's statement is contained in an encyclical while Francis's plea is only in an apostolic exhortation. No doubt, John Paul II was a pope and a world leader for his time. So too, Francis is a pope and a world leader for our time. John Paul would not have the same 'cut through' today as pope as he had when the Berlin Wall came down and when he was appointing muscular bishops who thrived on the culture wars. Francis has named the chasm. And the dissenting cardinals have highlighted how deep and wide it is. This chasm opens new possibilities and new risks for those of us wanting to show mercy and love to those who most need it.

Francis 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.

In his 2013 La Civilta Cattolica interview, Pope Francis explained:

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

If we are honest with ourselves, many of us have wondered how we can maintain our Christian faith and our commitment to the Catholic Church in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis and the many judgmental utterances about sexuality and reproduction — the Church that has spoken longest and loudest about sex in all its modalities seems to be one of the social institutions most needing to get its own house in order in relation to trust, fidelity, love, respect and human dignity. The royal commission hearings have left us with heavy hearts especially about some of our Australian church leadership before 1996 but we do have a spring in our step that our present Pope, together with rigorous, independent legal processes (even in the face of much media pre-judgment) and local church commitments to transparency and solicitous care of victims, including the establishment of the Truth Justice and Healing Council, provide us with the structures and leadership necessary for 'cooperation, openness, full disclosure and justice for victims and survivors'. The chief Christian paradox is that we are lowly sinners who dare to profess the highest ideals, and that sometimes we cannot do it on our own — we need the help of our critics and the State. Our greatest possibilities are born of the promise of forgiveness and redemption, the hope of new life emerging from suffering and even death. Out of our past failings and our present shame can come future promise and hope.

When I finished my schooling at Downlands College Toowoomba in 1970, the world seemed a fairly secure and predictable place. Yes, we Australians were involved in the Vietnam War, and the Cold War was an ever present reality. And university students were protesting in many cities through the western world. But those of us who did well at school were assured Commonwealth scholarships and free university education. Those who wanted apprenticeships could find them. Those who wanted a job were assured employment. There had not been a change of government in Canberra for more than a generation.

Almost five decades on, things are looking very different as I return to Toowoomba, visiting in my new role as CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia. Social policy is being dumbed down by both sides of politics in the western world. In an age of 'budget repair', it is just a sidebar to economic policy which is a contest of ideas about how best to grow the size of the pie thereby providing a slice for 'the deserving poor' without having to redistribute too much of the pie, while 'the undeserving poor' drop off the edge as they would have anyway. For those of us committed to social justice, the so-called 'undeserving poor' should be the litmus test of our commitment to the human dignity of all persons. We believe human dignity is innate; it is not acquired by displaying socially attractive attributes like employability.

New government initiatives such as community home care packages and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) are a real challenge to those of us who profess a preferential option for the poor, wanting to fill the gaps which other providers leave untouched so that coverage might be truly universal. We now find that we are having to advertise ourselves, having to engage in economies of scale, having to give each client value for money, thus having less discretionary income to allocate to the poorest of the poor. Instead of tendering for service contracts, we are being invited to the table by government to co-design packages which match government objectives. We are less able to cross-subsidise to the benefit of those least able to pay. The margin for mission is not what it once was. The business case is dictating that we abandon some of our neediest clients, or is it?

There is less public trust in our major political parties which used be the primary spaces for negotiating and effecting the compromises necessary in any democracy committed to the right balance between the popular will and the recognition of the due rights and entitlements of all citizens. These compromises are now effected through back room deals with the increasing Senate cross bench with its plurality of philosophies, or at least a variety of self-interested claims. We turn over prime ministers more rapidly than we do cars or white goods.

Our Church has a credibility problem in the public square and a transmission and translation problem with the young. The findings of the royal commission have been devastating and shocking. Our church has a declining pool of clergy from the worshipping community. Overseas clergy, unlike their predecessors, are not drawn primarily from migrant communities already strongly represented in the Australian Church. These new clergy often come from cultures where the 'clericalist' mind-set is even more tight than it was in Australia in the 1950s. We rightly face increased political insistence on compliance with government regulation regardless of church special pleading. Our structures are clunky and outdated. We continue to tolerate, accept and even theologise the ongoing failure to give women their place at the table. Any young girls sitting in our pews now know from experience that a woman can be governor-general, prime minister or chief justice. All three options were unimaginable in Australia when I was a boy at Downlands.

The Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump, and the re-emergence of One Nation all point to public disaffection with the status quo. But they don't point to practical answers making our world once again a secure and predictable place. We need to rediscover our trust in institutions and leaders.

On Tuesday evening, Treasurer Scott Morrison will deliver the first Budget of the narrowly re-elected Turnbull Coalition Government. Part the cost of the double dissolution election last July has been creation of a Senate with the largest, most diverse group of crossbenchers ever to sit on the red benches. This will make the passage of any new Budget contested measures difficult, particularly given the Prime Minister's vulnerability on his right flank, and the Labor Party's propensity to mimic the Opposition tactics adopted previously by Tony Abbott. The government needs to create a clear narrative as to how it will achieve equitable and sustainable growth through this Budget. Writing in The Monthly on 'The rise and stall of Malcolm Turnbull', Laura Tingle observes: 'While budgets don't have the punching power they once had to change the political narrative, this year's looms as a crucial opportunity for the prime minister and his government to make people take a second look at them.'

The federal Budget is not merely an economic statement. It is a social compact. It declares the government's priorities and displays the government's vision for Australia. Or at least, it should. We have never taxed as highly as the Scandinavians. We have never provided the same comprehensive suite of social services and hole-proof social welfare net as the Scandinavians. We have never taxed as lowly as the Americans. We have never relied so heavily as have the Americans on private philanthropy to meet the needs of the homeless on the streets. The strain on our health, education and social services is now showing. But there is no appetite in the major political parties for increased taxation. So, increased services in one sector need to be matched by savings in another. Submarines don't come free.

Part of this government's vision includes 'budget repair', 'jobs and growth' accompanied by corporate tax cuts, more affordable housing, a 'priority investment approach' to welfare reform, and a new model for education funding: 'Gonski 2.0'. However, the vision has been clouded by failures in community consultation, mixed messages in the 24/7 media cycle, and the complexity of compromises which need to be cut with Senate crossbenchers holding a variety of philosophies and agendas. The latest instance is last week's announcement of the school funding changes. No matter what the merits of the changes, it was stupid to announce a new ten-year funding plan without any consultation with the administrators of the Catholic education system, the second largest system in the country, educating 20 per cent of the school age population. Any government wanting to fund a first-rate education system needs to consider issues of equity, sustainability, choice and independence. Those issues will be seen to be properly weighted only after real consultation with all players. Government cannot just deliver the right answer with a media statement.

Government has a legitimate interest in reducing reliance on welfare assistance and in streamlining the provision of welfare services. But it must be done through respectful consultation with welfare providers and welfare recipients. Reform is not assisted by demonising recipients or sidelining long term providers. Government has every right to insist that recipients do what they can to get a job and to pursue training. But government has a duty to provide what's needed for basic sustenance when a person through no fault of their own cannot find a job or undertake training. Government has every right to insist that welfare providers be as efficient as possible, adapting to the modern approaches to welfare reform, including client-based funding and the priority investment approach. But government has the duty to continue block funding for the provision of services for the benefit of those citizens who cannot avail themselves of the new reforms. Think only of people with disabilities in remote parts of Australia trying to access services through the National Disability Insurance Scheme. It just can't be done without block funding being maintained for providers out back. The National Party should understand that.

Since the Global Financial Crisis, Australian governments of both persuasions have argued for and implemented policies to reduce our national debt and to return the Budget to surplus. Every Budget for the last decade has produced a deficit, with governments of both political persuasions espousing the desirability of a return to surplus. Since 2014 both the Abbott and Turnbull Governments have implemented a raft of measures which have saved billions of dollars from important areas of social services as well as welfare and family payments. These measures have unfairly placed the burden of 'budget repair' on those least able to cope. The government has promoted a divide between the 'lifters and leaners', between those who deserve and don't deserve our support. The poor and vulnerable are not the cause of our current economic circumstances; they are the main victims.

The Budget provides an annual opportunity to enact policy priorities by collecting and distributing public funds in a way that reflects the values of Australian society. Prime Minister Turnbull and his Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton have been making much of Australian values of late, insisting that newcomers embrace these values and be adequately tested before accessing citizenship. Announcing the government's measures for 'Strengthening the Integrity of Australian Citizenship,' Turnbull said, 'Australians have an enormous reservoir of good sense, and we know that our values of mutual respect, equality of men and women, democracy, freedom, rule of law, those values, a fair go, they are fundamental Australian values.'

It's difficult to demonstrate our national commitment to mutual respect, equality and the fair go when we have so many families and children still living below the poverty line, when we have 105,000 Australians homeless on Budget night, when we have 250,000 Australians per annum seeking the services of homelessness agencies, when we have 200,000 households on the waiting list for affordable housing, and when so many of our young people are locked out of the job market, while having to survive on the inadequate NewStart allowance of $535.60 per fortnight.

This year's Budget is an opportunity for government to commit itself to mutual respect, equality and a fair go for the present generation of 'haves' and 'have nots', and for future generations whose financial burdens will be eased should the deficit be reduced and should growth be sustained. The balance is not readily found when the Prime Minister's leadership is fragile in his own party room, when the spirit of cooperation between government and opposition is lacking, and when the Senate cross bench is so fractious. Here's hoping.

The language of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) must always be prophetic, pedagogical and practical. CST is not just words. It's reflected in words, actions and structures. One of the credibility problems for our Church today is that we proclaim a message of justice, inclusion, and non-discrimination within a structure which is sexist and without sufficient theological coherence or scriptural warrant and which has been grossly neglectful of the best interests of the most vulnerable — abused children. CST provides us with ideas, feeds our imaginations, fires our passions, underpins our conversations, and animates our celebrations in relation to faith and justice — belief in a loving God and solidarity with our fellow human beings. Being Catholic, we respond as community, not as atomised individuals. Our responses are marked by service and ritual, informed by tradition and authority, as well as reflection on lived experience.

Our credibility as Church has been enhanced with Pope Francis. We see in him many of the finest aspects of our presently battered and ageing Church. In the end we will only be as credible in the public square as we are credible with each other — pilgrims on the way who take radically seriously Jesus and his call, together with our varied life experiences and authentic reflections on those experiences. We will only be credible as an institution if we and especially our leaders are seen to be attentive and respectful to the competencies and insights of others. Our Church is presently a strained, outdated social institution with an exclusively male hierarchy and clergy. But it is also the privileged locus for us to be called to the banquet of the Lord sharing theology and sacrament which have sustained the hearts and minds of similar pilgrims for two millennia. Last month, Francis Sullivan, the CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council when addressing a large meeting of Concerned Catholics in Canberra said:

Our time to be imaginative and open to the promptings of the Spirit has well and truly arrived. Let us take up the challenge of Pope Francis and be a Church that is engaged, inclusive and messy. A Church that listens before speaking, understands before judging and seeks to be relevant rather than set apart.

Thank God for Pope Francis who is showing us the way, helping us to find meaning in our changing and chaotic world, putting a fresh spring in the step of all those Catholics holding in tension the prophetic and the practical, the theological and the humanist, the tradition and the contemporary reality. In the tradition of the Missionary Sisters of Service, let's commit ourselves afresh to serving the poor and proclaiming with joy the presence of the Risen Lord in our midst.


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

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, John Wallis Memorial Lecture, budget 2017



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"In November 2016, four elderly Cardinals who were in the peak of their powers during the previous two papacies...." What does that say about Charles Curran? He's older than any of them. Cardinal Burke is 68. Is 68 elderly?

Roy Chen Yee | 11 May 2017  

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