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Paradox and possibility: The example of Francis

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At my regular parish mass in Canberra on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, just after the election of our new pope, 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! It's still early days in his pontificate, but I think he has opened up a vast new panacea of paradox and possibility for Catholic educators. 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 his remark during the press conference on the plane on the way back from World Youth Day: '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.

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. Revelations out of Melbourne and Newcastle and the pending national royal commission hearings leave us with heavy hearts especially about some of our local church leadership before 1996 but we do have a spring in our step that this new Pope, 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.

Something crystallised for me at a recent appearance of the Opera House with the British philosopher A C Grayling, author of The God Argument, 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. It's only as Church that I think we can hold together ideals and reality, commitment and forgiveness.

Before we canonise Francis too quickly, let's concede that he was a divisive figure in his home province of Argentina when he was made Jesuit Provincial at the age of only 36. This week's Tablet carries an extract from Paul Vallely's new book Pope Francis: Untying the Knots which includes the explosive email sent by one of the serving Jesuit provincials in another Latin American country when Bergoglio's election was announced in St Peter's Square. This Jesuit provincial wrote:

Yes I know Bergoglio. He's a person who's caused a lot of problems in the Society and is highly controversial in his own country. In addition to being accused of having allowed the arrest of two Jesuits during the time of the Argentinian dictatorship, as provincial he generated divided loyalties: some groups almost worshipped him, while others would have nothing to do with him, and he would hardly speak to them. It was an absurd situation. He is well-trained and very capable, but is surrounded by this personality cult which is extremely divisive. He has an aura of spirituality which he uses to obtain power. It will be a catastrophe for the Church to have someone like him in the Apostolic See. He left the Society of Jesus in Argentina destroyed with Jesuits divided and institutions destroyed and financially broken. We have spent two decades trying to fix the chaos that the man left us.

Like all of us, Francis has feet of clay; he is a sinner; there are things in his past that he regrets. There are many things that his erstwhile critics regret. Having fallen out with many Jesuits in his home province, he enjoyed the favour of Pope John Paul II. There were tensions between him and Fr Pedro Arrupe, the Superior General of the Jesuits at the time of the Jesuit General Congregations which defined the Jesuit mission in terms of faith AND justice. The greatness of Francis has been in his capacity to transcend these differences and to be gracious even to those opposed to his viewpoints after many years of silence and isolation. It was very heartening for Jesuits of all stripes to learn of Francis's Mass at the Gesu Church in Rome on the Feast of St Ignatius two weeks ago. He visited the tomb of Pedro Arrupe. Just as he had mentioned Matteo Ricci and Karl Rahner in his earlier visit to the offices of La Civilta Cattolica, he mentioned Francis Xavier and Pedro Arrupe in his homily at the Gesu – each time linking an historic and contemporary figure, and each time the contemporary figure being one who had difficult relations with the Vatican from time to time. It's a long time since any Pope mentioned Karl Rahner or Pedro Arrupe in a positive light. In his homily for the feast of St Ignatius, Francis said:

I have always liked to dwell on the twilight of a Jesuit, when a Jesuit is nearing the end of life, on when he is setting. And two images of this Jesuit twilight always spring to mind: a classical image, that of St Francis Xavier looking at China. Art has so often depicted this passing, Xavier's end. So has literature, in that beautiful piece by Pemán. At the end, without anything but before the Lord; thinking of this does me good. The other sunset, the other image that comes to mind as an example is that of Fr Arrupe in his last conversation in the refugee camp, when he said to us — something he used to say — “I say this as if it were my swan song: pray”. Prayer, union with Jesus. Having said these words he took the plane to Rome and upon arrival suffered a stroke that led to the sunset — so long and so exemplary — of his life. Two sunsets, two images, both of which it will do us all good to look at and to return to. And we should ask for the grace that our own passing will resemble theirs.

As Catholic educators we can bring God's blessings to all in our world, even those who have no time for our Church and not much interest in our Lord. 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!

Now that's what I call a real blessing for journalists – and not a word of Vaticanese. 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 who are Catholic educators helping to form the Church of the 21st century holding the treasure of tradition, authority and ritual in trust for all the people of God, including the next generation who are our students, as we discern how best to make a home for God in our lives and in our world, assured that the Spirit of God has made her home with us.

As Catholic educators, our first task is to enter the world of mystery of those children entrusted to our care. I am one of those priests blessed with an abundance of nieces and nephews who enjoy the occasional opportunity to engage with their clerical uncle. I now have a burgeoning number of grand nephews and grandnieces one of whom is four year old Emme. Her mother, one of my nieces, wrote to me recently at the end of a long day saying:

As you know, unless Emme feels like she is in very familiar contexts, she can be very shy. She does not like large groups or new activities. So the beginning of each school term usually means a few karate lessons featuring her tears at the start of the lesson. I felt that enough was enough and that her crying was well within her control (we are in Week 3) so I told her that if she could avoid crying for the whole lesson, she would have a chocolate biscuit afterwards. She was successful in her quest. We finished the lesson, she got in the car and said "Mum, he did what I asked". I asked what she meant and she said: "On the way here I asked God to please let me not cry today because I really wanted a chocolate biscuit." I was too tired to begin the conversation about her own capacity to control her behaviour and the somewhat limited likelihood that God bestowed her with chocolate biscuits on this particular occasion…another night!

Those of you teaching those a little older than Emme know that they and their parents are much more interested nowadays in spirituality than in religion. But as Catholic educators you know that any spirituality worth its salt needs the buttress of authority, tradition, ritual and community. Many Catholic educators, perhaps even some here this evening, become so despairing of the Church or so entranced with the post-modern world, that they think they will just have to make do with a combination of homespun spirituality and a grounded secular commitment to justice. The American theologian Sandra Marie Schneiders puts it this way:

Postmodernity is characterized by fragmentation of thought and experience which focuses attention on the present moment, on immediate satisfaction, on what works for me rather than on historical continuity, social consensus, or shared hopes for a common future. In this foundationless, relativistic, and alienated context there is, nevertheless, often a powerfully experienced need for some focus of meaning, some source of direction and value. The intense interest in spirituality today is no doubt partially an expression of this need. Religion, however, especially the type to which Christianity belongs, presupposes a unitary worldview whose master narrative stretching from creation to the end of the world is ontologically based and which makes claims to universal validity while promising an eschatological reward for delayed personal gratification and sacrificial social commitment. In other words, the Christian religion is intrinsically difficult to reconcile with a postmodern sensibility. By contrast, a non-religious spirituality is often very compatible with that sensibility precisely because it is usually a privatized, idiosyncratic, personally satisfying stance and practice which makes no doctrinal claims, imposes no moral authority outside one's own conscience, creates no necessary personal relationships or social responsibilities, and can be changed or abandoned whenever it seems not to work for the practitioner. Commitment, at least of any relatively permanent kind, which involves both an implied affirmation of personal subjectivity and a conviction about cosmic objectivity, is easily circumvented by a spirituality which has no institutional or community affiliation. Clearly such a spirituality is much more compatible with a postmodern sensibility than the religion of any church, especially Christianity.

So the modern classroom, the contemporary staff room, and even this Catholic leadership conference become venues for the great paradoxes of modern life. Talk of 'a unitary worldview', 'a master narrative', 'universal validity', 'eschatological reward' seems so paradoxical - talk which is seemingly self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expressing a possible truth. In the Catholic tradition, it has been the religious orders and congregations which have provided the haven for a happy co-existence of religion and spirituality. You are the first generation of Catholic educators who will not have members of religious orders or congregations present in any number at all in your staff rooms and in your classrooms. Thus the need for lay Catholic educators to cultivate their spirituality while also being attentive to the demands of Church and the Church hierarchy.

Henri Nouwen in his classic text of the 1970s Creative Ministry reminded us that teaching can be a violent process – competitive, unilateral and alienating; it can also be redemptive - evocative, bilateral and actualising. Some years ago the Melbourne Age was writing one of those journalistic profiles of me and I was asked to name the teacher who most influenced me about justice. Quick as a flash, I answered, 'There wasn't one!' Then on reflection, I added, 'Actually there was a teacher who taught me a lot about justice. He was so demonstrably unjust in his actions, punishing the whole class for the undetected wrongdoing of just a couple of students, that I reacted and complained to the college headmaster. The good thing was that there were structures and relationships in place such that I was able to discuss the injustice with authority, knowing that not all injustices could be put right.' I later got into trouble from my Jesuit provincial. He told me that it would have been OK to say that if I had attended a Jesuit school, but that he thought the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart who taught me might be offended. I knew they wouldn't be. Outside the classroom and in relationships with students, they were committed to an evocative, bilateral, actualising education. I recently attended the celebration for one of my old teachers, Fr Tyson Donnelly MSC who enjoys the distinction of having educated three state premiers at three different MSC schools. That record will be overtaken only by the Jesuits if there is a change of government on 7 September 2013 when we will all be able to ponder the paradoxes and possibilities of the faith that does justice should the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister be products of the same Jesuit school and the Treasurer and Minister of Education the products of two other Jesuit schools. One paradox is that all three of those premiers and all of those Jesuit products ended up on the non-Labor side of politics. I know Catholic schools of other traditions can boast Labor leaders also amongst their alumni. Let's hope we can all produce both in the future.

I asked another niece of mine about the paradoxes confronting Catholic educators, she, now a lawyer as you will be able to tell, having enjoyed the benefit of a Catholic education from go to woe, and now hoping to provide her newborn daughter with the same. She wrote: 'The Catholic education system teaches some of the nation's more privileged and –through its own excellence – thereby cements that privilege. Even though its teachings are focused on redressing those gaps.'

As for the paradox facing the Catholic Church, this is what this one young woman believer wrote to me:

The Church hierarchy is a brethren of male celibate clergy who draft the teachings to the world's Catholic families or women on issues that go to the depth of the female experience or the family experience. What value is there in the Catholic Church maintaining these paradoxical structures- ie, the structures that encourage those least experienced to speak most authoritatively? Why as Catholics do we not try to tear them down? 

I think because of one of the greatest paradoxes: it is only if we are silent that we can discern our own voice. So there is value in the Catholics who live a life of 'silence' (deep reflection) speaking to those Catholics who live lives too busy for much reflection. 

But then there is the other paradox: there is value in maintaining these structures only if the Church remains alert to the reason why they are valuable. They are valuable because they bring each of us laity, who are too busy from Monday to Saturday to remember the reason why our busy-ness matters at all, back to the truth: that it is our own voice – and only that voice – that must be discerned. So the Church must acknowledge in its pronouncements the limits of its authority and continue to encourage us to value the richness of our own voices.

So as I see it, the value of a Catholic education is to teach the content of the pronouncements (and to value the structures that produce those pronouncements), as well as the truth that no pronouncement will ever be enough of an answer. Maybe Catholic teachers should describe it as a 'paradox': the fundamental truths of our religion are offered to each of us only as 'possible truths'.

You can see how as an uncle and as a priest I am kept on my toes wondering about paradox and possibilities in the Catholic Church.

In his recent address to the Brazilian bishops, Pope Francis warned that we must not yield to the fear once expressed by Blessed John Henry Newman that 'the Christian world is gradually becoming barren and effete, as land which has been worked out and is become sand'. Francis said, 'We must not yield to disillusionment, discouragement and complaint. We have laboured greatly and, at times, we see what appear to be failures. We feel like those who must tally up a losing season as we consider those who have left us or no longer consider us credible or relevant.'

He drew upon Luke's account of the disillusioned disciples on the Road to Emmaus failing to recognise the one who broke open the scriptures to them, then recognising him belatedly in the breaking of the bread:

Here we have to face the difficult mystery of those people who leave the Church, who, under the illusion of alternative ideas, now think that the Church – their Jerusalem – can no longer offer them anything meaningful and important. So they set off on the road alone, with their disappointment. Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas, perhaps the world seems to have made the Church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions; perhaps the Church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age.

Asking what then are we to do, Francis answers:

We need a Church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a Church capable of meeting them on their way. We need a Church capable of entering into their conversation. We need a Church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning.

It's in that dialogue with our fellow teachers and with our students that we will provide each other with: the capacity to control our behaviour; labouring for the chocolate biscuits and other fine things in life we desire for ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbours including the poor, the widow and the orphan, the asylum seeker, the lesbian, and the socially awkward child with acute learning disabilities; educating each other about the all loving God; and teaching the attributes and the desirability of relationship with this God within the Church community despite the somewhat limited likelihood that this God bestowed Emme with chocolate biscuits on that first day back. I wish you well as you embrace the educational paradoxes and Catholic possibilities for the future.

Frank Brennan headshotFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University, and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. He presented the above after-dinner address at the 6th International Conference on Catholic Educational Leadership, Sofitel Hotel, Sydney, 13 August 2013.

Topic tags: Education, Religion



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Existing comments

Praise G-d! Thank you for your subtle defence of our Mother Church, she who must be universal for the Son of Man to be born for all. The unnamed female commentator's remarks are true but problematic. As the book Action in Waiting from the 19th Century, the observer position must be a life-participating one. As the Cardign Method empowered young workers to See Judge and Act, so to observe a problem and not do something to correct it is to fail G-d. For G-d in Jesus named himself the most significant and humble of all names: Son of Man. According to the Triumvirate of Torah, Female Experience and Good News of Jesus Christ, the meaning of this name Son of Man is dignified. To have a son (especially first born) in Jewish tradition is to fulfil one's own and one's Mother-in-law's duty to hand on the faith. For Jesus to take upon himself this action is to commit the Church to its patristic duty to parent humanity, to coax the life of God from within our race, our people.

Louise Jeffree | 22 August 2013  

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