People of hope, not hate

Mr Premier and Your Eminence: despite the words of introduction I assure you that I do not come today as a meddling priest. Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to launch the 2009 Project Compassion Campaign for Caritas Australia. I join with all of you in acknowledging the traditional owners of this place. 

Last week, I was here in the foyer of Parliament House. Waiting for a meeting, I noted a tall elderly gentleman approaching. He was wearing a hat which disguised his tell-tale gentle, glistening eyes. It was Tom Uren, well used to walking the corridors of Parliaments in Sydney and Canberra.

He told me that he had just been meeting with you, Mr Premier. He has known you since you were a boy. Without disclosing his business with you, he told me that he had always been a person of hope and not of hate — 'and that's how you get progress'. The Balmain boy started recollecting his many campaigns with the Josephite sisters agitating for the rights of Timorese asylum seekers and for Australian intervention in Timor Leste.

I had a sense of Tom's pride in one he had known as a boy now making a significant contribution to public life. As a young Jesuit, I was privileged to teach a young Jack de Groot in Year 9 at Xavier College, and here he is now as the national CEO of Caritas.

Working in East Timor in 2000–1, I was able to see close up the work of Caritas in war torn conditions. Caritas has always proclaimed hope, not hate. In East Timor, there were difficult discussions about reconciliation and justice. There could be no reconciliation without justice. Caritas worked tirelessly to proclaim the message of reconciliation.

Isabel Gutteres came to Australia as a refugee in 1987. She studied here, became a nurse and an Australian citizen. When the opportunity came to return home and rebuild her country, she went — first working for our Jesuit Refugee Service, and then becoming one of the commissioners on the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Repatriation.

There can be no reconciliation or justice without solid structures of government, good leadership and strong civil society. These things take time and even more resources than houses and buildings. Caritas is always there — the human face of the Catholic Church across borders, including national borders.

Today as we prepare for the Season of Lent, we are mindful of those hundreds of Australians who perished in the Victorian bush fires. We extend our condolences to those who have lost not only loved ones, but also cherished homes, long established community and valuable property. Sunday's National Day of Mourning helped us all.

In such a time of national adversity, how heartening to see and hear the indigenous contribution to yesterday's ceremony. There was not only the resounding consolation of the didgeridoo. The national anthem seemed to take on a deeper resonance for us being sung by Aboriginal opera singer Deborah Cheetham.

Joy Murphy's welcome to country made us all feel at home. So too here in Parliament House, we are made more whole by the presence of Elsie Heiss and her team from the Aboriginal ministry at La Perouse.

Yesterday in Melbourne, there were many eloquent speeches. But no voices moved us more than the voices of the victims and of the firefighters. Heart spoke to heart as Merelyn and David Carter from Kinglake joined in singing 'I Am Australian'. Premier Brumby shared with us the poem written by Peter Horton, the fire fighter from Flowerdale.

What a wonderful image of interdependence and solidarity was the sight of the young Uniting Church minister offering a supportive arm to the ageing imam descending the stage stairs.

Those of us familiar with the deft touch of Patricia Burke, the Director of Sydney Caritas, could be forgiven for thinking that the Governor-General was taking a leaf from Patricia's book when she said, 'We will open our hands and reach out, deep, to give of ourselves whatever we are able.' This is the spirit of Caritas: opening our hands, reaching out, reaching deep, giving of ourselves whatever we are able; acknowledging our interdependence and solidarity across borders, and across difference.

Our Prime Minister recalled, 'In some countries, tragedy exposes the fault lines in a nation. The strong abandoning the weak; one region indifferent to the sufferings of another ... But ours is a different nation.'

Absent shared religious faith, we so often fall back on nationalism or our shared humanity to feed our imaginations and desires during times of crisis. Many people in far more desperate places than the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit are unable to fall back on nationalism at such times. There is only our shared humanity.

I think of places like Cambodia where sustained tragedy has exposed fault lines like unbridgeable chasms. I recall my first placement in a refugee camp — on the Thai Cambodian border more than 20 years ago. My Jesuit companion Kike Figeredo who is now the bishop of the western districts of Cambodia came to that camp asking simply, 'What would Jesus have done?'

He was adamant that Jesus would tend to the poorest of the poor — those who had lost limbs stepping on land mines. The priority was not the education of the elite but the training of the most marginalised and vulnerable.

I think of people like Denise Coghlan, the Australian Sister of Mercy who accompanied the refugees back from the border of life to Phnom Penh. She has now spent decades committed to building civil society, campaigning internationally against the production of land mines.

Through people like Denise, Caritas is there — the human face of the Catholic Church across borders — across national borders, and across religious borders.

When confronting desperate situations without shared religious faith or shared nationalism, we have to dig deep to evoke the most humanitarian values, the most fundamental principles about the dignity of the human person, about the human rights of all regardless of their wealth, status, nationality or religion.

We are most truly Australian, most truly Christian, and most truly Catholic when we reach out across borders of nation states and churches, opening our hands and reaching out, deep, giving of ourselves whatever we are able.

We contribute best to that 'environment to grow in' when we give voice to the victims like Merelyn and David Carter from Kinglake and when we give voice and support to those there helping on the ground like Peter Horton from Flowerdale.

For us, nationalism, even Australian nationalism is never enough. For us, religious identity alone is never enough. We are most truly ourselves, we are our most dignified selves, when we are reaching out and connecting with those whose human flourishing, cultural authenticity and social inclusion are most at risk.

Speaking to the UN General Assembly last year in preparation for the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Pope Benedict XVI said:

This document was the outcome of a convergence of different religious and cultural traditions, all of them motivated by the common desire to place the human person at the heart of institutions, laws and the workings of society, and to consider the human person essential for the world of culture, religion and science.

Contributing to contemporary philosophical debate, Benedict said:

Human rights are increasingly being presented as the common language and the ethical substratum of international relations. At the same time, the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights all serve as guarantees safeguarding human dignity.

That's why I count it such a privilege as a Jesuit priest to be chairing our national consultation on human rights. That's why citizens of all religions and none can be guaranteed a respectful hearing before my committee on their diverse perspectives on human rights.

Each of us has our role to play in building a universal 'environment for all to grow in' and to flourish. Let's commit ourselves afresh to work for true human progress here and abroad — across national borders and across religious borders.

Because I am, you are, we are Australians who are people of hope committed to the progress of all peoples. Let's all salute and support Caritas this Lent.

Frank BrennanFather Frank Brennan SJ AO is Chair of the National Human Rights Consultation. The above text is from his Caritas Luncheon Address at Parliament House, Sydney, on 23 February 2009.

Topic tags: frank brennan, caritas, catholic aid agency, lent



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