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The unfashionable virtues of time and patience

  • 30 June 2022
One of the wisest figures in Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace is the Russian General Mikhail Kutuzov. His successful strategy, defended against impatient peers, was summed up in the phrase ‘Time and Patience’. It proved successful against Napoleon, and its influence, without Kutuzov’s respect for soldiers’ lives, can be seen in the Russian resistance to Hitler’s army and perhaps ominously in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Stripped of its military associations the phrase might link and illuminate two apparently disparate events in coming days: the Catholic Plenary Council and NAIDOC Week. The weeks are moments in the life of communities that are in for the long haul. The larger challenges that they face will endure long after the week is over.

NAIDOC Week began in protest. Before the 1920s Indigenous Australians claimed that it was inappropriate to celebrate Australia Day on the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, an event which marked the beginning of their dispossession. They began to organise in order to demand recognition by other Australians of their right to participate in society as equal members. They faced opposition both in their initial and their larger goals. Institutional racism, exclusion of Indigenous communities from the decisions that shape their lives and the challenge of passing on a rich culture to younger generations do not disappear in a day. To hang in has required time and patience.

The Plenary Council has been four years in the making. The Catholic Church in Australia also faces long term challenges. It is declining in numbers, both its culture and its self-confidence have been assailed by sexual abuse of children and its continuing effects, its structures of governance have been weakened by restrictions in the part that lay Catholics and especially women can play, and it also experiences difficulty in passing on its culture to younger generations. These are long term challenges that the Council must address but will endure long after it.

If NAIDOC and of the Australian Catholic Church are to achieve their goals time and patience will be required. Yet both weeks show signs of justifiable impatience. This year the theme of NAIDOC Week is Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up! Its tone is urgent, expressing frustration at the resistance to change but also the recognition that new possibilities have opened. Last year the theme was Heal Country, which echoed both a broader demand in Australia for respect for the natural environment