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Why I still love the Catholic Church


I have been asked at this meeting of the Australian Jesuits and our companions on the journey to explain why I love the Catholic Church despite all the woes we are suffering as a social institution at the moment. I love the Church because it is the privileged space where people can share their deepest insights about the most profound experiences, and it is the sacred space where we can hear those insights respectfully and empathetically, and discern the action of the Spirit as we walk together on the road with Jesus towards the eternal banquet with the Father. As Catholics, we know that ritual, tradition and authority help to shape the contours for our religious belief and practice in the daily routine in life and the peak moments of joy and sorrow, beginnings and endings, equipping us to act for justice and with compassion serving those who would never dream of being master. To many non-believers, our professing of impossible ideals and admitting of our sin and need for forgiveness and reconciliation wreaks of nothing other than hypocrisy. For consistency, we are urged to drop the ideals or abandon all hope of redemption. For us, the Church is the crucible, the network of relationships and the worshipping community which makes life to the full marked by justice and compassion a possibility in season and out of season.

Something crystallised for me at a recent appearance of 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. 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. Its only as Church that I think we can hold together ideals and reality, commitment and forgiveness.

It's only as the believing community that we can express light hearted humour about the most serious things in life. I remember when I was coming up for Regency as a young Jesuit just when there was a change of provincials. Pat O'Sullivan had suggested I commence legal aid work and public advocacy with Aboriginal groups. Paul Duffy came along and missioned me to teach year 10 Mathematics at Xavier College. The ever impish Fr Geoff James SJ wrote me a letter of welcome on Xavier letterhead and with his perfect fountain pen hand. He wrote: 'Dear Frank, Pax Christi. — Isn't God clever?' It took me a while to appreciate just how clever God was. My favourite class was form 4 group 6 mathematics, the self-described veggie maths class. They were the best of teachers and the worst of students. Daily I learnt through drudgery the indispensible art for engagement in the public square: being able to explain complex problems in simple language without being patronising. It was a graced time, and indeed God was very clever. I think my advocacy for human rights has been all the stronger and more temperate.

The Church is also the place in which our history and the messiness of our lives is sanctified and given a meaning along the contours of the paschal mystery. I have spent time recently in Maryborough in Queensland, this week being the 150th anniversary of the arrival by boat of my great great grandmother Annie Brennan, a widow aged 40 with her five children including my future great grandfather Martin Brennan.

In Maryborough the Catholic community has always acknowledged its debt to Mary MacKillop and the sisters of St Joseph. Mary's canonisation has graced every pedestrian element of history and life in the sedate town of Maryborough. Mary's early mentor was the enigmatic Fr Julian Tenison Woods who later became concerned that Mary under the influence of the Jesuits was too lax in matters of poverty and obedience. Tenison Woods also had a number of conflicts with bishops in South Australia and New South Wales.

When Tenison Woods was no longer welcome in the south, he being one of Australia's great 19th century naturalists, came and conducted many scientific expeditions and parish missions in Queensland. He passed through Maryborough on about 10 occasions between 1872 and 1881. He was there for the opening of the new church in 1872. In February 1881, he conducted a parish mission over many days. Family folklore has it that he got Martin Brennan off the grog and back to church. My grandfather was then Martin's next son born almost four years later. The effects of the mission must have been long lasting as my grandfather was named Frank Tenison Brennan, as am I. I can only presume that ours is not the only Catholic family in Australia owing an inter-generational debt to the peripatetic priest scientist who always combined scientific inquiry with sacramental service in the most remote parts of the country.

As Church we can bring God's blessings to the world. 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 try to keep loving the Church the 21st century holding the treasure of tradition, authority and ritual in trust for all the people of God, including the next generations, 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.

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. I love the Church in part because I love being a priest.

In preparation for this presentation, I looked back at a reflection I wrote eight 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 and commissioned by Tony Smith. Dening 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 part of 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?'

In the most routine parish daily Mass, there is a deep silence as you utter the words, 'This is the 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.

Much of my life as priest and Jesuit is in the public square, missioned by my Provincial. Sometimes the politics and conflicts get pretty hairy. God knows, its been a little robust of late. I well recall back in 1998 with the so-called Wik debate. I spent a fair bit of time visiting pastoralists in outback Queensland and western New South Wales. I turned up to one meeting near Bourke. The weather was very hot, and the reception very frosty. One good Catholic pastoralist muttered to me: 'You should just get back to your presbytery and say your prayers.' I said I believed in the power of prayer but did not think Wik could be solved by prayer alone. Nor did I think it could be solved just by miners, pastoralists and Aborigines getting together. I thought it needed some disinterested people with a commitment to justice and reconciliation, perhaps even the occasional church person of good will! I don't know that Paul Keating agreed. He labelled me for life as 'the meddling priest'.

Food for the journey, a moral compass for the way, breaking bread and the word at the end of the day: that's why I love the Church and why I love being a Jesuit priest despite all the nonsense, ageing and diminishment that goes on. For me, it's the only show in town, decrepit though it be. 'Where else would we go Lord?' Of course, others with different family histories and different life perspectives find other wells at which they can drink, whether religious or secular.

I have never been a great papal groupie. I have never met a pope, and I don't expect to. But I have always been sustained and inspired by at least a few sentences in every encyclical published during my adult life. Look just at Pope Francis's words in his first encyclical Lumen Fidei where he writes (and these sentences are clearly his and not Benedict's): 'Faith is truly a good for everyone; it is a common good. Its light does not simply brighten the interior of the Church, nor does it serve solely to build an eternal city in the hereafter; it helps us build our societies in such a way that they can journey towards hope.' We are here to help and to be catalysts for hope for even the most hopeless.

As Church we have the capacity to eyeball decision makers and those most adversely affected by those decisions. We must always be eyeballing both. If we're not, we are at a high risk of becoming sanctimonious, proclaiming edicts from the sidelines, becoming what Francis would call the self-referential Church. And that Church I cannot stand. It gives me the creeps. It cultivates the clericalism which has infected so much of our discourse, actions and structures as the community of believers.

Going out on mission, acting for justice with compassion is the preferred mode for us to be honest and transparent, the best way for us to live by our values, and the surest path so that we don't dare let down those who are hurting and who are on the margins. Thanks for the opportunity to share my love with you. I've enjoyed it. Like others at this conference, I have found here amongst us the sacred space to share the great joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties, including those caused by you.

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 address at the Australian Jesuit Province Gathering, St Ignatius College, Riverview, 21 July 2013.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Province Gathering, Riverview, Sean Faircloth, A. C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, atheism



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As an unashamedly papist priest of 38 years [now a bedridden hemiplegic cripple] I hearken back to Lacordaire: "To live in the midst of the world without wishing its pleasures; To be a member of each family, yet belonging to none; To share all suffering; to penetrate all secrets; To heal all wounds; to go from men to God and offer Him their prayers; To return from God to men to bring pardon and hope; To have a heart of fire for Charity, and a heart of bronze for Chastity To teach and to pardon, console and bless always. My God, what a life; and it is yours, O priest of Jesus Christ. —Lacordaire

Father John George | 17 July 2013  

I love the "Rules for Thinking with the Church" by St Ignatius if Loyola enjoined on his Jesuit sons, especially: #Always to be ready to obey with mind and heart, setting aside all judgement of one's own, the true spouse of Jesus Christ, our holy mother, our infallible and orthodox mistress, the Catholic Church, whose authority is exercised over us by the hierarchy. #To uphold especially all the precepts of the Church, and not censure them in any manner; but, on the contrary, to defend them promptly, with reasons drawn from all sources, against those who criticize them #that we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity with the Church herself, if she shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black. For we must undoubtedly believe, that the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of the Orthodox Church His Spouse, by which Spirit we are governed and directed to Salvation, is the same.

Father John George | 18 July 2013  

I grant that the expression['breaking bread"] was of yore used for the Holy Sacrifice:
"The action of breaking the bread, which in apostolic times prompted the very name then used for the Mass, has an important significance; it means that all are united in mutual love through the one bread, since this one bread is shared among many” (General Instruction on the Roman Missal).
But the Mass as Sacrifice needs a revivification after the 'post-gone-sillier' liturgical banalities and shallow reductionisms methinks.

father john george | 21 July 2013  

Frank Brennan campaigns for discrimination against women in the Catholic church. St Ignatius of Loyola said that a woman is like the devil. "The enemy conducts himself as a woman. He is a weakling before a show of strength, and a tyrant if he has his will" Spiritual Exercises, Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, First week, rule 12. Those fine words above hide an institution founded on sexism, still unwilling to recognise or change that sin. Will the Jesuits apologise for St Ignatius' abuse of women?

JH Crone | 30 July 2013  

Dear Frank, I respect your views about your personal relationship to the church and I know it is sincere [ I met you once at a conference some years ago, you were the guest speaker on Land Rights and was immediately impressed by your message], for me however that special relationship that had existed with the Catholic Church broke down irrevocably as a result of having had my childhood hood and teenage years stolen from me by the very people who had responsibility for my welfare and upbringing. I now an ageing man and am still haunted by the abusive events that occurred all those years ago. I still live in the shadow of those years spent in Catholic institutions in Europe and in Australia. It seems to me that there is an essential flaw in the structure of the Church and in its inability to respond to the voices of those who have been hurt. The protection and well being of the institution it seems to me to be paramount in the minds of the hierarchy of the church the well being of those who have suffered comes in at second place.This has been my experience. Shalom. Gage.

Gage | 10 September 2013  

I read this article with awe and respect. Since it was written in 2013, I wonder how you would explain these sentiments today, Father, in light of so many horrific episodes of clerical sexual abuse and crime? For the first time, I am approaching a loss of words.

Albert Lehner | 20 August 2018  

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