Presented at the Assembly of the Federation of Catholic Bishops Conferences of Oceania, Port Moresby, April 15th 2018 by Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta
Thank you for the opportunity to share with you a few thoughts on the challenges we face and how we can join Pope Francis in meeting those challenges. I realise that the church in Oceania is as wide and diverse as the geography that defines our region. Nevertheless, I believe there is a sense that the whole church is entering into a critical juncture and we can do well to read the signs of the times together, discern the movement of the Holy Spirit and go where he leads us. I’m reminded of that passage in St John’s Gospel where the risen Jesus tells a very subdued and humbled Peter: “When you were younger, you went wherever you wanted to. But when you are older, you will be led to places where you’d rather not go” (Jn21:18). Is this a metaphor for the church in Oceania at this time, to have the courage and docility to be led – like Peterto places where we’d rather not go?
I begin this reflection with an Australian aboriginal story. It goes like this. Once upon a time, there was an aboriginal tribe that settled along a mighty river. It was teeming with all kinds of fresh water creatures that sustained the people and provided much security and well-being for them. They lived peacefully along its banks. Then, one day, a big flood came and submerged everything in its path. The people evacuated to dry land. When the flood subsided they returned and resettled where they used to. But then, things were not quite the same. The river flow became weaker and weaker. What was once a mighty river gradually was reduced to a billabong. The people sat daily around its edge and wondered what had become of their once mighty and lifegiving river. It was all very sad and depressing until one of them decided to go upstream and explore. He returned later and told the rest of the tribe that their beloved river had not dried up at all. It had merely changed its course.
Many of the countries in our region are familiar with the devastating effect of floods and even tsunamis. I use the above story to speak of the impact of 2 secular age in which we live. Like those aboriginal people who returned to their beloved river and realised it was not the same any more after the big flood, we too are being confronted with a changing reality, a world in which the church is no longer at home. The church is being marginalised. In so many ways, it is losing its relevance and impact.
I’d like to think of this critical juncture as analogous to the biblical exile with which I have a personal affinity, being a former refugee. In the exile, there was a paradigm shift, a fundamental change in the way people related to God, to others and the world around them. They learned to live their faith anew – without familiar symbols like the temple, the temple-based priesthood, the festivals, the land etc…
I believe that we are living in a watershed and a privileged moment in the history of the church. Just as the biblical exile brought about the most transforming experience that profoundly shaped the faith of Israel, this transition time can potentially launch the Church into a new era of hope, engagement and solidarity to which the Second Vatican Council beckoned us with great foresight. From where I stand, the arrival of Pope Francis and his emphasis on servant leadership have unambiguously signaled this new era. He is like the pioneer who left the billabong in search of the life-giving river. He constantly urges the whole Church to go beyond itself: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security”.
In another place, he says even more forcefully that we are not living in an era of change but change of era. By this, I think he means we need to live up to our fundamental call to be “ecclesia semper reformanda” or the Church always in need of reform to be in sync with the movement of the Holy Spirit. It is not “business as usual”. It cannot be status quo at any cost, because the ground under our feet has shifted. There needs to be an attitudinal change at every level, a conversion of mind and heart that conforms us to the spirit of the Gospel, a new wine into new wineskins, not a superficial change or worse a retreat into restorationism. The Pope said this to a stunned audience of Italian bishops gathered in Florence: “Before the problems of the Church it is not useful to search for solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of obsolete conduct and forms that no longer have the capacity of being significant culturally”.
Given the critical situation we face now and into the future, what do I hope for the Church in Oceania in 20-30 years time? Will the Church in Oceania be a real vibrant force in society or will it be an irrelevant minority, relegated to a culturally insignificant ghetto? Will it be an isolated murky billabong left behind after the flood or will it change its course and chart a new life-giving future in accordance with the direction of the Kingdom? I’d like to share with you what I think is Pope Francis’ challenges for the church in the new millennium.
A HUMBLE, POOR AND SERVANT CHURCH:
Cardinal Carlo Martini SJ who many would argue opened the way to the papacy of Pope Francis said in his last interview before his death in 2012: “I dreamed about a Church that went forward in poverty and humility; that did not depend on the powers of this world”. He also said that the Church is about 200 years behind the time. Perhaps, this was a Jesuit way of telling the powers that be to get on with the job of implementing the prophetic vision of the poor humble servant Church that the Vatican Council had envisaged.
I hold that it is necessary that we die to that which is unworthy of Christ so that a church humbled yet purified may emerge and shine forth more brightly as a beacon of hope for all. In my testimony at the Australian Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, I maintained that we need to acknowledge that the clericalist model of church has run its course. This model, which promotes the superiority of the ordained and the excessive emphasis on the role of the clergy at the expense of non-ordained is at the very root of the culture of clericalism. To replace this outdated model is not to dismantle the Church per se or even the hierarchy. It is not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Rather, it is acknowledge and to have the courage to die to the old ways of being Church that no longer convey the message of the Gospel to the culture in which we live.
I wonder how many of you have ever heard of what is known as the Pact of the Catacombs. On November 16, 1965, a few days before the end of the Vatican Council, about 40 of the bishops celebrated the Eucharist together in the catacombs of Saint Domitila. They asked for the grace “to be faithful to the 4 spirit of Jesus,” to lead a life of poverty and humility and to be a poor servant church. “The Pact of the Catacombs” was born. Dom Helder Camara was the signitory to this pact and so were many of his Latin American colleagues. By signing, they made a commitment to live in poverty, to reject all symbols or privileges of power, and to place the poor at the centre of their pastoral ministry. Let me read some of the salient points of the pact:
-We will try to live according to the ordinary manner of our people in all that concerns housing, food, means of transport, and related matters.
– We renounce forever the appearance and the substance of wealth, especially in clothing and symbols made of precious metals.
– We do not want to be addressed verbally or in writing with names and titles that express prominence and power (such as Eminence, Excellency, Lordship).
– We will seek collaborators in ministry so that we can be animators according to the Spirit rather than dominators according to the world; and we will show ourselves to be open to all, no matter what their beliefs.
What a prophetic vision for the church! What courage and passion for the Gospel of Jesus! These men in the spirit of the Vatican Council mapped out a path of renunciation and purification that would enable a humble, poor but hope-filled Church to be born. It has been a painful birthing process, one must admit since the heyday of the Council. Those salient points that I have highlighted remain to be lived and to be seen to be lived by many bishops, myself included. We may not be the bishop of Bling or the lover of the Cappa Magna. However, the challenge of living a life of poverty and humility and being a poor servant church remains as relevant now as it was then.
I believe a healthier church is not possible until we its leaders have reclaimed the core Gospel values of powerlessness, vulnerability and servant-leadership. These are not just private virtues but the antidote to the disease of clericalism. So much of what is unhealthy within the church today stems from a travesty of Christian leadership and service.
As far as I am concerned, the sexual abuse crisis has revealed deeper problems in the Church. We can no longer limit our blame to the individuals who offended. We must also look for factors within the very culture of the church that have contributed to the sexual abuse crisis.
We need to explore the deeper issues that lie underneath this phenomenon. Unless we have the courage to see how far we have drifted from the vision of Jesus, unless we are prepared to go beyond the symptoms and explore the deeper cultural and structural issues that lurk behind the surface, unless we genuinely repent of institutional failures, we will not be able to restore confidence and trust in the church.
When privilege, power and dominance are more evident than love, humility and servant-hood in the church, then the very Gospel of the servant Jesus is at risk. What we need to reclaim for the church forcefully and unequivocally is the notion of powerlessness, vulnerability and servant leadership. To this end, we as leaders need to manifest the powerlessness, vulnerability and servant leadership of Christ in who we are and what we do. Until we have reclaimed powerlessness, vulnerability and servant leadership, the church will be less than what Christ intends it to be.
The church can only be the conduit of compassion and speak the language of hope to a broken humanity when it truly personifies powerlessness and stands where Christ once stood, that is, firmly on the side of the outcast and the most vulnerable.
A CHURCH THAT GOES TO THE MARGINS:
Pope Francis constantly calls us to move beyond the security of status quo and take the risk of going to the periphery. The Church must be the Church of the poor and for the poor. The Church must go out of itself in order to be close to those in need. Conversely, the Church that does not go out into the world keeps Jesus imprisoned.
Let’s recall that in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis quoted Pope John Paul II who wrote to the Bishops of Oceania after the 1998 Oceania Synod saying: “All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion”.
If one can detect the direction of Pope Francis’ pontificate, it has something to do with the movement from security to boldness, from inward looking to outward looking, from preoccupation with our status quo, from safeguarding our privileges to learning to be vulnerable, thereby conveying God’s compassion to those who are on the edges of society and church.
Hence our challenge is to accompany people from the margins into a journey towards the fullness of life and love. It is to embrace the call of the Vatican Council to identify with the joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of those who are poor and in anyway afflicted. It is to be the bearer of joy to those who are most deprived of it. To do this, we must be able to live in and to bridge the yawning gap, the liminal space between the ideal and the real, between what the Church teaches and how the people respond.
Pope Francis challenges us to divest ourselves of clericalism and elitism, and return to the purity of the Gospel. His constant call to the Church to be less concerned with itself and to be more outward looking encourages us to walk with our people in the ambiguities and complexities of their lives. The selfreferential Church steeped in a culture of splendour is in stark contrast with the Church of the poor and for the poor. It is the latter that we who pattern ourselves according to Jesus the prophet on the margins endeavours to serve. It is like new wine in new wineskins. The new wine of God’s unconditional love, boundless mercy, radical inclusivity and equality needs to be poured into new wineskins of humility, mutuality, compassion and powerlessness. The old wineskins of triumphalism, authoritarianism, and supremacy abetted by clerical power, superiority, and rigidity are broken.
I visited St John Lateran recently with a group of pilgrims from my diocese. There was one curiosity that caught my attention. It was the elaborate circular markings on the marble floor of the basilica. They were meant to assist the Pope and his entourage in liturgical processions. One could imagine how perfectly they were arrayed in their ornate vestments. The Church was synonymous with the arena of power and the enclosure for the privileged. I wonder if this was the natural progression of the imperial Church which came to be born after the conversion of Constantine. I can say that thank God we have moved on from the pompous, triumphalist church and in its place, the vision of church of the “anawim” is being rightfully reclaimed for our time. Thank God Pope Francis is moving decisively in this direction.
A CHURCH THAT IS THE FACE OF GOD’S LOVE AND MERCY:
Prior to the 2 nd Vatican Council, the Church was understood to be on its way to becoming a perfect society in and for the world. It was a defensive, fortress Church. Other Christian Churches were considered aberrations from this road map, not to speak of other religious movements. However, Gaudium et Spes – the guiding document of the Council – presented a new paradigm: the Church is not an enclosure which protects its members against the sinful world. It is a fellow pilgrim with the men and women of our age. It is a church incarnate in the world. Therefore, it is time not of fearful retreat, disengagement and selfreferential pomp, but of accompaniment and engagement.
Pope Francis’s image of the church as a field hospital initiates a dramatically different model of church. The Pope’s strategic visits to other Christian denominations, most recently to Lund in Sweden where he remembered Martin Luther and the beginnings and legacy of the Protestant Reformation, and his encounter with other world religions, demonstrate his determination to lead the church away from the model of the perfect society toward a model of a pilgrim church. He understands the Roman Catholic Church in terms of a pilgrim movement besides other pilgrim movements. All Christian movements try to respond to God’s call to participate in God’s great project of creation and reconciliation.
Francis declares: “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”. That is his vision of the ideal Church. Not a perfect society, nor the enclosure for the privileged but a refuge for the poor, an oasis for the weary and a hospital for the wounded.
The field hospital is not concerned about defending against threat of encroachment and loss of its status and privileges. Instead, it goes out of itself to respond to the needs of those whose lives are at risk. It engages with the world rather than withdraws into enclaves. Indeed as Pope Francis reminded us, we need to be in prisons, hospitals, the streets, villages, factories. If this is not so, the Church will be an institution of the exclusive that does not say anything to anyone, not even to the Church herself.
Being merciful is at the heart of Catholic identity. It is not simply a matter of acting with mercy and compassion to those in need with our position of power and privilege intact. Rather, it is a radical discipleship of vulnerability and powerlessness in the footsteps of the humble Servant of God. It is an existential stance in favour of the weak and the vulnerable in the face of the prevalent business model of success and power. It is about building up people and relationships rather than profit and size. It has to do with the Kingdom mentality rather than the empire mentality.
A SYNODAL CHURCH:
As we move to a more pilgrim community model, it is also necessary to foster a culture of encounter and dialogue. Pope Francis speaks of an “inverted pyramid” which is a radical way of exercising power and authority. It is not a top-down and centralised approach reminiscent of the monarchical model. Rather, it is a synodal church at every level, with everyone listening to each other, learning from each other and taking responsibility for proclaiming the Gospel. Vatican II already spoke of the key principles: collegiality, subsidiarity and sensus fidelium, all of which pointed to a more listening, dialogical and inclusive church.
Pope Francis has really lived up to his vision of the church daring to break loose from its comfort zone and self-referential mentality. He has challenged us to be a compassionate, merciful, open and inclusive church. He has privileged a style of leadership, which involves more deep respectful listening and collective discernment.
The synod on the family gave us a window into his vision of a synodal church. It was marked by disruption, chaos and drama but also by a deep sense of dialogue for the common good or ‘parrhesia’. In the end, what was invigorating about the synod was not only the document that it produced. It was not only Amoris Letitia but the journey of synodality that energized the church. As far as I am concerned, it is the unleashing of the energy long locked up beneath the ice of institutional security that truly matters. The energy that had been trapped in a rigid control was released by boldness, freedom and frankness.
Pope Francis’ instruction to live and work among the mess and to cause a commotion is certainly having its impact in many Bishops Conferences around the world. In some quarters, it is perceived as a threat to the security and stability of the Church. We have the so-called “dubia” cardinals and many others who are openly critical of the direction of this pontificate. What they fail to see, or do not want to see, is the profound change of attitude to which the Pope is challenging the whole Church. It is the process of open and deep listening especially to those alienated and marginalized rather than a closed and rigid system, allowing the Holy Spirit to stimulate us to respond more fully and wholeheartedly in spreading the Good News.
I believe that the old way of being church which is deeply steeped in clerical practice and structure is coming to an end. I’d like to use the metaphor of the wine at the wedding banquet in Cana to describe the transition between the dying paradigm and the emerging one. Like the old wine, the old ecclesial paradigm rooted in clerical hegemony, likewise, well served the church we love. But that model of church -like its corollary, the exalted, separated and elitist priesthood – is drawing its last breaths, at least in many parts of the world including Australia. It is time for us to drink the new wine that is being poured.
The new wine of God’s unconditional love, boundless mercy, radical inclusivity and equality needs to be poured into new wineskins of humility, mutuality, compassion and powerlessness.
The old wineskins of triumphalism, authoritarianism and supremacy, abetted by clerical power, superiority, and rigidity, are breaking. The old wineskins in Oceania were too European and too colonial. The new wineskins do not need to be imported or imposed from elsewhere. The new wineskins can be made from local content with local insight. Pope Francis has been very receptive to the insights offered by the Bishops of Oceania in the past. Those insights had already been received by Pope John Paul II at the Oceania Synod. In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis, once again quoting John Paull II, writes:
The Bishops of Oceania asked that the Church “develop an understanding and a presentation of the truth of Christ working from the traditions and cultures of the region” and invited “all missionaries to work in harmony with indigenous Christians so as to ensure that the faith and the life of the Church be expressed in legitimate forms appropriate for each culture”. We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture. It is an indisputable fact that no single culture can exhaust the mystery of our redemption in Christ.
As well as being more attentive to local and indigenous cultures, we male disciples need to learn from female disciples the core Gospel values of powerlessness, vulnerability and servant-leadership. Perhaps the privilege of maleness in our patriarchal Church and our still male-dominated society makes us blind to the power we enjoy. We male disciples need women to alert us to this blind spot just as we need coloured people to tell white people that race matters, or gay people to tell straights that gender matters in ways we don’t always appreciate experientially. Though I come from a humble background, I have other privileges such as being male, heterosexual, ordained etc… which incline me to certain ways of thinking, judging and acting. I need to learn from the wisdom of otherness.
The Church has a way to go yet in terms of appreciating women’s gifts and institutionalising them for the benefit of the community. Until we have truly incorporated the gift of women and the feminine dimension of our Christian faith, we will not be able to fully energise the life of the Church.
The Church is being reborn in ways beyond the traditional structures. Like the river that has changed its course, we have a choice to make. It is not in yearning for or holding on to the known, the secure and the familiar but in reimagining the future and venturing into the unknown chaos that we shall find new life.
The question that we face is whether or not we have the courage to reimagine a new future for the church or are we simply resigned to accept the status quo and forever re-enact what happened in the past? Pope Francis’ call to make a mess and to cause a commotion is a call for the church to live the Good News more fully, more creatively, more boldly, more at the periphery. His critique of clericalism and embrace of a post-clericalist model of listening, dialogical and inclusive church inspire us to seek fresh ways of conveying the message of the Gospel to the culture in which we live.
We’re on the threshold of renewal and transformation. The Vatican Council set in motion a new paradigm that cannot be thwarted by fear and paralysis. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it cannot be put back. That new paradigm is one that is based on mutuality not exclusion, love not fear, service not clericalism, engagement with the world not flight from or hostility against it, incarnate grace not dualism. May the Holy Spirit accompany us as we move boldly in the direction of the Kingdom.
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