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Looking to the future as a Catholic in Australia

`What are we here after?'
Keynote Address at Catholic Education Office Staff Seminar, 26 October 2001
Dr Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest who lectures in history and social ethics at Yarra Theological Union at Box Hill and also works as a consultant at Catholic Social Services Victoria. His publications include The Church's Social Teaching: from Rerum Novarum to 1931 (Melbourne: CollinsDove, 1991) and Crusade or Conspiracy: Catholics and the Anti-Communist Struggle in Australia (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2001)
Let me begin with what could be an old mission joke. A priest was doing his rounds visiting the old people in his parish, and over a cup of tea asked one lady if she ever thought of the hereafter. She immediately responded: `Oh yes, Father. Often. I go into one room to fetch something and have to ask myself "What am I here after?" Half an hour later I go to do something and again have to ask myself "What am I here after". Then I have to go back through my steps to where I started to try to remember.'

Older people like this joke because they can identify with it so closely. So do I. But I would like to stretch it a little as a metaphor for what has happened in the Church. We find ourselves at an unexpectedly difficult time in our history. After all the great battles for State Aid for over a century, when we might have expected a vibrant new flourishing of our faith among young people, we are faced with widespread disaffection among the young, and not so young, particularly among women, and a disengagement from Church practice. This is not a new process, as you well know, and I do not pretend to be able to interpret what is happening adequately. I certainly do not claim to have all the answers. It amounts to a crisis unprecedented in our Church history, and affects not just Australia but all the western world. It is indeed time to ask ourselves as a Christian community `What are we here after?' and to retrace our steps to remember `how and why we got here'.

The question `What are we here after?' is absolutely fundamental, but an extremely difficult and demanding one on many levels. It requires a thorough re-collection of our own story as Catholics and Christians in Australia, and indeed of the entire Christian story. I recognise of course that this is a daunting intellectual task, and too ambitious for any one person. But unless we reappropriate our history intelligently and critically, we risk becoming captive to a pragmatic pastoral practice, which for all its strengths, may leave us paddling close to the familiar shore without taking the risks needed to meet new challenges.

History as chance
It will come as no surprise to you if I say that much of our secular history is the result of pure chance. It was a sheer accident of history that Captain Cook claimed New South Wales before the French did. Yet how decisive it was for us and this country.

You may be more surprised to reflect on how much accident and chance have played in the development of the churches, our doctrine, our religious symbols and our Catholic culture, or more accurately, cultures. What a surprise the Australian Church got when great numbers of Catholic immigrants arrived after the Second World War and we discovered that there were different ways of being a Catholic. Being an Italian or Polish or Ukrainian Catholic was not the same thing as being an Irish-Australian Catholic. There is a story told among Redemptorist missioners about how the mission priest was visiting houses to invite people to the parish mission. He met an Italian man and was trying to impress on him the need for him to go to Mass each Sunday. The man replied: `I'm a Catholic, Father, not a fanatic!' Faith is mediated through culture, and sometimes in quite different ways.

Let me illustrate this further with some hypothetical historical scenarios.

What if the great bulk of the Jewish people had accepted Christ as their Messiah and Lord, and not just a minority group within the Jewish tradition? What would our Church be like two thousand years later? It's quite an intriguing question. Would our liturgies still preserve at least some Aramaic? Would Jerusalem be the centre of the Catholic world, and not Rome? How would an authority structure have evolved? Would we have popes and bishops, or even clergy as we have known them? Would Christianity have been largely a western and European affair, or more Middle Eastern and Asian?

Again, what might the Church look like today if the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire had not occurred? We must not understate what a shock to the Roman world were the barbarian invasions. The Greco-Roman culture had for many centuries been the glory of civilisation but was to disappear almost without trace, except for the ruins.

Perhaps a parallel today might be if the terrorist assaults on the United States were sustained over a long period, perhaps a century, with chemical, biological and atomic warfare, resulting in the obliteration of the major cities and catastrophic depopulation, so that our western civilisation reverted to subsistence living and eventually collapsed into anarchy and warlordism.

We know that the barbarian tribes were evangelised in stages, but particularly by the Irish monks throughout northern Europe. Of course these brought their own distinctive cultural form of Christianity, but still had to adapt to the culture of the Germanic tribes, and developed a style of Christianity which was very different to that of the Roman world. It was a pure accident that it was the Irish monks that carried out this evangelisation over centuries.

What difference would it have made if that evangelisation had been by monks from Syria or Egypt? Perhaps our liturgies would have been in Coptic or Arabic rather than Latin. What if the missionaries had come from the so-called Thomas Christians in India? This Church, founded by St Thomas the Apostle according to tradition, had been on the Roman trade route but was isolated by the collapse of the Empire and forgotten until Portugese explorers chanced upon it a thousand years later. Would there then have been a Latin Church at all, but rather an Eastern Church in the West?

My first point in raising these hypothetical scenarios is to highlight how much in our religious tradition derives from history and culture rather than from faith. Faith must certainly be expressed through culture as hammered out in history, but this expression is constantly changing, and can validly take a multitude of forms despite the limitations of any culture.

In our day, we are struggling to develop an appropriate faith response to the rapid and profound changes in culture. Our question, `What are we here after?' refers not just to the core elements of faith, but asks how to express it in a cultural form accessible and understandable to our contemporaries.

The role of style or culture
Secondly, we need to realise that the style of Catholicism many of us grew up with in the 1950s was a very distinctive and recent culture, largely imported from Ireland from the mid-nineteenth century.1 The Irish Cardinal Cullen a century before had developed a new style of Catholicism which emphasised loyalty to Rome above all else, insisted on priests adopting the Roman dress, introduced Roman devotions and adopted a pastoral strategy of what might be called `ghetto-cohesion' to combat the enemies of the Church, particularly the Protestant and Anglican churches.

To strengthen this strong sense of identity, Cullen had introduced strict rules against Catholics marrying non-Catholics, and insisted on Catholics attending their own schools. This so-called `ghetto' structure was a shrewd sociological response to develop tight social cohesion as a defence against sectarian attacks. As those of us who lived in this style of Church may recall, the behavioural expectations were not trivial or insubstantial, and did help meet the needs of many people for identity and community. Catholics were kept together in a fervent and close-knit network of overlapping structures. One of my confreres, who lived in Woolsthorpe, has a little joke he liked to tell on parish missions, that it wasn't until he turned eleven years of age that he realised he didn't live in Ireland.

The `ghetto' strategy worked remarkably well for a century, but it required a sense of cultural isolation and vulnerability and real enemies to make it credible. Once sectarianism went into decline and the battle for State Aid was won, it became much harder to maintain the tight Catholic defensive structures. The Second Vatican Council sounded the death-knell of this type of pastoral strategy, with the new emphasis on ecumenism and openness to the world of the secular.

The whole `ghetto' strategy rested on the apparent immobility of the post-Tridentine European Church which boasted that as the rock of Peter it had remained unchanged for centuries, and hence by implication was faithful to Christ. I say `apparent immobility', because there were in fact some momentous changes, particularly in an unprecedented centralisation of the Church on the Holy See and an exaltation of the role of the Papacy over even the bishops.

One important innovation was that Rome increasingly made episcopal appointments instead of local church structures. The last Australian Archbishop to be elected by a cathedral chapter was Archbishop Simonds in the mid-1930s. In 1942, without consultation, he was made assistant to Melbourne's Archbishop Mannix, remaining so for 31 years until Mannix died in 1963. It is thus not at all improbable that the Church could return to the more traditional practice of having local churches choose their bishops.

This Church took reason seriously, but subordinated it to the needs of apologetics or defence of the Church's doctrine, which was consolidated into the extensive but obtuse apparatus of neo-scholastic theology. It served the needs of the time up to a point, particularly in English-speaking countries like Australia where the doctrinal authority of the Church was allied with the defence of the largely working-class interests of Catholics and supplied a social and ideological defence against sectarian attacks, especially as exemplified in the refusal of the States from the 1860s to fund Catholic schools.

Unlike some other countries, particularly in Europe, the Church in Australia and other English-speaking countries had acted as a voice for the disadvantaged, and the social justice message of the Church, particularly the social encyclicals following the 1891 document of Pope Leo XIII, On the Condition of the Working Class, reinforced the class interest of most Catholics. Now that so many Catholics have moved into the middle and upper classes, it will be interesting to see how strongly they will continue to support Church social teaching.

The folly of neglecting our history
However, the greatest problem with the Church's stance before the Second Vatican Council was that it was not informed by an adequate understanding of its own history, and did not realise how contingent many of its institutions and cultural forms, including the liturgy, were on chance historical factors. Take the use of Latin in the liturgy, for instance. We prided ourselves on the obligatory use of Latin as a universal language and that nothing in the Mass had changed for hundreds of years. What we had forgotten was that the early Church changed from Aramaic to Greek and other vernacular languages precisely so that the people could join in the liturgy in their own languages.

The Second Vatican Council in 1965 decided it was time to return to the earlier practice of using the vernacular. But what a contentious issue it was at the time, you may recall, since for many Catholics the use of Latin had become a symbol of mystery in the liturgy and of the unchangability of the Church. It illustrates that without an understanding of the history, of why things developed as they did, practices can take on quite different meanings from those originally intended.

Doctrinal formulations are also conditioned by the contexts in which they were developed. Unless the assumptions and contexts behind such statements are understood, neither can the doctrinal formulation. Take the doctrine of transubstantiation, which was formulated to explain how the bread used in the Eucharist could become the Body of Christ.

If you read St Thomas's treatment of this question, you will find a brilliant demonstration of the syllogistic method moving cogently from Aristotle's philosophy of matter and form, substance and accidents, to demonstrate how one must then hold the doctrine of transubstantiation. Aquinas used the best philosophy of the day in arguing his case. But this 13th century formulation depends entirely on Aristotelian philosophy and, unless one accepts and understands Aristotelian philosophy, the doctrinal formulation of transubstantiation is literally meaningless. Certainly Jesus and the early Church would have had no idea what transubstantiation meant. So for us today to be faithful to our faith in the Eucharist, we would need a more appropriate formulation.

Consider also how different were the fundamental institutions in the early Church. It had no church buildings at all, no schools and no hospitals The initially Jewish Christians met in each other's homes for prayers, and the Eucharist was originally set in the context of a shared meal. There were as yet no bishops, no monks and no clerical caste. It was to take another thousand years before celibacy for the clergy became obligatory, and this was only the discipline of the Latin Church, not of the Eastern churches. The Ukrainian Catholic Church, for instance, still has married clergy.

For some centuries, the Christians refused to use vestments or altars, or to call their `presbyters' `priests', since they feared being confused with pagan rituals. The early practice was that the celebrant would improvise what we would now call a Eucharistic prayer, and these prayers only gradually took on a more standard form. Even St Augustine in the fifth century, despite later paintings of him, only ever celebrated Mass in his shabby grey monk's habit.

I am not suggesting that we should return to the practices of the early Church, but we should be aware of how different they were from the practices and liturgical norms before Vatican II, and how they have guided the Church's reforms since.

The weaknesses of the Church's position before the Second Vatican Council were more apparent in Europe than in Australia, where we were surprised by the changes introduced by the Council. It is no accident that it was the European bishops who led the Council reforms, as they were closest to the effects of the Reformation, the scandal of divisions among Christians, and the failure of the churches to stem the onslaught of two world wars and the totalitarian movements. The piety of the pre-Vatican II Church was not an adequate response to the challenges of modernity, secularisation or social crises.

An unexpurgated version of our history
I remember an old Jesuit priest telling me once that when instructing people to become Catholics, he always used an historical approach. He was the late Fr Des O'Connor who as a young lawyer in 1934 had founded the Sydney branch of that remarkable group, the Campion Society. I thought his was a very wise approach to take, as it invites us to locate doctrine in a context and a narrative, the story of the disciples of Jesus.

I think this historical approach is also very important in faith education but I recognise that it is not easy. The Australian lay theologian and publisher, Frank Sheed, wrote in his book, The Church and I, that one should never underestimate the shock Catholics receive when they first study the history of the Church seriously.

In the history of the papacy itself you can find every conceivable frailty and failing, although the popes of last century have generally been men of exceptional holiness and intelligence. Would that it had been always so. On a visit to my mother in Sydney last year, we watched an episode of the series on the popes. My poor mother nearly fell off the chair in shock at some of the popes during the early Middle Ages, at a time when the papacy had been captured by the leading families of Rome. No wonder Dante subjected many of these popes to dreadful torments in his hell. My mother later said to me it was better not to know too much!

In an earlier age of polemics and sectarianism, many clergy would have agreed with my mother. But in this age of mass media and with a much more educated population, such an approach is no longer adequate. We must be more open about the scandal of how the Church has had to struggle against all the ancient temptations to wealth and power, intolerance and violence.

It has survived intense persecution, the collapse of Roman civilisation with the barbarian invasions; it played a leading role in creating the medieval revival, and has faced assaults from hostile political powers, the wars against Islam, the civil wars within Christendom, the rise of the totalitarian powers and now secularism. The Church has known periods of decline as well as of renewal, and is not free of the ambiguities of history, in all its complexity.

The Church is both a vehicle of grace but composed of sinners, recognising that the struggle between good and evil runs right through our own hearts. We believe in God's presence in the Church, but also recognise that this is mediated through imperfect human structures and people. It is holy and sinful at the same time.

The temptation for us is to depict an idealised version of Church history, that ignores all the scandalous bits or failures, or offers a summary of current Church doctrines. At times this may be appropriate, but we must also be truthful, not out of a desire to shock, but so that we can help develop a deeper understanding about what the Church is. The failures in the Church have something very important to tell us about what it means to be a Christian, about how to attend to the voice of God in the messiness and uncertainties of life, even in the Church.

The Church, after all, invites us to faith in the Crucified Lord. It does not offer perfect clarity of thought or vision. It does not have all the answers to the problems of human existence.

You may recall that Aquinas at his death said that all he had written was as so much straw. This was not just a pious exclamation of a dying man, but reflected his understanding that whatever we know of God, we know through analogy, and not as God is in himself. At death we enter into the cloud of Unknowing, leaving behind our analogies, which are true as far as they go, but can never adequately capture the mystery of God. At death we have to leave behind even what we think we know, and surrender trustingly to this mysterious but loving Presence.

Continuing adaptation in the Church
The debates in the Church since the Second Vatican Council have continued to revolve around how much the Church could adapt itself to cultural changes, and how much of the cultural accumulations from the past should be discarded as excess baggage or even as a counter-witness to the essence of discipleship. The difficulty is that various cultural or devotional forms in Church life appeal to different groups in the Church; how can such older or traditional forms be accommodated within a much more vigorous engagement with contemporary issues, particularly in a way which meets the deeper needs of younger people? We are still trying to negotiate our way through this transition.

The current Pope John Paul II has tried to bridge these divergences within the Catholic world, not disparaging traditional practices unfairly, but trying to encourage others to tackle contemporary issues resolutely, with respect and intelligently.

The Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 has been particularly significant for the Pope, who saw it not just as the culmination of his pontificate, but as an opportunity for the whole Church to focus more precisely on the core elements of our faith, and on Jesus himself as the fulfilment of the Jewish Jubilee, with its promise of equity and justice for all.

Putting it in terms of our original question, `What are we here after?', the Jubilee takes up back to our starting point as disciples and believers, so that we can remember more clearly what we are doing here now.

The Jubilee theme returns to the original startling intrusion of God into the history of the Jewish people. They did not work out a philosophy of God, like the ancient Greeks. No. They had the astonishing experience of God as being so moved by their suffering in Egypt as to intervene dramatically to liberate them from genocidal oppression. We are so used to the idea that we can easily fail to see its meaning.

Let me use an example. You will recall the dreadful circumstances two years ago in East Timor when the whole world watched appalled at the atrocities and ethnic cleansing. Hilton Deakin gave graphic accounts of some of it yesterday. But did you happen to see on your TVs, after the intervention of the United Nations, the return of Xanana Gusmao? The country had suffered 24 years of savage oppression, with 200,000 deaths, and seemingly no hope. Suddenly they were free at last. On his return after long years of prison and exile, Xanana addressed a crowd of about 2000 East Timorese. He spoke with great passion in Tetum, but what was most amazing to me was the response of the people. They were silently rocking with relief after this long night of terror, tears rolling down their faces. But with the relief was the grief at what they had suffered. Practically every family must have had some member tortured and killed. I don't know how they will preserve that moment, but it will be important as it will remain a defining moment in their history.

This is a wonderful analogy for what happened at the Exodus from Egypt. Except it wasn't the United Nations or Xanana Gusmao who rescued the Jews. It was this strange God who delivered the Jews from cruel oppression and slavery, promising them their own land of abundance and peace. This is where our word Redeemer comes from. You will see immediately how this revelation of God was fundamentally a very earthy and social process. God is revealed as the One who is profoundly concerned about human suffering. Jewish religion is a response to this revelation of what is at the heart of God, by reverencing the person of God and living by the values displayed by God: compassion, solidarity with the sick and suffering, sharing of resources and action to remove injustice.

You will see immediately what Jesus was doing, as depicted in Luke chapter 4, where he goes to the synagogue and reads the passage from Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to preach good news to the poor, liberty to captives, to proclaim the Lord's Year of favour, which the Jews would have understood immediately as a reference to the Jubilee Year, with its redistribution of wealth and property so everyone had sufficient to live a decent life.

But Jesus will take this revelation of what concerns God much further, using the metaphor of the social liberation from Egypt and extending it to the lives of all human beings, Jews or not, to all forms of alienation, suffering and, in a word, sin. By accepting the cruel death of Crucifixion, Jesus demonstrates the depths of God's compassion, since in the person of Christ, he lays down his life for us. It is God's ultimate act of solidarity with all who suffer. This is who God is. He is not disinterested, cruel or capricious like the Greek gods, but totally committed to the wellbeing of all people, eternally so, even beyond the grave.

I think the Pope has displayed extraordinary insight by focusing our attention on the Jubilee in this unprecedented way in recent years. By drawing on such a profound Biblical event, he has extended and enlivened our links with the Jewish people and faith. And secondly, the Jubilee theme provides common ground on which Christians of all denominations can renew their religious insight and traditions. It is a wonderful ecumenical opportunity.

The Jubilee theme also gives us a vantage point and clear criteria against which to measure all our past history and our current practices. It allows us to see more clearly where we have failed and how we can live more authentic lives as disciples.

In addition, the Jubilee has heightened the social significance of the Gospel and helps correct the over-spiritualising of religion. As the Vatican Council warned in the document, the Church in the Modern World, the separation between religion and social obligations was one of `the more serious errors of our age? Long ago the prophets of the Old Testament fought vehemently against this scandal, and even more so did Jesus Christ himself? threaten it with grave punishments' (#43).

Yet it seems to me that many in the Church are still having trouble understanding the social significance of the Jewish and Christian revelation. However Pope John Paul is convinced of it, as his frequent interventions on world social problems demonstrate. They are an expression of his desire to articulate a liberation theology for the whole world.

The Papal Apologies 2
As an especially significant and unprecedented part of the Jubilee Year, Pope John Paul called the whole Church to join him in a series of apologies for errors and abuses committed by churchmen and Catholics in the past. He has singled out for special mention the Crusades against the Muslims and the Greek Orthodox, the violation of religious consciences by the various Inquisitions, the practice of forced conversions during the wars of religion, the abuse of human rights and even the execution of other Christians. He recognised that there can be no genuine reconciliation with alienated groups without the sins of the past being named and genuine apologies made.

Some other churchmen have not been happy with the Pope making these apologies, since they fear that they might damage the authority of the Church in the eyes of the faithful. However, the Pope insisted, believing that the Church needed to acknowledge and repent of these errors if it was to be purified.

The apologies also are part of the magisterium or teaching authority of the Church, and deserve considered reflection about what they might tell us about the authority of the Church. Yet I have been surprised how little commentary or discussion the apologies have aroused in Church circles. Nevertheless you may have seen the separate statement of apology made by the Australian bishops, referring to Australia's treatment of the indigenous people, the White Australia policy and past sectarian practices.

Confusion over authority and conscience in the Church 3
Clearly we need to distinguish the various levels of authority in the Church, and whether Church directives relate to core elements of faith or contingent matters of social or political life, important as they may be in themselves. There seems to be some confusion about the role of Church authority at the moment, but here is not the place to expand on this sensitive topic.

However, we must affirm that Catholics always retain the right, and indeed have the duty, to evaluate Church directives and teachings in the light of an informed and prayerful conscience. Hence the Catholic tradition of the primacy of conscience must be maintained and taught. As Thomas Aquinas once wrote, it would be better for him to die excommunicated than to violate his conscience. Indeed we might recall that the writings of this great theologian were burnt by the Archbishop of Paris, and it took many centuries for him to be accepted as the most outstanding of Catholic theologians.

I am not talking here about a radically subjectivist view of conscience, which would argue that whatever I want or think is true. We are talking about people who are genuinely and prayerfully seeking the moral truth of particular and often complex situations, and are willing to be guided by that truth as they discern it. There is an impoverished notion of conscience around which sees it as conformity to an `objective' set of rules decided by someone else. Even the Ten Commandments cannot bind us unless we in conscience can recognise their truth and how they touch us. Even if one is objectively mistaken, one is still bound to follow one's conscience. St Thomas gives the somewhat provocative example of someone believing in conscience that he should commit fornication. St Thomas concludes that even though that person's judgment may be mistaken, he or she is still bound to follow conscience, and may be without fault if the mistake were not culpable.

The Church still has further work in the renewal of moral theology. It is relevant in my view that Aquinas recast moral theology in his day from being based on the Commandments into a theology of virtue, which did not see God's law as stemming from an externally imposed code but as springing from within the person so as to produce their full human flourishing. In Jesus' words, the Sabbath exists for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath. Such an approach allows us to discuss moral issues without moralising, or imposing on others moral views unreasonably.

Aquinas also wrote of a twofold magisterium, or teaching authority, in the Church: that of the Pope and bishops; and that of the theologians. Perhaps it would be helpful to return to this broader understanding of magisterium, with the magisterium of the bishops being concerned more with good order in the Church, and that of the theologians with the development of doctrine.

Perhaps we should further stretch the notion of the magisterium of the theologians to embrace all the fields of knowledge and expertise that bear on matters of faith and morals. Theologians today are no longer able to encompass all the relevant fields of learning as in Aquinas's day, and we need to give greater recognition to the other disciplines. We should also give greater recognition to the sensus fidelium, the instinct of ordinary believers to recognise true teaching that the great English theologian, Cardinal John Henry Newman, talked about in the nineteenth century.

Need for greater openness in the Church
It is no secret that part of the crisis of the Church at this time relates in part at least to its use of authority. Many have claimed that they feel sometimes Church decisions are authoritarian or unreasonable. It is not uncommon to hear from committed lay Catholics that they feel they are treated as children in the Church, told sometimes to conform to decisions which they regard as arbitrary, and that their expertise and experience, especially in matters of family and relationships, are not valued or heard. Unless we can be more open and honest with one another we will not adequately address our problems and the haemorrhaging in the Church will continue. This is a very serious situation, and highlights the need for us to develop new structures of participation in the Church so we can develop a culture of more active collaboration and discernment.

While it is true that many Catholics make notable contributions to civil organisations, as indeed they should, I suspect it is also true that as a community Catholics are contributing far below their potential to the world of ideas in Australia. Apart from some Catholic media, our specialised agencies and some of the bishops, there is little evidence of what might be called a well-formed Catholic social conscience in the public arena. The obvious exceptions would be, of course, in many of the schools, the parishes to some extent, and many of the health care, social service, aid and justice and peace agencies.

But why do we not have strong associations of Catholic or Christian inspiration engaged in serious debate about social policy with governments and lobby groups? It worries me greatly that a diocese as big as Melbourne, with over a million Catholics, has not vibrant associations of lay people, acting on their own initiative and expertise, addressing the major issues of our time: global poverty and hunger, national development, security and peace, and sustainability of the environment. Never before had we had such immense skills, experience and depth of education in the Catholic community, the fruit of a huge historical effort in Catholic education, but why is this academic excellence not producing more evident fruit in these troubled times?

I don't want to paint too negative a picture, because there are also some remarkably good things happening. As Anita Ferguson reminded us yesterday, many of the staff in Catholic institutions are not actually Catholics, but are very committed to what we might call an enlarged, ecumenically catholic ethos. It is also true of course that many Catholics work with similar commitment in the institutions of other denominations or of governments. This is a very significant achievement, and says much for the good sense and good will of many Australians.

The last few years have seen the churches take some giant strides towards reunion, but the practical fruit of ecumenical collaboration is already an every-day reality for us, in a very positive way. This is surely one of the great success stories of our generation, though the churches still have some way to go. At the same time, in an increasingly secular culture, it raises questions about how to maintain the religious ethos.

Entering the new millennium
Pope John Paul is presumably well aware of our problems, as their symptoms are even more advanced in Europe than in Australia. The Pope has outlined his response in his apostolic letter early this year, At the beginning of the new millennium4. While there is something here for just about everybody, he has made some remarkable initiatives which in my view have not received the attention they deserve.

First, he has invited the whole Church into a process of consultation about how we should move forward in this new millennium as disciples of Christ, acknowledging the mistakes of the past. While respecting the authority of the bishops, the Pope urges that better consultative processes and structures of participation be cultivated within the communion of the Church. He urges the whole Church, and each local Church, to draw up fresh pastoral plans to reflect more faithfully the face of Christ. He hopes for a `fruitful dialogue between pastors and faithful', encouraging all `to be aware of their active responsibility in the Church's life', especially `by promoting a trust and openness wholly in accord with the dignity and responsibility of every' Catholic, so as to supply `institutional reality with a soul' (#45-46).

Last Judgment scene provides criteria
Second, he has identified our key criteria for reflection and change as: our response to any who are suffering in whatever form, of illness, disadvantage, poverty, broken relationships, marginalisation, loneliness, substance abuse etc. He grounds this concern directly in the Last Judgment scene from Matthew 25 where, as you will recall, God judges everyone not on how well they carried out their religious practices, but whether they have fed the hungry, visited those in prison, cared for the sick and so on. The Pope urged the whole Church to make this passage our central focus. He commented that it is not a `simple invitation to charity' but `sheds a ray of light on the mystery of Christ. By these words, no less than by the orthodoxy of her doctrine, the Church measures her fidelity as the Bride of Christ' (#49).

Let me comment. At stake here is our image of God. We have heard the Last Judgment scene read so often, we can miss the sense of shock Jesus meant to give his hearers: that God is not only not impressed with their prayers and piety if they ignore the needs of those who are struggling, but it absolutely angry with them and will have nothing to do with them. It seems God is not very pious. He welcomes not the prayer of those with eyes closed, but those with eyes open to the plight of others.

This goes to the heart of our problem with talk about God. Sometimes I wish we could banish the word `God' altogether, since people seem to give it so many different meanings. A book appeared recently arguing for a godless gospel, but the god it was rejecting was a complete caricature of the God I believe in. We are all aware of course of how our image of God must grow in mature as we experience more of life. It is something religious educators are keenly sensitive to.

We in the Church need to be very careful how we speak of God. Too often we have given the impression that God is some heavenly sort of moral policeman ready to pounce on us if we step out of line. But if we stay with the image of God in the Gospels, at the Last Judgment revealing his passionate concern for the wellbeing of the least of our brethren, we will not go far wrong.

Hilton was quite right yesterday to recognise this passionate concern for others in some people who may be a long way from the Church or middle-class respectability. But if they share this concern I am sure God is very close to them. If Matthew's Last Judgment scene is correct, God will be giving such people a joyful welcome.

Recommitting ourselves to the struggle for human wellbeing
Continuing his letter for the new millennium, the Pope urges us to leave our safe harbours and `launch out into the deep', to take risks for the sake of the poorest: `there is a special presence of Christ in the poor, and this requires the Church to make a preferential option for them'. John Paul talks of this social commitment to shape history to prefigure the Reign of God. `Intense prayer, yes, but it does not distract us from our commitment to history: by opening our heart to the love of God it also opens it to the love of our brothers and sisters, and makes us capable of shaping history according to God's plan' (#33).

The Pope urges us to intense prayer, a deep sense of communion with this God, or of contemplation as we would call it. But it is a contemplation which leads to social action. As he puts it, `we must reject the temptation to offer a privatised and individualistic spirituality, which ill accords with the demands of charity' and justice.

John Paul has a very activist view of being a disciple, which he has modelled in his own person. But this does not make religion merely a social agency, since what inspires believers is this sharing in God's passion for those who suffer, or in the Bible's code word, the `poor'.

I had a new insight into the distinctiveness of the Christian religion recently when looking at why Muhammad accepted Christ as one of the prophets but not more. When he was writing his Quran, he talked to his Christian and Jewish friends, but he could not accept that Christ could suffer such a horrible death and then rise again. So Muhammad has Jesus living to a ripe old age and then dying naturally.

Indeed when you think about it, our faith makes a startling claim, that God in Christ could endure such suffering and die in such agony. As we know, it was even difficult for the apostles to accept at first. What it means is that God has drawn into himself all the inexplicable and senseless suffering people have endured through the ages. In his infinite compassion, God pledges to transform all the pain and tragedy in human history, so no one will be lost. God is deeply moved by our groanings and suffers with even the least.

This message if painted for us in every ikon of the Madonna and Child we are likely to see. Consider one we are all familiar with, Our lady of Perpetual Help. The Madonna is gently comforting the Child who is so in dread of the angel holding the Cross that his sandal falls off his foot. Yet the Madonna is looking at us, inviting us into her pain and the terror of the Child, as if to say see how God loves us. Is not the reason the ikons have such attraction for believers across so many cultures because they say that God shares our pain, is not indifferent, but is deeply concerned for all people.

Reform still needed in church structures
Even at this late stage in his papacy, the Pope is still full of surprises, and has called for continuing reform of the Vatican bureaucracy, the Roman Curia. Never before in history has the Church been so centralised, and the bishops so directly and immediately held accountable to the Curia. As you probably know, a series of decisions from the Vatican Curia has led to a considerable reaction among many episcopal conferences which are now demanding that the Curia recognise that they, the bishops, not the Curia, are the designated successors to the apostles, and that they exercise authority in their local churches by ordination, not by delegation, even from the Pope.

The current Synod of Bishops meeting in Rome is debating these questions. Its response may have huge implications, especially if it leads to a decentralisation of the Church, and allows local episcopates to make decisions more responsive to local conditions.

This is a major issue for the Catholic Church, for we consist of more than a billion people in every country, and the difficulty will be to maintain a communion of faith while recognising increasing diversity of practice and culture in the local churches. Perhaps changes of such magnitude will require the convocation of another Vatican Council. Clearly there are increasing pressures for such a Council, but the Pope is now too old to call one himself.

You might notice an item in this week's edition of the diocesan publication, Kairos, that there have been several plans to assassinate the Pope in recent years, which obviously were foiled. There is also a report about plans to strike a `high profile' religious centre, presumably meaning the Vatican. Let us imagine for a moment that the worst happened, that the Pope, with all the cardinals and leading Vatican officials, were killed when an airliner crashed into the Vatican. What would happen then? How would we elect a new pope without any cardinals? I simply don't know what would happen. But maybe the realisation that this could happen might give added incentive that authority needs to be decentralised in the Church.

It is also intriguing that several times he has raised the question of what role the papacy should play in the future. To the Armenians recently he suggested that if we are to have reunion with the Orthodox churches then perhaps the papacy might need to revert to the more honorific and symbolic primacy it had a thousand years ago.

The Pope has also pushed forward the frontiers of inter-religious dialogue, particularly with the world of Islam, especially so that religion may never again be used as an excuse for war. His recent visit to a mosque was a deeply symbolic act, promoting greater respect not just for the beliefs of Muslims and their rights of religious conscience, but also recognising Islam as a genuine way to worship God.

Certainly the terrorist attacks last month have sent me scurrying for books on Islam and jihad - I teach a course on war and peace but had not included a study of relations with Islam before. I realised that I did not know much about Islam, despite the fact that I have several lots of Muslim Afgan neighbours. I had never visited a mosque. It never occurred to me to do so. I noticed that Fr Chris Prowse had encouraged his parishioners to exchange visits with Muslims from the local mosque at East Thornbury. It was an initiative of the Muslims, but what a good way for us to get comfortable with each other and to learn about our different traditions. It's obviously of great importance in our schools as well, especially where we have Muslim students.

On not being a museum
In the Sydney train stations you may see an advertisement, saying `Underseas fun at the museum. Bring the shrimps.' I think you will know who the shrimps are. But sometimes I wonder if that is how some young people see the Church, as some sort of `underseas museum'. How do we try to avert being seen as a museum?

I suspect, first, that we must introduce them to really gutsy prayer, not too pious, somehow opening them to encounter the sacred within themselves and the riches of spirituality in the Church. The search for spirituality is one of the great signs of our time, especially among the young, though it can readily become narcissistic and self-indulgent if it is not well grounded and alert to the needs of others.

Second, we must develop more participatory ways of being Church, so that the voices of the young and of women especially are heard, and that their energies and creativity are valued. It seems to me that the Young Christian Workers (YCW) combined the key elements, consisting of:
  1. the support of small group relationships;
  2. a practical method of engaging with the Gospel;
  3. applying Gospel insights to their real-life work situation;
  4. empowering participants to make their own decisions;
  5. achieving results by changing the moral or social circumstances of their workplace or environment.
Many of us have known the Young Christian Workers' Movement quite well, but also recognise that it has struggled in recent decades. Can we learn something from the YCW method for today?

Third, we must stress the dignity of the lay vocation to transform the earth into a civilisation of love, to prefigure the final Reign of God. The Church does not aim to build a society dominated by the Church, but recognises the proper secular autonomy of civil society and its areas of competence. In this properly secular world, lay people contribute with others to improve human wellbeing while drawing inspiration from the values of the Gospel. They act on their own initiative, drawing from their own specialised expertise.

At times it will of course be impossible to avoid a clash of values and Christians will need to make a strong stand. But the basic methodology must be to search out human values and try to reach reasoned agreement about how these values should be ranked and used to guide personal and social action.

In other words, as Pope John Paul II argued in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, the way of the Church must be that of human fulfilment. It means living out the implications of the Incarnation: if God has become one of us in Jesus, our humanity has entered into the very mystery of God and God wants nothing other than the full flourishing of our being. That is what we are here after.
1 See the background in my Church's Social Teaching: from Rerum Novarum to 1931, especially the Australian chapters.
2 See my `Significance of the Pope's proposed apologies for errors by the Church', Australasian Catholic Record, (October 1999), 462-79; and Kevin Lenehan, `The Great Jubilee and the Purification of Memory', Louvain Studies, 25 (Winter 2000), 291-311.
3 For an excellent succinct treatment, see especially Brian Lewis, `The Primacy of Conscience in the Roman Catholic Tradition', Pacifica 13 (October 2000), 299-309.
4 The text for this (Novo Millennio Ineunte) can be found on, under popes, John Paul II, Apostolic Letters.