Frank Brennan | 22 October 2015 | Eureka Street
I was visiting Canberra’s splendid Arboretum the other day and I ran into an historian who is not one of us. He greeted me: ‘That new pope of yours is doing quite well, isn’t he? I don’t know that he will show us the road to paradise but he has definitely opened a few doors out of the wilderness.’ I told him that I would use this line shamelessly but he insisted that I honour his anonymity — and I do.
I think Pope Francis is doing quite well. My thesis is that Francis makes no pretence to be the world’s greatest theologian, economist, politician or climate scientist. His humble boast is that he is a pastor with the smell of the sheep, not afraid of dialogue, aware that there is often a chasm between dogma and pastoral practice, knowing there is a place for prophetic utterance though it is for others with democratic legitimacy, professional competence and accountability to deliver the strategies and compromises which need to be tempered according to the culture of the people. He knows there are all sorts of issues inside and outside the Church where for too long people with power have tried to keep the lid on, in the hope that the problems and complexities will go away, often by parodying those who see the problems or complexities as ideologues, small ‘l’ liberals or cafeteria Catholics. Francis delights in being joyful and troubled while contemplating big problems, calling people of good will to the table of deliberation reminding them of the kernel of the Christian gospels. He has the faith and hope needed to lift the lid without fear and without knowing the answers prior to the dialogue occurring. He faces criticism inside the Church for daring to insist on transparency and deliberation even about matters of pastoral complexity in relation to which the doctrine has been said to be well settled by enforcement during recent papacies. He faces criticism outside the Church for daring to insist that the parable of the Good Samaritan resonates even with tens of thousands of persons pouring across national borders with 51 million people displaced in the world and for daring to insist that the universal destination of goods applies to big issues like climate change and inequality.
British art historian Kenneth Clark concluded his fine 1969 work, Civilisation, with these words:
Western civilisation has been a series of rebirths. Surely this should give us confidence in ourselves … It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs … W B Yeats, who was more like a man of genius than anyone I have ever known, wrote a famous prophetic poem.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Well, that was certainly true between the wars, and it nearly destroyed us. Is it true today? Not quite, because good people have convictions, rather too many of them. The trouble is that there is still no centre. The moral and intellectual failure of Marxism has left us with no alternative to heroic materialism, and that isn’t enough. One may be optimistic, but one can’t exactly be joyful at the prospect before us.
It is now 50 years since Vatican II. As Christians we are people of hope. As Catholics we believe that tradition, authority, dogma, ritual and community have a place in shaping the contours which sustain our hope and assist us to hand on that hope to the coming generations. These are hard times for the Catholic Church in Australia, and they are times of profound change for everyone. Church attendance continues to decline. Those in the pews are not getting any younger. More of the able bodied priests are from overseas; they are missionaries who have come amongst us who are adapting to the concept that we are once again a mission land. The talent pool for future bishops is not what it was a generation or two ago. The royal commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse continues to fill us with dread that we have not yet adequately identified why the incidence of abuse reported in our institutions is higher than in other churches. The divisions amongst our bishops, previously unreported and unknown to many of the faithful, are disheartening. Recently before the royal commission we heard Bishop Geoffrey Robinson who was an auxiliary bishop to Cardinal Pell when he was archbishop of Sydney telling the commission that His Eminence ‘had lost the support of the majority of his priests and that alone made him a most ineffective bishop’. Cardinal Pell is the most promoted Catholic cleric in Australian history. The point is not whether Bishop Robinson is right or wrong. The point is that we are part of a social institution which is suffering an acute loss of institutional coherence when an auxiliary bishop sees a need to make such a public statement about his erstwhile archbishop.
We Catholics know that we need to step tentatively and a little more humbly in the public square in light of the revelations at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. We still do not have credible compelling explanations for the disproportionate level of complaints leveled at our Church. The Royal Commission has received 16,361 allegations in relation to 3,566 institutions. Of the 11,988 allegations covered by the terms of reference, 7,049 allegations relate to faith based institutions while only 3,612 relate to government institutions. Of those 11,988 allegations, 4,418 of them relate to Catholic Church institutions, while only 871 relate to Anglican institutions, and 411 to Uniting Church institutions. These are days of shame for the Catholic Church in Australia. But yes, we do have a spring in our step and we are fortified by a pope who is so at home in his own skin and so at ease in the public square calling all persons to constitute a better world.
Despite having a fine pope, things are not easy. They are not easy for me as a Catholic priest in the public square. They are not easy for those of you living your Christian vocation in the world and turning up to Church each week, praying in the pews. They remain wretched for many victims who doubt that the Church can again be trusted. I thank you for your perseverance and pray that together we can make a better fist of holding out to the world the hands of Christ. Our task is to be the face of Christ in the world today.
For the rest of this fine article: http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=45608#.VjAGf7crKUk