Pope Francis and the challenge of being church today
Ann D Clark Lecture delivered by Most Rev Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta, Evan Theatre, Penrith Panthers, 18 August 2016
Part 1: Reading signs of the times
What a difference the Holy Spirit can make! When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI announced his resignation in early 2013, we were adrift, like I was adrift in the Pacific Ocean during my epic voyage to Australia. Why? Because in 600 years, there had not been a papal resignation. There had not been any hint of it prior to the announcement that surprised everyone, even the cardinals who had been summoned to the Vatican for the consistory. They were absolutely flummoxed and speechless. Holy smoke and holy chaos! The Barque of Peter was truly launched into uncharted waters. We Catholics felt we were in dire straits. The mood wasn’t good. And yet somehow that mood was changed remarkably with the arrival of a rather unlikely pope. He said it himself as he appeared on the balcony after the conclave: “The cardinals have gone to the ends of the earth to find the new Bishop of Rome”. Talk about a God of surprises. It was like Princess Penzance and Michelle Payne winning the Melbourne Cup. No one saw it coming. No one predicted it.
Reading signs of the times
We are not out of woods by any means. Even the greatest pope cannot solve all the problems we have in the Church. In Australia, we seem to have reached a critical juncture. Not only are we afflicted by such things as the decline in Sunday worship, the fall in religious practice, the dearth of the priesthood and religious life, etc … we also face the biggest challenge to date, which is the loss of our moral credibility and trust capital due to the sexual abuse crisis. Nevertheless, it must be said that Pope Francis is the embodiment of our hope. His unexpected election and the way he exercises his leadership give us a breath of fresh air and a source of great hope. Even though the journey ahead of us is daunting, we are bolstered by the fresh energy that the Holy Spirit has given to us even as we face a critical juncture in human history.
I make bold to say that this is the unexpected way of God. Consistently in salvation history, he has brought unexpected outcomes out of the most crushing defeats. Out of the ashes of the exile, he brought about the new Israel; out of the ashes of the crucifixion, the resurrection; out of the ashes of the Roman persecution, the universal Church. Watershed moments can be catalysts for renewal and transformation.
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 that 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, himself, said poignantly that we are not living in an era of change but change of an era. By this, he means that it is the Church that needs to live up to its fundamental call to be “ecclesia semper reformanda” or the church always in need of reform in order to be in sync with the movement of the Holy Spirit and direction of the Kingdom. It is not “business as usual”. 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.
To read the full text of the Bishop’s lecture, click here