Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Address at System Leadership Day for the Catholic Education Office Diocese of Parramatta at Rosehill Gardens, Rosehill.
25 January 2017
The call to go to the peripheries
I would like to pay my respect and acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which this meeting takes place, and also pay respect to Elders both past and present.
Well, friends, especially the ladies, shall I begin by singing for you Frank Sinatra’s My Way, “And now the end is near”, for the Trump era has begun. (Some of us might think it’s an error.) It is here. He was sworn in amid much pomp and ceremony last Saturday. The day after, though, tens of thousands of people in America and across the globe held rallies in protest of his presidency. Pope Francis sent him a short letter of congratulations along with a rather subtly pointed message, which I am not sure, is appreciated by the new President given his anti-immigration campaign rhetoric. I quote: “Under your leadership, may America’s stature continue to be measured above all by its concern for the poor, the outcast and those in need who, like Lazarus, stand before our door.” The seasoned observer would recognise in this message a kind of Jesuitical backhand serve to Mr Trump’s infamous wall-building call. Unlike my installation ceremony, the Holy Father’s message was not read out at President Trump’s inauguration. It would have been a party pooper. One can surmise that perhaps the two leaders are guided by different visions.
We are not here to talk about Mr Trump’s vision for America or for the world. We are here to be inspired by a vision for Catholic schools in our Diocese, which is rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Pope’s message, which I quoted above, gives us an insight into that vision. In fact, we could almost paraphrase that sentence in order to remind us of the fundamental thrust of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Under our leadership, may our Catholic school system’s stature be measured above all by its concern for the poor, the outcast and those in need who, like Lazarus, stand before our door.” I contend that this is our mandate, rooted in the Gospel and enshrined in the Church’s age-old tradition of preferential option for the poor. The Lazaruses who stand before the doors of our schools in this case are not Mexicans and impoverished migrants from Latin America. In the context of education in Australia, they are the marginalised and the most vulnerable for whom Catholic schools exist as a sign of the Church’s unwavering commitment.
Catholic schools have always been charged with a special mandate to offer hope to those who are disadvantaged, and this special attention for those who are weakest, who are the battlers, is as Australian as Eureka and Penola. Australian Catholic education has been hailed as a jewel and the envy of other nations. Even from the early days, the concern to provide a religious education for Catholic families in the colony galvanised the bishops of Australia. Their vision was brought to life by religious men and women who responded courageously to the invitation to give opportunity to young Catholics. These were mostly poor, socially disadvantaged and in the post-war period, immigrant children. This special attention to them in Catholic education has not been diminished with the transition from religious to lay leadership. A strong commitment to professional development, especially in respect of the mission, identity and ethos of Catholic schools, continues to guide us to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.
I am not an expert in Catholic education in Parramatta or in Australia generally. I believe that though Catholic schools are both successful and popular generally, the challenge to their mission towards the socially disadvantaged in the community is still to be met with a passion of the Gospel. Dr Anne Benjamin, our former distinguished Executive Director, in her paper ‘Catholic schools and the cry of the poor’, which was presented in 2008, invites us to address some of the worrying trends in Catholic education. I am not sure if the figures collected 10 years ago are still valid. If they are, we Catholic leaders should be concerned. For example, based on the 2006 census, low-income Catholic families were twice as likely to be enrolled at a government school rather than a Catholic school. Our SWD student enrolments were more than 2% lower than those in government schools. The same went for Indigenous students. Catholic schools enrolled less than half of the expected Catholic sector student share of Indigenous students.
Many questions are suggested by these figures. Do families of these children freely choose not to attend a Catholic school? Or are there factors which create barriers so that Catholic schools cease to be a feasible option for them? Dr Benjamin draws some candid conclusions: “To the extent that families of needier students do feel excluded, then Catholic schools are failing in their mission. To the extent that the poorest and wealthiest families are sending their children elsewhere, Catholic school education becomes impoverished and risks providing neither a truly ‘comprehensive’ education nor a truly ‘ecclesial experience’.”
I’d like to think that Catholic schools in our Diocese are committed to providing a truly comprehensive education and a truly ecclesial experience for all. When Catholic families at both ends of the socio-economic spectrum, in other words, high income and low income, opt for schools other than ours, that commitment needs to be revisited and reaffirmed accordingly. We need to recognise and remove the barriers, which exclude the very people for whom we have a special mandate. We need to create conditions which are favourable for greater inclusion of those who are most loved by God. In the words of Pope Francis, we need to be the Church that offers nearness, proximity even like a field hospital to those on the ‘peripheries’ of society.
It is easier said than done. When I was an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne, I was involved with the planning for a parish-based residential care for people with mental disabilities. We were careful to prepare the community for it and especially the Catholic school that was close to the proposed site. We held information sessions and ran PR campaigns in order to allay fears and concerns. Then I moved to Parramatta in the middle of the planning stages. The last thing I heard was that the whole project had fallen through because of community protests, and the most vocal of which was from, yes, you have guessed it, the Catholic school nearby. Now there might have been legitimate concerns that the people, especially the parents, felt had not been addressed with satisfaction. But when it comes to dealing with sensitive issues like accommodating people with disabilities, I wonder if the Catholic faith makes any significant difference in terms of the attitude of some towards them.
Closer to home, a couple shared with me the painful struggle they had had in trying to enroll their young child with a disability in a Catholic school. They were met with a lack of empathy, with opposition and rejection even at the first encounter with the principals. This was not just one school but six. They approached seven Catholic schools, meeting with seven principals, and were made to feel rejected and unwelcomed by all except one. So, determined to have their son enrolled in an inclusive mainstream education rather than a special needs school or a non-Catholic school, the parents moved two suburbs away from their original home to the new accepting CEDP school. I am very relieved that at least one school of ours reached out to them and the story of those struggling parents ended on a happy note. The student concerned has integrated exceptionally well with the support of the school community locally and CEDP head office. I am not saying this to name and shame anyone. I am just wondering if there needs to be a cultural and attitudinal change on our part in order to accommodate and accompany better students who are on the periphery, whatever forms of periphery they may be.
How do we as Catholic school leaders who are people of commitment, passion and imagination address the challenge of outreach to the poor, the marginalised and vulnerable children? How can we respond to the challenge of Pope Francis in going to the new ‘peripheries’: the socio-economically disadvantaged, the SWD, the families without values and without faith, the broken and dysfunctional …. in order to offer nearness and proximity? How do our school communities personify the powerlessness and the compassion of Christ? How do we balance the need for recognition and success on the one hand, and the fundamental Christian ethos of care for the weakest on the other?
I invite you to reflect together on these questions. For me, they touch the heart of our Catholic faith, mission and witness.
I would also like to offer you some thoughts on what it means to be a Catholic school leader.
LEADERS WHO LEAD FROM THE MARGINS:
The first characteristic of a leader in mission is the ability to accompany people from the margins into a journey towards the fullness of life and love. It is to embrace the call of the Second Vatican Council to identify with the joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of those who are poor and in anyway afflicted. To do this, he/she 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, in the most recent interview, reiterated his constant call for us to be close to the people. He said that the hallmark of the Church was its proximity or closeness to the people. His fear is that the Church becomes anesthetised and removed from the sufferings of the people. It is interesting to note his comment about the people’s priest that he was in Argentina. He said that in his heart, he is still a street priest with a driving passion to be close to the people. The Holy Father set an example and a challenge for us: whoever we are and whatever we do, never lose sight of the divine pathos and God’s preferential option for the poor.
It is a vocation of the Christian leader to be with his people in their hopes and struggles, anxieties and fears. He/she is to be ‘a Malcolm in the middle’ who occupies in betwixt and between, liminal, peripheral and precarious places. It is not easy to be in the middle, and to be loyal to both ends of the spectrum, to belong to the Church of orthodoxy and yet also to minister in the world of the unorthodox. That is really between a rock and a hard place as they call it. Yet, that is the calling of the leader, because we are meant to be at the coal face, in the messiness of it all, and at the same time in fidelity to the Gospel. We are sent to the strong and the weak, the wholesome and the broken, the churched and the unchurched, the pious and the impious, the normal and the bizarre. We are sent to them through the gate, who is Christ. We are sent often from the inside out and not from the outside in. Like Christ in his ministry among the sick and the lost, we are called to meet God in the most unlikely people and places.
LEADERS WHO EMBRACE SERVANTHOOD AND VULNERABILITY:
The Christian leader today must be one who manifests the servant leadership of Christ. This is another characteristic of leading prophetically for mission which I now draw your attention to.
It is often on those who pride themselves on being the icon of Jesus the humble servant and yet demonstrate little humility thereof. I recall a couple of occasions where the priest/bishop came across not as humble servants but more like feudal lords.
I remember my First Reconciliation experience. We lined up on both sides of the confessional and waited for our turns nervously. I had rehearsed my sins a dozen times, with the help of my fellow penitents. And yet, when I knelt down to confess in that dark confessional, I could not utter a word. I was stupefied out of a gripping fear. The priest was unimpressed by my silence. He promptly got out of his seat, dragged me by the ear and placed me at the end of the line. He even gave me a slap on the face before storming back to his seat. We were in awe of his power.
As for the power of the bishop, it was even more formidable. I remember on one occasion, we children lined the main street of the village to form a guard of honour for a local bishop. We waited for hours in the hot tropical sun and he was nowhere to be seen. Finally, when he did arrive, his black Mercedes-Benz sped by so quickly that we could not even see him for the billow of dust that swirled around the car. These images are edged in my memory as I recall my Catholic upbringing. There are more pleasant memories, of course. But these are highlighted in order to put in sharp focus my childhood experience of clericalism in Vietnam.
In Australia, the priesthood no longer enjoys the prestige and the power it once had. For a lot of young people, it is no longer surrounded with the aura of mystique and fascination. However, this loss of prestige does not always mean that we are seen as icons of Jesus the humble servant. To truly reclaim this essential quality of the priesthood, we must go to the heart of what it means to be the servant leader.
The servant leadership model is much more than what we do to the people. It is indicative of who we are as humble and vulnerable servants in the likeness of Christ who came to serve and to give his own life for others. Hence, it is a way of life – a modus vivendi before it can be translated into a way of service – a modus operandi. We Christian leaders today are more than ever before challenged to embrace of self-emptying, which is at the heart of the Gospel.
The driving passion of Jesus was to stand side by side with the vulnerable. It was not only that he associated with the despised, the marginalised, the lost and outcast. It was his audacity to challenge the very concept of God on the part of those who claimed to be the brokers of God’s domain and his exclusive representatives. For these, God was identified with the virtuous and the socially acceptable; while for Jesus, God was identified with those on the other end of the spectrum. There could not be a more stark contrast between the God of Jesus and that of the scribes and Pharisees. This was demonstrated by his teachings, parables and actions. Thus, whether it was the tax collector, the prostitute, the leper, the blind beggar, the woman with a ritually unclean illness, the grieving widow, etc … Jesus’ interaction with them became a divine encounter. In the light of this, we are challenged to renounce the way of power and success and to embody instead the way of vulnerability our radical love and service.
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 stake. What we need to reclaim for the Church, forcefully and unequivocally, is the notion of diakonia. To this end, we as leaders need to manifest the diakonia of Christ in who we are and what we do. Until we have reclaimed diakonia, the Church will be less than what Christ intends it to be.
LEADERS WHO LISTEN, DISCERN AND ACT COLLEGIALLY:
The final characteristic of a leader in mission that I would like to propose is the ability to listen, discern and to act collegially. In a world which is suspicious of, at best, and hostile, at worst, to institutional religions, our response is not one of fearful retreat, disengagement and self-referential or sectarian mentality, but of openness, faith and courage as we are called to accompany our people in the new exodus. Here, the example of Pope Francis’ leadership in fostering open dialogue, discussion and initiative is illuminating.
Collegiality and synodality are the keys to understanding his style and vision of governance. For him, the conversion of hearts is more important than the conversion of structures. The latter are meant to be instruments of listening, consulting and deciding collegially. Every structure is to develop the ability for us to discern for ourselves the signs of the times and plan for the future. This is why the Pope does not believe he should have the answers to all the questions facing local churches. He favours local initiative over central control and sees the identity of the Church to lie in its going out to the margins. Furthermore, he carefully considers every step to further expand the footprint of synodality, a wider sense of discussion within the Church. His basic idea is that of a missionary and dialogical Church going out of itself, a Church that is open and present among people. Coupled with his conviction that the poor evangelise is Pope Francis’ understanding of the Church of the peripheries as the way to evangelise and purify Rome, which he considers too self-referential.
We must learn to live as a minority in the midst of a secular and diverse society. The nostalgia for the Church of Christendom in my view is a fantasy: strong and powerful, rich and privileged, socially dominant and politically influential. In this time of diminishment, we must learn to influence society not as lords and masters but as fellow pilgrims. Vatican II taught us that, it is a pilgrim Church who walks humbly with others and engages with them in the discernment of authentic values and in the search for and the delivery of the fullness of life to the world. Therefore, instead of seeking to regain lost ground in the relentless process of secularisation, Christians today must learn to engage with others and to act as leaven in a pluralistic society.
As the Church is transitioned from a position of power, privilege, size and success to that of powerlessness, servanthood, minority and humility, we as her servants are called to embody that process of rebirthing. We ourselves need to abandon power in favour of powerlessness, clericalism in favour of service, superiority and elitism in favour of humility, dominance and control in favour of mutuality and collaborative ministry.
I find Henri Nouwen’s commentary on the temptations of Jesus very insightful here. Henri identifies three powerful tendencies in Christian leadership that correspond to the three temptations of Jesus. The first (turning stones into bread) is the temptation to be relevant, which is that irresistible pull to be indispensable, competent, productive and in control. Our call today is the call to die to our ambition and desire for success, and to rise to the power of vulnerable trust. In other words, we must learn to be a contemplative mystic whose identity is rooted in God’s love and not in the illusion of self-made success.
The second (throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple) is the temptation to be spectacular, which is tantamount to the cult of popularity and individual heroism. Our call today is to learn and minister in mutuality and in humble recognition of our woundedness.
The third is the temptation to be powerful (having all the kingdoms of the world). Henri speaks of this temptation as follows: “Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire builders have been people unable to give and receive love”. As true ministers, the challenge for us today is not to do more and to achieve more, but to be more deeply grounded in God’s love. It is not about the quantity of our actions and accomplishments. It is about the quality of our relationships.
I have outlined some fundamental characteristics of a leadership for mission: the commitment to stand in the liminal space, the commitment to embrace vulnerability and servanthood, and finally the commitment to discern and act collegially. These are by no means comprehensive and exhaustive. Rather, I believe that they are basic qualities that enable us to be prophetic leaders.
The arrival and the leadership of Pope Francis have signalled a new era for the Church. He has refocused on the proclamation of God’s love for the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised; he has firmly placed the pastoral emphasis on the dignity of every person; he has committed the Church to the way of engagement, affirmation and compassion which is at the heart of the Gospel. 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.
Catholic schools are premised on the fundamental dignity of each and every individual person. They are charged with a special mandate to offer hope to those who are disadvantaged and this special attention for the neediest is a cherished part of the Australian Catholic school story. In reading the signs of the times, we are particularly challenged to be places which are deeply rooted in the Gospel values and where the radical vision of fullness of life for the poor and marginalised is fully embraced. The challenge of Pope Francis for the Church to be bruised, wounded and hurt because of its daring commitment to the vulnerable is poignant to us Catholic educators. To reach out to those who are on the margins of society even at the cost of our own success and power remains the fundamental Gospel imperative. To go to the peripheries and discover the new horizons in Catholic education remains the challenge of our mission. I would like to conclude this reflection with an appeal to us from the couple whose story I shared with you earlier:
“Our wish is that at this year’s System Leadership Day, the good work CEDDP and Catholic schools do in inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream Catholic schools are celebrated, that families like ours are encouraged to enter and participate fully within their local Catholic community, that schools and principals in particular will continue to have the courage to leave their comfort zones and discover the presence, the beauty, the love of God in the margins and shadows of life and continue to accept children with disabilities in their schools.”