Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Address delivered by Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv to Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta System Leadership Day at Rosehill Racecourse
25 January 2018
Forming students and communities for the Reign of God
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.
What is the point of Catholic education in a secular society? What makes it distinctive and worthwhile for us to dedicate our lives to it? I think these questions are more relevant than ever before because of the profound changes which are happening in the Church and society.
To begin with, I’d like to share with you the story of St Francis of Assisi, known as perfect joy. One day, Francis was traveling with his companion, Brother Leo. It was winter and they both shivered from the cold. Francis called to Leo: “Brother Leo, if it were to please God that this band of lesser brothers became so popular that men from the four corners of the earth would flock to it. This would not be perfect joy.”
A little further on, Francis added: “Brother Leo, if the friars were to make the lame to walk, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, write that this would not be perfect joy.”
As they walked, Francis kept adding to this litany, saying “if the brothers knew all languages; if they were versed in all science and Scripture; if they had the gift of prophecy, it would not be perfect joy either.”
An exasperated Brother Leo asked St Francis “what is perfect joy?” to which the Saint answered: “If, when we shall arrive at the monastery, all drenched with rain covered with mud and exhausted from hunger; if, when we knock at the convent-gate calling to the porter to open to us and give us shelter, and instead of welcoming us home, he takes us for bandits, shouting ‘You are but importunate rascals’; and taking a stick, he seizes us by the hood, throwing us on the ground, rolling us in the snow, beat and wounded us. If we bear all these injuries with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which we would share out of love for him, write, O Brother Leo, that here, finally, is perfect joy.”
Francis was – even by the standard of medieval piety – a rather hard man. He used to treat his body which he called Brother Ass (Brother Donkey) very harshly. He would for instance throw himself naked into the thorn bush every time he had a temptation of the flesh. I don’t have a thorn bush around my residence, so I take a cold shower or go jogging instead. I reckon that running seven kilometres a day is much healthier than throwing yourself in a thorn bush or wearing a chastity belt. But I digress.
The story of perfect joy as understood by Francis gives us an insight into his radical Gospel-centred discipleship. It challenges our sense of attachment to false securities like numbers, resources, prestige, affluence and the like. Francis lived in a world and a Church, too, that was steeped in a culture where it mattered hugely to have titles, honours, possessions and other means of making oneself important.
These false securities, I contend, are not only pertinent to the friars but are also temptations for all of us who make the Gospel of Christ the basis of our lives and endeavours. In other words, I would like to suggest that the point of Catholic education is not about success, popularity, prestige et cetera that are measured by worldly standards. What makes Catholic education distinctive and worthwhile for us to dedicate ourselves to it, I believe, is the formation of our students and communities into people and places that embody the Reign of God.
Catholic education is to form builders of God’s Kingdom:
We live in a competitive world that reckons value in numbers and measures its mark by its size. Frequently, we are seduced by the idea that the bigger, stronger, is the better and that success and power trump failure and weakness. Even the Catholic Church is caught in this seduction. We boast about being the largest denomination in Australia. Even CEDP is often touted by the local media as a powerful organisation. Not that being big in size necessarily implies anything negative or undesirable. But if Scripture is any guide, we need to know a thing or two about powerlessness, smallness and weakness.
I came across a book which has a curious title Shrinking the Megachurch. It is actually an autobiography of an evangelical pastor who was so successful, he could have built himself a church bigger than Hillsong. But he asked himself at the crucial time whether he should be an empire builder or the Kingdom builder. The empire builder is preoccupied with success, influence and expansion. He is driven by ambition, power and self-image. The Kingdom builder on the hand is concerned with mending and strengthening relationships. He is guided by the self-sacrifice, vulnerability and powerlessness of the Humble Servant. The pastor opted for the latter, hence the title of his book. He purposely chose to be the kingdom builder and focused on building communities and relationships.
Looking at our history as a Church, I wonder if at times we Catholics have been more of empire builders than Kingdom builders. I remember in my childhood, parish priests would try and outdo one another as to who would have a bigger congregation, a bigger church and even a higher steeple. That’s just the competition among Catholics, not to mention with other religions. At one seaside resort, the Buddhists built a giant statue of a sleeping Buddha. But we Catholics refused to take it lying down. We built a much bigger statue of Christ on the hill overlooking the ocean. The triumphant King of Kings seemed to be looking down on the sleeping Buddha with glee!
The bigger the better mentality is the antithesis of the Gospel. Frequently, when Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, he challenges our idea of greatness. The Kingdom according to him does not manifest itself in size, in success and in power. Instead, it is found in smallness, in insignificance like the yeast, the seed, the coin et cetera. It is like the gentle breeze that Elijah experienced and recognised it to be the subtle and silent presence of God.
Let’s be clear once again that we are not just a business organisation. We are meant to be much more than that. The Church is a sign and a sacrament of God’s love in the world. It might adopt best business practices in the corporate world. But ultimately, it is not primarily about competition, expansion and dominance. It is more about communities and relationships. It is more about being fellow pilgrims and humble servants. The Church has only one real model with which it must measure itself and that is the example of Christ. Perhaps we should learn to shrink the megachurch mentality and grow the kingdom mentality instead. Perhaps we should learn the art of vitality in smallness, we should learn to increase the quality of our faith and relationship in this fallow time.
But then again, the shrinking is being done for us whether we like it or not anyway. We are being shrunk to become a smaller church and hopefully a more humble and authentic sacrament of the Kingdom. It is in this graced time, this Kairos moment that we have an opportunity to focus on building the Kingdom in our witness of faith, hope, love, goodness, humility and vulnerability. I often tell religious and priests that numbers are not necessarily the measure of success and diminishment is not necessarily a sign of failure. It is the quality of our relationships and communities that matter.
The fallow time allows us to grow more deeply in our identity and mission as people and communities that reflect the values of the Kingdom more than any other measure of success. Catholic education is concerned with the formation of the whole person rather than just knowledge and skill set. It forms communities that foster the call to Christian discipleship of each member and honour its call to be a community of disciples.
Catholic education imagines an alternative future:
One of the deepest strands in the biblical tradition is the desire of the Jewish people to be an alternative society to the oppressive domination systems. These systems were designed by empires to enslave their subjects via forced labour, tributes, taxes and other means of exploitation. The people of God – being a small nation – had a fair share of exploitation. Their experience of empire domination – from Egypt to Assyria, from Babylon to Rome – fed into a radically countercultural vision. Therefore, in contrast to the gods of the empire, who serve the will of the king, the Hebrews worshiped Yahweh, who they understood to be free, the critic of kings, and the advocate of vulnerable, oppressed people.
The prophets often speak about the importance of being a community of faith, which is countercultural or antithetical to the dominant social system. This was particularly so when their identity was under threat by the totalising power of the empire. The prophets did not simply reiterate the past. They re-engaged the remembered faith tradition in the light of contemporary experience. This by the way is the basis of The Leuven Project that is being trialled at some selected schools in our Diocese. The faith tradition is re-contextualised with fresh insights distilled from lived experience. Thus, for example, when the Exodus story was re-engaged in the context of Babylonian Exile, it became a story of emancipation not from the Pharaoh of Egypt but the Pharaoh of Persia.
In this way, the prophets were able to provide an alternative vision to that of dominant system. They had the ability to read the signs of the times and interpret them in a way that offered fresh and hopeful vision for the future despite appearances to the contrary. The prophets knew the past promise of God’s word, but knew how to interpret this word in her or his life and to speak that word to others that would lift them up. They called their community to be an alternative society in which the care of the most marginalised was to be the essential distinguishing feature.
God in Christ summons us to live and relate to each other in a way that is different to the kind of ruthless, competitive, inhumane, dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest economy that we are being seduced into. We are called to practice an ethic of concern, care, support for one another, so no one is excluded from the table or left behind; we are challenged to be a community of hospitality, compassion and neighbourliness, which is an alternative model to the economy of extraction, self-interest and accumulation.
We cannot live our faith to the full without embracing the challenge of the contrast society that our Jewish forebears attested to and the Kingdom vision that Jesus proclaimed by his words and deeds. The early Christians understood the significance of being fundamentally countercultural in how they lived, how they related, how they shared resources and how they showed the characteristics of an alternative society.
As followers of Jesus, we too need to demonstrate our being countercultural, not by adopting a fortress and fearful attitude but by showing a kinder, more inclusive, more caring alternative society under God’s rule. Christians today must respond to imperial ideologies which manifest in hate, discrimination, fear, oppression, power, violence, exploitation, cruelty et cetera. We must have the courage to be a community of hospitality, compassion and neighbourliness that serves as an alternative to the dominant narrative.
I believe that we are called to be prophetic insofar as we dare to name and to critique the anti-Gospel attitudes of the world around us. More importantly, we seek to reframe the harsh, unjust and inhumane realities that many experience into an alternative vision of hope and promote those values that will lead to the fulfillment of that vision. Thus, whether the issue is the indigenous peoples, refugees, ecology, gender et cetera we must show our students the way to a Gospel-centered culture of love and compassion, solidarity and service in the world where there is so much fear, indifference and marginalisation.
Catholic education is an expression of God’s radical love:
Pope Francis said the following in one of his addresses to Catholic educators and he pulls no punches:
“Education has become too selective and elitist. It seems that only those people or persons who are at a certain level or have a certain capacity have the right to an education. This is shameful. It is a reality which takes us in a direction of human selectivity. Instead of bridging the gap between people, it widens it. It creates a barrier between poor and rich.
The greatest failure for an education is to educate within the walls: the walls of selective culture, the walls of a culture of security, the walls of a social class.
We cannot go on like this with a selective type of education. No one should be denied. We must leave the places where we are as educators and go to the outskirts, to the poor.”
Catholic schools find their authenticity in the Gospel priorities of inclusion and special concern for young people at risk of being left behind. We are not schools that provide education for Catholics only but Catholic education for all.
Inclusive education should be one of the hallmarks of our Diocese. Our schools are called to be open to all who seek the values of our gospel, regardless of religious affiliation or financial capacity. We accept that we cannot fully claim the title ‘Catholic’ without this commitment. We cannot fully claim to be a school for all when poor families are excluded on account of their inability to pay fees. In a society that increasingly sees education as a commodity that can be bought, our schools risk being used as vehicles for socio-differentiation and elitism, we may have become schools of choice for those people who aspire to exclusive, private education
Pope Francis uses a rather unconventional term to describe the church. He famously says that pastors need to wear the scent of the sheep. Then he describes the Church as a field hospital that treats the wounded after the battle. “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. Our desire to be countercultural witness should not imprison us in a ghetto. 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.
I dream of a Church that dares to break new ground with a view to being radically faithful to the inclusive vision of Jesus. For he has a habit of challenging ingrained stereotyped attitudes, subverting the tyranny of the majority, breaking social taboos, pushing the boundaries of love and redefining its meaning. His interactions with women, with tax collectors and other types of social outcast are nothing short of being revolutionary and boundary breaking. Think of the way he reinterpreted the meaning of a neighbour.
In the Old Testament, a neighbour often means a male comrade member of the covenant community. Thus, for example, we can understand the commandment not to covet your neighbour’s wife, because it refers to the rights of the neighbour. Jesus pushes the envelope further. Indeed, he turns the normative concept of neighbour upside down through the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is his radical vision of love, inclusion and human flourishing that ought to guide the way we educate and form our students.
There is a sense that we are being cut loose from the safe and secure moorings of the past. As we launch ourselves anew into the deep, we grow in the awareness of Paschal rhythm. We realise what needs to die and what needs to rise. We must learn to live as a minority in the midst of a secular society. We must learn to influence it not as lords and masters but as fellow pilgrims. We must learn to engage with others and to act as leaven in a critical and disbelieving world. We, Catholic leaders, are meant to be that crucial yeast in critical times. We are meant to transform our schools into a refuge for the poor, an oasis for the weary and a hospital for the wounded.
Catholic education is not meant to be a numbers game. It is our substance, and not our size that makes the difference. Hence, this time of diminishment of the institutional church can be a blessing in disguise as it makes us less reliant on ourselves but on the power of God. Diminishment allows us the precious opportunity to identify with the “remnant faithful”, to learn the power of vulnerable trust. It is not a time for cynicism or nostalgia. It is a time for deepening of commitment, of grounding in our core values.
The time that we are living in can be likened to Holy Saturday in the Gospel. It is the day of God’s concealment, of the great solitude of Jesus. It is a liminal interval, a time in which one stands between the old and the new. Our task is to live the creative tension between the pain of the present and the hope of the future. The Catholic Church in this country will face diminishment and decline as a result of combined forces such as the secularisation of our society, the institutional malaise and of course, the impact of the Royal Commission. There will be collateral damage that will impact adversely on Catholic education. And that’s alright as long as we, like the midwives during the slavery in Egypt, know how to deliver and nurture new life in the face of painful transition.
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 the known and the familiar but in reimagining the future and venturing into the unknown chaos like the old Exodus that we shall find new life.
The Paschal rhythm summons us to a discipleship of humility, weakness and vulnerability, of dying and rising in Christ. As the Church, we must die to the old ways of being Church which is steeped in a culture of clerical power, dominance and privilege. We must abandon the old paradigm of a fortress Church which is prone to exclusivity and elitism. We must learn to rise to Christlike way of humility, inclusivity, compassion and powerlessness.
May we be like the prophets for our people during this our contemporary exile. May we be strengthened to walk the journey of faith with them, proclaim the message of hope, the signs of the new Kairos and lead them in the direction of the Kingdom.
Most Rev Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv
Bishop of Parramatta