After 20 years as the Ozanam Lecture, last evening saw the introduction in Melbourne of the Ozanam Conversation, conducted in East Melbourne at the Catholic Leadership Centre.
Bishop Vincent Long, former Melbourne auxiliary Bishop and now Bishop of Parramatta, joined Australian journalist and broadcaster Geraldine Doogue for a conversation on the topic ‘What it means to be a Catholic organisation in a post-Royal Commission world.’
Prior to the commencement of the evening’s conversation, Bishop Long spared us a few moments to talk about the ‘crossroads’ at which the Church finds itself, coming off the back of the damning report from the Royal Commission into institutional sexual abuse and the Church’s response to it.
Under the auspices of the St Vincent de Paul Society, the Ozanam Conversation honours Blessed Frederic Ozanam, founder of the Society (at age 20), who devoted his life in France to serving people in poverty and want, a service now carried on by nearly a million local volunteers around the world (over 12,000 of them in Victoria).
In his preliminary address, prior to joining Geraldine Doogue in conversation, Bishop Long commented on the crisis now facing the institutional Church in the post-Royal Commission era, noting that it will be, in fact, a catalyst for much-needed change.
St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria CEO Sue Cattermole began the conversation proper by posing the introductory question, ‘is the word Catholic now becoming a dirty word?’ The Bishop agreed that, indeed, the sexual abuse scandal has cut the very heart of the Church and threatens to erode its public voice for generations, where we are all labelled ‘guilty by association.’
What must happen now, stated Bishop Long, is that the Church’s leaders, himself included, must undertake a journey of radical conversion. ‘We, the leaders of the Church,’ he said, ‘have failed the people and especially God’s little ones. The abuse crisis has revealed deep structural problems within the Church.’
He continued, ‘We have been humbled and humiliated, having betrayed our own ethos.’
Bishop Long likened the situation facing the Church today to that of St Paul, after his experience on the road to Damascus. ‘Not only did Paul fall from his high horse,’ said the bishop, ‘but he entered, like the Church, his own period of darkness. He had to become humbled and docile to God’s word. He had to be led. So do we.’
Frederic Ozanam was held up by Bishop Long as an example of a prophet par excellence. As an activist, agitating for social reform, and as a champion of rights, especially for the working poor, Blessed Frederic is the model for us, he said, as we witness this profound transition in the Church to an organisation more focused on and underpinned by true gospel values.
In his conversation with Geraldine Doogue, who spoke eloquently on the yearning amongst the laity for a more inclusive Church, Bishop Long agreed that there have been artificial and unsustainable divisions between the clergy and the laity, but he did remind the audience of the common identity we all have in our baptism. In responding to Geraldine’s question as to how it felt looking at the laity from a bishop’s point of view, he quoted from St Augustine.
‘With you, I am a Christian. For you, I am a bishop.’
Bishop Long spoke on the need for the Church to create ‘a community of disciples’, in total opposition to the pyramidal top-down structure of previous generations.
In his opinion, said Bishop Long, the hierarchical and patristic structures of the Church had led to a lack of kindness and charity, to a ‘travesty of the gospel’, and to what he referred to as the ‘virus of misogynism.’
As the conversation went on, Bishop Long responded to questions from Geraldine Doogue by pointing towards a new Church, a Church that let gospel values permeate its identity, a Church that is inclusive, where everyone feels at home and does not feel excluded for any reason regardless of their situation, their gender, their beliefs, their sexuality.
Then, said Bishop Long, we can begin to exercise our mission to change the world, our mission to evangelise the world.
Geraldine Doogue asked about the people who don’t feel supported, the next generation, for example. ‘How can they fortify themselves so that they have the full backing of the Church?’ she asked.
As a part of his response, Bishop Long talked at length about the need for us as a Church to be humbled and refined, so that we become the catalysts of the new Church in a new society, where we go out to meet and embrace people, not in the false humility of passivity, but where their needs are greatest and their situations, like those met by Ozanam, are most dire. There, he said, in the fires of a burning love, true Catholics can live the gospel and change the world. And there, he summarised, Catholics will find their true place in society.
Geraldine Doogue offered her own observations. First, she stated, we need to belong and then to believe. Catholics, particularly the laity, must help people, first, to belong.
As well, she said, don’t let the ‘best be the enemy of the good’. Let’s not sit back thinking that the goal is out of reach or unattainable. Let us always move forward.
Taking up the words of Pope Francis in his new Apostolic Exhortation, Geraldine urged Catholics to rejoice and be glad. ‘Don’t be a sad sack,’ she said.
She also reminded Catholics that the first place for them to be Catholic is at home, on their home ground. ‘Search for the goodness and kindness in your own world,’ she urged, ‘and then apply that to the Church.’
Another challenge Geraldine finally threw down to the audience and to Catholics everywhere, was to ‘find new words.’ Find new ways and words, she urged, to re-state this great tradition that we have inherited.
The Ozanam Conversation closed with a minute’s quiet reflection, proposed by Geraldine Doogue, who also thanked Bishop Long for his humility, strength, sense of purpose and vision for the Church’s future.
A vote of thanks was then proposed to a packed Catholic Leadership Centre by Kevin McMahon, State President of the St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria.
The 2018 Ozanam Conversation between Bishop Vincent Long and Geraldine Doogue was recorded, and will be available next week on the website of the St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria.
With thanks to Melbourne Catholic.