Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Address to the Diocesan Forum 2019, Parramatta
“Envisioning the Church in Western Sydney for the New Millennium”
13 July 2019
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.
I’d like to thank you all for joining together in this important exercise of listening, discerning and envisioning the roadmap for the future of the Church in Western Sydney.
We need to change the status quo in the Church because we have reached a tipping point and a critical juncture. The impact of the Royal Commission and the conviction of Cardinal George Pell have conspired to deal a grievous blow to the morale of rank and file Catholics.
Because of my background of being a refugee, I have a particular interest in the biblical experience of the exile. I believe that we should do well to draw on the great spiritual legacy of our ancestors in faith.
In the exile, God’s people experienced a profound loss. From being a great nation with all the status symbols of power, they were reduced to a stateless and dejected people. Yet, it was in that moment of utter vulnerability, they gained a new insight into what it meant to be God’s people. There was a paradigm shift, a fundamental change in the way they related to God, to others and the world around them. They gradually came to a new understanding of the disorientation, dislocation and marginalisation that was forced upon them.
Through the prophets, Judaism was reimagined outside the Promised Land. They learned to witness to their faith by the core values of neighbourly solidarity, love and compassion. The exiled Church of ours must similarly learn to adapt to changing social and cultural conditions. It is time to be prophetic. The prophets did not simply reiterate the past. They reengaged the faith tradition with fresh insights distilled from lived experience. We must not be afraid to embrace new fresh creative ways of embodying and conveying effectively the message of the Gospel to the culture in which we live.
We cannot conduct “business as usual” because the ground under our feet has shifted. The Holy Spirit is speaking to us as Church through the challenges and signs of our times. The signs of our times demand a Gospel-inspired response. We need to work in partnership and embed the values and principles we want to embrace into the structures and practices of our diocese.
BRINGING ABOUT CUTURAL CHANGE
It is becoming increasingly evident that sexual abuse crisis in the Church is a symptom of a broken system and a dysfunctional culture. The clericalist model of Church with its by-product of clerical hegemony has served us well beyond its use by date. The Church as understood and articulated by the Second Vatican Council sees itself as a pilgrim People of God, incarnate in the world. It is a new paradigm – one that is based on partnership, collaboration, participation and empowerment as opposed to the old way of clerical control, and monopoly at worst, or lay subservience and passivity at best.
The time has come for us to implement decisively this participatory, inclusive and collaborative model in our diocesan and parish structures. The Royal Commission recommends that the clerical governance structures be reviewed, drawing from the modes of governance already implemented in Catholic health, community services and education agencies. We need to create a Church more humble, transparent and accountable to the faithful and the community at large. The time has come for the Church to be truly the Church of the baptised and together with the ordained, all the People of God can create a new culture of humility, accountability and service.
It seems to me that the Church cannot have a better future if it persists in the old paradigm. She will not be fully energised while the faithful are still unable to participate with full citizenship in its life, governance structures and decision making processes. So long as we continue to exclude the laity, especially women from the Church’s governance structures, decision making processes and institutional functions, we deprive ourselves of the richness of our full humanity.
A LISTENING, SYNODAL AND INCLUSIVE CHURCH
As we move to a more pilgrim community model, it is also necessary to foster a culture of encounter and dialogue. Pope Francis speaks of an “inverted pyramid” which is a radical way of exercising power and authority. It is not a top-down and centralised approach reminiscent of the monarchical model. Rather, it is a synodal church at every level, with everyone listening to each other, learning from each other and taking responsibility for proclaiming the Gospel. Vatican II already spoke of the key principles: collegiality, subsidiarity and sensus fidelium, all of which pointed to a more listening, dialogical and inclusive Church.
Pope Francis has really lived up to his vision of the Church daring to break loose from its comfort zone and self-referential mentality. He has challenged us to be a compassionate, merciful, open and inclusive Church. He has privileged a style of leadership, which involves more deep respectful listening and collective discernment.
Transformation within the Church will not be facilitated by divisiveness and polarising disposition. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini SJ wisely observed that we must learn to “quarrel peacefully” in the spirit of open and honest dialogue. While there is no instant reconciliation, nor perfect convergence of minds and hearts, we must not resile from the task of listening, conversing and understanding one another in the spirit of mutual trust. The synodal journey can be chaotic and disruptive. But it is this journey – like the exodus of old- that forms us and transforms us into the People of God.
A CHURCH THAT GOES TO THE MARGINS
Pope Francis constantly calls us to move beyond the security of status quo and take the risk of going to the periphery. The Church must be the Church of the poor. The Church must go out of itself in order to be close to those in need.
If one can detect the direction of Pope Francis’ pontificate, it has something to do with the movement from security to boldness, from inward looking to outward looking, from preoccupation with our status quo, from safeguarding our privileges to learning to be vulnerable, thereby conveying God’s compassion to those who are on the edges of society and Church. “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
Hence our challenge is to accompany people from the margins into a journey towards the fullness of life and love. We are meant to be in the coalface, in the messiness of it all and at the same time in fidelity to the Gospel. We are to be a Malcolm in the Middle who occupies in betwixt and between, liminal, peripheral and precarious places. Like Christ in his ministry among the sick and the lost, we are called to meet God in the most unlikely people and places. We, too, must be in that frontier space.
It is that precarious liminal space where the true cost of our discipleship is counted, because we dare to walk with the Samaritans of our time, just like Jesus did before us. They could be asylum seekers, the homeless, the Indigenous, the victims of injustice, the Muslim refugees, the LGBT persons et cetera. The crisis of diminishment that we face allows us an opportunity to divest ourselves of all the unnecessary trappings, to focus on what is our core mission, to act more prophetically and to live more fully, more creatively, more boldly, more at the periphery.
A HUMBLE, HEALING AND MERCIFUL CHURCH
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Church was understood to be on its way to becoming a perfect society in and for the world. It was a defensive, fortress Church. Other Christian Churches were considered aberrations from this road map, not to speak of other religious movements. However, Gaudium et Spes – the guiding document of the Council – presented a new paradigm: the Church is not an enclosure which protects its members against the sinful world. It is a fellow pilgrim with the men and women of our age. It is a Church incarnate in the world. Therefore, it is time not of fearful retreat, disengagement and self-referential pomp, but of accompaniment and engagement.
Francis declares, “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.
Being merciful is at the heart of Catholic identity. It is not simply a matter of acting with mercy and compassion to those in need with our position of power and privilege intact. Rather, it is a radical discipleship of vulnerability and powerlessness in the footsteps of the humble Servant of God. It is an existential stance in favour of the weak and the vulnerable in the face of the prevalent business model of success and power. It is about building up people and relationships rather than profit and size. It has to do with the Kingdom mentality rather than the empire mentality.
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 to the known, the secure and the familiar but in reimagining the future and venturing into the unknown chaos that we shall find new life.
The question that we face is whether or not we have the courage to reimagine a new future for the Church or are we simply resigned to accept the status quo and forever reenact what happened in the past? Pope Francis’ call is for us to act boldly. His critique of clericalism and embrace of a post-clericalist model of listening, dialogical and inclusive Church inspire us to seek fresh ways of being Church.
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.
Then we can rise to being the Church that Christ calls us to be, moving forward: an oasis for the weary and troubled, a field hospital for the wounded, a refuge for the oppressed and a voice for the voiceless. May the Holy Spirit accompany us as we move boldly in the direction of the Kingdom.
Most Rev Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv
Bishop of Parramatta