Bishop Vincent address “The Catholic Church in post-Royal Commission Australia” delivered on 16 May at Mission 2017: one heart many voices, Sydney, Australia.
PART 1: INTRODUCTION
I would like to pay my respects and acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which this meeting takes place, and also pay respects to Elders both past and present.
I begin this reflection with an Aboriginal story. It goes like this: “Once upon a time, there was an Aboriginal tribe that settled along a mighty river. It was teeming with all kinds of fresh water creatures that sustained the people and provided much security and well-being for them. They lived peacefully along its banks. Then, one day, a big flood came and submerged everything in its path. The people evacuated to dry land. When the flood subsided they returned and resettled where they used to. But then, things were not quite the same. The river flow became weaker and weaker. What was once a mighty river gradually was reduced to a billabong. The people sat daily around its edge and wondered what had become of their once mighty and life-giving river. It was all very sad and depressing until one of them decided to go upstream and explore. He returned later and told the rest of the tribe that their beloved river had not dried up at all. It had merely changed its course.”
In a way, I guess, we Catholics of today find ourselves in a place no longer familiar to ourselves. Like those Aboriginal people who returned to their beloved river and realised it was not the same any more after the big flood, we too are being confronted with a changing reality, a world that is increasingly alien to us.
I’d like to think of this critical juncture as analogous to the biblical exile to which as a former refugee I have a personal affinity. The exile was about facing the death of the old and giving birth to the new. The old understanding of a tribal deity who favoured his chosen people and dwelt in the Temple gave way to a much more expansive and universal notion of who God was and what it meant to be God’s people. In the exile, there was a paradigm shift, a fundamental change in the way people related to God, to others and the world around them. They learned to live their faith anew – without familiar symbols like the temple, the temple-based priesthood, the festivals, the land etc…
The Catholic Church today is in crisis. But crisis is our spécialité de la maison (specialty of the house). Indeed, more often than not, it has been crisis and unrest that brought about moments of re-birth and renewal. Consistently in salvation history, God 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 is like the pioneer who left the billabong in search of the life-giving river. He constantly urges the whole Church to go beyond itself: “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”.
In another place, he says even more forcefully that we are not living in an era of change but change of era. By this, I think he means we need to live up to our fundamental call to be ecclesia semper reformanda or the Church always in need of reform to be in sync with the movement of the Holy Spirit. It is not “business as usual”. It cannot be the status quo at any cost, because the ground under our feet has shifted. 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. The Pope said this to a stunned audience of Italian bishops gathered in Florence: “Before the problems of the Church it is not useful to search for solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of obsolete conduct and forms that no longer have the capacity of being significant culturally”.
Given the critical situation we face now and into the future, what do I hope for the Church in Australia in 20-30 years time? Will the Church in Australia be a real vibrant force in society or will it be an irrelevant minority, relegated to a culturally insignificant ghetto? Will it be an isolated murky billabong left behind after the flood or will it change its course and chart a new life-giving future in accordance with the direction of the Kingdom? I’d like to share with you my dream for the Church of the future in Australia.
Part 2 will be published tomorrow.