Ozanam Lecture Part 3: Reclaim the Church

31 May 2018
Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv at John Morony Correctional Complex. Image: Diocese of Parramatta.
Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta, Address for the 2018 Annual St Vincent de Paul Ozanam Conversation, East Melbourne, 26 April 2018


“How does the Catholic welfare sector continue with ‘good works’ post the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse?”




In my testimony at the Australian Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, one of the things I said was that we need to dismantle the model of church variously described as the pyramid, the perfect society or the monarchical model. For I hold that this model, which promotes the superiority of the ordained and the excessive emphasis on the role of the clergy at the expense of non-ordained, is at the root of the culture of clericalism.

The crisis we face is linked strongly with a crisis of a particular paradigm of being church. I am not suggesting that this old way of being church has been entirely negative. I am arguing that this model is no longer adequate and relevant. Insofar as it is deeply embedded in clericalist mindset, it is incapable of helping us to meet the challenges of today’s world.

To replace this out-dated model is not to dismantle the church per se or even the hierarchy. It is not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Rather, it is to acknowledge and have the courage to die to old ways of being church that no longer convey the message of the Gospel to the culture in which we live. It is time for us to reclaim the church not primarily as the church of the ordained but the church of the baptised and the community of disciples as a whole. It is time for all the faithful to reclaim their baptismal identity and mission. The church will not be fully energised until all the faithful are able to participate with full citizenship in its life, governance structures and decision-making processes.

St Vincent de Paul Society indeed is essentially a lay-inspired and lay-led Catholic organisation. Blessed Frederic Ozanam was prophetic in so many ways and his vision of the church making a difference to the world by active engagement on the part of committed men and women disciples was one of them. Without naming the church as the People of God, Frederic championed the fundamental notion of the baptismal identity and mission of each and every Christian. St Vincent de Paul was conceived not simply as an accessory of the institutional church. Rather, it was a concrete expression of the witness of solidarity on the part of the baptised. Its works of charity were motivated by God’s love and mercy for all.

It is said that when Protestants disagree with one another, they go off and set up their own churches. When Catholics disagree with one another, however, they go off and set up religious orders. There is some truth in this comparison. For religious do tend to challenge the status quo in the Catholic Church. They march to a different dream beat. They are often not rear guard but vanguard, pioneers and trail blazers who respond to the great cultural challenges of their time in creative ways. They break new ground. When the river has changed its course, they refuse to sit on the edges of the billabong and yearn for known securities. Instead, they go to where the river flows and chart a way for others to follow. That’s being prophetic.

I happen to think that many lay groups like the Society of St Vincent de Paul are carrying the baton that has been passed to them by their spiritual forebears. Against the tendency to domesticate the radical Gospel spirit on the part of the mainstream, these women and men disciples hold the rest to the dream. They keep the flame of the Gospel burning bright. In this sense, they are doing the greatest service to the church not primarily by their institutional ministries but their radical witness at the margins. It is for the sake of the church and for the sake of the Kingdom that they are called to raise their prophetic voice; they speak for the voiceless, amplify the voice of the poor and marginalised, and make them count.

Frederic Ozanam was a prophet par excellence. He was not just involved in immediate relief to people in poverty, but was a leading intellectual, journalist and activist agitating for social reform. He laid many of the foundations for later Catholic social teaching, only to be bitterly disappointed and distressed that his ideas were so vilified and rejected by many leading Catholics at that time. Frederick was not, however, afraid of the risk associated with the fight in favour of God’s justice for the poor. He fearlessly championed the rights of the working poor, demanding social reforms such as humane working hours, income support for the sick and the aged, the right to form trade unions, better wage contracts for workers, better distribution of wealth et cetera. These prophetic initiatives continue to resonate strongly with us today.

The ministry of Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, was not just a matter of doing good deeds. It was ever an expression of the divine pathos for marginalised and afflicted humankind. In their encounter with Jesus, people experienced not simply a humanitarian gesture but also a glimpse of God’s unconditional love. Pope Francis recently spoke about the temptation of the church to become a compassionate non-governmental organization. This happens when despite doing work in the name of the church or in the name of God, we fail to convey the love and presence of God.

St Vincent de Paul is not a secular organisation. Even in the climate of mistrust, it must not divorce itself from its spiritual origin and heritage. Ultimately, it is concerned with the Kingdom vision of Jesus. It seeks to develop a community of hospitality, compassion and neighbourliness, which is an alternative model to the economy of extraction and predation. As members of St Vincent de Paul, we endeavour to follow the compassionate Jesus and be the sacrament of God’s compassion and care for the least and the last. The church is first and fore most an oasis of hope and Good News. 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. We must therefore learn to be a soothing presence, a warmth of God’s care and a gentle reach of God’s hand, affirming, healing and uplifting.

Part 4 will be published tomorrow.

To read Part 2 of Bishop Vincent’s address, click here.


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