We are living in an enormously traumatic moment in the life of the church in Australia (and globally), a moment that has been produced (at least partially) by our failure as Catholics to be people of authenticity.
At every level in the life of the church, we are confronting elements of rot and corrosion and need for radical reform in our community that can regenerate us. This is not a time to fall asleep or worse, lose hope!
At such a moment, we Catholics must act with a deep humility grounded in the recognition that our church is truly the pilgrim people of God. The journey continues…
Our pastoral way forward must be to continue to develop the vocation of all Catholic Christians – as they freely choose to live out the vision of Jesus with imagination and as they freshly breathe the Spirit into all our structures for Gospel living.
It will be important to be vigilant and reject the clericalism that has imprisoned the church and created a blindness to the failings and dominance of a clerical caste system that on so many levels mocks the servant priesthood of Jesus Christ, who was servant to all, brother to all in their concrete needs and suffering.
A Gospel-energised theology for today, therefore, must look to the future and engage the young, the marginalised and the alienated with special passion.
We must never be content to recede into a smaller, purer Australian church that is unwilling to risk grappling with the real world in the light of the Gospel.
It is especially sad to see some local Australian Catholics – clerical and lay – taking that path of narrow sectarianism. They do everything they can to oppose Pope Francis and the synodal path he challenges us to follow.
Let’s instead follow the wise leadership of Pope Francis. For the past nearly 8 years, Francis has never tired of challenging the traditional prism that focused pastoral theology on the work of priests, or even on a more generalised notion of pastoral ministry in the internal life of the church.
For Pope Francis, the heart of pastoral action is to heal the hearts of men and women who are suffering. Pope Francis beautifully describes the church as a field hospital:
“I see clearly that 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. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. And you have to start from the ground up. This is the mission of the church: the church heals, it cures. . . The mission of the church is to heal wounds of the heart, to open doors, to free people, to say that God is good, God forgives all, God is the Father.”
From this pastoral vision of Francis flows a strategy of engagement and accompaniment, which never forgets its own need for healing and grace.
As we minister to people in our ordinary daily ‘field hospitals,’ may we too engage and accompany. Above all, may we Catholics have the vision and courage to continue this healing mission.
We awaken in Christ’s body,
As Christ awakens our bodies
There I look down and my poor hand is Christ,
He enters my foot and is infinitely me.
I move my hand and wonderfully
My hand becomes Christ,
Becomes all of Him.
I move my foot and at once
He appears in a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous to you?
—Then open your heart to him.
And let yourself receive the one
Who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
We wake up inside Christ’s body
Where all our body all over,
Every most hidden part of it,
Is realized in joy as Him,
And He makes us utterly real.
And everything that is hurt, everything
That seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
Maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged
Is in Him transformed.
And in Him, recognized as whole, as lovely,
And radiant in His light,
We awaken as the beloved
In every last part of our body.
– Saint Symeon the New Theologian, Hymn 15.
With thanks to Cindy Wooden & Joshua J. McElwee for their great book and its insights A Pope Francis Lexicon, Liturgical Press (2018), which was the genesis of this article.
Br Mark O’Connor FMS is the Vicar for Communications in the Diocese of Parramatta.