Who’s leaving who?

By Br Mark O'Connor FMS, 25 July 2022
Image: MarinelaM/Shutterstock


Every time I hear certain ecclesial commentators bemoaning the latest Census figures about the decline of Australian Catholics attending Sunday Mass and the obvious ever-increasing alienation of many from the institutional Church, I feel like screaming.

It’s not just ‘secularism’ that is the problem. Could it also be our own inconsistent and dull witness to the Gospel that is the real cause?

It’s all too easy to focus on the question: Why are so many Catholics leaving the Church? It’s then imagined as a failure of a significant and growing group of others.

But is it that simple? Perhaps it’s also important to ask: Is the Church in Australia itself ‘walking away’ from many ordinary people? Is it unnecessarily alienating itself from so many people? Why can’t it respond creatively to the deepest questions and the search for meaning of so many of our sisters and brothers?

To begin to formulate a credible answer to this pressing pastoral problem, all of us who are ‘church’ — i.e. all the baptised — need to undertake a sobering examination of conscience.

It’s not good enough to simply blame external factors.

Maybe we should each honestly question our souls: are we (and our institutions) entirely free from self-importance, arrogance, lack of empathy, excessive moralising and a tendency to confuse our own narrow image of God with the mystery of Divine Graciousness? Are we the real reason people – especially young Catholics – feel the Catholic Church is irrelevant to their lives?

Are many of us actually trapped in what Pope Francis calls the “sourpuss” syndrome? According to Francis, being a ‘sourpuss’ means being acidic, combative, legalistic, pompous, biting and it results in driving hope out of people rather than putting joy into them.

No wonder, the then Cardinal Bergoglio, in the 2013 pre-conclave meetings noted to his brother Cardinals, that he sometimes wondered whether Jesus feels ‘trapped’ in our institutions and is knocking on the inside doors of our churches. He’s hoping that we will set him free to ‘escape’, so that he can really impact ordinary people in the ‘messiness’ of their lives.

Fortunately, there are some-albeit spasmodic-signs of hope that this missionary Gospel vision of Pope Francis is penetrating ever more deeply into our Catholic parishes, schools and outreach agencies. Our recent Plenary Council indicates that the Spirit is alive and well in its dreaming of a renewed Australian Catholic community.

Along with Pope Francis, some Catholic writers like Rosemary Haughton, also provide real visionary leadership in books like her masterpiece: The Catholic Thing. There, Haughton outlines magnificently her inclusive understanding of Catholicism – which serves as an antidote to a rigid and narrow understanding of what it is to be Catholic.

The lovely charm of the book is its story of two allegorical twin sisters: Mother Church, the institutional body, while capable of love and compassion, is also domineering and authoritarian, a stumbling block to many; Sophia is wise, loving and mystical. Both are needed so that the Catholic thing, with its mandate to love everything and everyone until earth becomes heaven, might be realised.

Haughton juxtaposes these two rival sisters and illustrates her Sophia figures — Friedrich von Hugel, Heloise, Erasmus, Dorothy Day, Hélder Câmara, Savonarola, Maritain, to name a few — to graphically make her point. The church is for all — saints and sinners, scholars, artists and even rogues. The Catholic thing is the way of wisdom, which acknowledges all aspects of human life and sees the church as the expression of God’s love in the world and a resource for self-transformation.

Now there’s a vision that responds more than adequately to the danger of ‘secularism’!

And Bonnie Thurston’s recent poem (below) also provides consolation on the journey to those of us who stick with the one, holy, Roman, Catholic and apostolic church. We go forward in faith, trusting that our beloved Australian church will one day get its act together, fully implement Vatican II and at least start asking the right Gospel based questions.


The church’s one foundation

by Bonnie Thurston

June 27, 2022

Unable to see verdant forests
for mangled, ecclesial trees,
most of my companions

have abandoned the church,

not rats, but certainly escapees
from a rusty old ship,
with a treasure in her hold
undiminished by its often ugly,
always precarious, commanders.

To the sailors who remain,

not confident, but at least

hopeful she isn’t going down,

who still stoke old boilers,
and swab slimy decks,

St. Benedict offers counsel:

Be prudent in your cleaning.

In scraping off the rust,
don’t break the fragile vessel.

Appreciating mature beauty,
long faithful seaworthiness,
old sailors, like astrolabes,
still chart direction by the stars.

Their night watches taught them

the sun will rise from the sea.

They show their shipmates how
to be held in a crumbling conveyance

by the foundling Love in her hold.


‘The church’s one foundation’ by Dr Bonnie Thurston was originally published on 13 July 2022 in The Christian Century, Volume 139, No. 14, page 26. Used with permission and with thanks and acknowledgement to Dr Bonnie Thurston and The Christian Century.

Watch Bonnie Thurston read and discuss “The church’s one foundation”

Br Mark O’Connor FMS is the Vicar for Communications in the Diocese of Parramatta.


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