proclaim 2016 keynote address

SB058On the 24 November, 1999, on a drizzly Wednesday evening, I was baptised in a parish in the north-western suburbs of Sydney. Heralding from a family of Buddhist and Taoist heritage, I entered the Church at the age of twenty, gathered with a priest, sponsor, fellow catechumens and a mixed group of close friends, mostly of no religious background. A small but powerful group had accompanied me through the process of initiation and I was fully conscious and grateful for the fact that in God and this community I had been granted something which I would spend the rest of my life learning to be faithful to, learning to enter into, learning to trust.

If a history of that parish were to be taken that date in November would not have stood out for any special recognition. I am sure it was for the most part an ordinary and customary year. However, beneath the everyday rhythm of this local parish it was for me a time of great consequence, of vital, spiritual breakthrough into the life of God to discover Christ as the total meaning of my life.

I share this to affirm that amidst the unfussy pews of the parishes we know and love the grace of Christ continues to move and mould hearts to his own. The local parish, even in its ordinariness, remains a privileged location of God’s transforming grace in the world.

However, as we take a wider view of the Australian parish we must admit that the possibility of personal spiritual breakthrough is not the same thing as the frequency of its happening.

This would be suggested by the challenges faced by our communities today, well known and rehearsed – declining weekly Mass attendance, now at a “critical moment” and leaning toward single digits across the nation; an ageing profile; the critical and chastening scrutiny of a Royal Commission; low morale in some quarters; low religious literacy among some of those we encounter; the pain of structural change and amalgamations directing energies inwards; and the by-product of diocesan decline, increasing managerialism within the culture of the Church that pulls towards the bureaucratisation of pastoral care.[1]

The Church in Australia can no longer rely on a ‘conveyer belt’ which was presumed to take Catholics from the cradle to the grave in faith, the assumption that a Catholic baptism and the mere fact of going to a Catholic school, for example, would secure a lifetime of committed discipleship. Historical circumstance and cultural momentum will no longer carry the Australian parish.

A new imagination is called forth and is demanded by the mission we have received, to make disciples and apostles of the baptised and the unbaptised, to be a leaven in the world as the sign and reality of the new freedom given in Jesus Christ. The flourishing of personal discipleship and apostolic outreach must become the motivating norm for our Church. For this to become a reality we are called to become more open and responsive to what God passionately desires to do through our parishes.

The Problematic

australia-allReflecting on the Australian Church, I would concur that the central challenge for parish life is this: we are caught between a call and desire for renewal and the weight of our own church culture towards maintaining the status quo. In this moment which cries out for new apostolic zeal, we can feel bound by layers of expectation that demand the continuation of the old even while new forms of parish life and mission long for expression.[2]

How do we address the culture of a local parish that may desire change but does not want to change, that desires to grow, be joyful and bear new fruit but contains within it organisational antibodies that tend to kill anything that is new? How do we move our communities towards radical, fervent outreach when a ‘convoy routine’ permits spiritual progress or cultural change only at the speed of the slowest ship? As intimated by Pope Francis, the insistence that “we have always done it this way” – less often said than expressed in passive resistance – reveals a complacency at odds with the urgency of disciple-making which has been tasked to this generation.[3]

What are the levers or the strategies of prophetic witness that can lead us into that future which God invites, that can embolden us to ‘step into’ this future that has not yet fully arrived? The future of the Australian parish and its redemptive mission in the world are tied up with the preparedness of our local communities to take a conscious step towards their own conversion.

The Need of Vision

Such a cultural shift within our parishes demands that we reclaim the ‘why’ of our existence as local communities of faith. While talk of parish evangelisation often leaps to the ‘what’ – to programs, tools and techniques, reflective perhaps of our hardy Australian pragmatism – the ‘why’ or rationale of our parishes cannot be taken for granted.

On the ground, we appreciate the significance of the ‘why’ for our people when they receive the sacraments, those of initiation and besides. We earnestly want their ‘why’ to be Jesus, not merely school enrolment or unthinking convention. We understand the difference this ‘why’ makes to their likely future participation in the life of faith and the Church. We know that this ‘why’ distinguishes the disciple from the ‘what’ of the consumer who arrives asking ‘what do I get here’ rather than ‘who am I called to be here’. If we seek to grow our parishes for mission, we need to clarify and communicate the ‘why’ of our total parish life and this is called vision.

baptism-adultFundamentally we are called to be a Church of the Great Commission. This is our vision, the ‘northern star’ guiding our resolve. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). As it has been pointed out, in our Catholic Church we have certainly learnt to “go” and can claim a presence at all corners of the earth. We “baptise” and confirm relentlessly. We “teach” and catechise great numbers in our schools and sacramental programs. However, our ability as Church to “make disciples” remains in question, as raised by the pastoral realities for the Australian Church we have explored.[4] A local parish vision that reclaims the Great Commission as our primary calling clarifies the purpose of our community and makes it possible for others to become a part of that purpose.

It is worth noting that a parish vision for the making of disciples and of ongoing apostolic support for the laity can arise from our hopes as well as our laments. Our restlessness and frustrations too can be helpful signs pointing us beyond what we have in hand, acting as a mirror image of our deepest desires for our community. When a bold vision of spiritual vitality is discerned it supplies the energy and constant challenge to the ethos and practices of a parish as it journeys toward that goal.

Within our Catholic culture, some voices express resistance to the need of an articulate vision and pastoral planning for our parishes and dioceses on the basis that this is a bureaucratic exercise, more at home in the Business Review Weekly than in our Church. Others oppose talk of setting a ‘vision’ for our communities on the basis that it second-guesses the providence of God whose Spirit indeed leads where it will.

As a community of faith we certainly do not have a road map or certainty for our future, a future that belongs to God. However, we do have a story of the kind of people, the kind of disciples, and the kind of communities we want to be as we make our journey towards that unknown future.

14546210When we communicate a vision of the parish, how we seek to respond to God in this context, in this time, in this local community, when we can articulate a vision of the kinds of spiritual growth we are seeking to raise up in our people, this passionate purpose becomes the heartbeat or pulse of a parish. Conveniently, and not incidentally, a renewed vision provides the case for change.

The alternative to a parish communicating vision is a community standing in the silence of an unquestioned routine. The lifeblood of the parish might occasionally receive a boost or uptick through the initiative of individuals or the occasional event but without a sustained vision to consistently stimulate a higher life, the pulse of the parish inevitably slows and returns to maintenance, to the pace of survival rather than growth.

While no substitute for the parish, it must be acknowledged that the ecclesial movements in their charisms and narratives of holiness have shown us the power of a story to tell, as do the saints, those ‘bright patterns of holiness’ who image or supply a vision for the divine touching human lives.

I would like to suggest that in establishing its vision and promoting cultural change, a parish can gain much from imagining or visualising itself ten times better rather than only ten per cent better. This is because a small goal will tend to lead us to incremental changes that are based upon the existing rhythm, resources, programs and assumptions of the parish, leading to only slow or grinding progress.[5] Aiming for the sky, however, forces us to question our community assumptions and the fruit of our present culture, sheds bold and even new light on the taken-for-granted details of the everyday. Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom was so grand that it cast fresh light on who could eat at table. It was so immense that it gave meaning to tiny seeds. It was so extravagant it could sustain meaning in a Gethsemane night, even on the Cross.

It is no accident that the missionary determination of Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel begins with a grand dream, by looking out, not looking down.[6] In any case, if we do not cast a vision for our parishes, the question will inevitably rise from the pews, ‘Are we going anywhere?’

Prayer 1_2It is worth noting that when a parish makes a commitment to a clear vision of personal discipleship and spiritual community, presenting this before its people, other good things begin to flow. With a vision pointing the parish beyond its own concerns and circumstance, the parish can begin to move from a culture that engages people to build up the Church to become a Church that builds up people.

When we routinely engage people to build up the Church, the focus inevitably falls on maintenance and functionalism. A parish calls people forward to maintain its own life, its ministries, functions and tasks for which there is never enough human labour. We engage people, in other words, to ‘fill the gaps’ and out of a mindset of deficiency, with the best of our energy, dedication and resources flowing into the upkeep of our established groups, ministries and schedules. However, our parishes are not called to be factories, to keep the cogs turning over at any cost.

We cannot confuse our means with our end which is the abundant spiritual life of our people. As it has been said, ‘if you build the Church, you rarely get disciples. If you make disciples, you always get the Church.’ Parishes begin to change their culture towards mission when all forms of its preaching shift from a focus on what it wants from people to what it wants for them.

When a community understands itself as existing not for its own preservation but for the spiritual and personal change of its members and non-members, then all that the parish undertakes, its programs, groups, structures, and finance, will be seen and considered in the light of its mission to make disciples. We will begin to measure our life not by the standards of conservation – the managing of internal concerns, the parish patrimony, nest egg or tranquillity – but by the standards of our outwards mission. We will begin to gauge our life not only by our seating capacity but also by our sending capacity, and the extent of the spiritual fruit and personal change we nurture into life.

Increase over Addition

In reflecting on the Church’s living tradition and the experience and best practices of growing Catholic communities, I would like to suggest four elements as being integral to the renewal of parish culture toward deeper discipleship and wider evangelisation.

In sharing these suggestions, I am mindful that when a community or group has a vision but no strategy to achieve it, it will tend to simply add on new programs and activities to an already busy routine hoping this will affect a difference. Yet we know, even implicitly, that addition is not synonymous with increase, that ‘more’ is not always tantamount to ‘better’.

Indeed, we are learning on a national, diocesan and parish level that a “spaghetti” approach to Church life, over-programmed with a splattering of disconnected activity, tends to encourage silos rather than unity or strength of mission. This is because events, programs and groups compete for space on the common calendar, rivalling one another for the same pool of finite resources, increasingly busy people and limited attention. If we become content with the unrolling of copious activity, without heed of the fruit these initiatives bear or otherwise, we in fact succumb to the “spiritual worldliness”, or busyness for its own sake, of which Pope Francis warns.[7]

So, to four principles drawn from growing and evangelising communities that can take us beyond the comfort of routine and the opposite temptation of mere addition.

Foundations of an Evangelising Parish

1. Proclaiming Christ

Christ Mosaic Cefalu Sicily 12th CenturyFirst of all, at the heart of evangelising communities is the proclamation of the Good News, specifically the kergyma which is the basic truths of our Christian faith. This word kerygma, or keryssein in Greek, may not be very familiar to us but it in fact appears in the New Testament some nine times, and refers to the very heart of the Gospel, the core message of the Christian faith that all believers are called to believe and proclaim.

The words of Pope Paul VI still challenge us today, “There is no true evangelisation if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the Kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed”.[8] This is the kerygma. It is explicit and focused entirely on the person and saving message of Jesus Christ.

We note that this kerygma stands apart from the catechesis or instruction in the fuller doctrinal and moral teaching (didache) that the Church notes is to take place after someone has accepted the initial kerygma and been baptised. We can in fact school people in our parishes, in the RCIA for instance, about the Church, various themes of theology, the intricacies and rubrics of liturgy and so on but with slight reflection on the life and person of Jesus whom our people are first called to encounter, though our preaching, priorities and witness. The heart of our Gospel is Jesus, what he has done, and continues to bring about for us and within us.

As Pope Francis makes clear,

. . . we have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the centre of all evangelising activity and all efforts at Church renewal. This first proclamation is called “first” not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment.[9]

There is no sense that we ever graduate from hearing this Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the proclamation for which our Church exists and that calls to be preached in our liturgies, parent and children’s formation, in our youth ministries and initiatives of social outreach, in the development of our parish teams and staff, our talk of parish finance, structural change and carparks. We are constantly challenged to re-centre our parishes, our total life, on this central proclamation for it is the sole source of discipleship and evangelisation. There is no other.

Jesus Christ 2The heart of evangelisation is to announce who Jesus is, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the man who is God, who died for our sins and was raised on the third day. It is to announce the Good News of the Risen Christ who is with us even now and opens up for us the way to life without end. Evangelising parishes proclaim Jesus’ ascension, his seating at the right hand of the Father as King, and his sending forth of the Holy Spirit. It is this Spirit which reveals Christ and even enables us to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and it is this Spirit who empowers the Church, who empowers us, to be faithful to Christ’s mission in our own lives and in this moment of the world’s history. Finally, this Good News of Christ calls us to conversion, to repent and believe in this Gospel, calling for a change of life in the light of what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ whose life we share by baptism, the anointing of the Holy Spirit, in communion with his mystical body, the Eucharist, and by our communion with His ecclesial body, the Church. In prioritising this proclamation, we seek to build up a culture in which Jesus is not swept into our parish story intermittently but our parishes and lives are swept into his.

As a former media buyer, I am conscious that corporations spend millions after millions of dollars each year, even each week, to get people into their shop. It is humbling, then, to recognise that each year thousands upon thousands of people come into our ‘shop’, walk through the front doors of our parishes, without always knowing why they are there or their stance towards the saving Gospel or proclamation which is the lifeblood of our communities.

And yet, whether entering the parish via the door of our sacramental programs or school enrolment, walking through our doors on account of baptisms, marriages or funerals, or for the sake of their children, these persons fully expect to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed by our parishes whether they ultimately accept that saving message or otherwise.

It is essential to our future that our truth is proclaimed with courage and with faith, not as something but as someone to whom we owe our life and devotion, someone who calls not to be a part of our life but our very existence and the total shape of our living.

2. Growing Personal Discipleship

FootprintsHowever, the bold proclamation of Jesus’ name, life, promises, Kingdom and mystery, in itself is not sufficient for the growth of a missionary culture in our parishes. As a second foundation, evangelising parishes cultivate personal discipleship, create room and opportunity for a personal response to the Good News proclaimed. The call to be a disciple is a gift but it also involves a choice and personal decision that cannot be delegated to any other.

In its personal dimension, the heart of all evangelisation could be described as one person telling another person how the encounter with Jesus Christ has changed their life, one beggar telling another beggar how he found bread. This is indeed the living tradition of our Church, ‘hands clasping hands stretching back in time until they hold the hand of Jesus who holds the hand of God’.[10] Personal witness, testimony and exchange are at the heart of personal and spiritual change. It is our long and ancient experience as Church that programs do not make disciples; disciples make disciples.

In speaking of personal change, it is a sober reality that 60% of those who attend Mass in Australia reported only some or no spiritual growth through their experience of parish life.[11] It is clear that we cannot adopt a mindset that assumes the sacraments, or the school RE program for that matter, will simply ‘take care of it’. While this emphasis on personal faith may seem obvious, it underlines the fact that we cannot assume that disciples just happen because we have a parish and people show up.

An effective process of evangelisation in our communities will need to recognise the various stages of personal growth through which people journey on their way to the Gospel. A parish of personal, realised faith is something different than the motions of a crowd that produces ‘conventional sounds when stimulated by the appropriate noises’.[12] While the conversion of our people always remains the work of the Holy Spirit, we can help or hinder that process depending on how we walk with people.

The people in our pews and those besides are at varying levels of faith and commitment. When we can recognise with honesty where our people are in the story of discipleship, we can begin to engage them in ways that are fitting to their disposition – building bridges of trust with those that do not yet have a basic positive association with Christ, the Church or ourselves as Christians; for the curious, asking questions to encourage their initial desire to know more and sharing with them our own story of faith as it has become central to our life; for those exhibiting spiritual openness, expressing our willingness to pray for them and asking questions to validate their openness though they may not yet be actively seeking to know God.[13]

The essence of evangelisation is to engage with others on the road to Emmaus as they ask their questions, leading them to an encounter with Christ who is, in fact, already present to them, already active in their lives awaiting the ‘yes’ of a spiritual awakening, an assent of faith.

jp11 version 2Bringing together these first principles of evangelising communities, we hear St John Paul II affirm, “Faith is born of preaching and every ecclesial community draws its origin and life from the personal response from every believer to that preaching”.[14] It is both the preaching of the kerygma and personal conversion that sustains and grows a missionary culture.

Parishes do not grow when their people do not. The call to spiritual growth challenges ourselves for each of us shapes the Church and its mission by our personal participation in it. The extent to which we grow in faith and holiness will be the extent to which the Church grows in faithfulness and holiness. 

As leaders we must realise that everything we do or say teaches people something about the Church. Ecclesial operators or ‘professionals’ can never replace the holiness of saints, managerialism the spirit of charity. As we have learned from painful history, it is entirely possible for parish leaders to ostensibly live a life for Christ without living a life in Christ. Personal conversion calls for change within us as much as others in the community of faith.

3. Discipleship in the Midst of the Church

sbPersonal discipleship also calls for the nourishment of an ecclesial community of faith. Evangelising parishes create disciples in the midst of the Church.

We know that discipleship is vulnerable without the ongoing, living support from other Catholic disciples. Significantly, a parish sustains personal faith not only through a shared life, mutual witness and spiritual support but by opening individual lives to more possibilities for the life of faith, vocation and holiness than we might otherwise recognise, to a vision that discipleship is possible even in this way.

In the same way as a number of first European settlers arrived in Australia assuming they were, if you like, dragging land and civilisation behind them, we can be tempted to consider our increasing diversity as Australian parishes as something which is being added ‘from the outside’ rather than a theological fact and principle of our life from its earliest beginnings at Pentecost. The challenge and companionship of fellow Christians, diverse in cultural expression of faith and piety, liberates and enables a faith richer and deeper than what we could gain on our own.

How might our parishes better integrate and express difference? Research and experience tells us that at the heart of all evangelising and growing communities are small groups as a vital instrument of ecclesial support and differentiated unity. I am not aware of any growing Christian community that does not have an economy of small groups in place to deepen at the same time its members’ experience of Jesus and the Church as encountered in fellow Christians. The experience of liturgy alone can render it difficult for persons to feel instantly at home or connect with others intimately in the context of faith. Most of us have come to the heart of the Church through a small group of some description, whether this was a youth group, a prayer group, a parent or family group.

The introduction of small groups within our parishes and an accompanying culture of invitation, one that communicates in effect that ‘we are incomplete without you’, will enable people to be brought into and nurtured by a supportive network of disciples.

While speaking intimately with one another about our lived experience and friendship with Jesus can be counter-cultural for many Catholics, I am heartened by the fact that no one knew they needed an iPhone until Steve Jobs invented one. We are similarly challenged to offer our people the small group of discipleship and learning that they never knew they needed, an experience of personal relationship with Jesus and his Gospel in the midst of others.

baby_plant.28104733While our vision needs to be as large as the Kingdom, our implementation of that vision needs to begin small. With encouragement for us, it is worth noting that when large evangelical and Pentecostal communities are asked what they seek for their future it is to establish smaller, stable communities in the midst of a local neighbourhood, offering a consistency and intimacy of worship and local service in personal connection with the wider community. In other words, what many megachurches are seeking is a parish.

We have already in our Church the scale of community to foster powerful spiritual relationships with one another, by small groups and other means. It is not a matter of structure but our capacity for interrelationship and mutual trust in faith, our ability to grow together and also our capacity for collegiality.[15]

It may be news to some that a national ecclesial event, a Plenary Council, has been proposed by the bishops of Australia for 2020, a council to embrace not only the faith of the bishops but to take up the faith of the Australian Church, the collective vision, gifts and charisms for our common future. To be collegial is to be receptive of the faith with which Christ has already endowed the Church. As Australian Catholics we ought to place great hope in our collective ability to discern a future and are challenged not only to have faith in God but in our capacity to respond to God as his people.

To anchor this potential for collegiality, shared discernment and decision-making in our parishes, our capacity for co-responsibility for mission begins within the local parish team and the parish pastoral council as the most immediate opportunities for living the theology we profess.

The risk of not attending to the faith of the faithful as expressed in the local parish, as much as a national plenary council, is no less than turning away possibilities, the manifold charisms and vocations of lay men and women, which God continually offers to us. An Australian parish, and an Australian Church for that matter, that is not discerning God’s call cannot hope to grow because it cannot see what God has already given and deeply invites.

4. Missionary Orientation

Picture193Finally, we recognise that the proclamation of the Gospel, the call to personal discipleship and the life of the Christian community are not for their own sake but for the sake of the world. All that has gone before must bear fruit in our connection with others beyond our communities of faith, beyond the boundaries of the parish.

In his own way I think Pope Francis has reminded us time and again, with a certain cheek, that the parish is not an organised way to avoid the issues of the world. The parish is not a spiritual refuge or a hotel for the spiritually comfortable. Rather it is a hospital or wellspring open to all who bear wounds or thirst, who await a personal answer for their hope on the road of humanity.

A premier ecclesiologist in the English-speaking world, Joseph Komonchak, reminds us:

To enter the Church is not to leave the world, but to be in the world differently, so that the world itself is different because there are individuals and communities living their lives because of, in, and for the sake of Jesus Christ.[16]

To be a community of disciples is not to stand apart from the world or hover above it but to be within the space of the world differently. To be a Catholic parish, to be a community of believers, is not to withdraw into a ghetto of like-minded individuals but to speak, witness and inhabit this world, a world which is very much in our hands, with a perspective and a commitment to a person whom we believe illuminates its depths and heights.

I believe parishes will move to a missionary footing when they believe in their heart of hearts that there is a harvest, that Christ is preparing people for us to reach, and that we have been anointed by our baptism to speak, live and act by God’s Word in our world.

A missionary parish will prepare people for this assignment, preaching and teaching that the Christian life it is not about choosing between Christ and the world, as if they were utterly opposed. Rather, as the twentieth century spiritual master Thomas Merton observes, Christian life is about choosing Christ by choosing the world as it really is in Him.[17] God’s mission calls us to a constant orientation beyond ourselves, so that the world can witness the spirit of Christ in action, can see and come to believe.


I suggest four lenses by which we might review and renew the evangelising mission of our parishes:

  • proclaim the name, teaching, promises, Kingdom, life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God (the ‘kerygma’)
  • call forth a personal response to this Good News
  • foster discipleship in the midst of the Church
  • and send these disciples into the world in constant missionary outreach

I believe a parish requires all four elements without exemption, so as not to:

  • proclaim the Gospel without personal conversion (we can preach the Gospel and be entirely orthodox, proclaim a sound understanding of the faith, but as Pope Benedict XVI be merely ‘proper’ but ultimately loveless, bearing little actual fruit in the lives of our people);
  • we can experience personal conversion but minimise or castoff the influence of the Church (an erroneous sense that it would feel more like real worship if it was ‘me’ praying alone, or a sense that the parish community is something I could rather live without; a ‘private’ Christianity withdrawn from the varieties of discipleship that God offers us in others);
  • we can develop an ecclesial life and participate in the Church’s public life but without personal conversion and a living relationship with Jesus (merely ‘attending Mass’ out of custom or working within the Church or school without an attachment to the Gospel, working only for Christ but not working with him);
  • or we can proclaim the Gospel, foster personal conversion and a commitment to the Church without any implication for the wider world, displaying a forgetfulness of the fact that we are ‘sent’ as missionary disciples by our baptism to share the life of Christ we ourselves have received.

When our communities grow in these foundations, a culture of discipleship and evangelisation begins to thrive.

candlesIndeed, it can be seen that these foundations encourage and direct our efforts in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, in which the tenderness and compassion of God calls for announcement. An evangelising community proclaims the mercy of God whose face is Jesus Christ, nurtures our people to know themselves as personally forgiven by God and brought into the freedom of a new life, offers the experience of forgiveness and compassion within the life of the Church, sacramentally and in the companionship of fellow Christians; and equips and emboldens the forgiven to ‘go out’ to share mercy with others who too await someone to pour oil on their wounds, who await the Good News given in Jesus Christ, who is the promise and presence of God’s mercy.


SB012We cannot change that of which we are not aware. We must name and face head on the present challenges for our culture as Australian parishes, parishes that I believe desire to be missionary and in their heart of hearts wish to receive the grace of God who still desires much for our parish life.

However, receiving this grace entails movement on our part, a shift from where we stand and a constant reaching out beyond the complacency of routine or a simplistic ‘silver bullet’ mentality that holds only one way, one program or technique as the exclusive key to growth. We are called to cultural change, to change together and personally which is the perennial challenge of mission.

To build a preaching, discipling, gathering and missioning Church calls for a multidimensional approach filled with bold vision, personal faith, mutual support, and the resolve to be our deepest selves in Christ for the sake of the world.

Ultimately, it means responding with hope and trust in what God can do for us, with us and through us, even on a drizzly Wednesday night in the well-worn pews of the parishes we know and love.



[1] Robert Dixon, Stephen Reid and Marilyn Chee, Mass Attendance in Australia: A Critical Moment. A Report Based on the National Count of Attendance, the National Church Life Survey and the Australian Census (Melbourne: ACBC Pastoral Research Office, 2013), 8.

[2] Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation: Bringing Your Parish from Maintenance to Mission (New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2014), 53.

[3] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 33.

[4] Mallon, Divine Renovation, 19-20.

[5] The fatalistic expression “that won’t work” commonly emerges from a perspective that measures new ideas by the life that we currently know.

[6] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 27.

[7] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 93-97.

[8] Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi 22.

[9] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 164.

[10] John Shea, An Experience Named Spirit as cited in Robert A. Ludwig, Reconstructing Catholicism: For a New Generation (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2000), 61.

[11] NCLS Research, Denominational Church Life Profile: The Catholic Church in Australia. A Report from the 2011 National Church Life Survey (Strathfield: NCLS Research, 2013), 10.

[12] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (London: Burns & Oates, 1961), 43.

[13] A helpful schema of various stages or ‘thresholds’ of discipleship is provided in Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2012), 125-184.

[14] Pope Paul VI, Redemptoris Missio 44.

[15] The challenge of collegiality for our Church recalls the remarks of the late Ukranian Catholic Metropolitan Maxim Hermaniuk who dismissed Roman synods as nothing more than “international study days”.

[16] Joseph A. Komonchak, “Identity and Mission in Catholic Universities”, 12. Available at Accessed 25 August 2016.

[17] Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), 153.

solitude with thomas merton

Thomas-Merton2In Christian tradition, classic texts are those which occupy a privileged place in the community’s memory, response to and reception of the Gospel. They are committed texts with a specific ‘take’ on revelation and invite the reader to engage with this same commitment in the context of their own personal understanding and experience of faith. Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation is such a text and I’ve been revisiting it over these past few days here in Japan. It was among the first Christian texts that I ever read and remains a touchstone in the tradition.

For those new to his work and person, Merton was one of the great spiritual masters of the twentieth century, an American who came to Catholic faith in his twenties. Not long after, Merton entered a Cistercian monastery, Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, and then, almost by accident, penned a best-selling autobiography Seven Storey Mountain which brought him into a limelight he could not have anticipated and did not seek out (Merton would reflect, “The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real”).

Merton would go on to assume the role of novice master for his Order, publish widely on prayer, contemplation, monasticism and social issues, and became a prolific correspondent with intellectual and spiritual luminaries within the Church and beyond it. He died in Bangkok on the 10th December, 1968, at the age of 53, electrocuted by a faulty fan while attending a monastic conference. His body was flown home with those of dead U.S. servicemen.

Published in 1962, New Seeds of Contemplation is the coalescence of Merton’s ever-maturing reflection on the contemplative experience of God as the realisation and ground of identity. Commenting on previous drafts of the work, Merton would remark,

When the book was first written, the author had no experience in confronting the needs and problems of other men (sic). The book was written in a kind of isolation… the author’s solitude has been modified by contact with other solitudes; with the loneliness, the simplicity, the perplexity of novices and scholastics of his monastic community; with the loneliness of people outside any monastery; with the loneliness of people outside the Church. (New Seeds, ix-x)

New-Seeds-of-Contemplation-9780811217248In New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton gives voice to themes that he elaborated and refined throughout his life’s work, particularly the identity of the ‘true self’ hidden in God and the profundity and need of solitude.

According to Merton’s spiritual itinerary, the discovery of authenticity in Christ begins not with an awareness of what lies at the end of the road but with a recognition of the obstacles that block its very beginnings. He describes the fundamental obstacle to maturity as the dominance of the ‘false self’, also described in New Seeds as the “the smoke self”, “the empirical ego” or the “routine self” which takes itself seriously but does not even exist (New Seeds, 38, 281, 16).

This illusory self is the product of our own pride and self-determination, for unlike animals and trees which give glory to God in being themselves, we are at liberty to be real or to be unreal, “We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face” (New Seeds, 32). Layered with selfish desire and defensive mechanisms, we can be imprisoned within fictions of our own making:

I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface. (New Seeds, 34-35).

This propensity to construct and find assurance in superficialities includes the caricature of the ‘good Catholic’ and a heroic sense of spiritual achievement. In this critique, Merton was ever conscious of the ability of the false self to appropriate even religion or ‘spirituality’ as a secret means of control and separateness.

mertonMoving to the discovery of the true self, Merton identifies solitude as the pathway to true identity. As theologian David Ranson underlines, Merton would maintain that within each one of us is a solitary dimension, a dimension not to be afraid of or done away with but entered into for this is the monastic ‘cell’ in which God is most deeply encountered. There is a need for this solitude in our lives, not as a rejection of others or the world, but as a school in which we learn to be ourselves before God. Only then can we embrace and relate to others clear of the selfishness, need for possession and validation which characterises our insecure times. It is solitude that is the doorway to the contemplative experience in which God discovers Himself alone in us, not crowded out by idols on which our hearts have become set.

What is more, the experience of authentic solitude is for Merton fundamentally Trinitarian, for God “infinitely transcends every shadow of selfishness… He is at once infinite solitude (one nature) and perfect society (Three Persons). One Infinite Love in three subsistent relations” (New Seeds, 68). By this Trinitarian focus, Merton implies that the true solitary is not an individual, imprisoned in a dream of separateness, but a person deeply related to others.

Contemplative solitude, then, is not our own, and leads the pilgrim beyond all limitation and division: “He has advanced beyond all horizons. There are no directions in which he can travel. This is a country whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” (New Seeds, 81). Even the monk or hermit does not enter into solitude for his own purposes but in relationship to and for the good of others, for the Church and the world in which he remains embedded, inseparable and even necessary.

In the depths of solitude, often experienced in prayer, the movement toward authenticity comes by way of a self-emptying or kenosis: “a man cannot enter into the deepest centre of himself and pass through that centre into God, unless he is able to pass entirely out of himself and empty himself and give himself to other people in the purity of a selfless love” (New Seeds, 64). This selflessness, however, is only possible to the extent to which we are enjoined to Christ as it is he who first gave himself for humanity and makes that kind of self-giving love possible, “I become a ‘new man’ and this new man, spiritually and mystically one identity, is at once Christ and myself… This spiritual union of my being with Christ in one ‘new man’ is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, the Spirit of Christ” (New Seeds, 158).

candleMerton concludes that as long as there is an “I” aware of itself and its contemplation, an “I” that can possess a certain “degree of spirituality” then we have not yet passed into the fullness of contemplation, the fullness of Christian life itself (New Seeds, 292). Ultimately, the mature Christian has no psychological individuality or even self-conscious biography; all the shadows of self-assertion end at an interior death which, paradoxically, and in the light of the paschal mystery, emerges as the very beginning of a real, authentic life.

We can see that there is little sentimentalism in Merton’s writing and much challenge. In texts such as New Seeds of Contemplation we hear a robust call to purify our desires and to meet head on the ‘spiritual deaths’ that lower the ego and allow the emergence of the true self to take place. In this respect, the Christian life unfolds as ‘revolutionary’ though not in the sense of accelerated progress or an aggressive, suprahuman evolution. As Merton affirms,

… the burden of Christ’s Cross, that is Christ’s humility and poverty and obedience and renunciation… this is the most complete revolution that has ever been preached; in fact it is the only true revolution, because all the others demand the extermination of somebody else, but this one means the death of the [person] who, for all practical purposes, you have come to think of as your own self. (New Seeds, 144).

Merton reminds the Christian that the gift of faith is not an escape or an evasion but a project of deepening integration in our identity in Christ, one which carries with it a greater responsibility for the world and not less.

shibuyaOur life in Christ is not any more abstract or comfortable than life as we now know it, nor is it found in the sublime stories, private or collective, we tell about ourselves. The inheritance we receive from the writings of Merton is the decisive possibility of freedom and authenticity in faith, being who we have been made to be. It is an existential summons to unlock ourselves from the inside, from the imprisonment of our own private illusions and the masks that operate, as it were, ‘behind the Gospel’s back’. The path back to ourselves begins with an interior solitude that can be found even among the exterior noise and din that fills the world. Writing from Tokyo, a city of fourteen million, among the machines, lights, and appeals of the salesman, this pilgrimage seems more important than ever.

social media in the Church

social-mediaIn the light of two conferences of significance for the Australian Church this week – the inaugural Catholic New Media Conference and that of the Australasian Catholic Press Association – I thought I would offer a few remarks about the role of social media within the Church’s mission.

Many Catholics, including older generations, would readily agree that the Church’s embrace of social media is important, even necessary. Consulting 2,000 Catholics last year, there was a palpable enthusiasm and agreement that the Church as a whole commit itself to this technology. However, I suspect there is not always a great degree of clarity on why this is so other than reference to motives that are ambiguous to say the least (e.g. ‘relevance’).

It is important to articulate the reasons for social media as a normal part of the Church’s mission because diocesan bishops, parish priests, parish councils, heads of religious institutes, boards of management and other forms of Church leadership need to be convinced of its value if they are going to make an investment in that direction (our own Diocese of Parramatta has employed a Social Media Coordinator, @socialmediaparra, and I am aware that other dioceses are on the way to doing the same or similar).

And it is an investment. Consider your typical dioceses with its various church agencies – adult education centres, liturgical office, youth ministries and the like. While a Facebook page or a Twitter account is not difficult to establish with appropriate disclaimers, considerable thought needs to be given to message, audience and integration of that media within the ordinary work of that agency and the diocese or parish as a whole. This often requires the training of staff in the effective use of this media and time dedicated to the maintenance and driving of its message in public space. Unfortunately in the province of the profane, ‘time is money’ and so churches and agencies need to budget for that time and work if it is to be an ongoing concern. Helpfully, budgeting for the use of such media sends a signal to stewards of church finance that ‘this things matters’.

As well, my learning from a past life as a media buyer for Mitchell & Partners is that content is expensive to generate and it is important for the Church to recognise time and resources are needed to deliver this proclamation and foster dialogue in the digital realm.

542379_lowWhile the ‘content’ of Catholic media is perennial and freely given – the revelation of Jesus Christ made known by Scripture and Tradition and declared by Church teaching, liturgy, and the Church Fathers – it is not sufficient for Church media to tweet from Proverbs or even the Gospel alone. Social media in the Church, indeed communications more generally, consists not only in the confession of faith – that basic affirmation of St Peter at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Christ” (Mk 8:29) – it also calls for testimony that communicates the witness of Christian lives.

The reason to consider the role of social media in the Church in the context of testimony is this. Most of people’s beliefs about the world depend on the testimony of others. For instance, I have never been to South America but trust that it exists on the basis of the testimony of others who have. In fact, most of our beliefs of the world are formed on the basis of testimony because our experience of the world is inevitably limited. However, it is testimony that may draw us to travel to Rio de Janeiro if we believe in the credibility of the pilgrim that has returned from that destination.

pewsThe testimony of discipleship is what social media offers the Church’s mission. As Sherry Weddell recognises in her fine work Forming Intentional Disciples, it is not merely a curiosity but truly frightening to acknowledge that Catholics have come to regard it as normal (even deeply Catholic!) not to talk about discipleship. Indeed, for too long the cultural pressure within our parishes and communities works against the overt expression of discipleship, including an account of a personal relationship with Jesus, which can be viewed, absurdly, as Protestant rather than the foundation stone of Catholic identity (see pages 56-70). For existing and new generations of Catholic believers, social media is one vehicle that provides for Christian testimony with credibility, an opportunity to give witness to a journey travelled.

While we have come some way in past decades – moved past the prayer card, sent by email and complete with kittens, butterflies and trivial uplifting thoughts – there is some way to go to embed social media within the ordinary life of the Church’s mission and outreach. The very fact of separate conferences in Melbourne this week – one for new media and one for press – speaks to the integration that still awaits to take place in the Church’s communications effort and its self-understanding and organisation as bearer of the Word.

Of course, there is a risk that individuals and organisations, in their embrace of new media, develop an obsession with novelty which distracts rather than deepens. In a populist and throwaway culture, and given the Church’s insecurity amid current challenges and a devastating loss of public credibility, we can risk becoming eccentric faddists who are in love with anything just because it is new.

gospel of markHowever, it is the work of those leaders in social media who are emerging in the Church to school themselves not only in algorithms of rank and filter but the theology of revelation, missiology, and ecclesiology that will underpin, extend and even challenge their work. Documents such as Dei Verbum (1965), Inter Mirifica (1963), Redemptoris Missio (1990), and Pope Benedict XVI’s messages for World Communications Day in 2010, 2011 and 2013 are good starting points in this direction, underscoring that the authentic development of humanity and human culture is not a technological achievement but one that stands in relation to what has been revealed, the one who, in revealing God, has revealed us to ourselves.

lumen fidei

benedictfrancisOriginally intended for publication earlier this year as Pope Benedict’s fourth encyclical and the final in a trilogy on the theological virtues, Lumen Fidei (‘The Light of Faith’) was promulgated this past Friday in the name of Pope Francis.

In the same way as Benedict’s first encyclical in 2005, Deus Caritas Est, brought to completion the unfinished writings of John Paul II, so Francis’ inaugural encyclical represents to a significant degree the thought of his German predecessor on the meaning and implications of Christian faith. This inheritance and continuity between recent papal documents aligns well with Benedict’s own remarks, just days before his abdication, on the writings of ‘Peter’:

Peter was not alone in writing [his] Letter but it expresses the faith of a Church . . . He does not write alone, as an isolated individual; he writes with the assistance of the Church, of people who help him to deepen the faith, to enter into the depths of his thought, of his rationality, of his profundity. And this is very important: Peter is not speaking as an individual, he is speaking ex persona Ecclesiae, he is speaking as a man of the Church.

Likewise, Francis’ encyclical is received not as the word of a private individual apart from or above the Church but an expression of the faith of the communion of which he is called, in his person as ‘Peter‘, to be witness and shepherd.

The Possibility of Faith

lumenfideiLumen Fidei begins by addressing the very dilemma of faith in the contemporary world. Christian faith is so often seen by many as contrary to reason, not as a light that opens up the world but a darkness which stifles and even represses human creativity and the quest for knowledge. Even those who have sought to make room for faith have undermined it by promoting faith, erroneously, as a ‘leap in the dark’ driven by blind emotion. Others who champion autonomous reason as the answer to humanity’s future have often realised that their questions remain unanswered and this has led to an abandonment of the very search for truth itself in favour of “smaller lights which illumine the fleeting moment yet prove incapable of showing the way” (LF 3). Humanity remains hungry for a firm ground on which to stand and hence remains unfulfilled as it experiences the darkness and insufficiency of the world and itself.

On reading these opening remarks, the influence of Benedict stands out. His 1968 work Introduction to Christianity begins with this same confrontation of the very possibility of belief in the world of today. Indeed, the same temptations for the believer and unbeliever alluded to in Lumen Fidei (that of fideism or refuge in rationalism in the face of life’s questions) are raised by the early Ratzinger as prompts toward a fuller understanding of the ‘openness’ of faith, “Just as the believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a continual temptation, so for the unbeliever faith remains a temptation and a threat to his permanently closed world” (Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 45). The recurring challenge of human finality and the quest for human understanding rescues both the believer and unbeliever from being shut up in their own worlds, resisting any tendency to self-satisfaction and urging humanity onwards in the search for truth.

9954008Lumen Fidei seeks to propose the light of faith as the guide to this truth that we seek, a light that illumines all aspects of our existence in illuminating God as one who addresses us personally. It notes that the word of God that called Abraham, ‘our father in faith’, is not alien to human experience but always present at the core of our being. It follows that Abraham’s response to that divine calling, Abraham’s faith, “sheds light on the depths of his being, it enables him to acknowledge the wellspring of goodness at the origin of all things and to realise that his life is not the product of non-being or chance, but the fruit of a personal call and a personal love” (LF 11). Faith in God, then, as one who creates and calls is not an extrinsic act or a merely ‘religious’ commitment but an integral and humanising project and gift which, when received, unveils our true vocation in the life of God himself.

The faith of Israel that would follow Abraham further reveals faith as a summons to a pilgrimage with the Lord that calls through the concrete events of our life. The history of Israel also sounds a note of warning, that of idolatry which reveals our own tendency toward control and vanity, as Lumen Fidei makes clear, “Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshipping the work of our own hands” (LF 13). While commentators have seen in this discussion of idolatry the hand of Pope Francis, it is one that was certainly shared by his predecessor in his writings on the liturgy among others (see Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy, 22f). The overall thrust of the text is to underline the paradox of faith, that is, as in all loving relationship, by our constant turn towards the one beyond our control, and by the surrender to what we did not initiate, we become more and not less ourselves, freed from the slavery of our own self-absorption and insecurities.

Ultimately, it is in Christ Jesus that the total manifestation of God’s faithfulness arrives in history, the crucifixion of Christ being the “culmination of the gaze of faith; in that hour the depth and breadth of God’s love shone forth” (LF 16). It is a total gift of self that precedes us and allows one to entrust themselves completely to the utter reliability of God’s love, manifest not only in this death-in-love but in his rising in love, a “tangible and powerful love which really does act in history and determines its final destiny, a love that can be encountered” (LF 17). It echoes the thought of Ratzinger for he affirms elsewhere, “Christian faith is more than the option of a spiritual ground to the world; its central formula is not ‘I believe in something’ but ‘I believe in you’. It is in the encounter with the man Jesus, and in this encounter it experiences the meaning of the world as a person.” (Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 79).

After a brief word on the ecclesial form of faith, perhaps surprisingly brief given the demise of the Church’s credibility in the wake of the abuse scandal, the encyclical turns to the relation of faith to the truth which human beings seek (the theme of the Church is picked up again in Chapter 3 of Lumen Fidei though, again, without any theological treatment of sinfulness within the Church).

A Reasonable Faith

fidesEngaging an epistemology that may not be accessible to all, Lumen Fidei then goes on to underline the significance of truth for faith. Without truth, faith remains only “a beautiful story, the projection of our deep yearning for happiness, something capable of satisfying us to the extent that we are willing to deceive ourselves” (LF 24). Knowledge of the truth, Lumen Fidei asserts, is to be found in love which cannot be reduced to ephemeral emotion but is, most deeply understood, union with the Other. Without this love, “truth becomes cold, impersonal and oppressive for people’s day-to-day lives”; without truth, love becomes mere sentimentality, a fleeting emotion and cannot be a ground on which a future can be sustained. Love without truth “cannot stand the test of time” (LF 27). It is this discovery of love as a source of knowledge, as an interpersonal communion built upon truth that is capable of pointing us toward our ultimate fulfilment, that finds expression in the biblical understanding of “faith” (LF 28).

Returning to the concern of the opening paragraphs, Lumen Fidei then turns to the dialogue between faith and reason, drawing on the insights of John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio and also St Augustine, a perennial influence in Benedict’s own thought. As in the writing of John Paul II, faith and reason are presented not as opposed – as if faith were an irrational undertaking or that reason leaves behind the necessity of faith – but are recognised as having the same end or finality which is to know the truth. The reception of divine revelation and the ongoing human question for meaning, or philosophy, are not exterior to one another but intrinsically linked as Lumen Fidei seeks to show by the example of scientific inquiry,

The light of faith is an incarnate light radiating from the luminous life of Jesus. It also illumines the material world, trusts its inherent order and knows that is calls us to an ever widening path of harmony and understanding. The gaze of science thus benefits from faith: faith encourages the scientist to remain constantly open to reality in all its inexhaustible richness. Faith awakens the critical sense by preventing research from being satisfied with its own formulae and helps it to realize that nature is always greater. By stimulating wonder before the profound mystery of creation, faith broadens the horizons of reason to shed greater light on the world which discloses itself to scientific investigation (LF 34).

popejohnpauliiAs Fides et Ratio affirmed for philosophers so it may be said for the scientist, “it is necessary not to abandon the passion for ultimate truth, the eagerness to search for it or the audacity to forge new paths in the search. It is faith which stirs reason to move beyond all isolation and willingly to run risks so that it may attain whatever is beautiful, good and true. Faith thus becomes the convinced and convincing advocate of reason” (FR 56). As it has been said, it is faith that challenges reason to more audacious undertakings.

An Ecclesial Faith

The third and penultimate chapter of Lumen Fidei expands on the ecclesial context of faith that is only touched upon at the end of Chapter One (LF 22). Addressing the maternity of the Church, as one who brings about the birth of Christ in the believer, the encyclical draws attention to the living tradition of the Church.

The Church passes on the light of faith through the generations, “just as one candle is lighted from another”, an image that certainly recalls Pope Francis’ preaching style. Raising the question of the verification of knowledge, the encyclical underlines the relational way in which knowledge is transmitted, “Language itself, the words by which we make sense of our lives and the world around us, comes to us from others, preserved in the living memory of others. Self-knowledge is only possible when we share in a greater memory” (LF 38).

This sociological reality illuminates the theological significance of the Church as a “remembering subject” for it is this living communion that precedes us, and into which we are baptised, that teaches us the very language of faith. In plain terms, the Church came before us and rather than stifling our personal engagement with God in Christ, this very fact makes possible our personal faith with all the riches and insights of those that preceded us.

noahangbaptismP_041In faith, we respond to a word which did not originate with us – in the language of Lumen Fidei, “Our belief is expressed in response to an invitation, to a word which must be heard and which is now my own; it exists as part of a dialogue and cannot be merely a profession originating in an individual” (LF 39). Ratzinger’s earlier text makes the point in a similar way, “Faith comes to man from outside. . . [It is] not something thought up by myself; it is something said to me . . . This double structure of ‘Do you believe? – I do believe!’, this form of call from outside and the reply to it is fundamental to it” (Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 91-2).

The ecclesial form of faith also expresses itself in the Church’s sacraments which “communicate an incarnate memory” (LF 40). Lumen Fidei even intimates the sacramental structure of faith itself for “the awakening of faith is linked to the dawning of a new sacramental sense in our lives as human beings and as Christians, in which visible and material realities are seen to point beyond themselves to the mystery of the eternal” (LF 40). Following this there is catechesis on the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, the creed, the Decalogue and prayer before the fourth chapter turns to the social consequences of the nature of faith outlined.

An Incarnate Faith

In continuity with Pope Francis’ preaching on the sociality of faith and the Church’s mission, the encyclical concludes by relating faith to the common good, affirming faith not as a privatised journey of introspection or pious isolation but a “process of building, the preparing of a place in which human beings can dwell together with one another” (LF 50). Faith does not only provide interior firmness, it also allows the believer to see others in their inherent dignity and vocation, born of love for union with God’s own self. Faith, because it is loving, does not draw believers away from the world but ever deeper into the concrete concerns of the men and women of our time. Families and the young are called to be bearers of faith in the midst of the world (LF 52-53) while faith brings as well a respect for creation as a gift for which all are indebted.

woodencrossA powerful section of Lumen Fidei is its treatment of human suffering in which it recognises human pain, hunger and loss is not at all extinguished by faith but placed in a new context of meaning. The encyclical affirms in this regard, “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light” (LF 57). Pope Francis reminds us that it is Christ who has occupied the place of suffering, in the Gethsemane Garden and on the Cross, and as the endurer of humanity’s suffering he will be “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2) (LF 57).

As is tradition, Lumen Fidei concludes with an affirmation of the ‘Marian profile’ of faith for it is Mary who demonstrates the fruitfulness of faith from the Annunciation to the Cross. As figure of the Church and as one whose motherhood extends to each of his disciples, Mary leads us always and only to the blessing of faith which is her Son.


LUMEN FIDEI encyclical provisional cover_ B 13.inddLumen Fidei is a timely encyclical for a challenging moment in the Church’s history, calling for a return to the purity and plenitude of the faith that we have received and are called to live in the present. As this most recent teaching is received and settles within the tradition of the Church (and it calls for future reading together with its forebears Deus Caritas Est and Spe Salvi), many more insights and implications will no doubt come to light. What is obvious by its absence is significant reference to the “new evangelisation” as another manifestation of the Church’s self-understanding (with the exception of LF 42). We might hope that a future exhortation on this subject will build connections and so further expand the implications of faith for the Church’s mission in a new time, in the context of a globalised church and with a variety of ad intra and ad extra influences impacting on the Church’s relation to the world.

our Easter story

woodencrossAs the Easter Triduum approaches, we are propelled into the heart of the mystery of our Christian faith, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God. It is in his crucified and risen body that we are offered a return to God and in the same mystery of sacrificial love that we find a way home to our true selves and also to one another.

Like others, my wife and I began our journey toward Easter on Ash Wednesday but not with the imposition of ashes but at Westmead Children’s Hospital where our nine month old son underwent a morning ultrasound for a rare eye condition that had been discovered some weeks earlier. The sense of loss and shock we had felt those weeks ago, with the news that our first-born son was likely blind in one eye, was outstripped only by the dread of surgery and the small but real risk of infection and, at worst, complete blindness. With the passing of our friends’ child, born on the same day, and in light of our own son’s affliction, we no longer stored faith in statistical assurances.

It is difficult to express the heartbreak that accompanies the suffering of our loved ones and we can never prepare for the rawness of loss and vulnerability so close to home. In the long days and nights since that first diagnosis we looked upon our son with a mix of tenderness and helplessness, doing our best to carry on with the everyday practicalities of life, all the while handing the wellbeing of our son over to God day by day, with all the trust and all-too-human reluctance of those of whom more has been asked.

In the crucible of suffering and fear there is no room for second-hand anecdotes, about God giving only what one can bear or even for sentiments about the eventual meaning that suffering will bring, given only enough time. There is only the rawness of the experience, the silence of God in the focused ‘crying out’ of prayer, the inexpressible awareness of the wisdom of Hebrews, that it is, indeed, “a dreadful thing to fall into the arms of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).

candleIn the visits to the specialists that were to come, we were slowly initiated into a new world. We remember keenly the heartrending moment of pushing our young son through the hospital doors for the first time, now almost a ritual, and the distress of watching him squirm from afar under the careful handling of our doctors. Then, there were the other families and children we met along the way, many suffering to a far greater and incomprehensible degree, with cancer and profound disability. We shared space with these families each week with sympathy and deference. The quiet sadness of a hospital waiting room can bring life to its essence without a hint of sentimentality.

In the midst of our own uncertainty it was those furthest from our day-to-day life, but closest to our experience, who offered us hope and succour. A couple interstate who have suffered deep loss in their own life reminded us of the way in which our reality had changed over the years, incomprehensibly even, from praying and giving thanks for our vocations, our marriages and pregnancies, to now begging for the lives and wellbeing of our children. As these companions on the way reminded us, so is the advocacy required of us as parents.

Then there were two Cistercian monks, friends of ours through an internet connection and a shared love of the monastic tradition who, though so different in vocation, united with us in prayer and petition. There is great solace in communion. With them, we pelted the heavens with psalms.

Over the coming weeks and as surgery loomed, we had our home written prayers, relished every moment of play we could find, and in John’s Gospel heard Christ speak at the waters of Siloam,

His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.’ (Jn 9:2-3)

We waited in faith.

It was a Monday morning when my wife received the call that there had been a cancellation in theatre and our son’s surgery had been brought forward by weeks, to the following day. On the morning of his admission, our friend, a priest, blessed the three of us before we took leave for the hospital.

The day seemed an eternity. After admission and a lengthy wait, we watched our son slip under general anaesthetic and walked away from the theatre in one another’s arms and in tears. It would be the longest time our son had been away from his mother since birth.

jesuschristWe almost ran to the recovery room to greet him as he emerged from surgery, heavily bandaged and weary but with all having gone to plan. While his sight in one eye was likely to remain poor throughout his life, the offending obstruction had been removed without complication. After observation for a further few hours, we could take our son home.

This Easter we have been drawn into the paschal mystery without our asking. Indeed, no one runs toward the Cross for it promises to cost us much more than we are willing to give. Still, over the years we learn to entrust ourselves a little more to the ‘logic’ of this way. Sometimes we are carried by others and other times sustained by faith alone.

This Triduum we give thanks for all that we have, for out of the depths of limitation and fear has emerged a stronger faith, a greater hope and a deeper love.

Peter among the Apostles

papal-conclaveWith the imminent election of a new pope, the role of the Bishop of Rome has come into focus in popular and religious media. It struck me that the many formalities and traditions that accompany a papal election, as interesting as they might be, have had the effect of putting into the shade the bases of the papacy in Catholic faith. This seems a lost opportunity to provide ‘reasons for our hope’ (1 Pet. 3:15)

In short, little attention has been given to the ‘why’ of the papacy, a ‘why’ which is significant not only for Catholic believers in their own understanding of the Church but also for non-Catholic Christians who are often, and it must be said not always unreasonably, ‘put off’ by an apparent obsession with ceremonial fanfare over and above the simplicity of biblical discipleship.

Indeed, Paul VI lamented in 1967 that ‘the Pope . . . is undoubtedly the most serious obstacle on the path to ecumenism’. His eventual successor, John Paul II, was to take a more positive view in regards to the ecumenical significance of the papacy, asking how the Petrine Office could accomplish a service of love and unity recognised by all. As the Oxford theologian Fergus Kerr notes, the Polish pontiff even appealed to Christians who are not now, and perhaps never likely to be in full communion with Rome, to help in reshaping the papal ministry (see Ut Unum Sint 4). This recognised not only the possibility of papal reform but situated the task of the papacy within an ecumenical context, within a communion of faith that was ‘already but not yet’.

peter-iconFor Catholics, of course, the pope is understood to be the successor of the apostle Peter and so has ‘full, immediate, ordinary and general jurisdiction’ or primacy over the college of bishops and indeed over the whole Church. What does this rather foreboding statement mean? It means he has a distinct, ecclesial responsibility to proclaim and preserve the faith in its purity and plenitude as well as uphold the unity of the communion of faith, with personal, and not merely delegated, authority to intervene in the workings of another bishop and local churches in service of that ecclesial communion.

Contrary to ‘ultramontanists’ who confuse the papacy with the Church, it should be kept in view that the pope is not the only principle of the Church’s unity (lest we forget the Holy Spirit, for one, and the worldwide episcopate to name another). The Petrine Office is firmly embedded within the Church, in service of the Church’s unity and not above it.

Put in terms of an ecclesiology of communion, the pope is for Catholic faith the visible point of communion of the local churches and cannot, and should not, act as an absolute monarch. Why? This is because it is the college of bishops as a whole that is understood to be of divine law (ius divinum), a college that the pope could never abolish or do away with and of which he remains a member. So the Pope is a head of a college of bishops, belonging wholly to this college while never being simply its delegate. ‘Peter’ remains an ‘apostle’ while the ‘apostles’ do have Peter as their head. Indeed, ‘papal infallibility’, that ability of the pope to proclaim what the faith is, cannot be understood apart from the faith of the college of bishops and so is intrinsically linked to the faith of the whole Church (and anything but an autonomous or private opinion).

greekorthWhat do other denominations make of all of this? Many non-Catholic Christians reject the entire notion of the papacy and its theological or biblical foundations. Closer to home, the Orthodox – whose bishops the Catholic Church does recognise as legitimate, sacramental bishops, of genuine apostolic succession – while not strictly or necessarily objecting to a place of honour for the Bishop of Rome among the world’s bishops, do not believe that the Bishop of Rome should have any juridical claim over a local bishop. In other words, they reject the idea that the Bishop of Rome can actually interfere with another bishop in the governance of his own diocese.

johnsgospelSo, to return to what I think has been a missed opportunity in recent weeks, what are the bases of the papacy in Catholic faith? The most basic approach is to reflect on the biblical warrant for the Petrine Office and to offer this in conversation to other Christians of goodwill. Specifically, how might we understand Peter’s role among the apostles, a role in the primitive Church that underpins, at least in part, Catholic faith on this subject?

The biblical and theological literature concerning Peter’s role in the early Christian community is vast and includes important contributions by Rudolf Pesch, Martin Hengel, Christian Grappe, Raymond Brown and the Australian theologian Gerald O’Collins.

The classic Scriptural texts which have been understood to establish Peter’s primacy among the apostles are well-known and have been well covered in apologetic debates. They are:

  • Matthew 16:18-19 (‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven) Note to conclave enthusiasts: This passage is traditionally read to the newly-elected Pope and cardinal-electors prior to the pontiff’s first appearance at the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica;
  • Luke 22:31-32 (‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers’)
  • John 21:15-18 (detailing Jesus’ repeated command to Peter, ‘feed my sheep’).

However, beyond these familiar texts, there are others which I think disclose Peter’s distinctive role and authority within the first community of disciples. We know, for one, that the Gospel of Mark was written not long after Peter’s martyrdom in Rome (c.60-70) and that it transmits the witness of Peter himself to Jesus’ life and ministry. This testifies to the importance of Peter’s witness for the early Church community.

Peter_the_apostleAs Gerald O’Collins avers, Peter stands out as well among the apostles as the first witness to the resurrection, and therefore one whose Easter faith and proclamation of that event is central to the Church’s life. This witness to the Risen Jesus is, as O’Collins points out, a much neglected dimension of the figure of Peter.

I suspect many Catholics would be surprised by this claim and would more likely name ‘Mary Magdalene’ as the first witness to the Risen Jesus and for good reason. After all, in all four Gospels she is present at the empty tomb. However, an empty tomb is not Jesus himself and Mary Magdalene is named as first witness to the Risen Jesus only in Matthew 28:1-10 and John 20:11-18.

The alternate, and likely earlier, tradition names Peter as the first witness to the Resurrection and can be found in St Paul’s writings which, of course, pre-date the four Gospels. In one of Paul’s letters to the community at Corinth we find an ancient formula (perhaps creed) which names Peter as first witness to Jesus risen from the dead. Paul writes,

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accord with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor. 15:3-8)   [My emphases]

Paul is clearly transmitting an already-existing tradition. This same Petrine tradition can be detected in Luke’s Gospel, on the road to Emmaus, where the evangelist emphasises that this ‘Emmaus’ encounter with the Risen Jesus is not the primary one. Luke writes of the disciples on the road,

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon (Peter)!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he has been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.   [My emphases]

It becomes apparent from such New Testament texts, in addition to reference to the ‘keys to the Kingdom’, Peter as shepherd of the flock and as the ‘rock’ on which the Church’s life will be supported, that ‘the fisherman from Bethsaida’ assumes a special leadership role among the apostles that was actual, grounded in his primary role as witness and messenger of Easter faith, and subsequently recognised in the writings of the early community of faith, that is, in its Scriptures as such.

sanpietropenitenteIt is interesting to note, as a final remark, that Peter’s leadership of the apostolic community is as a repentant sinner (cf. Luke 5:8, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’). Peter, of course, would go on to deny Jesus three times, a betrayal foretold. However, this ‘shadow side’ of Peter does not rule out his leadership but grounds his task of leadership in his own conversion and in service and proclamation of God’s love and compassion to others. Again, we hear Jesus’ words in Luke’s Gospel, expressing this exemplary role that Peter is to play in service of the Church’s faith as a whole, ‘I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers’ (Lk 22:32). St Peter emerges, as ever, an unworthy servant, entrusted to proclaim the plenitude and unity of faith in Him who first showed him mercy.

While the papacy has been subject to reform throughout the centuries, shaped not only by internal factors but also by the dramatic circumstances of the world, the continuity between the role of Peter among the apostles and the Pope among the college of bishops and the universal Church is a most positive and biblically-shaped principle of Catholic faith. While the reports on the conclave continue to roll in and as the announcement of a new ‘Peter’ looms, we remember the first Peter as leader, teacher, witness of Easter faith, repentant sinner, evangeliser and, above all, disciple to Christ who alone can ‘make all things’, including his Church, anew (Rev. 21:5).

the Spirit of the conclave

With the collegeofcardinalsconclave set to begin tomorrow (12 March), it is worth reflecting on one of the underlying themes of these past weeks, or one of the ‘issues under the issues’ as the historian John W. O’Malley would put it.

The  issue is the role of the Holy Spirit in the life and renewal of the Church. Of course, following Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication, it is the Spirit’s guidance of the Church in the election of a new pontiff that is at the heart of our prayer at present and for good reason.

As a religious and political institution, the papacy has shaped and re-shaped human history in innumerable ways both positive and notorious (compare the papacy of Gregory the Great in the sixth century and his historic mission to the people of Anglo-Saxon England, worshipping as they were ‘stocks and stones at the edge of the world’ to that of Benedict IX in the eleventh century whose election, the result of systematic bribery on the part of his father, brought only violence, debauchery and shame to the See of Peter).

This uneven history of the papacy and its influence on both the Church and world underlines the importance of the upcoming conclave and the Spirit-led discernment that calls to be exercised by the cardinalate.

The new pontiff will not only need to meet the challenge of the sexual abuse crisis, a scandal that continues to raze the credibility and mission of the Church globally, but also the plight of persecuted Christians in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, the yet-incomplete articulation and direction of ‘the new evangelisation’ aimed principally at the West, and the abiding issues of internal reform, including that of the Roman Curia, that call for address.

While it would be comforting and reassuring to assume that the Spirit’s direction will, and has been, a full triumph in the Church, history has told us otherwise. Indeed, on the subject of papal elections, the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made the following, now widely-publicised, remarks on the influence of the Spirit on such an occasion:

I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined . . .

The Cardinal went on to conclude with stark realism,

There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!

Erroneous decisions on the part of the Church, certainly not restricted to the realm of candidates for the Petrine Office, raise the question of the precise nature of the Spirit’s role in ecclesial discernment and decision-making for while Scripture affirms that the Spirit will indeed ‘guide us into all the truth’ (Jn 16:13) it ostensibly does not offer the community of disciples immunity from mediocrity or even calamity.

NTChurchCertainly, in the Acts of the Apostles the Spirit does appear to intervene at chosen moments in an immediate and decisive manner, leading the nascent Church towards what it should be and what it should do. For instance, we witness the power of the Spirit at Pentecost to bring about a reconciled diversity among Jesus’ disciples and later it is the Spirit who guides the Church into an embrace of the Gentiles, a decision which the apostles and elders attest as having ‘seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15:28). For Luke, the author of Acts, the power of the Spirit is at work, guiding and directing the early Church to its destination.

However, other New Testament texts, the dramatic history of the Church and our own personal experience suggest that the voice of the Spirit is not always so clear. The diverse manifestations of the Spirit as expressed in the New Testament communities (1 Cor. 12:28-31, Eph. 4:11-13, Rom. 12:6-8), while a profound gift to the Church, indubitably shape the later Johannine emphasis on the need of discernment to ensure that what has been received, experienced or testified is indeed truly of God. The First Letter of John, clearly acquainted with the experience of community discord, warns, ‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit but test the spirits . . . from this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error’ (1 John 4:1,6).

rubleviconIndeed, it is ironic that the subject of the Spirit, which ecumenical theology affirms as the principal of unity within the Church, has been at the root of some of the most significant divisions in the history of Christianity – the split of the East and West over the Spirit’s procession from the Father and/or the Son, and the Spirit’s relation to Scripture, tradition, and the sacraments including hierarchical ministry so bitterly contested at the Reformation.

What we can draw from this mixed history and the necessity of the Spirit’s discernment is that the gift of the Spirit – in all of its ‘elasticity’ as Cardinal Ratzinger puts it – does not so overwhelm the Christian that it alleviates or excuses them of the responsibility to evaluate, reflect and decide in faith but rather invites and even necessitates their active participation in that process of decision. This much is clear from the story of the primitive Church as described above (to open the Gospel of Christ to the Gentiles or to restrict proclamation of the Messiah to the House of Israel?)

In other words, the gift of the Spirit needs to be actively and constantly received by the community of the Church as it pilgrims through history, a ‘reception’ that involves the activities of listening, understanding, applying, and so truly ‘making one’s own’ the Spirit of faith and grace so that the community can be faithful to the person and message of Jesus.

The necessity of active human involvement in the Spirit-led decisions of the Church explains not only the emphasis of our tradition on being ‘docile’ to the Spirit (a spiritual tenet emphasised by Benedict XVI himself in his farewell address to the College of Cardinals) but also opens the real possibility for the non-reception of the Spirit by the Church community. This failure to heed the Spirit is evidenced not only in the grand crises and scandals of the past and recent history of the Church but also in the more ‘ordinary’, everyday failing of Christians to live the full meaning of their God-given discipleship.

The Australian theologian Ormond Rush concludes of the Church and the Spirit, ‘the human receivers of revelation are to be portrayed as active participants in discerning the way forward, co-deciders with God’s Spirit’ (cf. Rush, Still Interpreting Vatican II, 87). This ‘co-decision’ with God’s Spirit is a capacity and responsibility not simply of those who exercise authority in the Church but for the whole ecclesial body which shares the task of receiving the one Spirit, the ‘Spirit of Christ’ himself (Rom. 8:9), into its life, structures and decision-making.

CardinalsReturning to the impending conclave, though the abiding presence of the Spirit in the Church is that which ensures the Church a future as the ‘pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Tim. 3:15), it remains the task of the cardinal-electors, as individuals and as a college, to be open and receptive of the Spirit’s promptings in selecting ‘the first among the successors of the apostles’ to guide the Church into this future.

As for each and every Christian, what is essential to the cardinal’s reception of the Spirit is their own conversion for it is only in holiness that one can recognise the Spirit who is holy. There can be, then, no naïve self-complacency about those Spirit-led decisions which shape our life of faith, whether they are made in the splendour of the Sistine Chapel or the more familiar surrounds of our own dioceses and parishes with their own intimate concerns and hopes for the future. It is only our conversion that enables authentic discernment, a faithful recognition, of the Spirit of Truth as it calls us to respond. As the 14th century theologian Gregory of Sinai concludes, ‘the understanding of truth is given to those who have become participants in the truth – who have tasted it through living.’ We pray that the cardinal-electors will choose well and in good faith.