At my regular parish mass in Canberra on the Fifth Sunday of Lent just after the election of our new pope, I recall greeting the congregation with these words: 'Good evening. My name is Frank and I am a Jesuit. I've had a good week. I hope you have too.' I have been overwhelmed by the positive response by all sorts of people to the election of the first Jesuit pope. I have happily received the congratulations without quite knowing what to do with them, nor what I did to deserve them! It's still early days in his pontificate, but I think he has opened up a vast new panacea and not just for Catholics. Francis is theologically orthodox, politically conservative, comfortable in his own skin, infectiously pastoral, and truly committed to the poor. Of late, most thinking Catholics engaged in the world have wondered how you could possibly be theologically orthodox and infectiously pastoral at the one time, how you could be politically conservative and still have a commitment to the poor, how you could be comfortable in your own skin — at ease in Church and in the public square, equally comfortable and uncomfortable in conversation with fawning devotees and hostile critics. Think only of Francis's remark during the press conference on the plane on the way back from World Youth Day: 'If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge him?' Gone are the days of rainbow sashes outside Cathedrals and threats of communion bans.
As Francis says in last month's lengthy interview he did for the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica: 'We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are 'socially wounded' because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them.' In that interview he recalls:
A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: 'Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?' We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.
Here is a pope who is not just about creating wiggle room or watering down the teachings of the Church. No, he wants to admit honestly to the world that we hold in tension definitive teachings and pastoral yearnings — held together coherently only by mercy and forgiveness.
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.
If we are honest with ourselves, many of us have wondered how we can maintain our Christian faith and our commitment to the Catholic Church in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis and the many judgmental utterances about sexuality and reproduction — the Church that has spoken longest and loudest about sex in all its modalities seems to be one of the social institutions most needing to get its own house in order in relation to trust, fidelity, love, respect and human dignity. Revelations out of Melbourne and Newcastle and the pending national royal commission hearings leave us with heavy hearts especially about some of our local church leadership before 1996 but we do have a spring in our step that this new Pope, together with rigorous, independent legal processes (even in the face of much media pre-judgment) and local church commitments to transparency and solicitous care of victims, including the establishment of the Truth Justice and Healing Council, provide us with the structures and leadership necessary for 'cooperation, openness, full disclosure and justice for victims and survivors'. The chief Christian paradox is that we are lowly sinners who dare to profess the highest ideals, and that sometimes we cannot do it on our own — we need the help of our critics and the State. Our greatest possibilities are born of the promise of forgiveness and redemption, the hope of new life emerging from suffering and even death. Out of our past failings and our present shame can come future promise and hope.
Let's be in no doubt that the Australian Catholic Church needed help from the State and from civil society so that we might get our house in order in dealing with child abuse which had been occurring at a most unacceptable rate and which had been addressed in too incremental a way. The royal commission established by the Gillard government is a very cumbersome device for dealing with the matter within the Australian federation. The commission is going to need a new generation of political patrons even before it begins its public hearings. Its remit is impossibly broad. Like the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody it will pursue many tracks of academic research but the real test will be its capacity to provide satisfaction to victims and the reassurance to the community that institutional responses have been improved as best they might.
For the Catholic Church, this commission will continue to be a difficult exercise, in part because of the bias of some of the media and some of the key actors — for example, the Victorian Police Force whose performance before the Victorian parliamentary inquiry was a partisan disgrace providing a submission 'limited to comment regarding religious organisations, in particular the Catholic Church', and described by Peter O'Callaghan QC as 'plainly wrong and seriously misconceived', and Newcastle's Inspector Peter Fox who allowed his personal crusade to displace his usual obligations as a police officer. But over time, we should be confident that the truth will out. We should have faith that the individual commissioners and the commission's processes will accord natural justice to all, including the Catholic Church. We should accept that our processes pre-1988 were grossly deficient, and that pre-1996 we were on a steep learning curve, and that there are still lessons to learn. We should accept that the common law will be developed in Australia as it has been in Canada and the UK ensuring that the victims of child abuse in institutions will be able to claim the vicarious liability of those employers and institutional managers for the abuse perpetrated in circumstances where employees or religious personnel are standing in loco parentis and that employers will be personally liable for their failures adequately to screen, supervise and investigate staff who have ready access to children. It is high time for church employers and institutional owners to assure victims that they will have access to a nominal defendant backed by church resources for discharging direct and vicarious tortious liability for church personnel who should have done better.
Something crystallised for me at an appearance in March this year at the Opera House with the British philosopher A C Grayling, author of The God Argument, and Sean Faircloth, a US director of one of the Dawkins Institutes passionately committed to atheism. We were there to discuss their certainty about the absurdity of religious faith. Mr Faircloth raised what has already become a hoary old chestnut, the failure of Pope Francis when provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina during the Dirty Wars to adequately defend his fellow Jesuits who were detained and tortured by unscrupulous soldiers. Being a Jesuit, I thought I was peculiarly well situated to respond. I confess to having got a little carried away. I exclaimed: Yes, how much better it would have been if there had been just one secular, humanist, atheist philosopher who had stood up in the city square in Buenos Aires and shouted, 'Stop it!' The military junta would have collectively come to their senses, stopped it, and Argentinians would have lived happily ever after. The luxury for such philosophers is that they never have to get their hands dirty and they think that religious people who do are hypocrites unless of course they take the course of martyrdom. It's only as Church that I think we can hold together ideals and reality, commitment and forgiveness.
Before we canonise Francis too quickly, let's concede that he was a divisive figure in his home province of Argentina when was made Jesuit Provincial at the age of only 36. The Tablet in recent weeks has carried extracts from Paul Vallely's new book Pope Francis: Untying the Knots which includes the explosive email sent by one of the serving Jesuit provincials in another Latin American country when Bergoglio's election was announced in St Peter's Square. This Jesuit provincial wrote:
Yes I know Bergoglio. He's a person who's caused a lot of problems in the Society and is highly controversial in his own country. In addition to being accused of having allowed the arrest of two Jesuits during the time of the Argentinian dictatorship, as provincial he generated divided loyalties: some groups almost worshipped him, while others would have nothing to do with him, and he would hardly speak to them. It was an absurd situation. He is well-trained and very capable, but is surrounded by this personality cult which is extremely divisive. He has an aura of spirituality which he uses to obtain power. It will be a catastrophe for the Church to have someone like him in the Apostolic See. He left the Society of Jesus in Argentina destroyed with Jesuits divided and institutions destroyed and financially broken. We have spent two decades trying to fix the chaos that the man left us.
Like all of us, Francis has feet of clay; he is a sinner; there are things in his past that he regrets. As Francis himself now admits: 'My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults. That was a difficult time for the Society: an entire generation of Jesuits had disappeared. Because of this I found myself provincial when I was still very young. I was only 36 years old. That was crazy. I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself.' He is a man who has learnt much by his mistakes; he is a sinner who has grown and thrived through his experience of the Lord's mercy. As he says, 'My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative. I lived a time of great interior crisis when I was in Cordova. To be sure, I have never been like Blessed Imelda [a goody-goody], but I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems. I say these things from life experience and because I want to make clear what the dangers are. Over time I learned many things. The Lord has allowed this growth in knowledge of government through my faults and my sins.' What a Jesuit; what a Pope; what a man!
There are many things that his erstwhile critics regret. Having fallen out with many Jesuits in his home province, he enjoyed the favour of Pope John Paul II. There were tensions between him and Fr Pedro Arrupe, the Superior General of the Jesuits at the time of the Jesuit General Congregations which defined the Jesuit mission in terms of faith AND justice. The greatness of Francis has been in his capacity to transcend these differences and to be gracious even to those opposed to his viewpoints after many years of silence and isolation. It was very heartening for Jesuits of all stripes to learn of Francis's Mass at the Gesu Church in Rome on the Feast of St Ignatius on 31 July 2013. He visited the tomb of Pedro Arrupe. Just as he had mentioned Matteo Ricci and Karl Rahner in his earlier visit to the offices of La Civilta Cattolica, he mentioned Francis Xavier and Pedro Arrupe in his homily at the Gesu — each time linking an historic and contemporary figure, and each time the contemporary figure being one who had difficult relations with the Vatican from time to time. It's a long time since any Pope mentioned Karl Rahner or Pedro Arrupe in a positive light. In his homily for the feast of St Ignatius, Francis said:
I have always liked to dwell on the twilight of a Jesuit, when a Jesuit is nearing the end of life, on when he is setting. And two images of this Jesuit twilight always spring to mind: a classical image, that of St Francis Xavier looking at China. Art has so often depicted this passing, Xavier's end. So has literature, in that beautiful piece by Pemán. At the end, without anything but before the Lord; thinking of this does me good. The other sunset, the other image that comes to mind as an example is that of Fr Arrupe in his last conversation in the refugee camp, when he said to us — something he used to say — 'I say this as if it were my swan song: pray'. Prayer, union with Jesus. Having said these words he took the plane to Rome and upon arrival suffered a stroke that led to the sunset — so long and so exemplary — of his life. Two sunsets, two images, both of which it will do us all good to look at and to return to. And we should ask for the grace that our own passing will resemble theirs.
As Catholics we can bring God's blessings to all in our world, even those who have no time for our Church and not much interest in our Lord. Remember how Pope Francis ended his address to the journalists in Rome with a blessing with a difference. He said:
I told you I was cordially imparting my blessing. Since many of you are not members of the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I cordially give this blessing silently, to each of you, respecting the conscience of each, but in the knowledge that each of you is a child of God. May God bless you!
Now that's what I call a real blessing for journalists — and not a word of Vaticanese. Respect for the conscience of every person, regardless of their religious beliefs; silence in the face of difference; affirmation of the dignity and blessedness of every person; offering, not coercing; suggesting, not dictating; leaving room for gracious acceptance. These are all good pointers for us Catholics helping to form the Church of the 21st century holding the treasure of tradition, authority and ritual in trust for all the people of God, including your children and grandchildren, as we discern how best to make a home for God in our lives and in our world, assured that the Spirit of God has made her home with us.
We Catholics know that any spirituality worth its salt needs the buttress of authority, tradition, ritual and community. Many Catholics understandably have become so despairing of the Church or so entranced with the post-modern world, that they think they will just have to make do with a combination of homespun spirituality and a grounded secular commitment to justice. The American theologian Sandra Marie Schneiders puts it this way:
Postmodernity is characterized by fragmentation of thought and experience which focuses attention on the present moment, on immediate satisfaction, on what works for me rather than on historical continuity, social consensus, or shared hopes for a common future. In this foundationless, relativistic, and alienated context there is, nevertheless, often a powerfully experienced need for some focus of meaning, some source of direction and value. The intense interest in spirituality today is no doubt partially an expression of this need. Religion, however, especially the type to which Christianity belongs, presupposes a unitary worldview whose master narrative stretching from creation to the end of the world is ontologically based and which makes claims to universal validity while promising an eschatological reward for delayed personal gratification and sacrificial social commitment. In other words, the Christian religion is intrinsically difficult to reconcile with a postmodern sensibility. By contrast, a non-religious spirituality is often very compatible with that sensibility precisely because it is usually a privatized, idiosyncratic, personally satisfying stance and practice which makes no doctrinal claims, imposes no moral authority outside one's own conscience, creates no necessary personal relationships or social responsibilities, and can be changed or abandoned whenever it seems not to work for the practitioner. Commitment, at least of any relatively permanent kind, which involves both an implied affirmation of personal subjectivity and a conviction about cosmic objectivity, is easily circumvented by a spirituality which has no institutional or community affiliation. Clearly such a spirituality is much more compatible with a postmodern sensibility than the religion of any church, especially Christianity.
So here we all are at Spirituality in the Pub wrestling with the great paradoxes of modern life. Talk of 'a unitary worldview', 'a master narrative', 'universal validity', 'eschatological reward' seems so paradoxical — talk which is seemingly self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expressing a possible truth, all the more ineffable over a cleansing ale and amongst like-minded friends with a touch of cynicism about our local church hierarchy wondering where all this Francis business is leading or when it will end. I was dumbfounded the other night when I completed an interview on ABC PM about Francis's recent interview. The story ended with the observation by the reporter: 'PM contacted the Archbishops of Brisbane, Sydney and Tasmania, however all declined to comment.' Cardinal Pell issued a statement hosing down the excitement about Francis's interview. His statement commenced: 'Two paragraphs in Pope Francis' important 12,000 word interview have been the focus of particular attention. He also emphasised the importance of not taking issues out of context.' I was rather more taken with the statement released by Cardinal Dolan in New York affirming that Francis's interview 'confirms what has been apparent during these first six months of his papacy: that he is a man who profoundly believes in the mercy of a loving God, and who wants to bring that message of mercy to the entire world, including those who feel that they have been wounded by the Church. As a priest and bishop, I particularly welcome his reminder that the clergy are primarily to serve as shepherds, to be with our people, to walk with them, to be pastors, not bureaucrats!'
So many of our personal dealings within the Church are restricted by old time hierarchical and clerical notions. A while ago I wrote a lengthy letter to a bishop explaining why I disagreed with his public statements on same sex marriage and civil unions. He never even acknowledged the letter. Next time we met socially, it was a case of 'Don't mention the war.' It's clear. He's a bishop; I'm not. No correspondence will be entered into. How are we to formulate credible arguments in the square of a pluralistic democratic society when we don't even talk to each other? Then recently I was convinced by the secretariat of the bishops' conference to appear on television to discuss same sex marriage because none of the twelve bishops approached was available.
A broad church we need to be gentle, encouraging and accommodating of each other, as well as firm, demanding and accountable. You could hear it in the tension around the table the other night at Geraldine Doogue's ABC Compass dinner with Chris Geraghty, ex-priest and retired judge, and Mary Clare Meney, mother of nine and Co-ordinator of the National Association of Catholic Families, discussing why they are still Catholic. Here is some of the dialogue:
I love to just sit in the presence of the transcendent but I can't tell you — and I think this is the big challenge the church has now in this age of atheism — to tell the world something, anything, about God.
To put some kind of image on it. And my image comes from Jesus, who I regard as a deeply, deeply troubling religious person who challenged the society and who criticised it, who was countercultural, who was rebellious. He was really profoundly disturbing. He wasn't the sacred heart. He wasn't meek and mild. He was just an ordinary person and Mary his mother, was just an ordinary, fairly uneducated we think, teenager who accepted the grace of God.
And we've changed that into — excuse me but — our Lady of Lourdes for example. We're kind of surrounded by all this — I think — pagan paraphernalia.
Well I'm thinking Mary-Clare you would have some different needs to Chris wouldn't you?
Of course. It's not about needs. It's about the four kinds of prayer, which is about faith but it's also… we don't just talk to someone when we need something. Its love, adoration, petition, sorrow for our sins. We sin all the time.
No we don't! I do not
Well I do. Perhaps you don't. (laughs)
No. But you don't either.
Oh no, no. I've been told that before. I don't believe it. Sorry.
In his recent address to the Brazilian bishops, Pope Francis warned that we must not yield to the fear once expressed by Blessed John Henry Newman that 'the Christian world is gradually becoming barren and effete, as land which has been worked out and is become sand'. Francis said, 'We must not yield to disillusionment, discouragement and complaint. We have laboured greatly and, at times, we see what appear to be failures. We feel like those who must tally up a losing season as we consider those who have left us or no longer consider us credible or relevant.'
Francis drew upon one of his favourite gospel scenes, Luke's account of the disillusioned disciples on the Road to Emmaus failing to recognise the one who broke open the scriptures to them, then recognising him belatedly in the breaking of the bread:
Here we have to face the difficult mystery of those people who leave the Church, who, under the illusion of alternative ideas, now think that the Church — their Jerusalem — can no longer offer them anything meaningful and important. So they set off on the road alone, with their disappointment. Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas, perhaps the world seems to have made the Church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions; perhaps the Church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age.
Asking what then are we to do, Francis answers:
We need a Church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a Church capable of meeting them on their way. We need a Church capable of entering into their conversation. We need a Church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning.
Francis has shown us that our faith is about much more than Church and internal Catholic matters. Think just of his recent visits to Lampedusa and then to the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome. He has put a very strong challenge to the West about our treatment of asylum seekers — a challenge which hopefully will be heard even here in Australia by the very Catholic Abbott ministry as they consider turning back the boats.
Lampedusa continues to be a beacon for asylum seekers fleeing desperate situations in Africa seeking admission into the EU. Lampedusa is a lightning rod for European concerns about the security of borders in an increasingly globalized world where people as well as capital flow across porous borders. That's why Pope Francis went there on his first official papal visit outside Rome. At Lampedusa on 8 July 2013, Pope Francis said:
'Where is your brother?' Who is responsible for this blood? In Spanish literature we have a comedy of Lope de Vega which tells how the people of the town of Fuente Ovejuna kill their governor because he is a tyrant. They do it in such a way that no one knows who the actual killer is. So when the royal judge asks: 'Who killed the governor?', they all reply: 'Fuente Ovejuna, sir'. Everybody and nobody! Today too, the question has to be asked: Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters of ours? Nobody! That is our answer: It isn't me; I don't have anything to do with it; it must be someone else, but certainly not me. Yet God is asking each of us: 'Where is the blood of your brother which cries out to me?' Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: 'poor soul…!', and then go on our way. It's not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged. The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn't affect me; it doesn't concern me; it's none of my business!
Here we can think of Manzoni's character — 'the Unnamed'. The globalization of indifference makes us all 'unnamed', responsible, yet nameless and faceless.
Then on his recent visit to the Jesuit Church in Rome he said:
After Lampedusa and other places of arrival, our city, Rome, is the second stage for many people. Often — as we heard — it's a difficult, exhausting journey; what you face can even be violent — I'm thinking above all of the women, of mothers, who endure this to ensure a future for their children and the hope of a different life for themselves and their family. Rome should be the city that allows refugees to rediscover their humanity, to start smiling again. Instead, too often, here, as in other places, so many people who carry residence permits with the words 'international protection' on them are constrained to live in difficult, sometimes degrading, situations, without the possibility of building a life in dignity, of thinking of a new future!
Some of this sounds like politics! In one of his regular, rambling weekday homilies last month, Francis made it clear that the gospel and politics do mix. Reflecting on the centurion who asked healing for his servant, Francis said that those who govern 'have to love their people,' because 'a leader who doesn't love, cannot govern — at best they can discipline, they can give a little bit of order, but they can't govern.' He mentioned 'the two virtues of a leader': love for the people and humility. 'You can't govern without loving the people and without humility! And every man, every woman who has to take up the service of government, must ask themselves two questions: 'Do I love my people in order to serve them better? Am I humble and do I listen to everybody, to diverse opinions in order to choose the best path.' If you don't ask those questions, your governance will not be good. The man or woman who governs — who loves his people is a humble man or woman.' Francis insisted that none of us can be indifferent to politics: 'None of us can say, 'I have nothing to do with this, they govern. . . .' No, no, I am responsible for their governance, and I have to do the best so that they govern well, and I have to do my best by participating in politics according to my ability. Politics, according to the Social Doctrine of the Church, is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good. I cannot wash my hands, eh? We all have to give something!' He then became a little playful in his homily: ''A good Catholic doesn't meddle in politics.' That's not true. That is not a good path. A good Catholic meddles in politics, offering the best of himself, so that those who govern can govern. But what is the best that we can offer to those who govern?'. He concluded: 'So, we give the best of ourselves, our ideas, suggestions, the best, but above all the best is prayer. Let us pray for our leaders, that they might govern well, that they might advance our homeland, might lead our nation and even our world forward, for the sake of peace and of the common good.'
Our Catholic voice must be heard in season and out of season when it comes to laws and policies impacting on the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalised — the poor, the widow and the orphan. We must not be afraid to mix it in the world. It's not as if our Catholic tradition gives us fixed answers to all problems but it equips us with principles and a culture well suited to seeking the good, the true and the beautiful in any situation. We are called in the Ignatian tradition to find God in all things, and to discern God's presence in the life of every person. In the recent interview Francis said:
If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal 'security,' those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person's life. God is in everyone's life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person's life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.
And to cap it all off: on 17 September 2013, Francis was 'in attendance' in a simple white cassock, not presiding and not concelebrating, at the episcopal ordination Mass of the new papal almoner (the official distributor of alms), Archbishop Konrad Krajewski. Francis briefly put a stole around his neck and laid hands on the newly consecrated bishop. You could almost hear the episcopal gasps and see the shock of the liturgists and canon lawyers from here on the other side of the globe! Fasten your seat belts. We are in for an exciting ride with this Pope. He's happy to make mistakes. He's happy to go with the flow. But above all, he is so happy in his own skin and in his religious tradition that he exudes the confidence that comes only from knowing that he is loved and forgiven, and not from thinking that he is always right and has all the answers.
Our credibility as Church has been enhanced with this new pope. We see in him many of the finest aspects of our presently battered and ageing Church. In the end we will only be as credible in the public square as we are credible with each other — pilgrims on the way who take radically seriously Jesus and his call, together with our varied life experiences and authentic reflections on those experiences. We will only be credible as an institution if we and especially our leaders are seen to be attentive and respectful to the competencies and insights of others. Our Church is presently a strained, outdated social institution with a hierarchy and clergy even more male dominated than an Abbott Cabinet. But it is also the privileged locus for us to be called to the banquet of the Lord sharing theology and sacrament which have sustained the hearts and minds of similar pilgrims for two millennia.
Speaking with La Republica's Eugenio Scalfari this week, Francis shrugged off our minority status and present travails with this splendid summary of our mission which is the road back to credibility: 'We have to be a leavening of life and love and the leavening is infinitely smaller than the mass of fruits, flowers and trees that are born out of it. I believe I have already said that our goal is not to proselytize but to listen to needs, desires and disappointments, despair, hope. We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love. Be poor among the poor. We need to include the excluded and preach peace. Vatican II, inspired by Pope Paul VI and John, decided to look to the future with a modern spirit and to be open to modern culture. The Council Fathers knew that being open to modern culture meant religious ecumenism and dialogue with non-believers. But afterwards very little was done in that direction. I have the humility and ambition to want to do something.' Let's join him.
Having thrown off the shackles of compulsion endured by pre-Vatican II Catholics, we relish that we come to the table not because we are forced, not because of social expectations, not because of the mindset of the mob, but because we are graciously called and freely responding. Late on Saturday night, I received a text message from one of my nieces about her six year old son Liam. It read: 'Late night tonight with fireworks. Driving home now and tired Liam says, 'Mum if we sleep in, it's OK because we can miss mass. I noticed you don't need to book into it.' How right he is. You don't need to book, but all are welcome. It's good news for all, or at least that's what we believers tell ourselves in good faith. We're still trading. We have something to say and plenty to celebrate. Let's have another drink before Fr Elligate leads us in a final prayer.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University, and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. Frank presented the above talk for Spirituality in the Pub, Pumphouse Hotel, Fitzroy, Vic. on 2 October 2013.