Year of Mercy's opportunity for Aboriginal reconciliation

Lenten Talk, Norwood Parish, 3 March 2016

Last December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, we commenced an extraordinary year of Jubilee in the Church — the Year of Mercy, commencing on the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, and following immediately upon the synod on the family. Pope Francis entitled his papal bull instituting this year of mercy Misericordiae Vultus — i.e. the face of mercy. He states: 'Jesus Christ is the face of the Father's mercy'.

As we have come to expect of Francis, the document contains a mix of considered theology, folksy insights, traditional piety and a touch of humour, including the observation, 'May confessors not ask useless questions'. He's obviously had the occasional bad confessor in his time. As with all Jubilee Years, the pope opened the Holy Door at St Peter's. But he wants every cathedral in the world to open a holy door, and for shrines and other churches to do the same. He is all in favour of pilgrims travelling to enter the holy door, reviewing their lives, confessing their sins and seeking God's favour. But he sees no need to restrict the favour to those who can afford to get to Rome. He even resurrects the idea of indulgences. And he invokes the Polish saint Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938) who was canonised by her fellow countryman John Paul II. I must confess Francis loses me when he says, 'There will be priests to whom I will grant the authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See'. I think there is a fair bit of canonical gobbledygook in all of that. There is a range of sins reserved to the Holy See in the Code of Canon law, including the use of physical force against the pontiff (Can. 1370).

The Holy Door is 'a Door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons and instills hope'. The Cambridge church historian Eamon Duffy notes, 'It is a welcoming door through which all in need may enter, but also a door from which the Church must go out to proclaim mercy to all.' Francis asks us to reach out to those in need: 'May we reach out to them and support them so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship, and our fraternity!  ...  Together may we break down the barriers of indifference that too often reign supreme and mask our hypocrisy and egoism!'

On indulgences, Eamon Duffy says:

The theology of indulgences is nowadays barely intelligible to most Catholics. Its root was the belief that even after sins were forgiven by repentance, confession and absolution, they left behind a kind of spiritual scar tissue, a burden of debt or 'temporal punishment' that had to be discharged by acts of penance or good works.

Whatever of holy doors, indulgences, and forgiveness of sins reserved to the Holy See, I think Francis is most concerned to have us move our focus from justice to mercy in the year ahead.

In 1983, Jorge Bergoglio SJ was one of the delegates at the 33rd General Congregation of the Jesuits. This congregation was an historic event for us Jesuits. Pope John Paul II had previously suspended the Jesuit Constitutions and nominated his own Delegate Fr Paolo Dezza SJ to take charge of the Jesuits when Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ, the very charismatic Superior General, was laid low by a crippling stroke in 1981. Had the pope not intervened, an American Fr Vincent O'Keefe SJ, viewed by Rome as a 'liberal', would have taken over the interim administration of the Jesuits. After two years, the pope thought things were sufficiently stable for the Jesuits to convene a congregation to elect a new superior general. Fr Peter Hans Kolvenbach SJ was elected on the first ballot. A clear course was set for the future.

I had joined the Jesuits in 1975 just as the previous 32nd General Congregation (GC32) was concluding. Pedro Arrupe was at the height of his powers. That Congregation had asked the question: 'What is it to be a companion of Jesus today?' The Congregation answered unequivocally and very simply, 'It is to engage, under the standard of the Cross, in the crucial struggle of our time: the struggle for faith and that struggle for justice which it includes.' I have always regarded myself as a GC32 Jesuit, committed to the practice of the faith in the Church and to advocacy for justice in the world — 'the faith that does justice'. Many of those who gathered for GC33 thought that the GC32 mission was a little too one-dimensional. I suspect Bergoglio was one of those. The Congregation quoted no less an authority than Arrupe who once noted that the reading of GC32 had at times been 'incomplete, slanted and unbalanced'. GC33 noted, 'We have not always recognised that the social justice we are called to is part of that justice of the Gospel which is the embodiment of God's love and saving mercy.' We Jesuits were called to proclaim, enact and live out God's love and saving mercy. GC33 insisted that 'neither a disincarnate spiritualism nor a merely secular activism truly serves the integral Gospel message'. The tension between justice and mercy has been an abiding concern of Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.

Those GC33 Jesuits who thought the GC32 insistence on a faith that does justice was too one-dimensional had found support in Pope John Paul II's 1980 encyclical letter Dives in Misericordia. Looking to the Old Testament, John Paul insisted that 'love is greater than justice'; 'love conditions justice'; and 'justice serves love'. Reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan, John Paul said, 'Love is transformed into mercy when it is necessary to go beyond the precise norm of justice — precise and often too narrow.' Asking 'Is justice enough?', John Paul said, 'The experience of the past and of our own time demonstrates that justice alone is not enough, that it can even lead to the negation and destruction of itself, if that deeper power, which is love, is not allowed to shape human life in its various dimensions.' He lamented 'the attempt to free interpersonal and social relationships from mercy and to base them solely on justice.' John Paul thought that Christian mercy was the most perfect incarnation of equality between people. Comparing both the equality produced by justice and by mercy, he said, 'The equality brought by justice is limited to the realm of objective and extrinsic goods, while love and mercy bring it about that people meet one another in that value which is man himself, with the dignity that is proper to him.' For John Paul, 'Mercy has the power to confer on justice a new content, which is expressed most simply and fully in forgiveness.'

Jubilee years are usually held at the end of a century. Our last ordinary Jubilee Year was 2000. One of the notable elements of that jubilee was the admission by our church leaders that we the Church needed forgiveness for our failings as Church. Gone were the days of painting the Church as the spotless bride of Christ, a perfect society. For example on 7 March 2000, the Australian Catholic Bishops published a Statement of Repentance noting, 'Since the Church is made up of human beings, it is always vulnerable to sin and error'. Our bishops admitted: 'When confronted with sexual abuse, and abuse of authority generally, we did not always respond appropriately, and many people suffered serious harm.' A week later, Pope John Paul II offered a confession of sins and request for pardon in St Peter's Basilica on the first Sunday of Lent. One of the prayers offered was 'for all the men and women of the world, especially for minors who are victims of abuse, for the poor, the alienated, the disadvantaged'. John Paul prayed:

God Our Father, you always hear the cry of the poor. How many times have Christians themselves not recognised you in the hungry, the thirsty and the naked, in the persecuted, the imprisoned, and in those incapable of defending themselves, especially in the first stages of life. For all those who have committed acts of injustice by trusting in wealth and power and showing contempt for the 'little ones' who are so dear to you, we ask your forgiveness: have mercy on us and accept our repentance. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

In the wake of the appalling revelations at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse this past week in the diocese of Ballarat and in the archdiocese of Melbourne, we are even more in need of praying this prayer.

Following the lead of his predecessor, Francis published Misericordiae Vultus on the second Sunday of Easter last year, the Sunday proclaimed by John Paul as the Sunday of Mercy. Francis notes, 'The temptation, on the one hand, to focus exclusively on justice made us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensable step.' He calls us to move beyond justice to mercy, love and forgiveness. He knows that mercy is not a popular idea in present public discourse. He says that 'we must admit that the practice of mercy is waning in the wider culture. In some cases the word seems to have dropped out of use. However, without a witness to mercy, life becomes fruitless and sterile, as if sequestered in a barren desert.' He compares God and man, mercy and justice:

If God limited himself to only justice, he would cease to be God, and would instead be like human beings who ask merely that the law be respected. But mere justice is not enough. Experience shows that an appeal to justice alone will result in its destruction. This is why God goes beyond justice with his mercy and forgiveness.

Francis is convinced that 'to live the indulgence of the Holy Year means to approach the Father's mercy with the certainty that his forgiveness extends to the entire life of the believer.'

Justice, mercy and forgiveness are ideas not limited to the religious domain. Neither are they limited only to personal action in the private sphere. People in public life have to consider justice, mercy and forgiveness. Those occupying positions of public trust have to administer justice, mercy and forgiveness in the name of the people and as agents of the state.

I had cause to wonder what was the conceivable public relevance of the fine distinctions drawn by John Paul and Francis when listening to our Australian ex-prime minister Tony Abbott delivering the Margaret Thatcher oration late last year. He told his UK Tory audience: 'Justice tempered by mercy is an exacting ideal as too much mercy for some necessarily undermines justice for all.' Mercy for one never undermines justice for others. We can be committed to providing each their due, providing justice for all, while then being able to offer mercy only to some. Even if mercy be selectively shown, an inequitable distribution of mercy does not undermine justice for all. I can be committed to justice for all and then to mercy only for those proximate to me. So too a government or a group.

Let's recall Portia's great plea to Shylock for mercy in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (Act 4, Scene 1):

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.

In his Thatcher Oration, Tony Abbott eloquently said: 'Implicitly or explicitly, the imperative to “love your neighbour as you love yourself” is at the heart of every Western polity. It expresses itself in laws protecting workers, in strong social security safety nets, and in the readiness to take in refugees. It's what makes us decent and humane countries as well as prosperous ones'. But then he went badly off the rails with his observation that 'right now — this wholesome instinct is leading much of Europe into catastrophic error.' The gospel imperative of love of neighbour is not just an instinct; it is an injunction by our Lord and Saviour. Those of us who exercise public office know that we will be called upon to discharge a public trust which often fails to extend love or mercy to all who are our neighbour. Each of us must ultimately give an account of ourselves, not just to the electorate for the exercise of the public trust but to our Lord and Saviour for the conduct of our lives, including public service. Of course, there may be extra considerations to apply when determining whether a public official can show mercy and not just apply justice, even should he be minded to show mercy in his own private dealings or even if she should desire to show love in her own personal relationship with the person subject to her exercise of state power.

It was very arresting to hear the French President Francois Hollande after the Paris terrorist attacks and on the eve of the Year of Mercy proclaim: 'My dear compatriots. What happened last night in Paris, and in Saint Denis by the Stade de France, is an act of war. France, because it was attacked cowardly, shamelessly, violently, France will be merciless against the barbarians of Daesh. It will act with all the means, within the Law, with all the means necessary.' Obviously one cannot show mercy except to those who admit wrong, offer just recompense, and seek forgiveness. And it is very unlikely that any member of Daesh would admit wrong, let alone offer recompense and seek forgiveness. But what if one of them did? Even if the French president was powerless to offer mercy, might mercy be shown by a wronged relative or wounded victim from the attacks? There is no point in offering mercy to the person who does not seek it and who sees no need to seek it. Forgiveness can only be granted if it is sought. Were someone to say to us, 'If I ever want your forgiveness I will ask for it', we would need to concede that such a conditional statement restricts the relationship to formal justice unless and until the other is open to love, forgiveness and mercy.

The crisis of child sexual abuse in our society, from which our Church is by no means exempt, has required that our institutional procedures be more transparent and that we learn from the ways of the world in exercising power openly and justly. This means we have to restructure some of our church arrangements so that power is exercised accountably and transparently. All of us who have positions of influence and power in institutional churches need to be attentive to the voices of those who have suffered within our institutions. Late last year during the royal commission's case study into the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Julie Stewart a victim of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest (the dreadful Fr Searson) gave evidence. Making her opening statement, she concluded with these words (Transcript 13253-4):

I still cry for the little girl I once was. The little girl that never got to be a normal little girl, doing all the things that little girls should do. The little girl who always just wanted to fit in, but always felt like a weirdo, like a problem. Nothing can ever give that back to me. It is a life sentence, and every day I make a choice to keep going.

It is important to me to tell my story now, because I want peace for myself. I want peace for Mr Sleeman [the school principal who fought to have the dreadful abuser Fr Searson dismissed]. I've got kids and I want to be a voice. I want people to know that this happened. I'm not ashamed anymore, and I no longer blame myself. I will no longer be a victim. My name is Julie Stewart.

We need to express our gratitude as well as our sorrow to those like Julie Stewart who have courageously come forward helping us all to understand, and reminding us what we truly profess in the name of Christ. I was at the royal commission this morning and I was very privileged to meet Mr Sleeman who then introduced me to his wife. Mr Sleeman was the big bold courageous school principal who resigned when the church authorities refused to remove Fr Searson from the path of children in Mr Sleeman's care. For his stand on principle, he was never offered another job. He and his wife now eke out an existence adjisting cattle on a lease in Queensland.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has highlighted the scandal and damage of church structures which fail to comply with community expectations of transparency and accountability. This past week, we have heard evidence from Cardinal Pell about the systemic failures of clergy to remove children from harm's way. All it would have taken was for one priest or bishop in the know to stand up as did Mr Sleeman and say, 'Enough is enough'. Earlier in this case study, we heard evidence from senior clergy in the Melbourne Archdiocese attesting that they could do nothing to remove a mad, nasty, gun-toting, abusing priest from a parish with a primary school because the archbishop saw no need to act, and those under him saw no purpose in trying to take any further action once the archbishop had decided not to act. Mr Sleeman, the school principal with six children resigned in despair and they refused to offer him another job. The faithful won't stand for this any longer; neither will the community; and neither will the state. The clericalist culture and a hierarchy accountable only up the line and never down have to be consigned to the ecclesiastical trash bin. The structures must be reformed, the culture must be changed, and the relationships put on a more equal footing if the Church is to be an institution marked by justice, love, forgiveness and mercy. We cannot jump to love and mercy without first attending to the demands of justice, including structural changes. Let's remember that Francis says:

Yet this does not mean that justice should be devalued or rendered superfluous. On the contrary: anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price. However, this is just the beginning of conversion, not its end, because one begins to feel the tenderness and mercy of God. God does not deny justice. He rather envelops it and surpasses it with an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice.

We have three options for life. We can be primarily self-interested, seeking wealth, power and honours in our own comforted isolation. Or we can live according to the norms of justice, law, order and fairness. That way, we will always be prepared to meet the other half way, not going any further. We will be prepared to accord each their due, but not giving any more of ourselves. Or we can live with a commitment to relationships with God and our neighbour marked by mercy, forgiveness and love.

If nothing else in this jubilee year, let's address and overcome that temptation 'to focus exclusively on justice (making) us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensible step'. Let's joyfully make those additional pilgrim steps through the door of mercy seeking and providing love and forgiveness for all who seek it.

The abiding tragedy of the Church's proclamation of mercy and reconciliation is that even a pope as pastoral as Francis is hamstrung when it comes to the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The communal aspect of his teaching leads naturally to a resuscitation of the third rite of reconciliation. But the majority of our bishops abhor the third rite or see no point in arguing for it, even though without it, the sacrament is almost dead and irrelevant in the regular experience of ordinary Catholics. So we can but give notional assent to Francis's call that we 'place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the centre once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God's mercy with their own hands. For every penitent, it will be a source of true interior peace.' The third rite would extend this experience to millions of Catholics who will never again regularly darken the door of a confessional. But episcopal constraints mean that we will step through the door of mercy this year without most of us experiencing the sacramental gift of reconciliation, forgiveness and mercy. Imagine if we were to invite people to enter the door of mercy and to avail themselves of the third rite of reconciliation then being missioned as the community of God's forgiven people to depart through that door of mercy to proclaim good news to the world. For that, we will have to wait for yet another jubilee year. Imagine if this night it were possible for Cardinal Pell and the Ballarat victims gathered in Rome to process together through the door of mercy. Because that remains so unimaginable might help to explain why so much of our liturgy still seems sterile and boring and so much of the appearance of our leaders at the royal commission leaves us feeling hollow and disempowered, wondering how we might ever move beyond the pleas of self-justification and the litany of excuses for failures to see, respond and act.

I conclude with a useful checklist which Francis elaborates when reflecting on the ever familiar Mt 25:31-45 where the king separates out those who have done the smallest thing for the least person, answering their query, 'In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it to me':

We will be asked if we have helped others to escape the doubt that causes them to fall into despair and which is often a source of loneliness; if we have helped to overcome the ignorance in which millions of people live, especially children deprived of the necessary means to free them from the bonds of poverty; if we have been close to the lonely and afflicted; if we have forgiven those who have offended us and have rejected all forms of anger and hate that lead to violence; if we have had the kind of patience God shows, who is so patient with us; and if we have commended our brothers and sisters to the Lord in prayer.

Called to be credible witnesses of mercy, we join our prayer with the whole Church this night invoking the Psalmist: 'Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.' (Ps 25:6)

When launching the Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis urged those entering the Door of Mercy to walk with their eyes open to the problems of the world:

Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help! May we reach out to them and support them so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship, and our fraternity! May their cry become our own, and together may we break down the barriers of indifference that too often reign supreme and mask our hypocrisy and egoism!

Those of us availing ourselves of the grace offered during the Year of Mercy, especially during Lent, have the opportunity to encounter God's mercy not just individually but also communally. As individuals, we may find that our experience of the Year of Mercy is enhanced by the opportunity to pray with others and to walk through a Door of Mercy together with others. Those others might include family and loved ones, fellow parishioners, fellow teachers and students, and fellow Jesuits. They might also include persons who have wronged us or from whom we have been previously estranged. Persons who have been in previous conflicts or persons affected by historical grievances might find fruit and consolation in walking through a Door of Mercy together and praying together for mercy, justice, recognition and reconciliation. They might include the victims of past abuse and representatives of our church hierarchy.

On his last two visits to Latin America, Pope Francis has particularly focused on past and present relationships between indigenous peoples and their colonisers. In Bolivia, he said: 'Many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.  ... Together with the request for forgiveness and in order to be just, I also would like us to remember the thousands of priests and bishops who strongly opposed the logic of the sword with the power of the Cross.' He might also have included the religious sisters and brothers, and many laypeople who laboured hard on outback missions. More recently in Mexico, he said to the assembled indigenous peoples:

You have much to teach us! Yet, on many occasions, in a systematic and organized way, your people have been misunderstood and excluded from society. Some have considered your values, culture and traditions to be inferior. Others, intoxicated by power, money and market trends, have stolen your lands or contaminated them. How sad this is! How worthwhile it would be for each of us to examine our conscience and learn to say, 'Forgive me!' Today's world, ravaged as it is by a throwaway culture, needs you!

Perhaps it could be a blessed moment for Aboriginal Australians and descendants of their colonisers to walk together through the Door of Mercy here at the St Francis Xavier Cathedral, calling to mind the sins and endeavours of the past, the achievements and commitments of the present, and the hopes and aspirations of the future. Together we might emerge through a smoking ceremony on the far side of the Door of Mercy asking God's mercy and recommitting ourselves to justice, recognition and reconciliation for all.

As we come to Easter might we greet the Risen Lord on the road to Emmaus recalling that our hearts burn within us when we experience God's mercy and His saving justice.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ

Topic tags: Fr Frank Brennan, Lenten Talk, Norwood Parish, 3 March 2016, Year of Mercy


 

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