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What Do Our Students Rightly Ask of Us, the Church who are Many Parts, One Body?

Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO

Sandhurst Diocese Catholic Secondary Education Conference
Notre Dame College, Shepparton

13 August 2004


Bishop Joseph Grech, Phil Billington, Audrey Brown, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Thank you for your welcome. I cannot claim all the credit for having brought the rain as I have just come from Stradbroke Island in Queensland where I was making my annual retreat in perfect beach weather conditions. Over breakfast, Bishop Grech opined that I must be very holy having just completed my retreat. All I can attest is that I am as holy as I am likely to be for the next year. I fear it is all down hill from here. Last night as I motored up the Goulburn Valley Highway I saw familiar place names en route, reminding me that I had taught boys named Quilty, Tehan, Hetherington and Connellan at Xavier College in 1980. I was a Form Four Maths master. I taught groups 3 and 6. Group 6 described themselves as the “Vege” Class. I never quite understood how this type of streaming was consistent with gospel values. But early in the year, I went to the Form Master to report that Simon Quilty in Group 6 knew as much maths as any boy in group 3. Perhaps he should be upgraded. The Form Master explained that Quilty had been placed in Group 6 at the outset because he had come from the bush that year. I developed a great sense of solidarity with Group 6. Early in the piece, I gave up trying to teach them much mathematics. But I used to deliberately use some big words trying to expand their vocabulary. There was only one boy in the class who never played up. Then one day I spotted him throwing a ruler across the room. I said, “Master Minahan, would you please pay at least a modicum of attention.” Then Matthew Vaughan a red head and one of twelve children as quick as a flash retorted, “Sir don’t be so bombastic.” The rest of the class was a write-off for me. Some days later, the deputy principal asked whether any authority had ever sat in on one of my classes. No. He thought he should attend my next class. Oh No, it was Form 4 Group 6 Maths. Class commenced. Every time I asked a question, up shot 22 hands: “Sir, Sir.” At the end of the class, the deputy principal left the room and one student called out, “You owe us one now, Sir.” That class taught me the sense of solidarity that can develop between students and teacher. That class also gave me the confidence to look at the world and the church from the student’s perspective and to try and answer their deepest yearnings. What do our students ask of us as Church and as educators?

Today I have been asked to reflect on your task as Catholic educators in solidarity with your students, in light of St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians when he says, “There is a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit; there are all sorts of service to be done, but always the same Lord; working in all sorts of different ways in different people, it is the same God who is working in all of them.” (1 Cor 12:4)

The Chairman of your School Education Board, Monsignor Peter Jeffrey, has said, “The task for educators and auxiliary staff in Catholic schools is to celebrate and challenge the culture of the young person in the light of the gospel. This is an activity that requires much discernment if we are to be faithful to the tradition and, at the same time, speak to the minds and hearts of our young people with a substantial programme of learning.” Our meeting this morning is one step in that discernment process. It is a great challenge. We should not be afraid of differences of perspective about how best to be Catholic educators of today’s young. Let’s be confident that there is a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit. Believing that the Spirit is alive and active in all, including our students, let’s seek answers to the question: What Do Our Students Rightly Ask of Us, the Church, who are Many Parts, One Body?

To assist you in your discernment as Catholic educators seeking answers to this question, while trying to celebrate with and challenge those in your classrooms, I offer this proposition: The Catholic school is the privileged place for taking us beyond our comfort zones, assuring us that the balance holds, and that beyond tolerance is truth which we know fully only through relationships of love. Let’s now unpack this proposition by listening to some of the things our students rightly ask of us as fellow church members who have the gift of being educators.

Take Us Beyond Our Comfort Zones

Recently, when preparing for a conference of teachers from Edmund Rice schools (what used to be known as Christian Brothers’ schools back in the days when they were teaching me in primary school) I had a look at Peter Nicholson's 2003 report "Beyond the Comfort Zone: A consultation with young adults involved in the Edmund Rice network throughout Australia" He observes:

On a cold Sunday morning in a bush setting south of Perth I listened to a group of young adults talking with great honesty and intensity about their lives. They spoke about their dreams, their hopes and their search for how best to live as human beings. They talked in way that me or my contemporaries could never have done. I asked how the Congregation of the Christian Brothers and the Edmund Rice network might help them.

Amongst the replies, not the first, were the words, take us beyond our comfort zone. All of us need to be taken beyond our comfort zone. That is where we find human growth and human authenticity. That is where we find love, justice and community. That is where we find hope for ourselves and our world. That is where we find our God. Jesus looked at the rich young man with compassion and invited him to move beyond the comfort zone of his current lifestyle.

Nicholson saw the task as finding for these young people "liberating ‘good news’ for their lives and their world." I happened to be staying with one of my sisters during that conference. Her son Ben is attending an Edmund Rice school. Ben's mother is a psychiatrist. She mused to me, "It is all very well for these boys to be taken into soup kitchens and to be given the opportunity to help street kids, but it is very sad when they come back to the school playground and bully each other." Maybe social justice begins in the school playground. Often the school playground is just as far beyond the comfort zone as the soup kitchen.

Help Us to Count Our Blessings Without Feeling Guilty

Last October, I was privileged to attend an international Jesuit meeting at Loyola in Spain, the birthplace of Ignatius Loyola whose great gift to the church was the discernment of which Monsignor Jeffrey speaks. Before the meeting, we were directed in a retreat by Howard Gray a spiritual guru from the United States. He told us that “Peace is born of serenity of soul, economic security, and political stability. Unlike many we have that.” I would add two other pre-conditions for that deep interior peace as well as absence of conflict of which he was speaking: cultural and religious resonance. For our students to know peace in our changing, complex world, they need to find some resonance with their elders and with some tradition and history affirming their religious instinct and experience, and grounding their cultural perceptions. In the world of the internet and CNN, they know that they are members of a global minority enjoying economic security and political stability. They are of a generation that knows the reality of youth suicide. Many of them are left wondering what it is that gives them serenity of soul while their classmate contemplates suicide. Our students are saying, “Help us to count our blessings without feeling guilty about them.”

Assure Us that the Balance Holds

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney has a poem Weighing In in which he says:

                                             Passive
Suffering makes the world go round.
Peace on earth, men of good will, all that
Holds good only as long as the balance holds.

Post September 11, much of our public discourse even in Australia speaks of terror and fear. Many of our teenagers come from very conflicted families. It is almost as if their world is in free fall. In pastoral situations we have all known people whose lives are in such an emotional whirl that they hardly know which way is up. They are flat out looking after themselves, let alone worrying about anyone else. But as church we constitute a community – a community in which there will always be some members who are in free fall, a community which will always be immersed in a world of conflict and division. The gift of being a member of a human community boasting a variety of gifts in the one Spirit is the company of members whose lives and example assure us, when we are ready to hear and see with the eyes of faith, that no matter what the turmoil of the time, the balance holds between us and God. In the traumatic moments of modern youth, our students seek the assurance that the balance holds.

Trust Us and teach Us to Form and Inform Our Consciences as We decide How to Act, how to Relate, and how to Love

In Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council reminded us that we have written within our hearts “a law written by God” and that we discover this law in the depth of our consciences. The bishops told us, “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of human beings where they find themselves alone with God, whose voice can be heard in their inmost being.” Taking the lead from the Vatican Council, many of us have espoused the primacy of the formed and informed conscience, arguing that the individual person is always obligated to follow such a conscience, seeking the truth which is that law written by God not by us. Some church leaders are troubled by a pastoral emphasis on the primacy of the formed and informed conscience. They think it possible for themselves to be more prescriptive in leading the laity to truth without the need for the laity to form, inform and follow their consciences. In May last year, our own Cardinal Pell who the Pope called from country Victoria to Sydney said:

In the past I have been in trouble for stating that the so called doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be quietly dropped. I would like to reconsider my position here and now state that I believe that this misleading doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be publicly rejected.

I am one of those church members who has strong reservations about Cardinal Pell’s approach to this issue. But that simply makes it more important that I try and understand what pastoral problems Cardinal Pell is trying to overcome by a style of teaching that I find incomplete in that it does not embody for me the fullness of the Catholic tradition. In June this year, Cardinal Pell delivered a lecture in Cambridge, England and said:

Naturally I accept the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and Veritatis Splendor on the crucial role of conscience for us all. However for some years I have spoken and written against the so-called “doctrine of the primacy of conscience”, arguing that this is incompatible with traditional Catholic teaching. Not surprisingly this has in turn provoked a number of hostile public criticisms and quite a number of letters from friends and acquaintances attempting to persuade me of the error of my ways.

Cardinal Pell explained that he has two concerns. First, he thinks that the primacy of conscience “is being used to justify what we would like to do rather than what God wants us to do”. But that is not what the primacy of conscience is about. Giving primacy to my formed, informed conscience, I am not able simply to do what I like and justify it. I must seek the truth in my complex situation and decide how to act in good conscience. In doing so, I may receive assistance from the declarations of church leaders. But then again, I may not. Just because some people wrongly construe the meaning of the primacy of conscience, that is no reason publicly to ditch the notion altogether. Cardinal Pell’s second concern is to ensure that the Church, like any other human community, be able to “limit the rights of its members to ‘err’ however error is defined”. Presumably he is suggesting that church authorities might want to excommunicate a person who claims to be acting in accordance with his or her formed, informed conscience. There are many Catholics of good will who would prefer to risk excommunication by a bishop of the day rather than going against their formed, informed conscience. Our own Blessed Mary MacKillop comes to mind.

Cardinal Pell is particularly concerned that those of us who advocate the primacy of the formed, informed conscience over against any declaration of a bishop or even the Pope, are selective in the scope we afford the individual in sexual matters while being prescriptive on matters of social justice and racism. He says:

It is interesting that few argue that if your conscience instructs you to be racist or weak on social justice issues, it is acceptable to be so. Primacy of conscience only appears with the sexual, or like, issues. This does look rather suspicious.

I would argue that it is very difficult for a person to claim that they are acting in accordance with a formed, informed conscience by being racist or weak on social justice issues. Those who are weak on social justice ought feel challenged to further form and inform their consciences when they pray, reflect on the scriptures and the church tradition and discern what the Lord is asking of them in their present social situation. It may be the case that we can be more prescriptive, rather than less, when we come to consider what ought the person with a formed, informed conscience do in a social justice situation rather than in a situation when sexual conduct is in question. All of us need to accept that the revolution in sexuality has left many people (especially young people) completely uninterested in the views of an all male, unmarried clergy. For example, I have been ordained almost 19 years and I have never had any person come to me in confession to talk about contraception. Rather than publicly ditching the primacy of the formed, informed conscience, we need to be doing more as a church community to discern what is a coherent sexual ethic for the layperson who in good conscience is wanting to live a life of committed love as Jesus asks. Cardinal Pell does issue the helpful disclaimer that his “thesis, about the centrality, power and limitations of personal conscience in no way implies that the directives or teachings of individual bishops must always be obeyed or accepted automatically”. He concedes that “these are sometimes, perhaps often contradictory.”

Cardinal Pell also confines his thesis to moral directives from competent church authorities. He says it does not apply to “any prudential non-moral directive e.g. to avoid discussion on the ordination of women.” But if the competent church authorities issue non-moral directives as well as moral directives, and if some of those non-moral directives are seen by many people, especially the young, as being most imprudent, do we not run even greater risks for individuals and the whole church community if we abandon our teaching about the primacy of the formed, informed conscience in favour of the primacy of the declarations of church authorities who may, in good faith, be so out of touch with some cultural groups in the twenty-first century as to insist that they ought not even discuss the ordination of women, when other churches have ordained women in vast numbers. My pastoral fear is that the public ditching of the primacy of the formed, informed conscience at a time when the pope and many bishops tell women they cannot even discuss the theological arguments about ordination regardless of gender will result in even more young people exempting themselves from church membership and participation long before the prelates limit their rights to err within the community.

The good news is that I share Cardinal Pell’s desire “to maintain the purity of Christian conscience as it is used to identify moral truths”. I just happen to prefer the pastoral approach of some other bishops and church leaders when working out how this might be done. For example, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, the Cardinal of Westminster takes a very different pastoral approach on conscience than did Cardinal Pell when he went to England in March. In his highly readable book At the Heart of the World, Cardinal O’Connor says:

The starting point for an understanding of the Christian concept of the ‘law within the heart written by God’ is a consideration of human happiness. What is the most likely to lead to human happiness and fulfillment? In addressing this question the Christian believer is, of course, proceeding from a conviction that human life, the universe and all it contains are gifts from the hands of a Creator who brought them into being and sustains them. The Christian also believes that the correct analogy for the relationship between this Creator and his creation is that of a loving Father and his children, and that the journey upon which these children are embarked is intended to lead them ultimately to a fuller life in God. To enable them to reach that goal God has given them, not a set of prohibitions but a map; and with that map the compass which we call ‘conscience’.

If we provide our Catholic graduates only with a rule book of “do’s” and “don’ts” issued by the bishops, we know that many of those graduates will throw the book in the bin very soon after their departure from the school. But if we can provide them with the map and the compass for life, there is a greater prospect that grace and the gifts of the Spirit will find fertile ground as these fresh graduates try to make sense of their adult lives in a complex world which throws up moral predicaments which many find irresolvable by reference only to a set of prohibitions.

Inspire Us and Console Us That There is such a thing as truth

Cardinal O’Connor, like Cardinal Pell, is very concerned to assist young people confronting the relativity of a world which denies the absolute reality of truth, beauty and the good. Cardinal O’Connor is impressed but troubled by Timothy Garton Ash’s description of his return to East Germany after reunification when he went to check up on the Stasi who spied on him previously. Because of the oppressive conditions even decent people would do the most dreadful things betraying their families and friends. Ash puts his faith in the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin who said that “to realize the relative value of one’s own convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian”.

But is that enough? Ash asks: “From what source can we derive those standards of right and wrong strong enough to challenge, if need be, the very system we have been brought up to accept as right and to counter the deep normative power of the given? Where to find the courage to defend those values ‘unflinchingly’, even to death, if we know all along that they are only relative?” Young people coming through our schools are as anxious as any of us are to be assured that not all is contingent. Cardinal O’Connor finds hope in Pope John Paul II’s observation: “you can’t live provisionally, you can’t die provisionally and you can’t love provisionally.”

Provide us with the Tools to Critique Our Society

Last weekend a group of 43 retired military chiefs, defence chiefs, intelligence chiefs, and diplomats issued an extraordinary statement urging: “A re-elected Howard Government or an elected Latham Government must give priority to truth in government.” It has got to the stage that these 43 could baldly state, “Australia was committed to join the invasion of Iraq on the basis of false assumptions and the deception of the Australian people.” Never before has Australia gone to war against the considered view of every significant church leader in the country. Our own Catholic bishops were unanimous in their statement prior to the Iraq War. They said:

With the Holy See and many bishops and religious leaders throughout the world, we believe that the strict conditions of Christian teaching for the use of military force against Iraq have not been met. In particular, we question the moral legitimacy of a pre-emptive strike. Indeed, any action against Iraq without broad international support and the mandate of the United Nations Security Council would be questionable.

Australian politics has got to the stage that anyone expressing dissatisfaction about this war is taken to be anti-Howard and pro-Latham. Some things matter much more than party politics. Despite the statements of our bishops, you know there are still many (perhaps even a majority) of Catholics who are prepared to leave questions about the morality and propriety of war to the Prime Minister. There are Catholics at the cabinet table who voted for war, against the view of our bishops, and who have continued to justify the war as if the view of our bishops counted for nothing. Is this a case of Catholic cabinet ministers exercising their own formed, informed consciences? Or is it a case of unformed, uninformed consciences which are so erroneous as to be immune to prodding even by the unanimous voice of our bishops?

If we were honest, we would admit that many of our fellow teachers and family members (and perhaps even ourselves) are now infected by the utilitarian mindset that says, “If the war succeeds, then it was right.” In public life we are now unconcerned about the morality of actions. We look only to outcomes. If the outcomes are good, we judge the political action and policy to be right, even if in some circumstances it is regrettable.

We have become such a callously utilitarian and isolationist society that we endorse a government that mandatorily detains children asylum seekers, with regret, on the basis that their detention might send a signal to others not to come here, thereby allowing us to offer places to other refugees judged to be in greater need.

Our young people want to know how we can discuss and determine what is right for us as individuals and as a nation. Does it depend only on outcomes? Or are there some principles which should always be followed? Even if utilitarianism is our only guiding star in public policy, we have become so disoriented in the post September 11 world that the Group of 43 have been able to claim: “Australia has not become safer by invading Iraq and now has a higher profile as a terrorist target.”

Invite Us to Participate in a Church that Speaks to Us of Life, Love, Mystery, Suffering, Death and Hope

Young people do not go to mass with the frequency that their parents did. Does that mean they have no interest in or commitment to a sacramental life in the church? Those of you from Bendigo Catholic College who were involved with the funeral for the Ervan family in the Bendigo Cathedral after the recent tragic car accident know how important the church is for families in these times of loss and crisis. Many young people want to participate in a church that speaks to them of life, love, mystery, suffering, death and hope.

Two weeks ago, I presided at the funeral of a 91 year old Australian Irish Catholic matriarch. She had ten children, one of whom predeceased her. She had 35 grandchildren, one of whom had predeceased her. Her number of great grandchildren is already in the double figures. She and her husband worked hard to provide all their children with a Catholic education. The funeral took place in the parish church where the whole family attended mass every Sunday. Preparing the funeral we sat around talking about the matriarch’s faith and piety. The family had to pray the rosary every night. There were regular sodality and parish activities. That is all gone. There has been much change over just three generations. But the Spirit is still alive and active. The children have all done well with the fruits of the good Catholic education. Most of them work in one of the respected professions. Many of their own children attend private schools other than Catholic schools. The latest generation is not so familiar with the responses at mass. They are not quite certain when to stand or when to kneel. But I have no doubt that this funeral Eucharist was a significant religious and sacramental event for most members of this extended clan. On such occasions, we priests realize that all is not doom and gloom in the contemporary church.

In my home parish in Sydney, we have recently had one parishioner undergoing a liver transplant. He had some unfortunate side effects after surgery. He and the worshipping community from the 6pm Sunday night mass group conducted the Mary MacKillop novena for his recovery. Last Sunday he attended mass and spoke to the congregation very appreciative of their prayers and support. He said, “Your prayers have been answered. I am just so grateful to you and to God. Even if the prayers had not been answered I would still be very grateful.” The faith and piety of our young people need to find expression in our liturgies.

At any baptism, there is a family story of faith and perseverance. Parents and grandparents always have a story which can be evoked as a celebration of God’s love and action in the world. Young people can be very bored observers and very keen participants, in liturgy as in life.

Teach Us to Engage in respectful Dialogue in Our Church and in Our Society

Young people know there is plenty that is wrong with our church and with our world. They know that much is in flux. There are fewer tried and tested sure answers. As they test out new options and solutions to life’s problems, they want to find a way of engaging in respectful dialogue so that those with different perspectives can receive a respectful hearing and contribute to a wiser approach to life in community. I have highlighted in this address that I have a difference of approach from Cardinal Pell on the question of conscience. What matters is that the difference of approach does not take away from our communal attempt to discern the greatest good for the members of the believing community. With respectful dialogue, we can all come to a better understanding of the truth. We can be pastorally more efficacious. The Catholic Church is now the most hierarchical institution of which any of us are likely to be members. With our egalitarian sentiment, we are likely to be disappointed at the prospect of respectful dialogue. However the sexual abuse crisis in the church has highlighted to everyone, including the bishops, that they do not have all the answers. Together we can constitute a church more universal and more Catholic. Young people do not want only to be told what to do and what to believe. They are more likely to listen if they think they are being heard, respectfully.

Put Everything in the Context of Love

In his book I Call You Friends, Timothy Radcliffe OP who was world leader of the Dominicans says:

The moral teaching of the Church should never consist in telling people that they should not love someone. It should only invite them to love better. There is no human love that is not in need of healing, which does not need to be led to maturity and fullness….If we wish to show that the Church’s moral teaching is good news, we have to be with people, enter their homes, enjoy their friendship. We have to understand how they see the world, learn what they have to teach us, see through their eyes, grow in mutual trust. God’s friendship with the human race is the very heart of the gospel. So we cannot express our deepest moral convictions except in a context of friendship.

As friends in the Lord, you teachers can provide your students with the map and compass for the way of love and justice, rather than a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” which they will confine to the waste bin the moment they walk out the school door. If you give them what they rightly ask of you as Church, together we might all glory in the grace of a renewed church, from generation to generation. “Working in all sorts of different ways in different people, it is the same God who is working in all of them.” I hope I have taken you a little beyond your own comfort zone, assuring you that the balance holds, and that beyond tolerance is truth which we know fully only through relationships of love in the community which is Church.

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