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2005 Social Justice Sunday Statement
of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference

"The Resurrection"
by Lyn Constable Maxwell

Jesus, Light for the World
Living the Gospel Today

Response by Patty Fawkner SGS*
14 September 2005

As I begin I acknowledge the Cameraigal people, the traditional custodians of this land and also acknowledge that this is a sacred site for the Sisters of St. Joseph.

This is a fine document. The first thing you notice is that it breaks the mould of previous statements where the starting point has been a specific justice issue per se. The starting point of this statement is a person, one Jesus of Nazareth. It says that light streams from what Jesus says and does, enlightening whatever issue we’re confronted with, and enlightening our response to that issue.

It also breaks the mould of many church documents with their eye-glazing, sleep-enducing style and language. Not so this one. It’s user-friendly, written in a style that’s lively and accessible. It’s a good read.

It’s also women-friendly. In language, image, content and example this would be the most inclusive [of women] Church document I’ve ever read – I have a natural radar for such things!

We’re given examples of wonderful Gospel women who recognise the light in Jesus and he in them. It presents Jesus as he aches over Jerusalem, using the feminine image of himself as a mother hen wanting to gather her brood.

It offers us Mary MacKillop and Teresa of Calcutta as women who offer light and hope to the poor. And just before you think how predictable to highlight two would-be, possibly soon-to-be, saints, it gives a refreshing example of women who are “no less witnesses to the light of Christ”. In a moving account (for my money, it’s the best part of the document) an Australian bishop tells of his admiration for the women he sees when his visits gaol, the wives and girlfriends of prisoners who line up week in, week out to visit their partners. The bishop recognises the light of Christ in these women whom he says on the surface appear to be a pretty rough lot. He appreciates them for their fidelity, their non-judgmental attitude, their loving devotion.

This is no document of mere pious exhortation. It’s not all theory and no action. It addresses global issues but suggests practical, personal responses. It says the world is not out there. It’s within a few feet of us at any given time.

And this world is out of balance. It’s infected with two toxic diseases – a culture of waste and a culture of busyness, both borne of what Clive Hamilton calls “affluenza”, a disease that blinds our capacity to see with just eyes.

The statement tracks the consumerist cycle. We build, we buy, we use and discard. And the waste cycle. We build, we buy, we don’t use and still we discard. Last year Australians threw away $5.3 billion in unused food, 13 times the amount we donated to overseas aid agencies.

I couldn’t help but notice that this is the antithesis of that movement of the Eucharist where, instead of building, buying, using and discarding, we take, we bless, we break and give the Body of Christ, and are called to take and bless and break and give our own lives as Christ’s disciples. The Statement has a wonderful understanding of the social justice dimension of the Eucharist. It quotes John Chrysostom, whose feast as we know, was yesterday: “Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked”. This statement is saying what Pedro Arrupe, the former Father General of the Jesuits said, that love of Christ without a commitment to justice is a contradiction in kind.

I reckon I do o.k. – of course I could do better – in combating a culture of waste. I thank my penny-careful mother for that! I don’t do so well with the culture of busyness. Thomas Merton pulls no punches about the ravages of too much busyness:

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence. To allow oneself to surrender to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence…The frenzy of the activist destroys our own inner capacity for peace.

This statement is richly peopled. One of the lovely examples it gives is of the monks and nuns living in the desert monasteries. Pilgrims and the poor would come to the monastery door where they were invariably met with warm hospitality. To the visitor the doorkeeper was Christ. Yet to the monks and nuns, the visitor was Christ.

I am a Good Samaritan Sister and just like the monks and nuns of old, we follow the ancient Rule of St. Benedict. Benedict spends a lot of time in his little Rule saying how guests are to be treated. One chapter begins:

At the door of the monastery place a wise old monk who knows how to listen to people and also how to speak to them; his age should keep him from roaming about. [Benedict is invariably practical!] As soon as anyone knocks, or a poor person calls out, the porter replies, “Thanks be to God!”

I love this: As soon as anyone knocks, as soon as anyone interrupts me, as soon as the poor make a claim on me, I’m to reply “Thanks be to God!” What a challenge! When Asylum Seekers knocked on the doors of our borders with a legitimate right to seek asylum, did we say “Thanks be to God”? When we have a noticeable increase in the Muslim population in our community, is our response, “Thanks be to God”? When gays and remarried divorcees knock on the sacramental doors of our Church, is it “Thanks be to God” or do they receive another message?

The hospitality offered by the ancient monasteries, was about making room for the other. This Statement endorses a hospitality which says. “Come right in and disturb our perfect lives. You – whoever you may be – are the Christ for us today.”

Any Statement worth it’s salt is going to pull us up and prompt us to ask questions of ourselves and also to ask questions of it. There are a number of sections of this statement that make me say, “Yes, but” or “Yes, and”.

For example. The Statement acknowledges the fortieth anniversary of the landmark document, Gaudium et Spes. It commends the bishops of Vatican II for raising a number of issues that needed urgent action – three in particular: the appeal of the hungry to the wealthy, the cry of workers, and the claims of women to equality.

I say, yes but, aren’t these three issues as acute today as they were forty years ago?

Yes, we’re engaged in the Make Poverty History campaign, but are we really any closer to realising that goal? The UN World Summit begins in New York today. This summit will sorely test the resolve of wealthy nations to meet the Millennium goal of halving the number of people who survive on less than $1 a day. It seems that politicking and bickering between wealthy nations will scuttle this goal. Didn’t Hurricane Katrina expose the shame of America’s hidden poor and show us that it is the poor who suffer most and are left behind when tragedy strikes?

Yes, and it was good to hear Prime Minister Howard promising to almost double Australia’s aid in the Asia/Pacific region. But stay tuned for Uniya’s research into the mutual obligation of Pacific aid and the attached strings of Australia’s vested self-interest.

Yes, and what are we to make of the cry of workers today in regard to Industrial Relations Reform? Are we to agree when the Prime Minister says that there is no such thing as a Catholic view on such matters, only the view of individuals? This statement categorically disagrees. It says that Christianity can never be banished to some private world, as if it had only to do with the individual. And it strongly claims the right for Christianity, indeed for any religion, to have a place in the public domain and the right to speak on issues of public concern.

Equality of women. Yes, but a big but. If we were to shine the light of Christ as the Statement urges us, but onto the Church’s own practice in regard to women, what would we find? I’m on the Commission for Australian Catholic Women whose role is to promote the participation of women in the Church. The Commission has done some good things but my personal experience is that you inevitably come up against seemingly impenetrable walls of church structures and systems which militate against the meaningful participation of women in decision-making in the life and mission of the church. Believe me when I say I am not talking about women's ordination. We certainly need more statements of this ilk, but statements backed up by systemic change, so that the talk is walked.

This is a hope-filled statement which stretches us, and this is a beautiful word and image that recurs. “Doesn’t God’s love stretch to embrace the world?” the statement asks. The Australian Catholic Bishops in their 2005 Social Justice Sunday Statement invite us to stretch our love to embrace the hungry, to stretch our compassion to encompass what is unjust and bring it to light. This Statement stretches me. May it do the same for you. And the next time each of us gets interrupted, may our response be a robust, “Thanks be to God”.

* Patty Fawkner is a Good Samaritan Sister and the Director of Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre

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