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The Church as agent of hope:
What can religious faith contribute to life in contemporary Australia?

Mark Raper SJ

19 May 2004
Lecture delivered to mark the
fiftieth anniversary of the Catholic Institute of Sydney

Source: Compass, Vol 39 No 2, Winter 2005. Compass is a review of topical theology published quarterly by the Australian Province of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart

 

Those who are separated from a society can help us to understand that society. Refugees, by definition, have been rejected by society, and my reflections on society tonight will begin with their perspectives. Indigenous Australians also experience a separation from the society that inhabits their land, and so their experience and perceptions can reveal much about that society.

Speaking here in the Catholic Institute about religious faith, one may assume that we refer principally to our own tradition of belief within the Catholic Church. Yet faith may be considered not so much as a set of concepts or beliefs, but rather as the disposition and attitude that committed, converted, and loving people hold towards others and towards the Other. This living faith is provoked and revealed in many of the ordinary encounters that each of us experience even in our day-to-day living. Living faith is the light that guides the commitments we make out of love. In commenting on the interrelationship between faith and our culture, I will draw from Catholic social teaching, in particular the Second Vatican Council which spoke so richly about engagement in the modern world.

May I recall one conversation with a refugee, which was a moment of insight for me, and may help to inform our reflection on the interaction between faith and society.

Throughout the 1990s, while I lived in Rome, I helped to set up and to monitor Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) teams in front line humanitarian situations across the world. We worked, for example, in the Balkans, with a program in Sarajevo throughout that period of intense conflict. In the early 1990s, the fighting raging in Bosnia-Herzegovina was of such ferocity that the United Nations (UN) created several enclaves or 'safe areas'. We now know that this policy was a disastrous failure, since the UN and NATO were not prepared to protect these enclaves. One enclave was at Srebrenica where 7,500 Muslims were slaughtered, another at Zefa, and a third, near the town of Velika Kladusa, was referred to as the Bihac pocket. This territory in the north of Bosnia, holding 180,000 people, was wedged between the secessionist Serbian controlled Krajina region of Croatia, and Bosnian Serb territory, and accordingly between the Croatian Serb army and the Bosnian Serb militia. The Bihac leader, Fikret Abdic, was either installed by the Serbs or had done a deal with the Serbs in order to keep the Bihac pocket safe. When the Bosnians finally took control of the Bihac pocket in August 1995, Abdic and the other leaders did deals and left to safety elsewhere, but a large group of people crossed into Croatia and lived for several years in a refugee camp of tents. Our JRS team, young German and Croatian men and women volunteers, went to assist them and set up a primary school and many other activities.

When I visited the camp about 18 months later, in early 1997, the number of refugees had diminished to a couple of thousand, since those who could had slipped home, and the most acceptable refugees had been selected for resettlement in third countries. The agencies assisting them were also reduced to just the Red Crescent Society and ourselves, the Jesuit Refugee Service. The teachers at the little school prepared a lunch, at the end of which, the principal of the school, whom I shall call Vildana, a blue-eyed and fair-haired Muslim woman, said to me: 'When all those people and agencies came to help us in the beginning, the last group that I expected to stay with us Muslims was the Jesus Refugee Service. Now I see that not only did you stay with us, but you love us.'

Somewhat foolishly I replied: 'But is it not true that we are brothers and sisters, and do we not have the same Father, the same God?' Vildana looked at me, or rather through me, for what seemed like five minutes, as she digested this. Finally, and with immense surprise, she concluded: 'Yes!' It was a radiant moment of warmth in an environment created by years of betrayal, terror and distrust.

What gave Vildana, after all the violence, terror and betrayal that she had lived through, much of it at the hands of Christians, whether they be Orthodox Serbians or Catholic Croatians, the ability to recognise that our Christian God could be any match for her great God, her Allah Akbar? Only the lived faith, which means faith in practice, the constant love of those young volunteers who stayed with her people, could give this experience of solidarity. The volunteers were attentive to the needs perceived by the refugees themselves. Through daily encounters and conversation they became kindred spirits with one another. Once the normal barriers had been broken down by meeting face to face in trust, a new realisation was possible. Surprise enables new connections, gives new hope and energy, and introduces a readiness for change.

Australian Society: Experiences of Separation

Let me reflect on society seen from Vildana's perspective. Invariably, as for Vildana and her group, an experience of violence is at the beginning of a refugee's journey. If not always physically violent, the refugee experience is an experience of rejection. The refugees and displaced are often made the scapegoats for the ills of society. Though they are the victims, they are the most identifiable features of a social disorder, they are a nuisance. Somehow they are blamed and held responsible for many social inconveniences.

Zygmunt Bauman in his recent book, Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts1 makes the connection between refugees and the societies that produce them. He speaks of the production of human waste, or more precisely 'wasted humans' as the inevitable outcome of modernization. The drive for economic progress and building of a human order devoted to economic development, leaves these people as the cast-offs, discarded, thrown-away lives. Forced by rejection to leave their own country, refugees and immigrants are also frequently the scapegoats for problems of the society which hosts them.

So let us turn to Australian society. And let us begin with the contemporary scapegoats, those corresponding to ancient societies in which they chose a victim, loaded their problems on it, and killed or drove out that victim. By separating itself from the problem, the society sought to remain in peace. In last year's Manning Clark lecture, Judy Davis remarks that separation has long been an Australian way of dealing with problems [2]

Separation by sea and by force was the foundation upon which the colony of misfits, the colony of the unwanted, was built. The nail in almost every coffin of the convicts was the fact that they were never likely to return to England. It's not surprising that we have re-visited the theme of separation as though it were the panacea for any social problem that might come our way. From the stolen generations of Aboriginal children, to the Pacific solution for asylum seekers, we appear to be congenitally pre-disposed to the medicinal benefits of isolation. But building walls of legislation to protect our island has never worked. Our history is pock-marked with attempts at 'border protection', that sombre term which hides a plethora of racist attitudes.

Our indigenous people repeat the example of Vildana. Despite all the atrocities they have experienced since European settlement, they have survived and maintained their humanity. Despite massacres, stolen land, enforced separation, brutal discrimination, they have sustained their belief in connection and its power. Yet they have reached out the hand of friendship and they keep on, 'longing for the things we have always longed for—respect and understanding.' [3]

Miriam Rose Ungunmerr speaks about this invitation with exquisite poignancy,

We hope that the people of Australia will wait. Not so much waiting for us—but waiting with us as we find our way in the world. My people are used to the struggle and the long waiting. We still wait for the white people to understand us better. [4]

Asylum seekers also live the story of Vildana in their own lives. They are scapegoats. Politicians' approaches to control of borders and immigration reveal a coldness of heart towards the relatively small number of asylum seekers who arrived on our shores. Boundaries are maintained around Australia and simultaneously around our hearts. The blame which immigrants are made to carry is out of all proportion, or is simply a ruse, a deception. The few thousand Iraqis and Afghans who reached Australia were spoken of as an 'invasion'. Seeing no choice but to leave their home country, increasing numbers become more desperate and seek clandestine ways to reach a safe haven.

Bishop Eugene Hurley of Port Pirie, who regularly makes pastoral visits to Baxter, put his finger on the debilitating effect of such policies, 'The policy is toxic. Everyone who comes into contact with it gets sick.' He further describes it as making '… prisoners of everyone. I am afraid that we will look back at this chapter in the history of our nation with the same sadness, shame and regret as the White Australia policy.'

Australia is, as Arnold Zable describes, a nation of immigrants and indigenous people. 'A new world with an ancient past. A grand symphony with many melodies.'[5] Of our 20 million people, almost a quarter were born overseas. We speak around 200 languages in our homes.[6] Over the last 30 years, those claiming Christianity has fallen from 96% to around 70% while there are now 3 to 4 times the number of Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims.[7] Multicultural society offers a challenge; we must lose a part of what is familiar in order to embrace the unknown, and to become larger as a consequence. Yet the legacy of 'White Australia' appears to still be a force in our nation's life. There is a yearning by some for when Australia comprised less varied cultural backgrounds, a yearning, as Robyn Nevin in her Australia Day Address described it, for '...an altogether neater time'.[8]

The forces in contemporary Australian life are those affecting other developed nations. For most Australians, things seem to be going well. Economic growth has been steady at around 4% per annum. There have been constant promises of a higher quality of life. But economic globalisation has also meant that Australia, along with most industrialised societies, has been significantly restructured, leading to perceptions of social breakdown. Urban centres may have benefited, but rural and regional communities have suffered and feel neglected. Health and education systems are seen to be in crisis. Urban crime is said to have grown out of control.

Social change often generates a feeling of uncertainty. The major political parties lose credibility. Indeed there is a crisis of trust in leadership of all forms, politicians, sports persons, church leaders. This is serious: As Confucius told his disciple Tsze-kung, three things are needed for government: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler cannot hold on to all three, he should give up weapons first and the food next. Trust should be guarded until the end, '...without trust we cannot stand.'

Australia is profoundly affected by the spread of a global culture of efficiency. Thomas Merton considered efficiency to be the major spiritual disease in the western world. It leaves little energy for much else. The speed and scope of communication technology, central to modern culture, has transformed our human consciousness - our way of thinking, how we perceive time and space, how we relate to others. The result is that many prefer change to stability, would value the new rather than the old, tomorrow rather than yesterday.[9] Excessive energy is consumed in maintaining efficiency, leaving little space for hope. Moreover, look at our suicide rate, the incidence of alcoholism and drug addiction, the incidence of boredom and of what might be called starvation of the spirit.

In brief, we do find in Australia the deceit of separation, the failure of trust, the distortion of truth. To find healing, we need to return to the story of Vildana and ask where we can be led to surprise, solidarity, hope and energy, and who can be the agents of that hope? I believe the Church can be an agent of hope.

Religious Faith and Society

To be an agent of hope, the Church itself needs to be surprised and energised. We find energy when we acknowledge our limitations and recognise the problems we face. As a Church, we are liberated when we acknowledge our mistakes and the harm we have done. When we seek to reconcile the estranged, the stolen generations, the exiles, the survivors of sexual abuse, the Church itself is surprised, it is transformed, becomes inclusive, respectful, and closer to its gospel imperatives.

Surprise leads to solidarity. In faith, we know Christ as the victim, who invites us to identify with the victim, a stance which will sometimes disturb the peace. But Jesus does not come to bring the peace that comes through being able to blame someone or something else. The Christian's stand for peace acknowledges truth, includes all, and by preference stands by the weakest. Indeed it is in the face of those like Vildana, those who have been victims, that we can discover the truth in all its beauty.

That commitment to '... accompany people, in different contexts, as they and their culture make difficult transitions'[10] applies to the presence of people of religious faith in the fields of scientific research, in discussions on bio-ethics, as also to the presence of those young German and Croatian volunteers with Vildana and her fellow refugees who escaped the Bihac pocket and took refuge in Croatian Krajina. It is a model for the role of religious faith in contemporary Australian society. This practical faith is reflected not just in Christian organisations, but also in simple actions of individual Christians.

John Paul II's word for accompaniment is solidarity. Solidarity concerns a fundamental vision that we are born into a web of social relationships, that our humanity ties all people to one another, that the Gospel consecrates those ties, and that the prophets and all of Scripture tell us that the way we honour those ties is the test of authenticity of our faith.

Solidarity... is not a vague feeling of compassion, or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.[11]

The Church That can Offer Hope to Society

When we move from the living of faith to reflection on it, we are soon led to discern the relationship between secular culture and belief. It is a complex relationship. In the experience of Vildana, it involves the relationships between the Christian volunteers, the Muslim Vildana, and the world whose enmities and whose generosities brought them all together. Reflecting on that story, we can attempt to identify what factors might lead any of us, within our own social contexts, to surprise, solidarity, energy and the desire for change. Speaking abstractly about faith and culture means to ask about the conditions under which lived faith can provoke solidarity, can enable surprise, can give energy, and can lead to change. These after all are contributions that lived religious faith offers to any contemporary society.

St John saw a contradiction between the demands of 'this world' and the demands of faith. At times secular society has been broadly supportive of religious faith, for example during Europe's age of Christendom. Modern secular society, including contemporary Australia, tends to be alien to faith. How do we act in the face of this tension?

Let us go back to October 1958, when an elderly Italian peasant, Angelo Roncalli, dressed in white, climbed up on to the throne of Peter and beamed on the world with warmth, good humour and kindness. It seemed a new era: for the first time for 200 years, humanity was introduced into Church leadership. He himself was a surprise and he gave new energy to the Church and to the world.

John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council. On the penultimate day of the Second Vatican Council, four documents were promulgated. The last two of them, Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) and Dignitatis Humanae (The Declaration on Religious Freedom), constitute arguably, the high water mark of the Catholic Church's efforts to come to terms with the modern world. They were the Council's endeavour to read the 'signs of the times', and to address finally the ideals and aspirations of the French Revolution—liberty, equality, fraternity—the history of the Industrial Revolution and of the Enlightenment, the separation of Church and State, and the evolution of new patterns of authority and community.

Since that high tide, the waters have ebbed and flowed. Vatican II launched the Church into a complex dialogue with the modern secular world. The period since has been perceived very differently by different people within the Church, by some as a period of hope and development, and by others as a period of disintegration.12 Some have hankered after a clerical Catholic world.

But Gaudium et Spes continues to call the Church to dialogue and openness to social and political pluralism, to service and the recognition of the dignity of all people, to insistence on international cooperation and to hope in the future of the human family. It invites us to a conversation modelled on Paul's address on the Areopagus. He was appalled by the idolatry that he witnessed, but he did not attack that, he looked for the good there, using the philosophy of the time, and he drew his listeners to conversion.

If we are embarrassed or depressed by reactionary elements in the Church, it is inspiring to return to the liberating text of the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. For example in Chapter III it speaks of human activity throughout the world, and specifically to the autonomy of science and technology,

...whoever labours to penetrate the secrets of reality with a humble and steady mind, even though he is unaware of the fact, is nevertheless being led by the hand of God, who holds all things in existence, and gives them their identity. Consequently, we cannot but deplore certain habits of mind, which are sometimes found too among Christians, which do not sufficiently attend to the rightful independence of science and which, from the arguments and controversies they spark, lead many minds to conclude that faith and science are mutually opposed.[13]

As the horrific wars of our time demonstrate, and as the lives of the refugees teach us, and as our own failings in life bring home to us, we are engaged in a struggle between good and evil in our lives and in our time. This is not the simplistic presentation of one empire, the coalition of the willing, against some other sinister force. The struggle runs through human hearts. As The Church in the Modern World says,

For a monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and will continue until the last day, as the Lord has attested. Caught in this conflict, man is obliged to wrestle constantly if he is to cling to what is good... That is why Christ's Church... acknowledges that human progress can serve man's true happiness, yet she cannot help echoing the Apostle's warning: 'Be not conformed to this world' (Rom 12:2). By the world is here meant that spirit of vanity and malice which transforms into an instrument of sin those human energies intended for the service of God and man.[14]

The contest between modernity and fundamentalism that we witness in the response to the Vatican II teaching is characteristic of societies around the world. In our Australian society, not just in our Church, the thrust towards modernity is being challenged by various forms of fundamental conservatism. In more conservative cultures, patterns of imposed fundamentalism are being challenged by a forward-looking hunger for more liberal solutions. 'The aspiration... is to seek, not polarisation, but organic growth, and to see the movement from ancient certainties into the world of modern complexities as a necessary pilgrimage of growth.'[15] Vatican II moved simultaneously in two directions, backwards to our sources and roots, and forwards towards the challenges of modernity.

Religious congregations have felt the challenge of this double call, from yesterday and tomorrow, as a core and driving feature of their spirituality. Last week we buried a great figure in our Australian Jesuit province, William Dalton, a renowned scripture scholar and the founder of our Jesuit Theological College, which is engaged in an ecumenical enterprise and like CIS, set in the city and able to bring theological formation to a wide range of people. Bill had the beaming largesse of John XXIII. He trusted his students to own their vocation, to live faithful to it, and to adapt it to modern needs. He was a man who gave himself both to the institutional conversation of the Church and to the smaller conversation with God.

Catholicism, of course, is institutional by instinct and by nature. Institutions are the way you grab hold of life, the way you lay hands on complex social questions. Its welfare, educational and social service institutions are the hands of the Church, its means for engaging not only in response to the needs of people, but also in the processes of our society as it changes. They are the stables in which surprise, solidarity, hope and energy can be born. But stables, of course, need to be cleansed for the purpose.

For that reason we need an overarching strategy for the institutional Catholic social presence, in education, health care and social service. By linking ourselves to the engine of upward social mobility, through education, thereby educating a quarter of the population, the Catholic Australia embarked on a risky strategy. It has been rewarding. But it also must be subject constantly to the revision afforded by the Church's preferential option for the poor. And the educational base is only one of many bases: the Church's strategy will be correctly rooted in the parish base of Australian Catholicism, even if that parish base appears to be diminishing in strength and numbers. And it should be rooted in the popular movements, wherever surprise is engendered.

Our faith urges us always to overcome any divisions in our society. In 1986, addressing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at Alice Springs, Pope John Paul II had also spoken of a similar goal for us all: 'You are part of Australia and Australia is part of you. And the Church herself in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others.'

May I conclude by quoting from our most recent Jesuit General Congregation which resonates with the magnificent text of the Vatican Council earlier quoted,

The aim of an inculturated evangelisation in post-Christian contexts is not to secularise or dilute the Gospel by accommodating it to the horizon of modernity, but to introduce the possibility and reality of God through practical witness and dialogue.

It is part of our Jesuit tradition to be involved in the transformation of every human culture, as human beings begin to reshape their patterns of social relations, their cultural inheritance, their intellectual projects, their critical perspectives on religion, truth and morality, their whole scientific and technological understanding of themselves and the world in which they live. We commit ourselves to accompany people, in different contexts, as they and their culture make difficult transitions. We commit ourselves to develop the dimension of an inculturated evangelisation within our mission of the service of faith and the promotion of justice.[16]

Mark Raper is Provincial Superior of the Australian and New Zealand Province of the esuits. Previously he was International Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) based in Rome.


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