FRANCIS SULLIVAN. New Wine, New Wine Skins.

Why it is worth staying active in the Church?

Can I find in the practice of Catholicism a way to do life that is legitimate, transformative, relevant and effective? Or, like for the vast majority of Catholics, is it best that I look elsewhere for pathways to a moral, happy life, free of judgement and hypocrisy?

I acknowledge that there are many Catholic identities these days. People come into contact with the Church in formal and informal settings, parishes, schools, hospitals, small prayer groups and regular social get-togethers. There are many understandings of being Catholic and how to associate as a Catholic.

The strict, rules based, obligation-laden Church of my youth, no longer holds any appeal. Not even when our times can appear to be so confusing and even confounding. That rigid Church doesn’t do it for me. Not only that, it actually is a definite turn off in an age where personal autonomy, freedom of conscience and self actualisation are in my mind the fruits of the Spirit that should be nurtured for the good they bring to our lives.

Yet there are too many reactionary noises in our Church that bedevil this individualism and caste it as the signs of decay and demise for our world. Neither can I muster any enthusiasm or even tribal excitement for an institution that stubbornly resists calls to be more representative of the communities in which it exists. I find no confidence in institutional structures and processes that exclude lay people, women particularly, but also openly excludes gay people and even those divorced and remarried.

How will it be possible for the Church to teach on intimate life issues to people who don’t even get a mutual voice at the table? What practical value do their lives bring to the life of the Church? Why do we have to cop the tired assertion that the Church is not a democracy and participation by the baptised is conditional within a hierarchical and demonstrably dysfunctional structure? Why do we have to be publicly associated with inane, even incompetent, statements from Church officials and spokespeople that fuel the flames of social division, demonise particular social groups, and present our Catholicism as just another socially conservative reactionary grouping? Why should we tolerate Church finances being directed to dubious political and media campaigns that inevitably ostracise opponents and only further exacerbate the culture wars in which our voice so often is heard as being harsh, unbending and out of touch?

The simple answer to all this is that we don’t need to be that style of Catholicism. Nor do we need to peddle that old time religion that has run its course.

Pope Francis has said:

“ And so, the biggest threat of all gradually takes shape:

‘the grey pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally while, in reality, faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness.’ A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum. Disillusioned with reality, with the Church, and with themselves, they experience an ongoing temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like ‘ the most precious of the devil’s potions.’Called to radiate light and communicate life, in the end they are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness, and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate.” Evangelii Gaudium #83

It may sound depressing but I find this massively hopeful. To practice as a Catholic is to communicate light and life.That is the gig.

It is not to strictly uphold inexplicable propositions and continue to passively condone unrealistic practices and decision making structures. Neither is it to passively exist in a disempowered culture where compliance is rewarded and dissent weaponised. On the contrary it is to understand that faith, with its energy, passion and creative imagination, is not contained solely within religious ritual and practice. Ideally they are intimately connected but sometimes the fire of faith is stifled by the ideological zealotry of those who have captured the loud speakers!

And when that happens people turn off, become disillusioned, express dissent and in turn become disenfranchised then finally disinterested.The massive fallout from our Church speaks for itself. A faith that communicates light and life involves understanding that to be truly Catholic is to appreciate difference and diversity as manifestations of God.

If we believe that everyone is made in the image of God then the varieties of human experience and personal development are in turn movements of the Divine. The energy we have put into running a rule over human nature and behaviour has literally been counter productive. People who feel judged, unaccepted or treated as not up to the mark understandably walk away.

The wisdom of the mystics is much more the mark. Take for example Teilhard de Chardin. He said it plainly, that we are not human beings on a spiritual journey. Rather we are spiritual beings on a human journey. Embracing our humanity, letting God speak through it, is our pathway. And from this comes the mission of a faith based community.

Believing in ourselves! That we are capable together to sort out how to be a contemporary, relevant Christian community. That we are called to take responsibility not to out – source it to the clergy. That trusting in our collective vitality and a deep sense of integrity we can discern the movement of the Spirit amongst us. That we can determine what it takes to be real and authentic in response to the Gospel call.

There is no need to cling to a patriarchal, medieval rule book. There is no need to be submissive to the clerical caste when we are all equal under baptism.There is certainly no need to accept that only males are created with a capacity to morph into priestly ministry. There is clearly no obligation to stay mute when obvious injustice and down right prejudice masks itself as religious belief.

What we are being asked to follow, is the pathway opened by Jesus. A roadmap of radical enquiry, self- discovery and intimate loving connection that leads us to a sense of God in our lives. For me this is the purpose of practising as a Catholic.

It is to be transformed into a Christ conscious person. And with that comes a preparedness to confront false certainties and confected presuppositions.

We don’t need to keep change at bay out of ignorance. This attitude becomes our new wine and we the new wine skin. Our faith tradition is constantly on the move, only we are the ones who choose to stand still. The wisdom teachings constantly remind us that God is the center without a circumference. That God comes to us disguised as our life. Simply put we are collection of individual stories in a matrix of hope.

We come with our own stories of family, career, trust, betrayal, love and its failures, excitements, despairs, dreams and their loss. We come shaped by a culture and its conventions, trends, assumptions and the smorgasbord of meaning making. We come mostly with our sincerely held desire to find goodness, truth and beauty.

And in those instances where and when we do catch a glimpse of a reality beyond ourselves, it can be enough to motivate our search, our common pilgrimage to awakening. In my context this is being authentically Catholic. Remaining engaged and open with porous borders is the model of Church Pope Francis seeks. One where messiness and chaos are welcomed.

Where identity politics is left at the door. Where the rights of participation are not determined by a rigid orthodoxy but rather are encouraged by an invitation to seek common ground and mutual respect. Where identity is characterised by difference rather than adherence to a proscribed mentality. Where outreach is the core business instead of a preoccupation with self justification that can lead to a smug self assurance.

This is the foundation for a truly pastoral practice for our Church. From this foundation the generosity of our hearts and the imagination of our minds find ways to awaken Christ consciousness in our relations, our communities and broader neighbourhoods. Just as the first believers felt compelled to act, so can we.

Let’s shape a Church that looks like the communities we live in. That reflects their aspirations and virtues, fosters their desires for happiness and meaning, human flourishing and self understanding. That seamlessly connects with people marginalised by circumstance, prejudice or loss of opportunity. One that practically comforts, consoles and champions those who toil against the odds or who struggle to keep life together.

Let’s shape a Church that constantly asks whether it is fit for purpose. Flexible, adaptive, attractive to the young and inquisitive. That develops ministers, pastors, deacons and priests that we can relate to, aspire to be and select from within our ranks. Lets drink of this new wine that enlivens through affirming the ever evolving understanding of human nature, its development and manifestations.

Let’s applaud the wonder of sexuality, embrace it as grace and actively resist attempts to demonise, judge and divide. Lets become the wine skins of hope in a future unshackled from religiosity and enthused with a truth that’s set us free.

Francis Sullivan address to Concerned Catholics of Canberra-Goulburn. (Contributed January 2020). He was CEO of the Catholic Church in Australia’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council.

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