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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10 Responses to FRANCIS SULLIVAN. New Wine, New Wine Skins.

  1. don owers says:

    The Catholic church is somewhat different – better or worse – in every country and even in every parish but it is still ruled by the Vatican which enforces a cruel ban on family planing. Yes it is ignored by most Catholics in developed nations although some Catholic doctors take the pro-life stance, refusing even to refer a patient to another doctor. But more abortions – and unsafe ones – occur in catholic dominated
    third world countries like El Salvador where one three pregnancies are terminated.

    The Vatican opposes family planning by artificial means, a doctrine reinforced by
    the 1968 Humane Vitae where Pope Paul VI, ignored the recommendations of the
    Vatican commission and followed the advice from the minority report. This is now
    a Papal crusade played out with devastating effect in vulnerable, developing countries,
    where women must incubate babies they cannot feed–much less educate adequately.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) had early on reached a broad consensus
    among member countries that overpopulation was a grave public
    health threat and would be a major cause of preventable death not too far in the
    future. However the Vatican was able to stymie the incorporation of family planning
    and birth control into official WHO policy. They were also able to persuade President
    Nixon to drop the bi-partisan supported Rockefeller commission on population and
    have been instrumental in getting President Trump to cut foreign aid to organisations
    that offer family planning. Australia is a secular country for very good reasons, the
    intervention of the catholic church is no different from those of China or Russia which
    are roundly condemned, we should apply the same to the Vatican.

    • Michael Furtado says:

      Thank you, Don. Your post perfectly illustrates what Francis Sullivan devastatingly, truthfully, understatedly and eloquently describes as follows:

      “The energy we have put into running a rule over human nature and behaviour has literally been counter productive.”

      Indeed, the energy that officially-appointed Catholic bioethicists have put into positioning natural law over love and respect for the human person, especially in matters of human relationship, starkly contrasts with the Gospels of Jesus.

  2. Fosco Ruzzene says:

    Francis seems to be genuinely “weeping” for his beloved Church. But he has missed something.
    God has left the Church to be with real people doing real things. There is the parent, maybe worrying about not being a good parent, doing their best for their children. And then there is the aged care worker, trying to look after their patents while the proprietor is doing their best to extract as much profit as they can. And then there is the person experiencing interior crisis, perhaps as a result of childhood violence, journeying their inner reality hoping to find a place of peace. And then there is the convicted sex offender, seriously involved in prison programs so as to not offend again. And most importantly, there is the coffee maker making good coffee to calm grumpy old men like me. My list is endless. There is the bus driver in heavy traffic with irate passengers. There is the under resourced nurse being screamed at by difficult patients, and teachers with disengaged students.
    But I do confess that my list is without religious grandeur. No St Theresa spiritual marriage, no Dark Night of the soul. No St Francis of Assisi vow of Poverty. I have never really been able to “get” that one. My peasant ancestors, who made up most of the population, could not renounce family wealth. Unlike St Francis they were not self-indulgent sons of rich merchants. For them there was nothing spiritual about wearing the filthy garment of the common person. Can you go on a spiritual fast when you have nothing to eat?
    The great exodus from Vatican-ism of the last few decades has happened because so called Catholicism is an anti-human fantasy. St Theresa, and St Francis, and Rabbi Jesus, and St Paul and Mary the Mother of God are not real people. They are caricatures. Like Marilyn Monroe and Pinocchio and Hollywood celebrities. We were brainwashed into believing these fantasy people were real.
    Over the last week, those of us who live in Melbourne were again confronted with the sad tragedy of sexual abuse. Maybe there is something obvious we do not want to see. Maybe we delusional Catholics have deceived ourselves claiming to be spiritual as to understand the “mind of God” yet not even understanding our own sexuality.

  3. PBoylan says:

    Francis, the Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse opened the eyes of many silent and sleeping Catholics.
    I am often asked how many children did it take for priests/bishops/brothers/employees to abuse before I questioned the coverup by Bishops?
    Sadly, too many.
    It’s a devastating indictment of the way the Vatican and its employees have run a secret legal system shielding paedophile priests from criminal trials, funding ‘Rolls Royce’ legal teams or relocating abusive members to one of their numerous international schools around the world.
    As you know it hasn’t stopped.
    Sadly, our governments continue to support the Catholic Church leaderships behaviour with billions in funding, special privileges under the religious charities Act, tax free status and many more financial transparency and accountability exclusions.

    • Michael Furtado says:

      Your comments as a critical insider hit the spot, P. Boylan.

      Not just the desperately-departed but flabbergasted ‘outsiders’, such as through the Royal Commission findings, now commonly break the news to us as gently as they possibly can, that institutional rule-based Catholic culture and its effects – and not necessarily the behaviour and commonly lived values of Catholic people – are now known to be light years removed from the lessons of the Gospels.

      Imagine that: having our eyes forcibly opened by a ‘Christ from the Outside’! Dostoevsky in repeat!

      Not only cynics would conclude that the global Church commonly sets the gold standard in operational hypocrisy and double-speak. In my own instance as a Catholic educator in both Church schools and the secular and pluralist world of universities – assailed as the latter are by shifting demands of the economy and the post-welfare state – I have yet to witness the underhandedness, even to the point of gross incompetence, of many Catholic institutional employers.

      Distracted by issues that others would deem petty and forgivable, they invariably lost sight of the big picture in wasting valuable time and energy in vindication, retaliation, extrinsic rethink (or justification), and retreat to the battlements.

      I have seen gay teachers and students gone after with the zeal of a Savonarola, the divorced and remarried removed from teaching Religious Education, and gifted and talented women educators drummed out of work for doing precisely what the Gospels and their collective wisdom impels.

      Its no wonder, as you appear to conclude, that Holman Hunt’s ‘Jesus, Light of the World’, albeit in unfamiliar and unexpected garb, has come knocking at our institutional door, demanding change!

  4. Gavin O'Brien says:

    Francis,
    I identify with all you wrote. I am a practising Catholic of the “Irish”tradition. I was educated by the Sisters of Mercy , (Primary) between 1955 and 1961, I am pre Vatican II vintage.I certainly remember “pay, pray and obey” , the Parish priest in my country parish was “the boss” , you obeyed him – heaven help you if you defied him, as my widowed mother did!
    I have seen great changes in the Church. In my home town, we had the Irish church AND the Italian church.We had an Irish priest as a child. By the time I was a teenager, we had Italian priests. I believe it was then when church attendance started to fall, or was it post Vatican II? In 1958 the Redemprist Monastery at Galong (NSW) built a whole new wing , so great were vocations, by 1970 it was empty! My own children ceased attending Sunday Mass once they left school. They attended Catholic Schools right through to Year 12,at great cost to us .Mass was “boring and irrelevant”.Now we have Indian priests ministering in our Parish. My adult children certainly have a faith in God, but not the institutional Church.Their kids were baptized and go to Catholic Schools .As a teacher of religious studies at Catholic Schools for three decades, I assessed my teaching with the children as failing to meet their needs, but I had to stick with the curriculum. That frustrated me then,it frustrates me still.The church hierarchy is out of touch with the majority of its adherents
    I feel acutely, your frustration and sense of not being heard .One hopes for a useful out come of the Plenary Council.

  5. Peter Johnstone says:

    Thanks, Francis. As you say, “Let’s shape a Church that constantly asks whether it is fit for purpose.”
    That says it all really. Regrettably, I’m not confident that the Plenary Council starting this October will be directed to that critical focus. Some of our Catholic leaders seem primarily concerned with deflecting justifiable criticism of our Church’s evidenced shortcomings, rather than accepting that there’s a lot of work to be done to make the Church ‘fit for purpose’.

  6. mary tehan says:

    Thank you Francis for your thoughtful article. Next Sunday at the Catholic Theological College, Melbourne there is to be a seminar on “Church Leadership for a Post-Christendom Era” with an international panel of speakers and local respondents. Apparently it is full and no other potential attendees can do so. I’ve asked for videoed copies of this to be made available publicly afterwards (preferably at no cost) for those who “could not make it to the table”. With available technologies it should be possible to achieve. I’ve yet to hear back. Inclusion has a long, long way to go – even for the willing and concerned … as you note “an invitation to seek common ground and mutual respect” … now that approach Could generate “a matrix of hope”. I live in hope!

  7. Kevin Liston says:

    Thank you, Francis. This is brilliant and inspiring. You have a wonderful gift for expressing the thoughts, feelings and aspirations of so many Catholics. Please continue working on these issues. We need you. Kevin Liston

  8. Jim Boyle says:

    There is more hope from those who speak the truth, as does Francis, than from almost all the so-called “leaders of the church.”

    The fundamental message of Jesus is echoed in Francis’ concerns and love for our church community. He writes: To practice as a Catholic is to communicate light and life, that is the gig.”

    Such leadership and honesty is the only hope we can have that the light of Christ will stay active in our world, despite the violent storms and hurricanes caused by hideous human failures.

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