JOHN HANNON. Where and who are the prophetic voices today? (a homily)

Jul 16, 2018

The old adage is that familiarity breeds contempt;  alternatively, absence makes the heart grow fonder! But the the truest of all relating to today’s Gospel is that a prophet is not accepted in his own country, perhaps less so because he seen as just familiar and ordinary.  Moreover, human nature seems to be naturally prone as resistant to change or challenge. Just this last week, it was reported that Frank Brennan SJ, the well-known Jesuit, was prevented from speaking at a Catholic conference in Hobart, apparently because he had expressed certain views about the separation of Church and State, specifically in relation to gay marriage.

Frank is a man of his own mind, a conscientious and wise voice, in the broader arena of society as well as in the Church, particularly in regard to social and indigenous issues, as well as justice and faith, in which fields he is well versed. Apart from being a friend, he makes a lot of sense and is a well respected voice.

Interestingly, I recently read Frank’s positive and insightful comments at the book lunch of another friend, Bishop Bill Morris, titled “Benedict, Me and the Cardinals Three”, which was Bill’s considered response to his premature removal, after 18 years of faithful pastoral and sacramental service, as a down-to-earth Bishop of Toowoomba, who walked with his people, certainly one who had the smell of the sheep about him.  It is well known there was much angst too among many faithful Catholics of Toowoomba, when this occurred.  It seems this was the ultimate result of his Advent pastoral letter in 2006, when all he did was raise issues of concern, particularly  in terms of providing Eucharist for the people of his vast diocese in area, given the advancing age and growing lack of priests to provide this service.  He was merely stating the obvious, in thinking laterally, and providing alternative suggestions to the current model of celibate priesthood, questioning the possibility of ordained ministry for married men, even women (perish the thought, but it is a free country!), and, in the ecumenical field, of recognising the validity of Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church Orders.

All he was doing was raising what many would consider reasonable questions, while at the same time respecting Catholic tradition and teaching, which is not static and which must evolve in diverse times. Nevertheless, once an American  inquisitor visitor, with an apparent preset agenda, came for a brief period of investigation, not even wanting to leave town (Toowoomba) to see the country, Bill’s removal seemed inevitable, however unjust.

Some time afterwards, as a canon lawyer, I was asked to provide an opinion as to the justice of this one-sided conclusion, to which I agreed, albeit hesitantly. It was Bill himself who rang me shortly afterwards, to advise me not to go ahead, given that I was a vicar general and director of the Tribunal in Broken Bay diocese and Associate Judicial Vicar in New South Wales at the time, apart from being a parish priest as well. It was his concern that my involvement may negatively impact on my continuing ministry in some of these positions.

An ensuing alternative professional canonical opinion was obtained, and (unsurprisingly!) reached the conclusion that there was indeed a denial of natural justice, in the way the decision was reached, and a similar legal opinion was given by senior secular legal expert. Hence Bill’s decision to write the book to present his own perspective, and a good read it is, even if disturbing!

I had first got to know Bill when I was a member of the National Catholic Professional Standards Committee (MCPSC), as a priest representative, while he was a representative of the Bishops’ Conference (ACBC).   He would always have something sensible, balanced and practical to say about issues, particularly relating to the protection of children and concern with effectively dealing with  the problems of sexual abuse in the Church, in particular.

Interestingly enough, Bishop Bill’s successor on the NCPSC was Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, whom I also got to know as a result. He too impressed me as one who, as a leader in the Church, was genuinely concerned about addressing the issues of abuse, and who had also responded firmly, as Bishop of Wollongong previously, in standing up to Rome, in relation to priests who were under a cloud in this area. We all make mistakes, and learning from experience is a lifelong journey. It seems to me that the recent adverse publicity and his conviction in a civil court, over not speaking to police, some time after 2000, about a genuine complaint from 1976, has not been helpful to anyone.  However, the credibility of the church is also at stake, given that there was a prior diagnosis of signs of early dementia affecting memory, which suggests it would have been best for him to stand down as Archbishop, given the extraordinary demands and responsibilities of such a position, whatever the outcome of an appeal, to which he has every right.

Just recently, I was walking along the Maribyrnong River,  along with two of my old Monash University friends, Gary and Denis, both legal aid lawyers for decades, and I mentioned Sister Patricia Fox, the 71-year-old Sion Sister, facing up to Rodrigo Duterte, current president of the Philippines (who has not had nice, but rather grossly offensive things to say about the Pope or even God in recent weeks!), who wishes to extradite her.  Coincidentally, they knew her well, and she had worked with them in legal aid some time before she responded to the missionary call to the Philippines, where she has been faithfully serving the Gospel for the last 28 years. With a backbone of steel, Sister Patricia has stood up for the rights of the dispossessed, spoken out against the extra-judicial killings, the violent break-up of unions, and supported the indigenous and local peasants, forced from their land for the sake of mining, palm oil and banana plantations to supplant them. Another prophetic voice from left field is heard loud and clear!

The court supported her appeal against immediate extradition, but her visa renewal is still an issue. Surely, here is a prophetic voice from the wilderness representing Gospel values, as proclaimed by Jesus, also rejected by his own in today’s Gospel, although they thought they knew him best!

Thus we see the dangers of closed minds, where ideology rules, rather than a willingness to listen respectfully and to dialogue about differences, when prejudice is based on ignorance and fear of the unknown, rather than a desire to be inclusive and just.

Of course Pope Francis continues to be a voice of clear credibility for the global Church in the world, as a voice for the environment, around the third anniversary of his great environmental encyclical of praise, Laudato si, and speaking up for the poor, for the refugees and asylum seekers of this world, will still catching up on addressing issues of sexual abuse and the role and authority of women in the church. (He has admitted himself that he is not infallible about everything!!).  A recent article in the Guardian speaks of Francis denouncing the sterile hypocrisy of those who turn a blind eye to the poor and warns against turning the Earth into a vast pile of “rubble, deserts and refuse” if issues of global warming and climate change and unsustainable development and rampant consumerism are not addressed.

Frank Maloney SDB, puts it well too: “We are impoverished by this clinging to what we can own and control, and we create suffering as good and gifted people are ignored or pushed to the sidelines.  There are still situations in the world where prophets are slain”, and certainly ignored or treated with disdain.

Claude Mostowik MSC also similarly states: “But we are always more than others think, and others are more than we think… Our call is to be more than people think and be as God sees us… We are called to live beyond the box, do the unexpected, the heroic deed, take the unpopular stance, express the transcendence within us and allow others to do the same.”

And so it could be said we all have a bit of the prophet within us, if only we recognize that fact, and act on it, even if we thought we didn’t, saying what we mean and meaning what we say, a la  Dr Seuss!

Based on a homily on 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time at St Therese’s Church Essendon

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