Michael Kelly SJ. Sexual abuse and the humiliation of the Catholic Church. A new spirituality.

Mar 31, 2014

Michael Kelly SJ invites Australian Catholics to embrace the humiliation that is bound to increase as the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse continues in 2014 through a spirituality based in the gospel. The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola invite us to pray for the gift of identification with Jesus in the abuse and derision he experienced in his Passion.

Much of what made people pleased to be Catholic throughout our history since white settlement in Australia is gone and never to be revived. It fitted a time – one where most Catholics felt at home in the tribe, got their identity through belonging to ethnic groups that were, till recent decades, mostly populated by relatively uneducated and unskilled or semi-skilled males and house bound females who married in their early twenties if not their teens.

Until the 1970’s, three quarters of Australian school children did not complete six years of high school and matriculate. Tertiary education was taken up by little more than one in five Australians. Today, nine out of ten young Australians complete six years of high school and from my own experience, which is among those who do get married in the Church, I would rarely see a couple where the male is younger than his early thirties and the female in her late twenties.

Gone are the days of strict ethnic, religious or cultural identification underpinned by fairly rigid and exclusive social groups that impacted on employment opportunities. As well, the carriers of faith that helped many generations of Catholics to find a relationship with God have been unequal to the challenge of building a post – Vatican 2 Church whose self understanding was not to be found in hierarchy or devotional practice but as the People of God whose appreciation of their faith was to be grounded in Scripture and sacramental participation.

For robust Catholic faith to thrive, something new has emerged. People come to faith by invitation and persuasion rather than direction and fear. The invitation and persuasion are there to develop understanding, conviction and personal commitment as pilgrims on a faith journey.

Moreover, what many fail to appreciate is that now some two generations of Catholics in Australia have been better educated in faith, in Scripture and in Catholic theology than many, even most, in the generations of clerics and Religious who did the yeoman’s work of building communities and institutions, of providing services and creating the culture that is now all but gone.

What I believe is the next and deepest challenge for the Catholic faith and its prospering in Australia is to feed more than the minds of those drawn to affirm the faith. That is necessary and must endure. What is needed are various ways in which the hearts of those seeking to discover deeper conviction can be nourished.

That search is essentially a personal and intimate one, a search that is given the loose name “spirituality”.

I am not talking about the return to devotional practices of the past that are still alive and well in the seclusion of some ethnic groups more recently arrived in Australia, with patterns of Catholic devotion that are not going to the fountain of faith – the New Testament. Like their predecessors in the Irish Australian tradition, they simply will not survive the chill winds of the wider secular culture in which Australian Catholics live.

And, of course, I do not refer to that form of nostalgia evident in some Catholics for a pre-Conciliar way of being and worshipping as a Catholic that is little more than a selfindulgent distraction.

The spirituality I am referring to is the experience of the living God, felt at depth, and the experience of whom is the peace and confidence within which faith, hope and love grow. It is the experience of a relationship with God that is supported, encouraged and celebrated in the community of faith through the Eucharist especially. But it is also an experience that is deeply and essentially personal.

For faith to deepen in us, we need to absorb and face our experience of life, be honest with what we discover in the depths of our being, in our hearts where we find what is leading us to joy, light and growth and what is inhibiting or distracting us from embracing the growth we are invited to enjoy.

Of course, our spiritual growth is always done in context – the context of our own lives and their opportunities and disappointments, their blessings and failures. But it is also done in the context we share with others: in our society and world and in the Church that is our faith community.

We can each describe the changes on our personal journey home to our hearts where we discover the God who is searching for us. But I think there is something else, something that happens to us individually by focusing on an experience we all share.

I believe there is something we share as an experience right now: we Catholics in Australia are at a tipping point, in a crisis that is also an opportunity for us as a community of faith.

I refer of course to the event engulfing the Catholic Church in Australia: the Royal commission into child sex abuse. What relationship does this event have to the deepest opportunity for Catholics in Australia and those who may be drawn to our faith?

The point we always start from in approaching the living God is one of humility. We are only unworthy servants in the presence of the one who is both utterly other and mysterious but also intimately present to us, coming to us through our experience of the people and world we encounter. That is what Christians proclaim – God is to be found in and among us. Our humble and open acceptance of this mystery is our starting point.

But sometimes a humble starting point is forced upon us. We may be the object of abuse and betrayal or of others’ loathing, envy or violence. Or we may be humiliated by something we have done or been part of.

That is where most of us are in the Australian church right now: humiliated.

In a book to be published in May, the journalist and academic Chris McGillion has chronicled the sorry story not just of criminal misbehavior by Catholic clerics and religious who have abused children but also of the complete ineptitude and likely malfeasance of many bishops and religious superiors over a long time.

McGillion then looks at what is likely to happen following the enquiries which are mostly into the Catholic Church, the Royal Commission currently happening, the investigation into the handling of complaints against a “Father F” in the Diocese of Armidale by Antony Whitlam QC, the Parliamentary Enquiry in Victoria last year and the investigation into the Diocese of Maitland Newcastle conducted by Margaret Cunneen whose report has just been handed down.

While conceding that these external interventions into the Church will insist on institutional best practice for the protection of children by the Church from here on, McGillion is doubtful that they will be any more effective than such enquiries are on other subjects when conducted in universities, Government departments and other similar large organizations.

Much of it, in McGillion’s view, will lead to extensive bureaucratic red tape, adept evasion of the strictures imposed, ways around ordinances and fundamentally a distraction from what is the Church’s only way to fix itself – the revivification of its core mission of communicating and sharing sacred truth. Without that, the Church collapses into being no more than an extensive NGO service provider, bogged down in itself.

I am inclined to agree with Bishop Bill Wright, the bishop of Maitland Newcastle, in his answer to a question on ABC radio last year. Asked by an ABC Radio journalist if he would guarantee that children in the care of the Church in his Diocese would never be at risk, he responded with a firm “No”.

Asked why, Bishop Wright replied that there is no system known that can meet the challenge posed by the mercurial, deceptive and fraudulent behaviour of some of the most evil people known among human kind. He would try but couldn’t guarantee that he would beat them at their own devious game and he believed that there is probably no system that could guarantee that he would beat them.

I’m sure Bishop Wright would agree that while regulatory regimes need to be as tight as we can make them, the law won’t renew the faith life of Catholics in Australia. Only the Spirit can do that.

And, as St. Paul never tired of saying, God’s grace and the Spirit’s energy are most at work in our human weakness and there is no weaker place to be than the experience of humiliation and diminishment.

In his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius Loyola invites anyone following his way to a deeper encounter with God to consider and pray for what he calls The Third Degree of Humility. That is where he invites the one making the Exercises to pray for the gift of identification with Jesus in his dereliction, in the abuse and derision he experienced in his Passion.

This can sound like masochism if it’s not understood as a gift of God that brings pain yes, but also freedom and peace, as his crucifixion did finally to Jesus.

Now we don’t have to go looking for or try to invent events in our lives that can allow us into the heart of Jesus in his derelict state. They come our way uninvited on a regular basis – those times when misunderstanding, betrayal or envy may come unbidden, for example. These are the moments when a deeper unity with our Savior is there if we can accept them.

We can deny them, dance around them, acknowledge them but wish they would go away. Most of us do that to humiliation and the opportunity it offers most of the time. But embracing humiliation as a gift and an opportunity is the first sign that the Spirit is at work in and among us.

And where does the Spirit take us if we embrace what is happening in and among our community of faith as it faces the inescapable shame of deeds and misdeeds of too many, including those trusted with leadership? Just where the Spirit always takes us: to the foot of the Cross where we share in the surrender of that prototype of all disciples, Mary the mother of Jesus, in her surrender into the hands of the living God.

And what happens with that? We come by God’s grace to let God be God.

This is the present moment and the present opportunity for Catholics in Australia: face our failure as followers of Jesus and deliver on reform we must. But this is also an opportunity to move beyond the externals of the faith and accept this time as a moment of grace.

We can only do so if we let go of the securities that fostered faith for a different time and for people in a different place. Surely, daily conversion to following the Nazarene on his path to Golgotha is not the only thing we have to do to meet the challenges of our mission today in Australia. But without it, we will deliver a caricature of Catholicism and a substitute for adult faith.

It will be a distraction from the riches given into our hands not simply for our benefit but for those who may be drawn by God’s grace to find the inexhaustible treasure to be found in Christ in our country at this time.

Fr. Michael Kelly SJ, Executive Director

This article was published in Autumn edition of ‘The Swag’, the quaterly magazine of the National Council of Priests in Australia.

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