MICHAEL KELLY SJ. What is to become of us?

I used to think I was part of a religion founded by Jesus Christ. The older I’ve got and the more I’ve come to know Jesus, the more I’m convinced I got that wrong and have outgrown it.

Not that pressure to keep up religious appearances is flagging. It is still alive and well. We live in age of identity politics but also of identity religion. I find both, and the satellite culture wars they trigger, just tedious, often odious and so destructive.

It’s not just that the sex abuse scandals and associated hypocrisies in the Catholic Church have soured me. I must confess to being not entirely surprised that things are as crook as they in the leadership of my Church.

But then I had the benefit of a mother who was committed Catholic and who had a big dose of that particular type of anti-clericalism that thrived among Irish and Irish Australian women. In my teens, she dismissed the first Australian-born Cardinal and archbishop of Sydney, Norman Thomas Gilroy, as just “wood from the neck up”!

Religion has become for me a doorway at best. For many in today’s world, it’s a doorway that has slammed shut or, if it’s open at all, not one many choose to walk through.

Not so for me, though I have left many of its restraints and permissions behind a long time ago. And the reason I have done that is not that I have become what religious hardliners yesterday and today would call a “wishy, washy liberal trendy”. It’s because I have found something much richer and far superior. And something that “religion” points to but is often missed by religious adherents.

I think John Henry Newman, the recently canonized English saint, got right and dignified what I’ve experienced when he made the distinction between “notional” and “real” faith in his Grammar of Assent. The notional stuff makes what has become a common descriptor – a “cultural Catholic”.

Many just give nodding assent to Catholic beliefs and practices without the journey of faith taking hold of them. Some are now called “devout atheists” and cover all manner of people from the likes of Viktor Orban in Hungary to the devious and destructive Steve Bannon. One author I read recently described Benito Mussolini as a “devout atheist”.

“Real assent” is something that takes hold of you, centers you and makes the relationship with Jesus and absorption of his message an ever-growing center of your life. It can only come at a great cost and is often nurtured in sorrow and suffering.

It has been for me. In February 2019, I made a retreat in northern Thailand, in Chiangmai. It’s an annual retreat for eight days that we Jesuits are asked to make and I thought it would be remarkably unspectacular. Life was bumping along though I thought I had to gird myself for an impending experience of failure.

But the retreat was the experience of something that completely reversed my expectations and trajectory in 2019. I was drawn by the Spirit to embrace the suffering, marginalization and abandonment my refugee and asylum seeker friends were trapped in. I committed to redoubling my efforts to get them resettled.

I knew it would be an impossible ask and would entail a fair deal of the experience of dereliction they endure daily. In Jesuit parlance, I knew it would entail a fair deal of the experience of Third Degree of Humility which is a share in the dereliction that Jesus experienced on the Cross.

Since 2013, I have accompanied some of the most forgotten poor people in the world – refugees and asylum seekers, mostly Christian and mostly from Pakistan – who escaped persecution by Islamic fanatics only to flee to Bangkok where they are punished by the Thai police for fleeing persecution. They are “illegals” and Thailand is not a signatory to any of the protocols protecting refugees and asylum seekers.

In the era of Donald Trump and with populist nationalism that is widespread throughout the world, refugees and asylum seekers are the outcome of violence mostly of America’s making and fair game for those who are hostile to migrants fleeing the violence.

At the end of 2018, I thought I would have to spend 2019 comforting many as I told them I couldn’t do anything for their resettlement, that their torment wouldn’t end happily and that they should reconcile themselves to repatriation to a place where their lives are in danger. Or reconcile themselves to living forever in an open prison in Bangkok without income, work, medical support or education for their children.

Instead, doors opened in the most unexpected places in Europe (50) and even Australia (100) and good old Canada – which has maintained since 1979 its community-based resettlement scheme of sponsorships by groups like parishes and Protestant religious congregations. The Canadians agreed to take 200 through parish resettlements.

It’s long, slow and frustrating work and the “wins” are few and far between. But there’s enough of them to encourage me that there can be a happy ending for a lot. But it’s been a lonely slog – sharing their grief and pain, seeing the indifference of Church and NGO officials firsthand and just feeling there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s led me a long way beyond what my religious upbringing taught me and taken me on a journey that has led me well outside the boundaries it provided. It has completely relativized the claims those boundaries ever made on me and taken me to waters I found to be completely unchartered. It has led me to take a lonely journey that has taught me what faith is really about and which religion can only point to.

And being an Australian Catholic hasn’t been a lot of help either. It was tribal and ritualistic in my formative years and hardly prepared us to deepen the interior life that is indispensable for a growth and deepening of faith as life’s ambiguities and paradoxes unfold.

At a basic cultural level, Australia has to be among the most diverse societies on earth. It’s been our boast that with such diversity, we have a remarkably integrated society where the diversity hasn’t blown up on us. Given the potential for conflict, we lead a blessed existence.

That we haven’t blown up and the old Australian habit of live and let live has prevailed has meant the contours of religion have been reshaped in Australia as rivalries and competition have evaporated. But even more, the contours of Australian hearts are being refashioned. And mine has been and is being refashioned by an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus that the religion at its best, but only at its best, just points to.

So, what is to become of us? God only knows. Each of us has our unique pathway and a unique way to follow on our journey. Whatever becomes of us on that journey is developed between us and God. But one thing I’m sure about is that God never gives up…on me or anyone. Stick to the surrender in faith and love and amazing things happen.

For me it’s been the discovery Shakespeare aptly described:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio

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13 Responses to MICHAEL KELLY SJ. What is to become of us?

  1. Michael D. Breen says:

    Thanks for sharing your current steps on the way, Michael. I note your location for your significant retreat was Chiangmai where you and I spent some days talking about similar matters to the ones you raise. Being in Thailand, or Myanmar, India or Nepal is very different from being in Australia;in a spiritual sense. Be it notional ascent or material ascent there is a greater sense of the spiritual in Asia than in materialistic privileged, self satisfied Australia.
    Buddhism does not ask for acts of faith. As I understand it the sense is that through meditation, Zazen, you discover your true self which is different from all the trappings of what you were told you are or should be or even expect to be. You either experience it it or you do not.
    I think the faith business has been overdone. But I have form, having been denounced to a provincial for having ‘doubts about my faith’ as if it were a culpable matter. And when you think about it liturgical credal formulae were just ways of keeping out the great unwashed.
    I think the west has lots to learn, with the first degree of humility, from eastern spiritualities. That is unless there is still a desire for theological colonialism. Much of what was called spirituality in my experience was not. It was dogmatic, ritualistic, moralistic and often superstitious cult group behaviour.
    And some of the comments on the Jesuits above are enlightening. My theory is that in Australia they sought to train leaders. Their colleges became popular, with the leaders, the financial leaders. Then they became Stockholm captives to their parent patrons and their alumni. There is a Buddhist saying, “The way turns with your feet” all the best for your way.

  2. Michael Furtado says:

    A touching correspondence but one that goes to the heart of Michael Kelly’s spiritual crisis. For years he has been the most prominent Australian Media Jesuit, wielding power, as it were, behind the throne, as so many Jesuits choose to interpret their vow of obedience, oft-directed at sometimes unjustifiable causes. In that time, I too, a product of Jesuit formation, towed this tricky party line, supporting social justice causes but in the end siding with authorities that we now know, as a result of the Royal Commission, were corrupt to the core.As Mick Kelly considers his future and the ‘surrender and humility’ to which he is drawn, he may well pause to consider the state of the Catholic media, amidst some of which he is happy to associate himself with his commanding and highly articulate influence. I allude here to Eureka Street, a Jesuit journal propagating a supposedly open and respectful forum on the liberal arts and politics, in which a criticism of the presence of a statue of an Amazonian goddess of plenty was included and which was stolen by fundamentalists intent on discrediting the changes of this progressivist Pope. An alternative view, offered by me in several modalities, was firmly rejected by the journal’s moderators, and there the matter stands!

  3. Lynne Newington says:

    So, what is to become of us? God only knows. Each of us has our unique pathway and a unique way to follow on our journey. Whatever becomes of us on that journey is developed between us and God. But one thing I’m sure about is that God never gives up…on me or anyone. Stick to the surrender in faith and love and amazing things happen.

    Where would you go Michael?…..Sadly .like many others I’m aware of no-where.
    One thing you would learn though it’s about faith and not religion.

  4. Wayne McMillan says:

    Michael Thank you for your thoughts I had similar experiences growing up as an Australian Catholic. Your insights are precious and filled with wisdom.Wishing you peace and blessings.

  5. Mark Prytz says:

    Psychologist Albert Bandura coined the term “selective moral disengagement” to explain how good people do bad things.
    I have coined the term “selective moral engagement” to explain the behaviour of the Australian Jesuits.
    The Australian Jesuits are terribly good at taking the high moral ground when its an issue that doesn’t impact their own institution, social justice, refugees etc.
    But getting them to be truthful and transparent about the history of sex abuse within the Australian Jesuits is impossible.
    I was in Thailand last June/July and sent two messages to Michael Kelly asking to talk to him about sex abuse.
    I did not even receive a reply.
    Like most he is disengaged on that issue.
    Did Jesus heal the sick but ignore the hungry?
    There were/are at least 30 Australian Jesuit sex abusers of minors, mostly in Jesuit schools, 11 are still living and free.
    Fr. Provincial Brian McCoy will not concede/admit/accept that they are/were sex abusers.
    If an institution cannot apply the high moral standards they have with outside matters to their own selves they have lost their moral authority, they are corrupt at the core.

    • Rosemary O'Grady says:

      One presumes that they are receiving legal advice that says: Admit Nothing.
      Or: more appropriately : Ich kenn nicht!
      When the Pell Appeal is disallowed aka dismissed by a Full Bench of the High Court there might be a wake-up – and a change of legal advisers, even.
      I note that the opportunity has been missed to make a secular appointment in place of the retiring Rector of Newman.

  6. Fosco Ruzzene says:

    I have read Michael’s essay a few times but still cannot work out what he is saying. Is he claiming to have found the “hidden treasure” that Rabbi Jesus spoke of? Is he claiming this find as a living experience? Or, just something he read from a book at Jesuit training school.
    While I follow – from a distance – the adventures and mis-adventures of Vatican-ism I do not expect much. B.A. Santamaria, who appointed himself public voice of the Catholic layperson, claimed late in life that Christianity was in its deepest crisis since the 5th century. The man was wrong: it’s in the deepest crisis since the crucifixion. And, I doubt whether old or new theologies, or which gender has pulpit power in empty churches, is really going to make much difference. Although, there should be new thinking and there should be gender equality but I still think it is not going to matter much.
    It is not just Christianity in Western countries. Buddhism in Japan is in much the same situation, being hit by much the same forces.
    After twelve years of so called catholic education, in the late 60’s and early70’s I did walk through Michael’s door. But I went the other way: I walked out -like about ninety percent of people of my age. Just a few years ago I came to an unexpected realization: I was never a catholic – not a progressive, nor conservative, nor wishy-washy or any other brand. I do not think I was even a blissful dumb catholic sitting in a pew praying and obeying. I also realized that I have never believed in God. I was never an atheist, agnostic or even confused. I realized I did not know anything about God. And I still don’t. What I was then was brainwashed. What I am now is a recovering brainwashee. Just like an alcoholic is always an alcoholic and can only hope to be a recovering alcoholic. I do not blame the nuns or brothers or priests for my state of brainwashing because they too were brainwashed. They were just passing it on.
    Maybe I can allow myself the hope that if I can manage to become less brainwashed I could end up at the place Michael claims to be. Or, maybe that’s just something I have read out of a book. I don’t know.

    • Rosemary O'Grady says:

      Wow, Fosco. What insight!

    • Jim KABLE says:

      I was recently in Armenia where I discovered that the Armenian Apostolic Church pre-dates the Roman version by a score of years. Who knew (apart from those following the Armenian orthodoxy. Dark almost undecorated church interiors a further surprising discovery – almost as dour and undecorated as the fundamentalist protestant sect from which I escaped a half-century+ ago and to which I referred in an earlier comment. And I note Mark Prytz’s comment – which needs addressing – and given the timbre/detail of Greg BEARUP’s article on a classmate of over 30+ years ago – in the just published Weekend Australian Magazine on the dreadful and as yet unaddressed abuses by Marist Fathers at their Woodlawn secondary college in Lismore – the fleeing of church authorities from proper compensation of those whose lives have been destroyed needs much more exposure and the gaoling of those, like Pell for his abuses, who have played their own part in this debacle, these travesties!

  7. Hello Michael, and all P&I readers moved by this article as I am,
    I’m unable to respond at length today. However, “at length” isn’t needed. Just to say that so many of us are living beyond the “body” of any institution, redefining our personal wholeness and unravelling, if very slowly, the limitations of dualistic thinking. Of course this transforms every conditioned notion of who we are, who the so-called other is, what religion and religious indoctrination are, and what freedom is. I am deeply encouraged by the increasing number of people who are refusing the small view and embracing the infinitely larger one. Thank you so much, Michael, and I hope we will hear often from you here.

  8. Mary Tehan says:

    A very powerful offering thanks Michael. The God of surprise is always present if we are open to receiving these gifts of transformation. It can be a socially & spiritually, lonely, hard road in the patience required to encounter God in this way but I’m of the view that inscendence (as per Thomas Berry) means that reaching deeply down into our genetic (cultural and spiritual) roots is a Way for today; rather than transcendence. You have found one of those roots, Michael, and I applaud you for embracing its message and kernel of your Truth. May you find the strength and fortitude to continue – the world needs you so.

  9. Jim KABLE says:

    Bravo, Michael KELLY SJ: Your honest and open letter on what has been transforming for you – given the dark ugliness of much in the Church – is reassuring that there yet exists a passion for being the essential Christian or person of faith that was embodied in the figure of the Biblical Jesus – who lived with the people (sex workers, tax-collectors, women, fishing folk – growing up indeed in a carpenter’s household) – had himself experienced in his earliest life the path of a refugee – a figure of compassion – and of fury (those bankers and financial services setting themselves up in the forecourt of the Temple certainly experienced that – and in most ways – despite a recent Royal Commission – still do merit dismissal and strict regulation). Michael’s work for the refugees in Thailand is informed by the harsh stone-hearted policies of the Australian Government – Manus, Nauru, Christmas Island (ugh!) of course – and he highlights those countries whose moral compass is not as bleak as our own.

    I am reminded of two significant men in my own life – one a distant cousin in the UK – a theologian of some distinction – a former Dean of Theology at UCL and protégé of JRR Tolkien – and also a Jesuit – Robert MURRAY SJ – and of Australian Reconciliation Marist priest, Paul GLYNN SM. A friend I would like to think over the past nearly 30 years. Read his world-wide contribution to bringing people together – to effecting transformed lives. A true Christian of heroic impact – though knowing Paul – he would demur at such a description – nevertheless it is true. Their concerns for the spiritual dimension and for the active and positive participation in society have long impressed me (an escapee from the religious strictures of a narrow fundamentalist “faith”) as have a number of friends from a long-time residence in rural/back-water Japan – of various Buddhist sects and of Shintoism. “By their works shall ye know them” is both a way of identifying the best among us – and no doubt a warning to those who profess religiosity but whose words AND actions reveal to us all that such profession is hollow! And especially if those voices are politicians’ voices. Hypocrisy in that case knows no bounds.

  10. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    Touching.
    This resonates with what was once called”faith by desire” – in which the soul cannot believe but desires to/wishes it could.
    The Prayer of Thomas: … help Thou my unbelief.
    Of course – nothing so simple befalls contemporary Christians, at least in Australia where so many are engaged in averting eyes from the prisons containing convicted sexual predators.

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