I spent my childhood and youth in Tasmanian towns, never had any desire to live on a farm but always enjoyed going to what I knew as ‘the show’, which was in fact an agricultural show. The show offered two kinds of spectacles: what went on in the side-shows and what happened in the main arena.
The side-shows drew the crowds and were quite noisy as if to assure patrons that something was happening. I used to check them out but soon became bored. On the other hand, I don’t remember the main arena being noisy or busy; it seemed to be the place where one had to wait for something to happen. I presume there was a program of events. I enjoyed watching the animals parade around the arena, the sheep-dogs work the sheep and the horses jump barriers. I would also spend time visiting the stalls where the prize cattle, pigs, sheep and dogs were kept.
I don’t know why these images came to me as I pondered the future of the Catholic Church in Australia. But, there does seem to be a similarity between the present goings on in the Catholic Church and what I used to see at Tasmanian agricultural shows over 60 years ago.
Among the efforts to promote church renewal, there are side-shows and there is the program in the main arena.
In the Catholic Church, there was a day when the bishops seemed to occupy the main arena. During those years of the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965) and its immediate aftermath the bishops seemed to be front and centre and the following paragraph at the beginning of the final major statement by that council sums up their key agenda:
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men and women. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man and woman. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with humankind and its history by the deepest of bonds. (The Church in the Modern World, No 1)[i]
Whatever else may have been happening was, we thought, a side-show. It was the bishop of Rome, Pope John XXIII, who got that ball rolling. The two popes who came into the job after Vatican II blocked it. Francis, our present pope, is doing his best to update[ii] and put new life into what had been wound down.
Pope Francis did not have to begin from zero as the church in many parts of the world has had the good fortune to have been led by bishops in collaboration with others sharing a pastoral focus on fostering life, especially where it is being denied, namely among the poor and marginalised and frequently in the context of irresponsible lack of care for the earth, our common home. Many may see the poor and marginalised as the periphery of society. However, from God’s perspective, the so-called periphery is the main arena.
St Francis of Assisi chose to be marginal and is today a symbol of medieval church renewal. Archbishop Oscar Romero chose to stand with the poor and oppressed of El Salvador. For that, he was assassinated and, more recently, proclaimed a saint, much to the joy of Christians around the world striving to live in solidarity with the poor. In recent years, in many parts of the world, lay women and men, nuns, priests and bishops have been killed because of their solidarity with the poor and oppressed in their struggle for justice and a fair go.
In so far as and our local church finds ways to prioritise the well-being and dignity of the poor and marginalised of our society it will avoid the side-show syndrome and occupy the main arena. However, we do risk contenting ourselves with welfare, which, though necessary, is basically a side-show. To truly occupy the main arena, we must challenge and commit to changing society, locally and globally, in ways that are life giving for all, especially those currently being denied opportunities to live life to the full – men, women and children who are often treated as ‘nobodies’.
In every society, people are branded, explicitly or subtly, as ‘nobodies’. Eduardo Galeano, an Uruguayan writer (b. 1940), wrote a poem about los Nadies (The Nobodies) in 1989. His writings challenge society to redress social injustices, in particular, in Latin America. This poem might help us heed and respond in justice to the poor and marginalised – the nobodies – of Australia. To begin to respond we need to get ourselves on the same wavelength as ‘The Nobodies’. Face to face listening is not a bad way to begin the process. Los Nadies in translation:
Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream of escaping poverty: that one magical day good luck will suddenly rain down on them–will rain down in buckets. But good luck doesn’t rain down yesterday, today, tomorrow, or ever. Good luck doesn’t even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is tickling, or if they begin the new day with their right foot, or start the new year with a change of brooms.
The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing.
The nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way.
Who are not, but could be.
Who don’t speak languages, but dialects.
Who don’t have religions, but superstitions.
Who don’t create art, but handicrafts.
Who don’t have culture, but folklore.
Who are not human beings, but human resources.
Who do not have faces, but arms.
Who do not have names, but numbers.
Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the police blotter of the local paper.
The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.
i Inclusive language was not in the original text.
ii Laudato Sí, Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter on care for earth, our common home.
Peter Woodruff worked as a missionary priest in Lima, Peru, from 1968 to 2008. He retired to Australia ten years ago and since then he has turned his hand to writing and editing. He presently edits The Australian Journal of Missionary Studies, an ecumenical journal. In early September 2018 Pearls and Irritations published Peter’s open letter to Pope Francis.