The Walter Silvester Memorial Lecture 2019

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli
Warm greetings on this Spring evening here in beautiful Melbourne. May I begin by thanking John Ballard and our hosts at Australian Catholic University (ACU), and all who have worked hard to organise tonight’s lecture, especially Fiona McKenna and the good priests and brothers of the Pallottines. Thank you so much for joining us this.

Let me also acknowledge Fr Walter Silvester SAC, after whom this lecture is named, an energetic pastor who experienced war first hand, and who is remembered with such love and respect, especially by those many religious and clergy whom he mentored and accompanied. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him.

Our times, our era of the Church, is certainly a time of reform, as much as anything else. Ecclesia semper reformanda est, as the saying goes. But it seems to me that in any kind of reform, there is a temptation to start thinking that major change of structures is enough, as if our hearts did not require a good clean out as well.

But how does the Church go about learning well the way of reform? For corporations, reform is couched in economic terms; for civic authorities, in bureaucratic terms. While the Church has both corporate and civic dimensions to it, it is neither of these in essence. Consequently, the kind of reform that the Church needs to undertake has to be particular to its essentially ecclesial reality. This is because the sources for reform will be found from within, even when the need for reform is recognised from without.

The Church’s inner identity is that of the Pilgrim People of God, the mystical Body of Christ. She is a person – the pronoun matters – who is sacramental in character; her life and renewal is therefore personal in form. Invitation, conversion and encounter are the defining words of ecclesial reform. As the Lord, through Isaiah, calls to us:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isa 1.16-17)
This is the theme of my lecture this evening.

There is a certain irony in the fact that St John Henry Newman had his Anglican sermons collected and published under the title “Parochial and Plain Sermons.” If you’ve ever read any of them, you will very soon discover that they are neither ‘parochial’ nor ‘plain’. Newman – saint that he now is – was anything but provincial and narrow in his thinking, and certainly not simplistic in his teaching. And the length of his sermons would have tested the most hardy of listeners sitting through a cold English winter on unforgiving wooden pews.

Yet, Newman knew how to offer profound thoughts to his listeners with words that were readily understood, and with sentences that could be grasped and remembered. He preached the depth and breadth of the Christian life in a language that we would today call ‘plain-English’. As a result, his remarkable grasp of Christian revelation shines forth in uncomplicated, yet luminous communications.

In one such sermon, where Newman deals with the problem of knowing God’s will without being obedient to it, he makes the following remark. It seems a very trite thing to say, that it is nothing to know what is right, unless we do it… Knowledge is nothing compared to doing; but the knowing that knowledge is nothing, we make to be something, we make it count, and thus we cheat ourselves.

Newman’s point is a simple one: to know the truth, but then not to act on it, is tantamount to nothing – it is, what we might call these days, ‘virtue-signalling’, devoid of any obedience to the lived reality. Put more prosaically: actions, not ideas, are what change the world. Newman makes this point in the context of considering repentance. To acknowledge sorrow for our faults is a step towards reform of our lives, but aknowledgement is not a substitute for true repentance, which brings about a change of heart and ways.

We have in this notion something of Newman’s more famous remark, of which I’m sure you are all familiar: “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” What is not readily known is that these words sit within the context of his analysis of the development of doctrine and the true nature of reform.

So, let me quote from Newman more extensively.
It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil… In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.

I will return to Newman a little later on, but I make mention of him now to draw out an idea about the need for reform in the Church that might carry us towards what might constitute a truely reforming Church, as distinct from the proposing of reforming ideas for the Church. The former, in Newman’s sense, seeks obedience to a revealed truth that is fruit bearing in the Church; the latter is a signaling of an idea for the Church that – true or not – is arbitrary to Revelation.

A truth which we might usefully take up in this regard, one which is the defining impetuous of our current pontificate, is the joy of the Gospel. I have personally heard Pope Francis say that, to know his mind on reform in the Church, then read Evangelii gaudium. For Francis, the joy of receiving the Christian Gospel must lead to the adoption of a missionary impulse “capable of transforming everything”. The Church that lives according to this Gospel must understand herself as being “permanently in a state of mission.” And the task of God’s People is to undertake “an ecclesial renewal which cannot be deferred.”

Pope Francis proposes to us a reforming Church that lives in accordance with a missionary style in obedience to the joy of the Gospel. As he puts it:
I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”… With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!” (EG.3)

Note the language Pope Francis adopts to describe the Church in her reforming character: encounter; invitation; openness; perseverance; inclusion; tenderness; restoration; joy; renewal; constancy; urgency. But it is the grounding of this missionary reform that is most striking. It is not initially in the change to organizational structures or social imperatives but in the change of personal conversion. It is not focused on ecclesiastical debates but on an encounter with the Resurrected Lord. It is not a task for a select few, but a way that impels us all. Why? As he put it early on in his Pontificate: “The joy of God is the joy of forgiveness… This is all the Gospel, here; this is Christianity!... Only love can do this, and this is the joy of God.” (Angelus, 15 September 2013)

These remarkable words sum up the whole of the Christian enterprise, in which the sources of reform are to be found. And yet how is it that so many people in our time think of other words to describe Christianity? Restrictive words, hard words, hurtful words, implying that Christians are repressive, or irrational, or even damaging to our culture.

What are we to do? All across our land, there are Christians who are selflessly serving the needy, loving the most difficult, offering healing, warmth, and friendship. There are Christians trying to overturn bad laws that hurt the vulnerable or destroy life or lock up those seeking a new land. There are Christians who live the most ordinary of lives, but spend each day with a few minutes of quiet prayer, or time with their Bible, or perhaps praying the Rosary for a son or a daughter who is in a bit of trouble. (How many prayers does our Blessed Mother hear each day from ordinary folk with things on their mind?)

How is it that such members of the Church get tarnished so negatively in these strange days, and increasingly the conversation among Catholics is not whether we need to reform, but how. For Melbourne Christians, we are in the middle of many debates and disagreements about the nature of the Gospel and the place of the Church, which can be bewildering and confusing, even sometimes hurtful.

So, while maintaining that the Gospel is absolutely good news, and that joy should be our core business, I’d like to suggest some principles of reform that might hold us in good stead as we go about planting the Gospel in this place, at this time, among these people.

Reform in the Walking

The reforming imperative of Pope Francis has come to be described in practice as one of ‘reform in the walking’. The point the Holy Father makes with this turn of phrase is that a genuine Gospel reform is one undertaken in the doing, and not in the saying. Francis, very much like his predecessors Benedict and John Paul II, is urging us to walk the walk, to live and behave as ambassadors of the mercy of God, to share the forgiveness that is so freely given to us, to constantly go out into the reality of people’s lives with the gift of Christ.

In this regard, we might especially recall what an extraordinary thing it is that in the intimacy of the Sacrament of Reconciliation or the gathering around the Eucharistic table, we walk back into the world with a heart healed not just from sin, but for mission. The one who has been healed is a little lighter, a little more free, a little more at ease, and they have experienced something worth sharing with others. A reform in the life of our local Church that is not focused on this reality is one in which we will stop walking with the Lord. But this walking needs to be done together. Christian reform is one that adopts the way of Emmaus – we will find the path ahead only by walking together with the Lord.

To this end, it is not without import that Pope Francis has especially sought to renew the synodal way of the Church. Synodality means ‘walking together’. He had this to say about synodality as recently as this past weekend: We are on a journey; we are on a good journey. And we are increasingly understanding what it means to walk together; we are understanding what it is to discern, what it means to listen, what it means to incorporate the Church’s rich tradition in critical moments. (Closing Address, Amazonian Synod)

It is still very early days in the recovery of the notion of synodality in the life of the Church in the West. While our Eastern brothers and sisters have lived this ecclesial way for centuries, the Latin Church has returned to it only very recently. There is much to be understood and learnt, for example, about the play between the sensus fidei and the sensus fidelium – the sense of the faith and the sense of the faithful. So, patience will be needed. But the synodal road to reform has now been taken, and we will all need to learn what its contours and terrain have to offer.

Our new context

Which leads me to my second point. A deadly temptation inherent in any reforming endeavour is to subject it to a process of ‘blue sky thinking’, as if nothing of where we have come from is worth bringing with us on the road ahead. But novelty is not the same of creativity, and tradition is not a dirty word. As Pope Francis goes on to say:
Some think that tradition is a museum of old things. I like to repeat what Gustav Mahler said: “Tradition is the safeguard of the future and not the custody of ashes.” It’s like the root from which the sap comes that makes the tree grow so that it bears fruits. (Closing Address, Amazonian Synod)

Genuine ecclesial reform is a renewal of life. This image of fruitfulness, stemming from the roots of life, has found a powerful hermeneutic in the notion of re-sourcement, the returning to the sources. As Yves Congar, the great theologian of the 2nd Vatican Council, described it, “re-sourcement consists in a recentering on Christ and on the Paschal Mystery.” He added: There are only two possible ways of bringing about renewal or updating. You can either make the new element that you want to put forward normative, or you can take as normative the existing reality that needs to be updated or renewed… You will end up with either a mechanical updating in danger of becoming both a novelty and a schismatic reform, on the one hand, or a genuine renewal (a true development) that is a reform in and of the Church, on the other hand.

As a theological friend of mine from outside of the Catholic tradition has recently put it: “No one who has not learned to be traditional can dare to innovate.”

I sought to capture something of this hermeneutic of re-sourcement in my St Patrick Oration in March this year:
At this time of deep crisis and humiliation within the life of the Church in Melbourne, might it not be time to let go of the past and begin anew? So, this is the proposal I want to put to you tonight, wounded but proud; shaken but determined: that the future of the Christian faith in our city lies in letting go of the old landscape of a Catholic Melbourne, and instead re-beginning the work of Patrick, re-planting our city with the seeds of the Gospel, re-discovering a knowledge, language and pedagogy that can transform lives. It is a proposal to make the move away from the institutional centre and relocate ourselves among our local neighbourhoods of grace.

We cannot deny the wounds that we now carry. We cannot shirk our responsibilities to learn the abiding lessons about what went wrong, of the failures of our predecessors in the Catholic faith here in Victoria. But that doesn’t stop us from doing a good work now. We are now learning how to let go of the edifices and structures that have outworn their purpose, and to get going in our work a little lighter, a little less burdened….dare I say it, a little more like the apostles.

Opportunities for reform

In the Catholic Church of 2019, we have a number of opportunities now to exercise wise deliberation on how to reform at a broader level. One of them is a work that is quite new for all of us, especially in the way it is being undertaken, that of the Plenary Council.

The last Plenary Council in Australia was in 1937, and a few things have happened since then! And in fact it was a Plenary Council for the Church in Australia and New Zealand. Following a year of listening and dialogue, and following from the current period of discernment and writing, next year we will hold the first of two Assembles, leading to decisions for the life of the Church in our country. In some respects we might say this is the first Plenary Council for the Church in Australia, with a sensitive awareness of all that it means to be Australian Catholics.

The process of Listening and Discernment sits at the heart of the work of the Plenary Council. It is not a Parliament or a debating chamber, nor is it a form of representative democracy. It is not about this lobby group or that political party, and nor is it about backroom deals and negotiations. It is about us, together, with all of our disagreements and emphases, pausing in prayer and in faith, and listening to the Holy Spirit. We are to do so with joy at every step, for without joy we would be losing our way at every turn.

St John Henry Newman

Lastly, it is timely to look to a guide, a luminary from our tradition to help us keep to the path we need to take. So, I return to John Henry Newman, our latest canonized saint.

Newman’s thought on the development of doctrine informed a significant number of contributors to the Second Vatican Council, including Congar.

Newman was a convert to the Catholic faith at a time in which it meant losing status and influence in his native England. He was a great intellect, yet to be received into the Church he was required to sit with school children and learn the Catechism from clergy far less educated than he was. Nonetheless, he did so humbly and out of a generous obedience, patiently putting up with all the slings and arrows of those who looked upon him with distrust and sometimes disdain.

I think Newman is important to anyone trying to find their way as a Catholic in the new context in which we find ourselves. After his reception into the Catholic Church, he worked tirelessly to defend it, not blind to its defects, but always trying to refine it, purify it with a sensitive humanity, allow it to spring to life in joy and not to die in the dust of misery and inward self-focus. Newman learned how to be a critic of the Catholic Church when it was at its worst, and yet nobody now could say he was anything other than a loyal member of it.

Newman gives witness to the integrated Catholic life, the kind of life in which one’s humanity shines brightly. ‘Cor ad cor loquitur’ was his motto: ‘Heart speaks unto heart’. The Catholic Church will have to learn again how to be a school of learning for what it means to be human.

Allow me to draw a little further on Newman. By the time Fr Newman became Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland in 1854, the idea of an integrated education of the whole person had all but vanished from continental Europe. The university had become a place where “it was nobody’s responsibility to relate what is learned and taught in any one discipline to what is learned and taught in any other.”

Modern universities were certainly places of great learning and teaching; but they had become places where the pursuit of knowledge and understanding had fragmented into a multiplicity of enquiries without any unifying hierarchy. Theology had been abandoned to seminaries, and philosophy had become an autonomous specialisation. There was no underlying unity that could direct the pursuit of knowledge of the world and our place within it. Knowledge of the universe was no longer the purview of a university, just knowledge of its parts.

Into this environment, Newman wanted to re-establish the link between the idea of a university as a location for the pursuit of knowledge and the idea of the person as the location for the perfecting of the intellect. His idea was that a Catholic university should be a place where the intellectual virtues – coordinated around the cardinal virtue of prudence – were pursued as an education for life.

This pursuit of intellectual excellence – identified as knowledge of the Truth – would then be communicated in and through the teaching of every academic disciple. A Catholic university’s task was not simply to fill the minds of its students with knowledge about the world, but to transform their minds, so that they would become a different kind of individual in the world.

This task, according to Newman, would require congregating the various disciplines within a university around a common unifying principle. This did not mean undermining the proper scope and integrity of each discipline. In fact, Newman wanted to ensure that no one discipline could claim the competence of another. Economics cannot answer the questions of ethics, for example.

Instead, the unifying principle would be the gathering up of all knowledge around knowledge of God, which alone provides the means of relating various kinds of knowledge to each other. It provides the structure within which an economist and an ethicist can communicate effectively because it provides a common worldview. Each would have a responsibility to the other in the pursuit of an integrated worldview, for the sake of transforming the lives of their students.

I invite you to think of this insight of Newman’s in terms of the life of the universities of our city. A gospel reform is not simply or merely limited to the internal life of the Church. We are to ‘go out’ as Pope Francis continually insists, to transform all human endevours. Nothing of our lives – or in our lives – is excluded from the life of the Lord.

I’d like to conclude my lecture on that note, of “transformation.” Catholics have had to learn how to change in recent years. We have had to bow our heads and say with great sincerity how sorry we are for the sins and failings that have been committed, including crimes against the young and the vulnerable. That is right and appropriate. And in doing so, we learn how to become a little more integrated as people in communion with one another, called to serve and not to be served.

Like Newman, we must learn how to be good students, and only by entering into the spirit of change and transformation, by turning to Christ who is the fullness of humanity as well as the glory of divinity, will we learn the art of conversion and reform, that takes a lifetime of change to perfect. This is the only way we will move beyond that which hinders our missionary endeavours, leading to fuller, more human lives, and in the most ordinary of circumstances, being witnesses to that joy beyond telling, that mercy beyond understanding, and that forgiveness that makes a person free.
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