'Faith of Our Fathers' - still valid for the 1990s

'Faith of Our Fathers' - still valid for the 1990s

Bishop George Pell

Bishop George Pell is a member of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a Melbourne auxiliary bishop. The following article is an extract from his colloquium given on August 5th to commemorate the centenary of St James, Gardenvale, parish.

The Catholic Church in Australia is passing through a period of pluriformity, unusual in our brief history, but one finds many parallels in the two thousand-year-long Christian story and the longer story of Judaism beforehand. We now have a variety of liturgical styles in our parishes and a great deal of theological confusion and divisions among our intelligentsia, with the great bulk of our slowly diminishing group of Mass-goers not too much influenced by this, except when it impinges on the young members of their families.

The transmission of the Catholic culture even within our best families is no longer semi-automatic; youth remain the most important challenge and too much emphasis on adult education for the middle-aged can be an escape from the hurly-burly, the opposition experienced when preaching the full gospel to questioning or hostile teenagers.

The temptation for most of us is not triumphalism or clericalism, nor a too-rigid living of some brand of Catholicism; the danger is that too many shall be submerged and lost in our society, poisoned by too much sugar, by the good life, by slackness, and by the agnosticism and hedonism of our surroundings.

To state this is not to succumb to pessimism. I do not think for a minute that the Catholic Church will pass out of Australian history; but I do believe that the best way to do what Our Lord would want of us is to read the signs of the times, be they good, bad or indifferent.

It is often stated that we must not go back to the fifties, and there can be no such refuge in an impossible return to the past; doubly so in this case because the Church is irrevocably committed to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

However what is acknowledged far less frequently seems to me to be equally true; many of the priorities and policies of the Church of the sixties are quite inappropriate to the changed situation of the nineties.

In the sixties the Church had to explain and implement the reforms of a great Council in an Australian Catholic population which was not pushing for change and was almost totally ignorant of the whirlwind about to strike. In those days we were without the blessings of ecumenism, without the great advantage of our liturgy in English, much more hesitant of co-operative dialogue with our fellow Australians. We had not heard of the collegiality of bishops, we explained away our weakness and wilfulness without recourse to theories of freedom of conscience and Catholic intellectual leaders, such as they were, were probably less qualified academically (with some exceptions) and more accepting of the leadership of Pope and bishops. It was a different, more optimistic world.

Since then we have seen the departure of many priests and religious and a serious decline in vocations, even to the diocesan clergy. Now ecumenism is taken for granted and the challenge is to explain the special status of Catholicism to our young people.

Sense of the sacred

Now our liturgies are in the vernacular, intelligible even to outsiders, while the challenge is to preserve and develop that sense of the sacred, to insist that the Mass is an act of worship, of reverence for the numinous, the powerful invisible presence of God's love revealed to us through God's redeeming Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord. Our task now is not to explain religious freedom, but to explain why individual conscience is not paramount.

In other words, we stand in need of a continuing public vindication of the Catholic tradition. It was for this reason that I consented to the "Faith of Our Fathers" title for this colloquium, that stirring and sentimental favourite written by the nineteenth century English convert Fr William Faber, and sung so lustily in the past at the Holy Name gatherings and at my old school of St Patrick's in Ballarat. It is interesting to note that it was hardly ever sung in the Corpus Christi seminary of old, probably because the Jesuits thought it was a bit "down-market" and that its somewhat vulgar emotionalism would not stand up in the long run.

That was not my concern on this occasion, because I happen to believe that every popular religion needs a broad tradition of 'vulgarity,' which we are in danger of losing. I am concerned to explain that the Faith of our Fathers title does not imply a blanket rejection of Christian feminist demands in society and in the Church. We need to discriminate and distinguish. A disproportionate amount of human suffering in our world is borne by women; we have to recognise this and work towards a greater recognition, within the Church too, of the leadership capacity of women. It is no coincidence that Mother Mary McKillop will probably be our first Australian saint.

However this is another story, for another occasion perhaps, because men still present a greater challenge for Catholicism than women do. It was one of the proudest achievements of the 'old' Church in Australia that so many men were comfortable in regular prayer and worship. This is at risk, not least because there is a crisis of male self-understanding in our society, equal to the earthquake provoked among women by feminism, and caused by, for example, the collapse of the old macho self-understanding and the spread of gay propaganda.

Within the Church, we should never be paralysed by fear, because the warm hand of God is always there to be grasped. Ours is far from the worst of times and the triumphs of the past in those rare moments of victory, which we experienced in Europe with the Communist collapse of 1989, as well as those much longer periods of dogged perseverance under pressure, are there to inspire and sustain us.

I do not know whether the Catholic Church in Australia is in its infancy still, or its adolescence. Certainly we are tempted to sulk because of our present difficulties. We should see them rather as opportunities for us to deepen our humility and so gain strength for the long haul to redress our difficulties.

Earlier this year when I was in Rome for a couple of meetings I could open my window onto the Church of St Augustine, built more than two hundred years before Captain Cook landed at Botany Bay. St Augustine himself had been baptised in Milan nearly twelve hundred years before that in the recently excavated baptistry below the present nineteenth century cathedral.

The Gregorian chant now sung so lovingly by the choir of St James dates from the sixth century, and had been sung, as a young Catholic writer explained it in a recent copy of the London Spectator, when Picts still painted their bodies and Irish kings still ruled from Tara, while St Cuthbert was immured in his hermitage on Farne and Bede was writing on a rickety desk in Jarrow!'

Just as surely, much of the polyphony which the St James choir also uses had been sung in St Peter's when Michelangelo was first painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which our friends the Japanese are now so carefully restoring.

We should remember these things.

We should remember who we are, hold fast to what we have received so that Catholic faith and Catholic culture become as much a part of Australian life as the gums and the wattle, with thousands of communities, like Gardenvale parish, worshipping and serving and worrying about their children long into the future, when names like Hawke and Menzies are only half-forgotten memories.

The Church has always been surrounded by temptations, by the easy way out. As another English convert G.K. Chesterton put it so beautifully:

"It is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. It is always easy to be a modernist; and it is easy to be a snob ... It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect."

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