Being a disciple of Christ: no soft option

Being a disciple of Christ: no soft option

Archbishop George Pell

As Catholics we have no easy right to filter out inconvenient or objectionable slabs of the New Testament. We stand under the Word of God; and with the help of our intelligence, hundreds of years of commentary and some Church guidelines (often not too many on the exact meaning of many parts of Scripture) we are entitled to try to puzzle out the meanings of difficult passages.

For example, there are verses from Malachi (3:19-20) and Luke (21:5-19) that are written in apocalyptic language.

Apocalyptic language is often surreal, its features distorted and exaggerated with the details in technicolour and often accompanied by pyrotechnics. The principal theme always centres on the struggle between good and evil and often the final clash between these two primordial forces.

Original sin

In a preliminary sense, these are teachings about the cost of discipleship; of the ways we are forced to confront the consequences of original sin, that moral fault line which runs through every heart, every community, indeed the whole of human history.

It is a reminder to us that Catholicism, the following of Christ, can never be reduced to the bland leading the bland.

The gospel discussion in Luke was triggered by the reflections of some Jews to Our Lord on the beauties of the second Temple in Jerusalem, which provoked in turn Jesus' prophecy of the Temple's destruction.

Recently I read a good commentary which suggested that Our Lord did not need to call on any supernatural powers to foresee what was going to happen. As a man who knew the human heart as no other did, who knew his people, had one of the zealots (Simon) among his apostles, and understood the power and ruthlessness of Rome, the consequences might well have seemed inevitable, with only the timing uncertain.

Within forty years Our Lord's prophecy was fulfilled when Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans under Titus.

Josephus tells us that 1,100,000 persons were killed; that at the subsequent triumph in Rome 97,000 Jewish slaves were paraded through the capital of the Empire and that in the fighting 6,000 refugees perished in the portico of the Temple, deluded by a false prophet to await the final revelation there.

All this is a world away from our quiet and peaceful lives. But it is equally true that more Christians have died violently for their faith in this century than in any other; mainly under the Communists and the Nazis, but also in Southern Africa and in Central and Southern America.

I vividly recall meeting Fr Vincent, a Chinese underground priest in Shanghai, who was jailed for 17 years - five of them in solitary, some of the time with the cell containing 6 inches of water. He was a small man, in wonderful spirits, indomitable, who conversed in excellent English on Thomas More and Newman and many other things. He explained that the authorities were powerless to control him, because they knew he was unafraid to die.

Archbishop Francis Xavier Thuan, a Vietnamese, who is now head of the Council for Justice and Peace in the Vatican, spent more than ten years in jail, and five or six under house arrest. One of his interlocutors some years ago reminded him how strongly the Communists (who still rule in Vietnam) had to oppose the Catholic Church because the Catholics had caused the Communists to lose five or six countries! Catholics today in places such as East Timor and Pakistan suffer regular hostile pressure and occasional violence.

One of the unusual teachings of Our Lord is that the Christian life is not a contest for champions only and, equally importantly, not a struggle where all participants are equal and where the advantaged finish in front. It is the poor and the suffering who have the advantage in the light of eternity; while of those who have received much, much more is expected.

There is always some struggle in the Christian life, personally and communally. Being Catholic means a readiness to pray and to worship at Mass regularly, to act decently and honestly - first of all with family and friends - and to strive for honesty, integrity and purity. We should also use our talents and training in some further and public way in the struggle for good and against evil in our Church and society. There are many different ways this can and must be done in different areas of life to maintain our Church and society in at least as healthy a situation as we have received it - and moreover to hand on a better inheritance to the next generation.

Christian leaven

We must not withdraw into our corners, drawing mutual consolation away from a neurotic, hostile society. That society needs us; unfortunately there are not too many others to provide the Christian leaven that is needed. We have plenty of scope. We should not be deterred by difficulty. God gives the increase.

The London Times reported recently on a survey of "Generation Y" - 16-21-year-olds, who will come of age around the millennium. The figures were very interesting: 57% of these youngsters felt fox-hunting should be illegal; 16% thought smoking in public should be illegal and 15% thought abortion should be illegal. 59% wanted to own their home, but only 45% said they wanted to have children. Certainly there is no evidence of a disproportional Christian influence here!

We are called to do our best. Nothing more can be required, but sometimes we can be pleasantly surprised by the results. God gives the increase.

One particular incident in my life as Archbishop of Melbourne bears this out. We have one of Australia's best Art Galleries in Melbourne, heavily subsidised by government, called the National Gallery of Victoria. This gallery announced during 1997 a display of pornographic photos by an American Andres Serrano, which included a picture of a crucifix in a jar of urine, entitled Piss Christ.

I contacted the Gallery and asked them to remove the blasphemous photo to a private gallery. I explained that a publicly funded institution had no right to insult Christians in this way, and that if they persisted I would take the matter to court alleging public blasphemy.

All the leaders of the major Christian denominations backed the public protest, as did the Moslems and Jewish leaders. One synagogue contacted me promising prayers. There was no movement, so we appealed to the Supreme Court of Victoria.

The judge ruled against us, but Catholics and other Christians gathered each day outside the gallery, some praying the rosary; some were secondary Catholic students. On the 2nd or 3rd day a man from Sydney pulled the photo from the wall; on the next day a couple of youths attacked the perspex covering of the photo with a hammer.

There was big press coverage; then unexpectedly the Gallery cancelled the entire Serrano exhibition. I am not entirely sure why!

I never began the operation thinking we would achieve this result. It was not earth-shattering; undoubtedly the result was helped by the mild violence which did not come from rank and file Catholics. But it was a victory for decency. The moral of the story is that we struggle because it is right and proper. Whether we win or lose is secondary; but we can and sometimes will win against the odds.

Let me conclude with a reflection from a second century Christian author: "The faithful do not reap a quick harvest: they have to wait for it to ripen slowly because if God rewarded them quickly, religion would be a career and not the worship of God. It would consist in the pursuit of self interest, not piety".

Edited from Archbishop Pell's recent homily at the Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy, England.

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