The secular challenges to our faith: how to respond

The secular challenges to our faith: how to respond

Bishop Geoffrey Jarrett

This is the edited text of the Pastoral Letter of Bishop Geoffrey Jarrett of Lismore, NSW, to the clergy, religious and lay people of his diocese. It was published in June 2004.

One of the clearest messages which Pope John Paul II gave to the Bishops of Australia when we met with him during our ad limina visit last March was this: Do everything in your power to challenge your people to rediscover and to strengthen the Christian observance of Sunday, with their faithful presence each week at Sunday Mass at its heart.

The Holy Father said: "Any weakening in the Sunday observance of Holy Mass weakens Christian discipleship and dims the light of Christ's presence in our world. When Sunday loses its fundamental meaning and becomes subordinate to the secular concept of 'weekend' dominated by such things as entertainment and sport, people stay locked within a horizon so narrow that they can no longer see the heavens ...".

The context for the Pope's concern about the impact of "the secular concept" upon Catholic practice in Australia so often comes home to me as I listen to many parents, grandparents, priests and teachers in our schools, who tell me of the pain they feel when their children, grandchildren, friends and parishioners drift away, seeming not to know the reason, nor feel the privilege, of being part of the Mass.

As one priest said, it's sad to see such good and promising young people "gobbled up" by "the secular concept" that fuels the unremitting peer pressure they experience all around them. It's small consolation to know that, within a few hours' flight from our shores, tens of thousand of Catholics would be thrilled to have the Mass as easily as we do, and others are risking imprisonment or death just to have Mass at all.

In times past, we Catholics have been at our best in responding to challenge and withstanding outside pressures. Our origins in this country 200 years ago were as a poor and marginalised minority, who together with the Jews and various other 'outsiders', were often only given a piece of land right on the edge of the colonial town.

Responding to vigorous leadership we worked our way into the mainstream, building our churches like great statements of faith, educating our children in schools which defied the policy of secular education, and contributing proudly as Catholics to all areas of community, professional and political life. Numerically, we have now become the largest single religious constituent in the Australian population.

Paradoxically, just as we have found ourselves with this status, in our country as in similar societies of the so-called "first world", the scene has changed. Now it is religion itself that is becoming marginalised, and particularly institutions dubbed as "organised religions". I understand the Pope to have had this in mind when he said to the Australian bishops, "The pernicious ideology of secularism has found fertile ground in Australia. At the root of this disturbing development is the attempt to promote a vision of humanity without God. It exaggerates individualism, sunders the essential link between freedom and truth, and corrodes the relationships of trust which characterise genuine social living."

Secular "religion"

In modern Australia, keeping God out of any discussion in the public square, as if He did not exist, has become the default position. Practical atheism, or at least a polite agnosticism that views religious beliefs as no more than private opinions, has now become an unofficial "religion" - the only "religion" that may have a place in a secular state.

It is likely that many Catholics have not yet grasped the urgency of our present position. We enjoy religious freedom; Mass and the sacraments are available to those who want them. Our schools have never been bigger or fuller. A Catholic wedding or funeral is still an option.

Just under the surface of our society, though, there's a feeling something is not right. Relationships and family life are more risky and hazardous than they used to be; there's something odd in all the claims that everything and everybody should be given "equal rights", or that a free-for-all of blame and litigation has broken out in our society.

At this exact point, however, the Christian response is that there is hope, always hope. We Catholics declare that hope has a name: it is Jesus Christ, and that this Lord of power and might is present with us until the end of the world in the way that He Himself planned and made possible: in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

This is what the Church has to offer to human beings in the search for the real food that satisfies: for peace, for love, for meaning. Among all the ideologies and spiritualities on offer today to the point of confusion, we Catholics turn to the Christ who conceals Himself under the appearances of bread and wine.

The evidence is before us that since the great changes of the 1960s the generality of our people, so well educated in many areas of knowledge, have also become increasingly distant and lacking in knowledge and conviction on the very fundamentals of Christian faith and the basics of Catholic teaching. This applies particularly to the truth about the Mass and the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

How can younger Catholics whose faith is left unformed be blamed when many of their elders have in various degrees given in to secular values and permissive non-standards instead of defending and explaining Christian teaching and moral standards when it was their duty to do so? The Catholic Faith that has formed, fascinated and excited people in every generation and produced generations of saints seems a matter of apathy and indifference to so many today.

Among all the worries that burden us, amid all the unanswered questions and the things that seem to be coming apart, the urgent call to every Catholic is to turn anew to Christ in the Eucharist and bring others with us to do the same. Why would we go looking about in other directions when the object we long for is so close at hand?

What a surprise awaits those who discover what the Mass truly is in all its splendid reality? What joy and peace that cannot be taken from us are to be experienced when we find ourselves at last heart to heart with the Love that drives the universe right there on the altar at Mass, and day and night hidden humbly in the Tabernacle, the living heart of our churches.

When parents do their work well and families function successfully, the parish and the school have the most solid foundation for fulfilling their own mission. The three Christian basics for all parents are simply these: pray with your children and teach them to pray; teach your children the faith from a simple catechism and back your teaching with your lived example; accompany them always to Sunday Mass so that what is seen as a priority for you will have a good chance of being in later life a priority for them.


Here, all Christian life and every vocation has its origin: we first come to share God's life at the baptismal font of our parish church. Upon its altar day by day, Christ renews His once-for-all offering to the Father which powers the Church and every Christian at every moment in time. Here the community gathers, not in a self-enclosed circle of human togetherness, not just sharing a fraternal meal, but as a people doing the Sunday by Sunday work of offering worship and adoration through and with Christ to the eternal Father.

What should we expect from our parish?: the Sacred Liturgy celebrated with reverence and beauty as befits the mysteries of faith; to be the place where everyone can hear the faith taught authoritatively as the Church has handed it down to us from the Apostles, whether during the liturgy or in the catechetical programs provided for various ages and groupings; to be the community where everyone gets strength, encouragement and inspiration to live as a Christian, and be supported in the work God gives to each as a witness to faith and an apostle of Christ in the secular world of everyday life.

The Catholic school is an integral part of the Church's teaching mission. It is of its nature a religious school, whose objective is not only to educate well for the things necessary in this life, but to do that in the overall context of every student's call to the citizenship of the saints in the glory of eternal life.

Every school is part of the society in which its students and staff, and all their families live. As secular influences inevitably impress themselves within even the most Christianly-conscious school, especially in the later years of education, it is of proportionate necessity that steps are taken to keep a deliberately supernatural focus in the life of the school.

The rich and beautiful tradition of the Church's vocal prayer cannot be allowed to disappear from daily use at the class level or that of the entire school community. In later years the need for Christian doctrine to be taught at an apologetic level with the seriousness expected in any other subject requires teachers with an ability for intellectual reasoning that can meet the challenge of enquiring minds fired by an appetite for the truth - all this backed by their own personal faith and lived example.

Above all, however, the life of our diocesan parish schools should be consciously Eucharistic. The primary focus during the five school days ought to centre on the celebration of the Mass on the Lord's Day, in the Lord's House - the parish community gathered with its priest at the altar of the parish church. Positive support should be given to parents and students alike, with the obligation always insisted on by Christ's Church that this weekly duty of worship is the centre-piece of Catholic practice.

It can only be a work of the Holy Spirit that in so many parishes and communities throughout the world today there is a resurgence of Eucharistic Adoration. It is happening through simple gatherings before the Tabernacle, or more formal periods of Solemn Exposition, such as Holy Hours and extended Vigils, concluding with Benediction given by the priest or deacon. Happily, it is gathering pace within our diocese.

As bishop I support every effort made by priests and local communities to foster regularly, even frequently, these very valuable times of prayerful adoration focussed on the Person of Jesus Christ, abiding with us in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. The promotion of Eucharistic Adoration, led by the priest and following his example, is a sure way to stimulate faith and open the way to a deep heart-to-heart conversation with the Lord.

In schools, too, well-arranged shorter periods of Adoration with Benediction for smaller groups of students can be a powerful way of stimulating in young minds a growing knowledge and love of Christ. The reverence and respect shown to the Eucharist in prayerful adoration can be a means of helping students to appreciate the sacredness of the Eucharist, and lead to a more fruitful receiving of Holy Communion.


Twelve months ago, Pope John Paul began a period of more intense attention directed towards the Eucharist. His Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia is addressed to every Catholic. It is a reflection and a teaching on the theme of its opening words, "The Church draws her life from the Eucharist."

Towards its end, the Pope foreshadowed another document which he asked to be prepared to address some of the "shadows" or problems apparent in Eucharistic practice in various parts of the Church. It was published in March, and requires the bishops to attend to a range of matters of discipline and practice, from correcting any clear abuses in the way Mass is celebrated to implementing and promoting areas of "best practice".

Taking cognisance of the lead of these documents, the Bishops of Australia will shortly be addressing all our Catholic people on the Eucharist, and later wish to promote a course of teaching and renewal of devotion to the Mass.

This will also fit the context of the celebration of the 48th International Eucharistic Congress to take place in October in Guadalajara, Mexico, and then lead on through the preparations for the next world Synod of Bishops in Rome in October 2005. The Synod's subject is The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church.

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