Look to the birds in the sky: A message for the Church

Frank Brennan SJ

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


Jesus has told his disciples: ‘No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.’

We have just emerged from what the media calls ‘the Catholic wrap up’ at the Royal Commission. This three-week hearing culminated in the joint appearance of the five most senior bishops in our Australian church. They apologised not just for the sins of those church personnel who violated children, the most vulnerable members of our church community. They also apologised and acknowledged the gross failures of their predecessors and other church authorities who failed to act resolutely and compassionately in relation to the perpetrators and the victims, labelling their responses as

scandalously insufficient

hopelessly inadequate

a kind of criminal negligence

totally, totally inadequate. Just totally wrong

Some were just like rabbits in the headlights. They just had no idea what to do,
and their performance was appalling.

Here were our most senior church leaders admitting that in the past there were church authorities seeking to serve two masters, and failing completely. No doubt those past church authorities were professing their faith in, commitment to and discipleship with Jesus who said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them! For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’ (Mt 19:4). But in the past, these spiritual leaders were also professing their commitment to an institution that commanded their hierarchical obedience and clerical acquiescence in protecting the institution’s public reputation and its coffers. We are now left in no doubt: ‘No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.’

It’s time to put past victims and present and future children first. And make no mistake, our church leaders are not yet out of the blaze of the headlights. They don’t have all the answers, not even in relation to matters peculiarly within their jurisdiction. Despite being put on notice, our most senior bishops could not even agree on the limits of the seal of the confessional and on what a priest should do if abuse were reported in the confessional by a child. It’s not just our past leaders who needed help. Our present leaders also do and that help must come from you the competent laity who, as the parents of children, know in the core of your being how dreadful and unacceptable is anything that might put children at risk.

Paul tells the Corinthians: ‘My brothers and sisters: Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.’ Addressing that breakdown of trust and the clericalist mindset that has separated the leaders from the people, Bishop Vincent Long, the Bishop of Parramatta who came to Australia as a Vietnamese refugee, told the commission:


It’s no secret that we have been operating, at least under the two previous pontificates, from what I’d describe as a perfect society model where there is a neat, almost divinely inspired, pecking order, and that pecking order is heavily tilted towards the ordained. So, you have the pope, the cardinals, the bishops, religious, consecrated men and women, and the laity right at the bottom of the pyramid. I think we need to dismantle that model of Church. If I could use the biblical image of wineskins, it’s old wineskins that are no longer relevant, no longer able to contain the new wine, if you like. I think we really need to examine seriously that kind of model of church where it promotes the superiority of the ordained and it facilitates that power imbalance between the ordained and the non-ordained, which in turn facilitates that attitude of clericalism.

We should not be tempted to despair. No doubt we have good cause to be feeling like Zion in times past, lamenting, ‘The Lord has abandoned me, the Lord has forgotten me’. But Isaiah asks, ‘Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son of her womb?’ We know that we live in a very broken world and in a shattered church when all too often those in positions of trust have forgotten the children and failed to cherish them. Yahweh’s promise holds good in this our time of trial: ‘Yet even if these forget, I will never forget you.’

Jesus invites us to set our hearts on his kingdom first and his righteousness. If we do this, all other things will be given to us as well. With worldly wisdom Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow. It will take care of itself. ‘Each day has enough trouble of its own.’ God knows that’s true!

As we worry about how we as Church will maintain our mission, our institutions, and our public standing, we should reaffirm: ‘In God alone is my soul at rest; my help comes from him. He alone is my rock, my stronghold, my fortress, I stand firm.’ We think of the birds of the air and the flowers growing in the fields. Now if that is how God clothes the grass in the field which is there today and thrown in the furnace tomorrow, will not the Lord much more look after us who are people of little, though some, faith? But will he not also insist that some of our past ways be thrown into the furnace?

Bishop Long told the Royal Commission:

I think we are all products of our life experiences and being a refugee provides me with that particular vantage point through which I form relationships with people, I evaluate their individuality, their personal stories, their dignity. I was also a victim of sexual abuse by clergy when I first came to Australia, even though I was an adult, so that had a powerful impact on me and how I want to, you know, walk in the shoes of other victims and really endeavour to attain justice and dignity for them.

At the end of last Friday’s hearing, Archbishop Denis Hart issued a statement as President of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, saying:

What we have learnt from our involvement in the Royal Commission case studies and our own work in coming to a better understanding of the many different issues that have contributed to child sexual abuse in the Church will inform our future policies and practices. The work of the Commission staff and the Commissioners themselves has no doubt been gruelling and challenging and, along with the rest of the Australian community, we owe them a debt of gratitude for their years of service.

There are some things the Royal Commission will be able to recommend to government and to our parliaments. They will recommend a national redress scheme and will prescribe protocols and basic standards for child protection. Despite the horrific statistics from the past, we can at least take heart that the New South Wales Ombudsman, which provided the Royal Commission with a lot of statistical information, has advised that since 2010 ‘notification rates and sustained finding rates for allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual offences are similar across the government, Catholic and independent school ‘industry groups–an indicator that the systems in place for identifying and responding to allegations are generally working consistently across the schools sector. But we are members of a society where child sexual abuse is still occurring in families and institutions at horrific rates.

There are some things that only the church itself will be able to fix. For the first time since 1937, the Australian bishops have announced that a synod is to be held in three years’ time. All proposals for breaking down the culture of clericalism need to be on the table. Our church will be credible for your children and grandchildren only if church authority is seen to be exercised transparently, accountably and inclusively. The coming generations have no interest in an institution whose leaders ask, ‘What are we to eat? What are we to drink? How are we to be clothed?’ They know that it is the pagans who set their hearts on all these things, as do church authorities seeking to serve two masters. Notions of tradition, authority and community have taken a great battering in our post-modern world. When announcing the 2020 plenary council of our church, Archbishop Coleridge said last August, ‘I think we have to accept the fact that Christendom is over—by which I mean mass, civic Christianity. It’s over.’ That was plain for all to see last week when our key bishops were called to account by the state. There were five black suited, silver crossed archbishops being cross-examined by a woman, in public, demanding that the questions be answered and not fudged!

I recommend to you the book Child, arise! The courage to stand: A spiritual handbook for survivors of sexual abuse (David Lovell Publishing, 2015) by Jane N Dowling (a pseudonym for a self-described ‘survivor’ of abuse). Jane hopes that ‘survivors can discover that they are never alone because the loving God who created us and gave us life is with us in all the ups and downs of our healing journey.’

Just look at the birds of the sky. They do not sow or reap or gather into barns. Think of the flowers growing in the fields. Not even Solomon in all his regalia was robed like one of these. Let’s hope and pray for those victims who will never enter the door of a church again, that they will find healing and new life assured by their God that even if those to whom they were entrusted as children forget, they will never be forgotten and they can stand firm again knowing a rock, a stronghold and a fortress. Let’s be ready to extend a helping hand to victims and church leaders. They both need our help; and they are both yet to emerge from a very dark place. May God, our rock, our stronghold and our fortress sustain us in the dark days ahead. Trust in him at all times. Pour out your hearts before him.