Address for the Annual St Vincent de Paul Ozanam Conversation


Ozanam Lecture: April 26 2018, East Melbourne


“How does the Catholic welfare sector continue with ‘good works’ post the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse?”


Dear friends,

I would like to pay my respect and acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which this meeting takes place, and also pay respect to Elders both past and present.

Thank you for the invitation to speak at this forum and to have the opportunity to share the podium with a very distinguished Catholic woman. Two months ago, I was in Rome for a conference on migrants and refugees. It took place at the same time as the Voices of Faith International Women’s Day Conference at which Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland gave a powerful speech on women and the Catholic Church. I was particularly struck by the image she uses to describe the state of the church. She said – practically within the Pope’s earshot – that the exclusion of women from decision-making roles “has left the church flapping about awkwardly on one wing”. And if that wasn’t enough, she went on to say that “the church has long been the primary global carrier of the virus of misogyny.” Whoa! Talk about pulling no punches. I hope Geraldine Doogue is going to be a bit gentler to me than Mary McAleese was to Pope Francis.


To say that we the church in Australia are at a critical juncture is probably an understatement. Australian Catholicism is a seriously damaged brand. Francis Sullivan rightly observed that the sexual abuse crisis is a scandal and a hypocrisy unparalleled in the history of the Catholic Church in Australia. It has cut to the very heart of the Church, demoralised its followers and threatens to erode its public voice for generations. So, the obvious question is how can Catholic organisations like the Society of St Vincent de Paul continue to do its works when we are all caught in this storm? How can we model our faith and mission in a structure that has lost the trust and respect of the community? How can we even shake off the label “guilty by association” which is like an albatross around our necks?

These are not easy questions to answer. But I believe that it is time for the church, especially its leaders to listen with great humility and embark upon a journey of radical conversion. The Royal Commission has delivered a shameful indictment not simply on the perpetrators and those who enabled them. It has also brought into light the church’s collective and systemic betrayal of the Gospel. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that the church must be grateful for the work of the Royal Commission. More importantly, we must seize this time of crisis as a catalyst for change and not as a temporary aberration. We cannot simply return to business as usual. We must have the courage to see how far we have drifted from the vision of Jesus, repent of our sins and face up to the task of reclaiming the innocence and powerlessness of the Servant-Leader.


The failures in the Catholic Church’s response to child sex abuse that the Royal Commission has exposed are largely the failures of leadership, more specifically the failures of clerical system of leadership. I actually believe that the lay faithful and particularly Catholic agencies like the Society of St Vincent de Paul suffer largely from guilt by association. It is worth noting that the Royal Commission does not see the Catholic Church as monolithic. It recommends, for instance, that the clerical governance structures be reviewed, drawing from the modes of governance already implemented in Catholic health, community services and education agencies (which are mostly administered by lay professionals).

We, the leaders of the church, have failed the people and especially God’s little ones. Instead of demonstrating that fundamental ethos of care for those who have been harmed and are vulnerable, we have been shown to have cared primarily for the church’s own security, reputation and interests. In many ways, we have behaved like the Prodigal Son. We have squandered the church’s patrimony; we have betrayed your trust. It is time for us to come home to the heart of the Gospel, to convert to the radical vision of Christ and let it imbue our attitudes, actions and pastoral practices.

As far as I am concerned, the sexual abuse crisis has revealed deep-seated problems in the church. We can no longer limit our blame to the individuals who offended. We must also look for factors within the very culture of the church that have contributed to the sexual abuse crisis.

We need to explore the issues that lie underneath this phenomenon. Unless we are prepared to go beyond the symptoms and explore the deep cultural and structural issues that lurk beneath the surface, unless we genuinely repent of institutional failures, we will not be able to restore confidence and trust in the church.

When privilege, power and dominance are more evident than love, humility and servanthood in the church, then the very Gospel of the servant Jesus is at risk. What we need to reclaim for the church forcefully and unequivocally is the notion of powerlessness, vulnerability and servant leadership.

To this end, we leaders need to manifest the powerlessness, vulnerability and servant leadership of Christ in who we are and what we do. Until we have reclaimed powerlessness, vulnerability and servant leadership, the church will be less than what Christ intends it to be.

The church has been humbled and humiliated. It has been thrown off its high horse because it has been exposed as having failed its mission and betrayed its own ethos. But it is not necessarily a bad thing that we now have to start from a position of weakness and vulnerability in order to regain our trust and indeed our Gospel compass.

I am reminded of the story of the Apostle Paul on his way to Damascus. He fell off his high horse in more ways than one. The fall from his privileged position and the temporary physical blindness meant he had to be led by the hand. But this complete vulnerability was the catalyst for a whole new way of seeing, acting and relating. Paul was never the same afterwards. He learned to be humble, open and docile to God’s way. His strength no longer came from his status, entitlement, privilege and power.

The Catholic Church has had its Damascus moment in the sexual abuse crisis. It has fallen from the privileged position in society and the power and influence that came with that status. Now, like Paul who was led into a place of vulnerability, we are undergoing a time of uncertainty and darkness until we can learn to see, act and relate in the way of Christ the humble servant. We should not fear this time. For it can be a great opportunity and a tremendous blessing in disguise. We need to remember that the church was not at its best when it reached the heights of imperial power in what was known as Christendom. The church was at its best when it was poor, persecuted and powerless.


In my testimony at the Australian Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, one of the things I said was that we need to dismantle the model of church variously described as the pyramid, the perfect society or the monarchical model. For I hold that this model, which promotes the superiority of the ordained and the excessive emphasis on the role of the clergy at the expense of non-ordained, is at the root of the culture of clericalism.

The crisis we face is linked strongly with a crisis of a particular paradigm of being church. I am not suggesting that this old way of being church has been entirely negative. I am arguing that this model is no longer adequate and relevant. Insofar as it is deeply embedded in clericalist mindset, it is incapable of helping us to meet the challenges of today’s world.

To replace this out-dated model is not to dismantle the church per se or even the hierarchy. It is not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Rather, it is to acknowledge and have the courage to die to old ways of being church that no longer convey the message of the Gospel to the culture in which we live. It is time for us to reclaim the church not primarily as the church of the ordained but the church of the baptised and the community of disciples as a whole. It is time for all the faithful to reclaim their baptismal identity and mission. The church will not be fully energised until all the faithful are able to participate with full citizenship in its life, governance structures and decision-making processes.

St Vincent de Paul Society indeed is essentially a lay-inspired and lay-led Catholic organisation. Blessed Frederic Ozanam was prophetic in so many ways and his vision of the church making a difference to the world by active engagement on the part of committed men and women disciples was one of them. Without naming the church as the People of God, Frederic championed the fundamental notion of the baptismal identity and mission of each and every Christian. St Vincent de Paul was conceived not simply as an accessory of the institutional church. Rather, it was a concrete expression of the witness of solidarity on the part of the baptised. Its works of charity were motivated by God’s love and mercy for all.

It is said that when Protestants disagree with one another, they go off and set up their own churches. When Catholics disagree with one another, however, they go off and set up religious orders. There is some truth in this comparison. For religious do tend to challenge the status quo in the Catholic Church. They march to a different dream beat. They are often not rear guard but vanguard, pioneers and trail blazers who respond to the great cultural challenges of their time in creative ways. They break new ground. When the river has changed its course, they refuse to sit on the edges of the billabong and yearn for known securities. Instead, they go to where the river flows and chart a way for others to follow. That’s being prophetic.

I happen to think that many lay groups like the Society of St Vincent de Paul are carrying the baton that has been passed to them by their spiritual forebears. Against the tendency to domesticate the radical Gospel spirit on the part of the mainstream, these women and men disciples hold the rest to the dream. They keep the flame of the Gospel burning bright. In this sense, they are doing the greatest service to the church not primarily by their institutional ministries but their radical witness at the margins. It is for the sake of the church and for the sake of the Kingdom that they are called to raise their prophetic voice; they speak for the voiceless, amplify the voice of the poor and marginalised, and make them count.

Frederic Ozanam was a prophet par excellence. He was not just involved in immediate relief to people in poverty, but was a leading intellectual, journalist and activist agitating for social reform. He laid many of the foundations for later Catholic social teaching, only to be bitterly disappointed and distressed that his ideas were so vilified and rejected by many leading Catholics at that time. Frederick was not, however, afraid of the risk associated with the fight in favour of God’s justice for the poor. He fearlessly championed the rights of the working poor, demanding social reforms such as humane working hours, income support for the sick and the aged, the right to form trade unions, better wage contracts for workers, better distribution of wealth et cetera. These prophetic initiatives continue to resonate strongly with us today.

The ministry of Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, was not just a matter of doing good deeds. It was ever an expression of the divine pathos for marginalised and afflicted humankind. In their encounter with Jesus, people experienced not simply a humanitarian gesture but also a glimpse of God’s unconditional love. Pope Francis recently spoke about the temptation of the church to become a compassionate non-governmental organization. This happens when despite doing work in the name of the church or in the name of God, we fail to convey the love and presence of God.

St Vincent de Paul is not a secular organisation. Even in the climate of mistrust, it must not divorce itself from its spiritual origin and heritage. Ultimately, it is concerned with the Kingdom vision of Jesus. It seeks to develop a community of hospitality, compassion and neighbourliness, which is an alternative model to the economy of extraction and predation. As members of St Vincent de Paul, we endeavour to follow the compassionate Jesus and be the sacrament of God’s compassion and care for the least and the last. The church is first and fore most an oasis of hope and Good News. The church can only be the conduit of compassion and speak the language of hope to a broken humanity when it truly personifies powerlessness and stands where Christ once stood, that is, firmly on the side of the outcast and the most vulnerable. We must therefore learn to be a soothing presence, a warmth of God’s care and a gentle reach of God’s hand, affirming, healing and uplifting.


We are witnessing a profound transition in the church. It is being reborn beyond the clerical structures. There needs to be a bold and strong leadership at all levels to steer the church to a more humble, inclusive and compassionate model moving forward. There is also a need for committed people like yourselves to act like critical yeast in critical time. The Australian Democrats had a slogan “Keep the bastards honest”. The church needs prophetic voices, even voices from the margins and from outside the tent, to keep its leaders honest, transparent and accountable. The Pope needs voices of women like Mary McAleese to remind him of the many disillusioned Catholic women (and men) who yearn for a more inclusive church. Jesus himself was taken to task by a Canaanite woman after he had made uncharacteristically derogatory remarks about her race. “Even the dogs deserve the scraps from the master’s table” (Matthew 15:27). With these words, she challenged the narrow tribal understanding of God. And Jesus praised her for her courage to speak truth to power.

I’d like to think of this critical juncture as analogous to the biblical exile to which as a former refugee I have a personal affinity. The exile was about facing the death of the old and giving birth to the new. The biggest lesson the exiles learned was seeking God’s justice for the poor and the lowly. They learned to be a society in which the care of the most marginalised was to be the essential distinguishing feature.

St Vincent de Paul is uniquely placed to facilitate the rebirth and transformation of the church. Drawing on the example and legacy of Frederic, we too can shine the light of the Gospel to the social challenges in today’s world. We too can hold the church to account on the litmus test of its mission, which is the care of the least of our brothers and sisters. Then we can rise to being the church that Christ calls us to be, moving forward: an oasis for the weary and troubled, a field hospital for the wounded, a refuge for the oppressed and a voice for the voiceless.

Most Rev Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv
Bishop of Parramatta


Share this Address