Bishop Vincent address: The Catholic Church in post-Royal Commission Australia

Most Rev Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta address: “The Catholic Church in post-Royal Commission Australia” delivered on 16 May 2017 at Mission 2017: one heart many voices, Sydney, Australia.

16 May 2017



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

I begin this reflection with an Aboriginal story. It goes like this: “Once upon a time, there was an Aboriginal tribe that settled along a mighty river. It was teeming with all kinds of fresh water creatures that sustained the people and provided much security and well-being for them. They lived peacefully along its banks. Then, one day, a big flood came and submerged everything in its path. The people evacuated to dry land. When the flood subsided they returned and resettled where they used to. But then, things were not quite the same. The river flow became weaker and weaker. What was once a mighty river gradually was reduced to a billabong. The people sat daily around its edge and wondered what had become of their once mighty and life-giving river. It was all very sad and depressing until one of them decided to go upstream and explore. He returned later and told the rest of the tribe that their beloved river had not dried up at all. It had merely changed its course.”

In a way, I guess, we Catholics of today find ourselves in a place no longer familiar to ourselves. Like those Aboriginal people who returned to their beloved river and realised it was not the same any more after the big flood, we too are being confronted with a changing reality, a world that is increasingly alien to us.

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 old understanding of a tribal deity who favoured his chosen people and dwelt in the Temple gave way to a much more expansive and universal notion of who God was and what it meant to be God’s people. In the exile, there was a paradigm shift, a fundamental change in the way people related to God, to others and the world around them. They learned to live their faith anew – without familiar symbols like the temple, the temple-based priesthood, the festivals, the land etc…

The Catholic Church today is in crisis. But crisis is our spécialité de la maison (specialty of the house). Indeed, more often than not, it has been crisis and unrest that brought about moments of re-birth and renewal. Consistently in salvation history, God has brought unexpected outcomes out of the most crushing defeats. Out of the ashes of the exile, he brought about the new Israel; out of the ashes of the crucifixion, the resurrection; out of the ashes of the Roman persecution, the universal church. Watershed moments can be catalysts for renewal and transformation.

I believe that we are living in a watershed and a privileged moment in the history of the Church. Just as the biblical exile brought about the most transforming experience that profoundly shaped the faith of Israel, this transition time can potentially launch the Church into a new era of hope, engagement and solidarity, that the Second Vatican Council beckoned us with great foresight. From where I stand, the arrival of Pope Francis and his emphasis on servant leadership have unambiguously signaled this new era. He is like the pioneer who left the billabong in search of the life-giving river. He constantly urges the whole Church to go beyond itself: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security”.

In another place, he says even more forcefully that we are not living in an era of change but change of era. By this, I think he means we need to live up to our fundamental call to be ecclesia semper reformanda or the Church always in need of reform to be in sync with the movement of the Holy Spirit. It is not “business as usual”. It cannot be the status quo at any cost, because the ground under our feet has shifted. There needs to be an attitudinal change at every level, a conversion of mind and heart that conforms us to the spirit of the Gospel, a new wine into new wineskins, not a superficial change, or worse, a retreat into restorationism. The Pope said this to a stunned audience of Italian bishops gathered in Florence: “Before the problems of the Church it is not useful to search for solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of obsolete conduct and forms that no longer have the capacity of being significant culturally”.

Given the critical situation we face now and into the future, what do I hope for the Church in Australia in 20-30 years time? Will the Church in Australia be a real vibrant force in society or will it be an irrelevant minority, relegated to a culturally insignificant ghetto? Will it be an isolated murky billabong left behind after the flood or will it change its course and chart a new life-giving future in accordance with the direction of the Kingdom? I’d like to share with you my dream for the Church of the future in Australia.


Cardinal Carlo Martini SJ said in his last interview before his death in 2012: “I dreamed about a Church that went forward in poverty and humility; that did not depend on the powers of this world”.  He also said that the Church is about 200 years behind the time. Perhaps, this was a Jesuit way of telling the power that be in Rome to get on with the job of implementing the prophetic vision of the poor humble servant Church that the Second Vatican Council had envisaged.

I hold that it is necessary that we die to that which is unworthy of Christ so that a church humbled, yet purified, may emerge and shine forth more brightly as a beacon of hope for all. In my testimony at the Royal Commission, I maintain that we need to dismantle the pyramid model of Church. 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 very root of the culture of clericalism. To dismantle this model is not to dismantle the Church per se or even the hierarchy (of whom I am a privileged member). Rather, it is to acknowledge and to have the courage to die to the old ways of being Church that no longer convey the message of the Gospel to the culture in which we live.

I wonder how many of you have ever heard of what is known as the Pact of the catacombs. On November 16, 1965, a few days before the end of the Council, about 40 of the bishops celebrated the Eucharist together in the catacombs of Saint Domitila. They asked for the grace “to be faithful to the spirit of Jesus”, to lead a life of poverty and humility and to be a poor servant church. The Pact of the catacombs was born. Dom Helder Camara was the signatory to this pact and so were many of his Latin American colleagues. By signing, they made a commitment to live in poverty, to reject all symbols or privileges of power, and to place the poor at the centre of their pastoral ministry. Let me read some of the salient points of the pact:

-We will try to live according to the ordinary manner of our people in all that concerns housing, food, means of transport, and related matters.

We renounce forever the appearance and the substance of wealth, especially in clothing and symbols made of precious metals.

– We do not want to be addressed verbally or in writing with names and titles that express prominence and power (such as Eminence, Excellency, Lordship).

– We will seek collaborators in ministry so that we can be animators according to the Spirit rather than dominators according to the world; and we will show ourselves to be open to all, no matter what their beliefs.

What a prophetic vision for the Church! What courage and passion for the Gospel of Jesus! These men in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council mapped out a path of renunciation and purification that would enable a humble, poor but hope-filled Church to be born. It has been a painful birthing process one must admit, since the heyday of the Council. Those salient points that I have highlighted remain to be lived and to be seen to be lived by many bishops, myself included. We may not be the Bishop of Bling or the lover of the cappa magna. However, the challenge of living a life of poverty and humility and being a poor servant church remains as relevant now as it was then.


Pope Francis constantly calls us to move beyond the security of the status quo and take the risk of going to the periphery. The Church must be the Church of the poor and for the poor. The Church must go out of itself in order to be close to those in need. Conversely, the Church that does not go out into the world keeps Jesus imprisoned.

If one can detect the direction of Pope Francis’ pontificate, it has something to do with the movement from security to boldness, from inward looking to outward looking, from preoccupation with our status quo, safeguarding our privileges to learning to be vulnerable, learning to convey God’s compassion to those who are on the edges of society and Church.

Hence our challenge is to accompany people from the margins into a journey towards the fullness of life and love. It is to embrace the call of the Second Vatican Council to identify with the joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of those who are poor and in anyway afflicted. It is to be the bearer of joy to those who are most deprived of it. To do this, he/she must be able to live in and to bridge the yawning gap, the liminal space between the ideal and the real, between what the Church teaches and how the people respond.

Pope Francis challenges all of us to divest ourselves of clericalism and elitism, and return to the purity of the Gospel. His constant call to the Church to be less concerned with itself and to be more outward looking, encourages us to walk with our people in the ambiguities and complexities of their lives. The self-referential Church, steeped in a culture of splendour, is in stark contrast with the Church of the poor and for the poor. It is the latter that we who pattern ourselves according to Jesus the prophet on the margins endeavours to serve. It is like new wine in new wineskins. The new wine of God’s unconditional love, boundless mercy, radical inclusivity and equality needs to be poured into new wineskins of humility, mutuality, compassion and powerlessness. The old wineskins of triumphalism, authoritarianism, supremacy abetted by clerical power, superiority, and rigidity are broken.

I visited St John Lateran recently with a group of pilgrims from my diocese. There was one curiosity that caught my attention. It was the elaborate circular markings on the marble floor of the basilica. They were meant to assist the Pope and his entourage in liturgical processions. One could imagine how perfectly they were arrayed in their ornate vestments. The Church was synonymous with the arena of power and the enclosure for the privileged. I wonder if this was the natural progression of the imperial Church which came to be born after the conversion of Constantine. Thank God we have moved on and the vision of Church of the “anawim” is being rightfully reclaimed for our time. Thank God Pope Francis is moving decisively in this direction.


Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Church was suspicious of the world which was perceived as evil. Remember the classic three enemies: the world, the flesh and the devil. It was a defensive, fortress Church. However, Gaudium et spes, the guiding document of the Council presented a new paradigm: the Church is not an enclosure which protects its members against the sinful world. It is a fellow pilgrim with the men and women of our age. It is a church incarnate in the world. Therefore, it is time not of fearful retreat, disengagement and self-referential pomp, but of accompaniment and engagement.

Pope Francis uses a rather unconventional term to describe the church. He famously says that pastors need to wear the scent of the sheep. Then he describes the Church as a field hospital that treats the wounded after the battle. The thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. That is his vision of the ideal Church. Not a perfect society, nor the enclosure for the privileged but a refuge for the poor, an oasis for the weary and a hospital for the wounded.

The field hospital is not concerned about defending against threat of encroachment and loss of its status and privileges. Instead, it goes out of itself to respond to the needs of those whose lives are at risk. It engages with the world, rather than withdraws into enclaves. Some of you might have heard of the book called The Benedict Option. The idea that lies behind the book is that in the face of an ungodly world, we need to embed ourselves in stable communities of faith like Noah in his ark or Benedict in his monastery. However, our desire to be counter-cultural witness should not imprison us in a ghetto. Indeed as Pope Francis reminded us, we need to be in prisons, hospitals, the streets, villages, factories. If this is not so, the Church will be an institution of the exclusive that does not say anything to anyone, not even to the Church herself.

Being merciful is at the heart of Catholic identity. It is not simply a matter of acting with mercy and compassion to those in need with our position of power and privilege intact. Rather, it is a radical discipleship of vulnerability and powerlessness in the footsteps of the humble Servant of God. It is an existential stance in favour of the weak and the vulnerable in the face of the prevalent business model of success and power. It is about building people and relationships rather than profit and size. It has to do with the Kingdom mentality rather than the empire mentality.


Pope Francis urges us to be a church where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live according to the Gospel. I firmly believe that there can be no future for the living Church without this vital sense of ecclesial inclusiveness that the Pope alluded to. By that I mean there must be space for everyone, especially those who have been hurt, excluded or alienated, be they abuse victims, survivors, divorcees, gays, lesbians, women, disaffected members. Furthermore, as we move beyond clericalism, there is a need to re-imagine the way power is exercised in the Church. Such re-imagining can only be a source of blessing and enrichment for all.

I dream of a church that dares to break new ground with a view to being radically faithful to the inclusive vision of Jesus. For he has a habit of challenging ingrained stereotyped attitudes, subverting the tyranny of the majority, breaking social taboos, pushing the boundaries of love and redefining its meaning. “You heard it said that ‘love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I say to you….” His interactions with women, with tax collectors and other types of social outcasts are nothing short of being revolutionary and boundary breaking.  It is his radical vision of love, inclusion and human flourishing that ought to guide our pastoral response.

It seems to me that the Pope has more than moved away from the approach of condemnation and judgement. He has refocused on the proclamation of God’s love for the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised; he has firmly placed the pastoral emphasis on the dignity of every person; he has committed the Church to the way of engagement, affirmation and compassion, which is at the heart of the Gospel. 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.

The Synod on the Family was essentially an exercise in administering the medicine of mercy to the wounded.  In the past, the results of synods were sometimes seen to be foregone conclusions. This synod, however, has seen the unleashing of the energy long locked up beneath the ice of institutional security. Pope Francis has really lived up to his vision of the Church daring to break loose from its comfort zone and self-referential mentality. It is a church attentive to the signs of the times and incarnate grace at work in the world, even among the unorthodox and the marginalized.


The Church is being reborn in ways beyond the traditional structures. Like the river that has changed its course, we have a choice to make. It is not in yearning for or holding on the known and the familiar but in reimagining the future and venturing into the unknown chaos like the old exodus, that we shall find new life.

The paschal rhythm summons us to a discipleship of humility, weakness and vulnerability, of dying and rising in Christ. As the Church, we must die to the old ways of being Church which is steeped in a culture of clerical power, dominance and privilege. We must abandon the old paradigm of a fortress Church which is prone to exclusivity and elitism. We must learn to rise to Christlike way of humility, inclusivity, compassion and powerlessness.

In the end, though, I firmly believe that we’re on the threshold of renewal and transformation. The Second Vatican Council set in motion a new paradigm that cannot be thwarted by fear and paralysis. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it cannot be put back. That new paradigm is one that is based on mutuality not exclusion, love not fear, service not clericalism, engagement with the world not flight from or hostility against it, incarnate grace not dualism.

May the Holy Spirit accompany us as we move boldly in the direction of the Kingdom.