Homily of Most Rev Vincent Long OFM Conv
Mass for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, on the occasion of the Royal Commission’s final hearing into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, St Thomas Aquinas Parish, Springwood
5 February 2017
Dear sisters and brothers,
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill-top cannot be hidden.” These words of our Lord in the Gospel today are fitting indeed as we are gathered in this church, built on one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in Australia. It has had an interesting history, too. Beginning as a Mass centre at the Springwood Inn, the church was given its own building, first on Macquarie Road and then relocated, eventually, to this former seminary.
How time has changed! Just think that this place was once teeming with priests and seminarians in cassocks, like a scene in The Sound of Music. This place was once a symbol of a powerful institution, with no shortage of priests, nuns or even money. It enjoyed social prestige, influence, status and many other privileges besides.
Now, slowly, that powerful institution is shrinking. Remember the film Honey I Shrunk the Kids? (I know how it feels!) Now it is happening to the Church. We are being shrunk by so many forces, not the least of which is the scandal of sexual abuse that has been revealed in the most forensic, the most comprehensive, and the most devastating way by the Royal Commission.
As you might know, starting from tomorrow there will be a three-week hearing which aims to establish how widespread abuse was and what cultural issues allowed it to occur within the Church in Australia. The so-called Catholic wrap-up will provide grim and confronting revelations. It will be a shameful indictment not simply on the perpetrators and their enablers but 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 Kairos moment as a catalyst for change and not a temporary aberration. 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 readings this Sunday call us to live our discipleship and mission with integrity, justice and compassion. Isaiah, writing in a post-exile period, exhorts the people to show particular concern for the poor, the marginalised and vulnerable. If there was a fundamental lesson to be learned from the exile, it was “to share bread with the hungry, shelter the homeless … and relief to the oppressed”. They learned to be a society in which the care of the most marginalised was to be the essential distinguishing feature.
That is a sobering and poignant lesson for the Church today, too. In our modern context where the Church has lost much of its shine, Isaiah’s call for integrity, justice and compassion challenges us to be authentic to who we are. The Church as an institution has been shown to lack compassion and even to act with hypocrisy, especially in relation to victims of sexual abuse.
In this time, our priority is not and should not be about fending off criticisms, deserved or undeserved. In the spirit of humility and repentance, we need to focus our attention squarely on how we follow the compassionate Jesus and how authentic we are in being the sacrament of God’s compassion and care for the least and the last. The Church is first and foremost a presence, an oasis of hope and Good News. We must learn to be a soothing presence, a warmth of God’s care and a gentle reach of God’s hand, affirming, healing and uplifting.
In the Gospel, Jesus further reinforces the message of Isaiah. He warns us not to lose sight of our identity and mission as agents of change in the world. He speaks of tastless salt which is “good for nothing and can only be thrown out to be trampled underfoot by others”. Reading these compelling words in the context of the Royal Commission, I wonder if the Church has in many ways become like tastless salt and is being trampled underfoot. The words of St Paul come to mind, except the early Christians suffered for their witness of the Gospel, not its betrayal: “We have become the spectacle to the world and the refuse in the sight of others.”
In many ways, we the Church’s leaders have behaved like the prodigal son. We have squandered our inheritance, our trust and moral capital. It is time for us to come home. There is a program called Catholics Come Home, which is designed to bring wayward Catholics back to the fold. Perhaps it’s the leaders like me who need to come home to the heart of the Gospel. We need to convert to the radical vision of Christ and let it imbue our attitudes, actions and pastoral practices. Unless we reclaim what Christ stands for, we will forfeit our mission of being the light of the world.
Sisters and brothers of St Thomas Aquinas,
We are in a time of reckoning, diminishment, uncertainty and pain. But we are comforted by the knowledge that God will bring order out of chaos, new life out of the ashes, just as the misty clouds on these mountains will lift and give way to clear vision. Perhaps, it is not in yearning for or holding on to 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.
Let us then endeavour to live this Kairos moment in silent hope, in deep discernment and prophetic boldness. Let us reclaim our mission of being the critical yeast in critical times by way of witnessing to the Gospel of love, service, powerlessness and vulnerable trust instead of succumbing to the allure of power, privilege and clericalism. Then we can be certain that the Church will transition to a new dawn and a better future. Then the mountains will once again be alive with the sound of music and we will sing the new song of God’s love and grandeur in all his wonders.
Most Rev Vincent Long OFM Conv is the Bishop of Parramatta in Australia.