Two months from now Australia’s Catholic bishops will make their quinquennial visit to Rome reporting on the state of the church. During this visit ad limina apostolorum (‘to the threshold of the apostles Peter and Paul’) bishops meet the pope and officials of the Vatican to discuss issues facing their local Catholic community. Originating as pilgrimages to Rome, these five-yearly visits became obligatory during the over-centralization of the church in the nineteenth century. What follows is what the Australian bishops ought to tell Pope Francis and what he ought to tell them.
The bishops should begin by confessing that they are deeply divided among themselves, as revealed in the evenly split vote for bishops’ conference president in May 2018 between Brisbane’s Mark Coleridge and Sydney’s Anthony Fisher, with Coleridge winning simply on seniority.
Essentially there are three groups in the conference: there is a sizeable minority who follow the uncompromising, Cardinal Pell, boots-and-all style of Catholicism, now led by Fisher. The majority are essentially ‘neutral’. They feel they don’t know what’s going to happen next, and there’s justification for that as accusations of sexual abuse continue to surface. Afraid, their response is to run for deep cover. While reasonably competent administrators, they offer little genuine leadership or pastoral care to the community. Finally, there’s a tiny minority who understand the terrible situation of Australian Catholicism, try to provide pastoral leadership, and are committed to the theology and practice of the Second Vatican Council.
Thus, we’re left with an unhappy, mediocre episcopate, mainly as a result of the reactionary, conformist priorities of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, together with the baleful influence of Pell in Rome on bishops’ appointments. No wonder able, intelligent priests are nowadays turning-down episcopal appointments across Australia and the world!
The bishops also need to tell Francis that the Catholic community has plunged into the worst crisis of its entire history. We thought we’d seen it all during the four years of child abuse Royal Commission, especially as terrible stories of abuse and mistreatment of children by clergy and Catholic institutions were recounted.
But George Pell’s conviction leaves that for dead. Australian Catholics are stunned and outraged at the bishops’ lack of accountability. They have left us utterly leaderless, offering nothing but clichés, with the outstanding exception of Parramatta Bishop Vincent Long van Nguyen. Long confessed that he felt ‘awful and empty inside,’ but placed this within the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Most of the others were ‘shocked and distressed’, but said it would be ‘inappropriate and inflammatory’ to make further comment on Pell’s conviction. No leadership there, no reference to Christ or the gospel.
The bishops don’t have much else to offer Francis. With declining practice rates (only 8-10% of self-confessed Catholics go to Mass semi-regularly), a massive shortage of priests (just over 50% of priests in Australian parishes now are foreign-born) and a complete collapse in affiliation among young Catholics, the picture is bleak. The one optimistic note is that the ministries least controlled by bishops—Catholic health, education, social services and Vinnies—where some 80% of the church’s service is delivered, are in good shape. These ministries are almost completely run by laity and largely funded by government.
What should Francis tell the bishops? First, he’ll tell them to jettison their silly outfits like mitres, skull caps and other hang-overs from history. This is what Jesus meant when he talked about pharisees wearing ‘wider phylacteries and longer tassels’ (Matthew 23:5). Bishops need to embrace gospel modesty. This doesn’t mean no ceremony, just simplicity.
For Francis, abandoning paraphernalia symbolizes a deeper change to make pastoral care rather than power, a bishop’s primary priority. The church is here to serve, not to promote an ideology of gender, sex, reproduction, or end-of-life issues. Francis has made it clear that the real moral issues are care for nature and highlighting the dangers of global warming, as he made clear in his revolutionary encyclical Laudato si’. Here he also questions the radical anthropocentric dominance of humankind over nature, and he reintegrates humankind back into the biological matrix from which we emerged by emphasising the connectedness of all reality. He says it was the mystics who first ‘experience the intimate connection between God and all beings, and thus feel that “all things are God,”’ quoting the sixteenth century Spanish lyric poet and mystic, Saint John of the Cross.
If Francis knew the expression, he’d also tell the bishops that the ideology of ecclesiastical hierarchy—hierarchism—is a stranded asset, unsellable anywhere, least of all to anyone trying to follow Jesus. The ecclesiastical hierarchy is about power and bishops are initiated into it through papal appointment and ordination. In the process, baptism is forgotten and equality in the Christian community is lost. Francis needs to challenge bishops to abandon power and become leaders. By ‘leadership’ I mean an ability to articulate in oneself the meaning and purpose of the church, plus the facility to support others in realizing their gifts and strengths. An experienced opera conductor thus explained leadership: ‘I need to have so integrated the musical score that on the night I can focus entirely on facilitating and supporting the singers and musicians, so that together we can realize what the composer intended.’ Spot on!
This kind of leadership can only emerge from the community. The whole focus of the church needs to shift from hierarchical priorities. Catholics shouldn’t waste time on bishop-sponsored activities like plenary councils. They should concentrate on developing lay leadership, particularly women’s leadership. Laity and priests need to act strategically in developing new structures in parishes and dioceses to which everyone is responsible, including bishops. Leadership in the church is something earned, not granted by ecclesiastical appointment.
This will be resisted, just as Francis himself is being undermined by the diehards. In a church at rock-bottom we need a new vision, and it is from the laity that that vision will come. The age of hierarchs is already over.
Paul Collins has worked for more than fifty years for renewal in Catholicism, both as a priest and layperson.